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In AlUla, Luxury and History Blend With Unmatched Outdoor Adventure

Saudi Arabia Insider Guides Adventure Travel
by Dave Gordon Jul 6, 2023

Visually, parts of AlUla feel like the set design for Star Wars: A New Hope thanks to an expanse of beige-colored desert mountain ranges in each direction. On a recent visit, myself and a group of travelers joked that we half-expected Jawas and Jedis to appear from behind a 12-story chunk of aeon-old sandstone rock.

AlUla, of course, has more to it than just loads of breathtakingly diverse landscapes.

Located 1,100 km from Riyadh, in northwest Saudi Arabia, AlUla is a sweet spot where natural and modern wonders beg to be traversed. Its ancient heritage sites date back many millennia, with hieroglyphs etched in stone and tribal tombs. Its twenty-first century culture includes a revitalized upscale market, a lush oasis valley, and heart-pumping activity, among others.

Thankfully, you’re not going to be bumping elbows with the tourist throngs – at least not yet. While previously a stopover for Saudis en route to the Hajj in Mecca, AlUla’s primed to receive more attention now that the Kingdom has opened up in recent years as it embraces sweeping cultural reforms.

Visas to the country are good for 90 days, but you can fit a lot a week here.

An adventure itinerary to AlUla

AlUla Skies Festival

From the last week in April to mid-May, enjoy watching hundreds of hot air balloons take flight. You can also get in a basket to enjoy and appreciate AlUla’s majestic landscape, the desert expanse, from a mile in the sky. Morning takeoffs offer an elevated view of Hegra, while afternoon flights give a 360-degree view of the region.

AlUla Skies Festival: Winter park, Hegra 43542, Saudi Arabia

The Adventure Hub

This is adrenaline-central for trips to AlUla. Steady those steps on the 45-meter-long ladder up the side of a cliff (with safety harness). At the top, take a heart-stomping 150-meter zipline into the canyon below. Afterward, prepare for the equivalent of a right-side up bungee jump, called The Giant Swing, dropping 85-meters while suspended by cables.

The Adventure Hub: MVG8+7M5, AlUla 43513, Saudi Arabia

Walk the Nabataean city of Hegra

hegra in saudi arabia alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

The Nabataean city of Hegra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore any number of a hundred tombs carved in stone. The jaw-droppingly intricate facades will invariably elicit comparisons to Petra, Jordan. The big difference is that your photos will not include scads of other photo-bombers like in Petra. Hegra was the main southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom, and the southernmost outpost of the Roman Empire, after conquering the Nabataeans in 106 CE.

Hegra tourist entrance point: QW5W+6V9, Hegra 43541, Saudi Arabia

Dadan and Jabal Ikmah tour

ancient carvings stone alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

Transport yourself into the ancient city of Dadan to view 2,000-year-old storytelling in ancient languages as you peer in the hieroglyphic rock inscriptions from the Lihyanite and Dadanite civilizations. Departing from Winter Park, a shuttle bus takes you to Dadan and then a short drive away to the desert canyon where Jabal Ikmah sits. The latter is where you’ll see rock art and petroglyphs carved into the desert rocks. International archaeology teams continue to find new and exciting finds, so you may arrive at a time when a discovery has been made during the two-hour tour.

Dadan and Jabal Ikmah tour departure point: Al Ula 43532, Saudi Arabia

Oasis Heritage Trail

oasis heritage trail alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

A 1.8-miles trail snaking through the shaded palm groves, streams, and gardens affords you the chance to see up close how local farmers grow abundant crops. Open all day and night, this free trail is perfect for a quiet stroll or an Instagram shot of basking in greenery. You can also hire a guide to lead you, and give descriptions of what you see en route.

Oasis Heritage Trail: JWG8+RM4, AlUla 43523, Saudi Arabia

Elephant Rock (Jabal AlFil)

elephant rock alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

One of the region’s most famous formations, this towering natural arch in the middle of the desert stretches 170 feet into the sky. It has a cool factor that you can take in from any one of a number of stylish seats sunken in the ground, and at night (the location is open from 4:00 PM to midnight), bonfires keep away the desert chill under a backdrop of stars.

Elephant Rock: MXQJ+F2, AlMu’tadil 43539, Saudi Arabia

Old Town Village

old town alula shop

Photo: Dave Gordon

Touted as “one of Northwest Arabia’s most impressive heritage sites,” this honeycomb of 700-year-old mud-brick homes was a once-thriving settlement along ancient trading routes. The Village’s street market sells everything from tchotchkes to soaps, teas, locally-made food items, abayas — you name it. Moringa, a plant that grows abundantly in the region, is known for its medicinal properties, and is sold in various kinds of items, such as tea, soap, and essential oils. Nearby AlJadidah Arts District, meanwhile, is a cultural hub with stunning murals, art expos, curio shops and eateries.

Old Town Village: JWG7+6X4, AlUla 43541, Saudi Arabia


maraya in alula saudi arabia

Photo: Dave Gordon

This exhibition and concert venue is also the world’s largest mirrored building, reflecting the mountains and canyons. It’s known for hosting A-list performances like John Legend, Andrea Bocelli, Maria Carey, Russell Peters, Alicia Keys, and more. When I visited, FAME: Andy Warhol Exhibition was on display, showcasing some of the legendary artist’s most iconic works, including paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

Maraya: Al Atheeb 43552, Saudi Arabia

Where to stay in AlUla

When it comes to accommodations, it’s hard to beat the luxury and appeal of Banyan Tree AlUla or Habitas AlUla.

Banyan Tree AlUla

banyan tree resort alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

Launched in October 2022, this all-villa luxury tented resort is set against the backdrop of striking natural scenery and has all of the amenities you could ask for: kitchen, dining room, living room, patio, and, in some cases, a pool. Extra touches include spa treatments, an elevated outdoor pool built in a rock cavern, and its house restaurant, Harrat, with a vast full-spread breakfast buffet and a wide array of meal options.

Banyan Tree AlUla: Wadi Ashar, Tabuk Road, AlUla 43563, Saudi Arabia

Habitas AlUla

habitas resort alula saudi arabia

Photo: Dave Gordon

Billed as a “sustainable, experience-led resort” with 96 rooms, a wellness center, and restaurant and bar that overlooks a multi-lane infinity swimming pool. Shuttle yourself from activity to activity on a buggy or scooter across campus, as each self-contained room is built at a distance from each other, guaranteeing privacy. You can also stay in a fully-equipped Airstream if you’re budget-conscious.

Habitas AlUla: Ashar Valley, AlUla 43511, Saudi Arabia

Where to eat in AlUla

Somewhere Restaurant

This Mediterranean-style restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating; with the latter, enjoy the backdrop of date palms. Moderately priced, dishes on the menu range from about $12 to $25, with options like hummus and Fatteh bars, traditional Middle Eastern flavors served in bao buns, and heartier fare as well.

Somewhere: JWH7+RH, 2600 موسى بن النصير, 7181, AlUla 43523, Saudi Arabia


The only authentic Thai restaurant in the region, Saffron offers guests contemporary Thai dishes prepared by Thai chefs. Located in the Banyan Tree hotel, this is an elevated experience that comes with a bigger price tag. Dress is smart casual at Saffron, and it’s recommended to make a reservation. You can enjoy a set menu or sample as you wish from the vegetarian options, curries, shrimp, and steaks.

Saffron: Wadi Ashar, AlUla 43563, Saudi Arabia


If you are in the mood for Greek food and want a gobsmacking view, you can’t do better than Okto, which sits atop Harrat Viewpoint overlooking the Old Town. Case in point: the restaurant even provides patrons with telescopes. From there you can enjoy souvlaki, salads, and an array of appetizers as you take in the AlUla Oasis and the desert. For an even more beautiful experience, make a reservation after sunset to enjoy your meal under the stars.

Okto: King Abdulaziz Park, AlUla 43562, Saudi Arabia


A casual Italian restaurant located near AlUla Oasis, Circolo offers an opportunity to eat some of the finest pizza in the region with gorgeous mountains in the foreground. You can watch your pizza bake while sitting on the neat, trendy patio. While pizzas are the specialty, the restaurant also serves handmade pastas and an assortment of salads made with local ingredients.

Circolo: JWJ7+FC6, AlUla 43523, Saudi Arabia

Tawlet Fayza

This cozy restaurant’s name translates to “Fayza’s Table.” Appropriate, given the cozy family atmosphere. If you’re looking for an organic Arabic dining experience, this is it. Focused on fresh, local products, the menu changes regularly but every dish is inspired by the Arabic tradition of communal eating and family. All ages welcome and no reservations necessary.

Tawlet Fayza: DADA7409, 2503 ابو بكر الصديق, 7409, AlUla 43523, Saudi Arabia

Getting to, and around, AlUla

hot air balloons in alula

Photo: Dave Gordon

Flights from Dubai on Fly Dubai airlines reach the region, or you can fly from Riyadh on Saudi Arabian airlines or Flynas.

Once there, AlUla, at about 925 square miles, is quite large, and generally walkable only within each sightseeing stop. I highly recommend renting a car from one of the several car rental companies available at the airport. Car rental rates usually depend on the type of vehicle, but are comparable to most city rates in the US.

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