Ever since I came back from my last visit to Saudi Arabia, I have wanted to talk about the best things to do in Al Ula, the place that impressed me the most there. Until 2019, there were no tourism visas for Saudi Arabia. And then, a little later, we all know what happened worldwide and how almost all countries have closed their boundaries to foreigners.
The same happened with the Saudi Kingdom, although it barely gave tourism a chance. Finally, the country was opening up not only to pilgrims going to Mecca but also to tourists from all over the world, even if they were not Muslim.
Just like Mount Al Qarah and other places I’m going to write about. I’m very sure that the beautiful places in Al Ula Saudi Arabia, will soon be serious competition for Petra and the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. But for now, tourism in this mysterious country is still new, and AlUla Saudi Arabia remains unknown to most people.
PIN IT FOR LATER
Except for a visit to Madain Saleh, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia, there are plenty of other things to do in Al Ula. All are related to the spectacular scenery: mountain ranges, deserts, canyons, arcades, and Al Ula old town.
In this article, I set out to talk about everything in light of my experience here, so visiting Al Ula Saudi Arabia will be an absolute pleasure for you. From beautiful canyons and palm oases to historic tombs and enchanting sights, there are plenty of Al Ula attractions you will love.
Best options for a last-minute trip to Al Ula
If you are on the last hundred meters with planning a trip to Al Ula, then this list is your main help to do it quickly and efficiently:
Best experiences and tours in Al Ula:
♦ Hegra Guided Tour
♦ Dadan & Jabal Ikmah Guided Tour
♦ Wadi Dissah Canyon Tour
Best hotels to stay in Al Ula:
♦ Habitas AlUla – the most incredible pool
♦Banyan Tree AlUla – luxury & stunning views
♦ Ashar Tented Resort – amazing views
What is Al Ula Saudi Arabia, and why is it so famous?
In Al Ula, you’ll find the former capital of the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Liyah and the second most important city, after Petra, in the Kingdom of the Nabataeans, Hegra Al Ula. Al Ula is one of the oldest settlements in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
If we talk about fame, it is mainly due to discovering the 3000-year-old tombs in the area at Madain Saleh location or Hegra Al Ula. Although their number is just over 100, compared to 600 in Jordan, they are a fabulous archaeological and historical discovery.
The Nabateans built these tombs in such a way as to keep their original structure intact over the years. Madain Saleh location is on the famous ancient route called The Incense Trade Route, halfway between Mecca and Petra.
The Incense Trade Route was part of a group of famous historical routes, thousands of years old, which welded trade links between Europe and Asia and part of East Africa. Various goods were transported here, from spices, silk, tea, incense, and other materials of great importance at that time and beyond.
READ ALSO: Trip to Edge of the World in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Where is Al Ula in Saudi Arabia?
Al Ula is far from the big cities of Saudi Arabia. So, to discover Al Ula, you will have to drive about three and a half hours from Medina, 7 hours if you want to start your Al Ula tour package from Jeddah, or even over 10 hours from the capital Riyadh. The good part is that there is also an international airport.
Specifically, the city is located in the province of Medina, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, in the region called Hejaz. The Red Sea is about 200 km from Al Ula.
Where to stay in Al Ula Saudi Arabia
There are many accommodation options in Al Ula. The first and cheapest option for Al Ula hotels would be to get accommodation in the city. Prices for Al Ula hotels in the city can start from 300 Saudi riyals (350 lei) per night and reach 800 SAR (Saudi riyals).
The second option would be accommodation in the middle of the desert canyons. Recently, several luxury Al Ula resorts have opened in the Al Ula desert, and some of them even have top restaurants and infinity pools surrounded by cliffs. Of course, the prices are high, but I think it’s worth it for a unique Al Ula experience.
Here are my suggestions for Al Ula hotels, depending on your budget:
- budget: شقق Flower-z – in the city, apartment with AC, TV, looks good
- mid-range: منتجع ومزرعة الرند العلا – great location, villa with pool, AC, terrace, TV, nice view
- luxury: Habitas AlUla – 5 stars hotel, amazing location, spectacular view, luxury, pool, fabulous breakfast
- also luxury: Shaden Resort – terrace, pool, fantastic location, beautiful decor
Best things to do in Al Ula Saudi Arabia
Start your Al Ula itinerary with a visit to Madain Saleh location
The history of the Madain Saleh necropolis
Madain Saleh or Hejra is the first tourist attraction in Saudi Arabia to be included in UNESCO World Heritage, more precisely in 2008. It’s located about 20 km away from the city of Al Ula Saudi Arabia and is described as the Petra of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the two have a fascinating history and the way they look in common. Any Al Ula tour package should include a visit to Madain Saleh.
While Petra was the capital of the Nabataean kingdom, Madain Saleh was the second-largest city in the kingdom. The Nabataeans were both shepherds and farmers and excellent traders/merchants.
They controlled camel-drawn caravans loaded with spices and other goods on The Incense Route to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Everything started about four centuries BC and lasted for several hundred years.
What means Madain Saleh?
Madain Saleh means the city of Saleh, translated from Arabic. Saleh was the prophet who tried to convert the Thamud tribe to Islam. Toward the end of this article, you will find out the whole story.
In the Qur’an, Madain Saleh is referred to as Al-Hajir but is also known as the Hegra Al Ula or Hijr. Nowadays, Madain Saleh is one of the main tourist places in Al Ula and one of the best things to do in Al Ula.
How to visit Madain Saleh?
You can only visit Madain Saleh on an organized tour, and you have practically two options for Madain Saleh tours: either explore the area in a bus with a guide, as I did, or in a smaller group with a convertible Land Rover.
No matter how you choose to do it, visiting Madain Saleh is one of the best things to do in Al Ula. While there is no Al Ula entrance fee, there is a Madain Saleh entrance fee. The bus tour costs 95 SAR / person and starts from Winter Park in Al Ula.
From here, you will be taken by bus to the Madain Saleh location, after which you will board another bus with more oversized windows and explore the whole area. The tour lasts a maximum of two hours, during which you will theoretically reach 5 locations in Madain Saleh:
- Jabal Ithlib
- Jabal AlBanat
- Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza
- Jabal AlAhmar
- Jabal Alkhuraymat
⇒ Book your Hegra guided tour
Where is Madain Saleh located?
The Madain Saleh location is about 20 km from Al Ula.
I only visited the first 3. The reason could be that they are still working to make things as good as possible and are still excavating inside the tombs. So keep in mind that you may not be able to visit everything you set out to do at Madain Saleh.
A guide will explain the places visited at Madain Saleh locations. In my opinion, the guide’s descriptions are brief and do not fully cover the curiosities you might have about these fascinating places in Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, you will have to ask questions and research beforehand for more details about Madain Saleh’s history. The tours are theoretically done every day. Madain Saleh’s opening hours are between 9 am and 5.30 pm, but the last entry is at 5.
As I already mentioned, you can also tour inside the Madain Saleh with a convertible Land Rover in a private group. It costs 665 SAR and lasts 2 hours with five stops, just like the bus tour.
However, you must make a reservation a few days in advance. Madain Saleh is gaining popularity, and the tours are Sold Out within a few days. Tickets for both experiences can be purchased at tickets.experiencealula.com.
Hijaz Railway Station
If you are lucky enough to find it open, unlike me, then I think it’s worth a visit. Hijaz Railway Station is a train station built in the early 20th century to facilitate pilgrims’ access to Mecca.
The Madain Saleh train station was the last stop non-Muslims could access before Mecca. Currently, the area has shrunk considerably, and the only place where non-Muslims are no longer allowed is the city of Mecca.
Qasr Al-Farid Tomb or Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza (The Lonely Castle)
The most representative and one of Madain Saleh’s largest tombs is Qasr Al-Farid. The tomb is a little bit different from the others at Madain Saleh. It has four pillars instead of 2 and is also somehow separated from the others, dug into a huge rock.
For this reason, they call it the lonely castle, although it doesn’t look like a castle but instead looks like a giant boulder. Qasr Al-Farid is the image you will see on all the brochures about all Al Ula tours.
Although several thousand years have passed, the tomb’s façade remains in excellent condition. The Nabataeans combined several architectural styles to build their graves, borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome, but there were even Persian and Egyptian elements in places.
Although the facades of Madain Saleh’s tombs were super well finished, especially for those times, the interiors were not very well arranged.
Al Diwan and Jabal Ithlib
My favorite place on the Madain Saleh tour is Al Diwan, located next to Mount Jabal Ithlib. Basically, Al Diwan is a room dug into the rock by the Nabataeans, in the same architectural styles, with straight, well-defined lines.
Here the people of Nabataeus met for all kinds of decisions and trials and even for dining together. Carved benches can be seen on each side of the room as proof of the role of the meeting place.
The mountain where Al Diwan is dug is called Jabal Ithib and forms a beautiful canyon, a place that seems to be split with a sword into two perfect halves, a passage that connects two worlds.
Passing through that passage, you will discover other tombs and other essential inscriptions in the history of Madain Saleh. I am convinced that archaeologists will have a lot of work to do from now on, among this extraordinary evidence of the past that is still little known.
Jabal Al Ahmar (The Red Mountain)
Jabal Al Ahmar is the next and last place in the Madain Saleh tour, aside from the information center and souvenir shops. Here is the grave of Hinat, daughter of Wahbu; at least, that’s what the on-site inscriptions mean.
Following the decipherments, the following text “This is the tomb that Hinat daughter of Wahbu made for herself and her children and descendants forever,” meaning that women played a critical role in society during the Nabataean Kingdom.
There are inscriptions of this kind on several tombs of Madain Saleh in AlUla Saudi Arabia, some of them being advice or even curses on those who would dare to open them.
The data is difficult to decipher, making it impossible to place the history of the Nabataeans on the time axis. Although there are over 7 000 inscriptions discovered throughout their kingdom, only a few hundred have a date.
- Souvenir shops
At the end of the tour, you can take a look at the souvenir shop, loaded with objects that remind you of your visit to Madain Saleh. However, the prices seemed a bit steep.
Go on a road trip around Al Ula Saudi Arabia
The best way to fully enjoy the relief with such unusual shapes is to get in a car and make a road trip to discover Al Ula city and the AlUla desert as much as possible.
No matter which direction you choose to visit, let yourself be driven by instinct, and you will surely see some sensational places that will enrich your experience in the Saudi realm. You don’t necessarily need to book an Al Ula tour to have a fantastic experience here.
You will see camel farms, bedouins, all kinds of shrubs, rocks and mountain peaks, and, last but not least, spectacular dunes. Therefore, a road trip is something you must add to your Al Ula itinerary.
Search for the most interesting rock formations in Al Ula Saudi Arabia
The landscape in Al Ula is fantastic, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. You won’t be able to see everything from your first visit to Al Ula, but you should check at least a few of the spectacular rocks.
It would be a shame since it’s not easy to get there, not to explore the area properly. A road trip is one of the best things to do in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
- Elephant Rock Al Ula (Jabal Alfil)
A true masterpiece sculpted by the forces of nature, rainfall, and winds, is Elephant Rock Al Ula, the most famous formation in the Al Ula desert. Elephant Rock Al Ula is much larger than it may seem from a distance, with a height of 52 meters, almost double that of a 10-story building. And yes, it looks exactly like an elephant with its trunk on the ground from any angle.
Experts say the erosions took millions of years to “sculpt” this impressive rock. Since it looks so beautiful and unique, people in Al Ula arranged a lounge around the Elephant Rock Al Ula. There is no lack of lights, music, good food, sometimes concerts and a fantastic atmosphere overall.
Visiting Elephant Rock Al Ula is one of the best things to do in Al Ula, no matter how much time you have to spend here. ⇒ Book your Guided Tour of Elephant Rock with Transportation
- Face Rock Al Ula
Another piece of nature’s art is this rock that looks perfectly like a human figure. The resemblance to a man’s face is truly impressive! The stone is located inside the Madain Saleh site and can be seen when visiting Red Mountain.
Vessel Hole Rock (Jar Rock at Jabal Jarrah)
One of the most beautiful places to visit in Al Ula is Vessel Hole Rock, a rock in the middle of which formed a hollow that looks like a vessel. It seemed like a keyhole when I first saw it, but of course, more similarities to objects in everyday life can be attributed—for example, a skittle.
Vessel Hole Rock can be admired and visited together with Elephant Rock Al Ula, located nearby, at a distance of about a kilometer or even less.
I didn’t see them all; we even changed our mind about one of them at the last minute because our car was not ideal for an off-road through the sand. Other famous rocks in Al Ula are:
- Jar Rock
- Dancing Rocks
- The Arch
And, of course, the list goes on and on because there are a lot of such weird shapes sprinkled in the selenium relief of this area. Every person who comes in contact with these landscapes can have a new interpretation of the figures.
Just like when we try to define the resemblance of a cloud to something in our lives, be it objects or beings. I also got into this game and came up with some naming ideas for the geological “oddities” in Al Ula Saudi Arabia.
- The Mushroom
- The bust of the president
- Last Supper
Go to the best viewpoint in Al Ula Saudi Arabia
I still can’t believe how instinct led us to this beautiful place to visit in Al Ula. Although time was limited and we still had other places to check, we decided to follow a random road that seemed exciting and led us to an observation point over the entire valley.
The road starts from Winter Park in Al Ula Saudi Arabia, and has about 17 km to cover in 20-25 minutes by car. The Al Ula viewpoint is called King Abdulaziz Park and is located at 600 meters altitude, a perfect height to admire the spectacular relief of Al Ula.
Here you will find a few tables with umbrellas, but my opinion is that the project has been abandoned. So, don’t be surprised if there aren’t other people in the area. Take advantage of this and enjoy the discovery to the fullest because the panorama here will take your breath away.
For hours I admired the sight that unfolded before my eyes, and only here did I realize how beautiful it is in Al Ula. This place looks like the Grand Canyon in the USA and Cappadocia in Turkey.
Go to Maraya Al Ula, the largest mirror-walled building in the world
I didn’t visit Maraya Al Ula because it was still closed to prepare for some grand events. But if you come here and are lucky enough to find it available for visitation, don’t miss this place. It’s one of the best places to visit in Al Ula.
Maraya means mirror in Arabic and is the largest building globally covered with mirrors, a record certified by the Guinness Book. 9740 mirror panels were used in this miraculous construction.
Maraya Al Ula is located in the Ashar Valley desert canyon, and its purpose was to reflect the surrounding landscape and be a venue for significant events. International stars have had and will have concerts here, such as Enrique Iglesias or Andrea Bocelli, but especially Arabic music singers, such as Hiba Tawaji or Nancy Ajram.
Maraya also has a luxury restaurant called Maraya Social, which harmoniously combines the Mediterranean, British and Arabic cuisine.
Visit the AlUla Old Town
Among the places to visit in Al Ula is the old town, inhabited from the 12th century to the end of the 20th century. It comprises about 900 houses, all connected, which means that the inhabitants were trying to protect themselves from unwanted guests, turning the town into a fortification.
You can visit the Al Ula old town on a guided tour that lasts up to an hour and a half, and the ticket price is 70 SAR. Next to the ruins of Al Ula’s old town is a promenade area with shops full of souvenirs, handicrafts, cafes, and restaurants with Arabic food and hookah.
I recommend the ACME restaurant, where we ate some delicious burgers and a portion of french fries that look great, but there are other great Al Ula restaurants. Other places to eat well in Al Ula old town are:
- Pink Camel Pastry Boutique
- Al Rahbah
- Derwas Corner Restaurant
⇒ Check the prices for the Old Town guided tour
Al Ula Oasis | Best things to do in Al Ula Saudi Arabia
Imagine a sea of green palm trees in the reddish desert of Al Ula. A superb contrast that will surely catch your eye once you get here. The palm trees of Wadi AlQura are dates, but in addition to them, there are figs, olives, citrus, and other plants that have helped many civilizations throughout history to feed.
Over 2 million date trees in Al Ula produce around 90,000 tons of dates annually, and there are also 200,000 citrus trees of different varieties. Of course, all this vegetation needs water to survive. Well, there are about 80 natural springs in the Al Ula oasis.
Add visiting a farm to your Al Ula itinerary. There are three date farms in the Al Ula oasis that you can see on an Al Ula tour with a guide: AlUla Fresh, Hijrat Nora Farm, and Princess Noura Farm.
In addition to palm trees and citrus, you will discover a magical tree called Moringa Peregrina. It makes some beautiful flowers that look much like magnolias but smaller. But the top quality of the Moringa Peregrina tree is the production of a luxury oil used in cosmetics and perfumes.
ATV ride in Al Ula
One of the most adrenaline-fueled activities in Al Ula Saudi Arabia, is renting an ATV and riding it among the rocks with interesting shapes. You can do this, especially around Elephant Rock, where I have seen several people renting. Prices range between 50-150 riyals per hour, depending on the place you rent from and the type of ATV.
Events in Al Ula | Al Ula tour package
There are a lot of events and festivals that are organized in Al Ula. Many of these events are about horses, whether we talk about competitions, exhibitions, or even horse-drawn carriages. I’m sure you know about the famous Arabian horses in Saudi Arabia; some of them are worth millions of dollars.
The events occur almost every week, and you can check the calendar here https://www.experiencealula.com/en/alula-moments. In addition to the Saudi Arabian horses, you can participate in concerts with world-class artists. For example, in January 2022, Andrea Bocelli will have a show at Maraya, the fabulous construction with glass walls that I mentioned earlier.
Other places to visit in Al Ula:
- the ancient city of Dadan – the capital of the Dadanit and Lihyanite empires
- Jabal Ikmah – a canyon full of inscriptions
- helicopter tour over the entire region, one of the best things to do in Al Ula
- hiking in the Hidden Valley
- Al Ula museum
Questions and Answers about Al Ula
The best Al Ula tours packages
As usual, I use GetYourGuide to buy tours to the places I visit. These are the best Al Ula tour packages:
- tour to Hegra, Dadan and Ikmah
- tour the Al Ula old town with a guide
- AlUla: 4×4 Desert Safari & Dune Bashing with Dinner & Pickup
Guided Stargazing Experience with Dinner
How to get to Al Ula
First of all, you need a visa to enter the territory of Saudi Arabia. The visa is obtained online on the visa.visitsaudi.com website and costs 480 SAR as we speak (prices may change).
You will likely receive it by e-mail a few minutes after the application or the next day. With a tourist visa, you can spend up to 3 months a year in Saudi Arabia.
Once you have a visa and a vaccination certificate, you can enter the country. There is no Al Ula entrance fee. Travel insurance is included in the visa price. To get to Al Ula, you have two options:
- either you rent a car
- either by plane and land at Al Ula’s new international airport, Al Ula International Airport (ULH). Only Saudi Airlines and Flynas operate flights to and from this airport.
How many days do you need in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
You need at least two full days here to see the main places in Al Ula. But, if you want to tick off everything this area has to offer, including accommodation in the middle of the canyons and attending an event, then you should spend a week to fully experience Al Ula.
There is also the middle option and the most suitable for the ordinary traveler, who wants to feel that he has managed to visit a destination without being superficial, in which case 3 or 4 days sounds ideal.
I stayed only two days, and I must admit that I had to run from one tourist destination to another without checking them all. For this reason, I want to go back, and add even more places to my Al Ula itinerary.
Is Al Ula cursed? What is written about Al-Ula in Quran?
It seems that Madain Saleh is mentioned in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, through the prism of the Prophet Saleh. According to the sources I found, he was trying to convince the Thamud tribe of the existence of one God. Instead, the tribe chose to believe in other idols.
To prove his point, Saleh asked Allah for proof. This is how a pregnant camel appeared, like a miracle from God (Allah). Saleh urged the Thamud tribe not to harm the poor animal. Instead, they killed the camel, and three days later, they died in a huge, totally unexpected earthquake.
The camel’s baby managed to escape, fleeing through the canyons of Al Ula, and his cry can be heard even today. For this reason, the place is considered cursed, and many Saudis now refuse to visit it.
Can you visit Al Ula by yourself?
You can definitely visit Al Ula without resorting to any travel agency. You can find accommodation in Al Ula on Booking.com, and to see everything, you can rent a car or buy individual tours on the spot or on the experiencealula.com website.
In general, you can enter almost anywhere without an organized tour, except for Madain Saleh, where, unfortunately, you currently visit only in this way, with limited guidance and time.
How to dress in Al Ula as a female tourist?
Proper attire for Saudi Arabia is indeed a controversial topic that raises questions, especially among women who want to visit this country. Having spent a total of 4 months in Saudi Arabia during my two visits here, I can give you a pertinent opinion on this.
There is no short answer to how you should dress in Saudi Arabia because it differs from area to area. But, from what I noticed, Al Ula is one of the most touristy places in the country, and here you can dress the way you want, as long as you cover your neckline, shoulders, and legs.
Dresses like the ones I wear are suitable, and you can also wear pants, jeans, regular blouses. The keyword is decency. There are many women tourists in Al Ula, and I saw very few who wore abaya, but this is also a variant, especially if you want to feel part of the local landscape.
Visiting Al Ula is one of the best things to do in Saudi Arabia. The place is impressive, especially now that it is not yet very well known. I definitely recommend that you don’t miss Al Ula on your first visit to Saudi Arabia.
arabia sauditamadain saleh