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Everything You Need to Know About Old Town AlUla, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Insider Guides Archaeology
by Matador Creators Sep 25, 2023

If you haven’t heard of Alula, don’t sweat it — the fact that it’s relatively unknown among Western travelers is just proof that it’s still mostly free from over-tourism.

Old Town AlUla is a historic city in Saudi Arabia, a country that itself just reopened for tourism in the last few years. And at the center of AlUla is Old Town AlUla, also known as AlUla Old Town Village. The original settlement likely dates to the 6th century BCE and is preserved more or less as it was, without electricity or modern development. Now, it’s a budding tourist hot spot for anyone interested in world history or archaeological sites. Set next to the modern-day town, the region has a unique fusion of antiquity and modernity, especially given the massive investments Saudi Arabia is currently putting into tourism development.

Here’s what to know about Old Town AlUla and how to plan your time in the sprawling (and fascinating) historical site.

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The history of Old Town AlUla

old town alula original buildings

Photo: Experience AlUla/Shutterstock

Old Town AlUla’s history stretches back over millennia. Its history is deeply intertwined with the Nabateans, the same people who carved the famed city of Petra in Jordan.

The “current” city dates to at least the 12th century, but probably earlier, and was a thriving walled settlement during the Nabatean period, serving as a crucial stopover for travelers and traders. It featured a network of stone and mudbrick houses, fortifications, and an intricate irrigation system that allowed for agriculture. Old Town AlUla’s location near several trade routes made it a convenient and popular cultural and economic center, and it was influences by the Nabateans, the Romans, and the Byzantines.

Over the centuries, AlUla’s size and importance ebbed and flowed with changing trade patterns and political dynamics in the region. If you’re wondering why Old Town AlUla was abandoned, there’s no real fixed reason. In the 1980s, the buildings were deemed too unsafe, but most residents had already moved out to newer and more modernized towns, anyway.

Since then, the old town’s historical significance and well-preserved architecture have make it a growing tourist destination.

How to get to Old Town AlUla

Old Town AlUla is in northeastern Saudi Arabia. The nearest airport is Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Airport (ULH), also known as AlUla Airport. You’ll connect to that airport most likely from King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah or King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, which are two of the largest airports in Saudi Arabia. From the AlUla airport, it’s about a half an hour drive to the old town.

There’s no entry fee to see the town or wander the historic area. And getting a tourist visa to visit Saudi Arabia is now super easy: there’s an online portal that takes only a few minutes. Visas cost $80 per person. You can also do your visa on arrival at the airport, but generally, it’s easier to just do it in advance before your trip.

AlUla trip planning

underground alula

Photo: Experience AlUla/Shutterstock

You can go AlUla by yourself, but it can be a little complicated, since tourist infrastructure outside of the town can be a little dicey (in terms of language barriers and rough roads). If you decide to go that route, it’ll be easiest to ask your hotel to arrange your pickup upon arrival at the airport. Your hotel can book tours of Old Town AlUla and surrounding attractions for you, or you can visit the Visitor Center in Old Town AlUla, where they can help you schedule activities.

However, most people visit Old Town AlUla as part of a longer trip through Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Abercrombie and Kent offers a very high-end six-day trip, and most midrange operators (like MAdventures) have moderately priced tours that visit Old Town AlUla, as well as other destinations in the country. It’s growing as a tourist destination, so expect to start seeing it more and more on travel itineraries.

How long to spend in AlUla’s Old Town

old town alula from above

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How much time to spend in Old Town AlUla depends a lot on how much time you want to spend shopping or wandering, but for most people, half a day in the old town is good. That said, there are lots of good restaurants in the old town, and you’ll likely want to visit the fort and traditional market area, too.  So spend a few hours wandering through the town (either on a guided or unguided tour), then budget another two hours for lunch and a little shopping.

When to go to Saudi Arabia

In general, the most popular time to visit Saudi Arabia is roughly October through March, since summer can be extremely hot. Within that window, November through February are the coolest, temperature-wise. No matter where you’re going in Saudi Arabia, Old Town AlUla included, you’ll likely want to avoid Ramadan (mid-March to mid-April), since most businesses and government organizations have very abbreviated opening hours to accommodate religious observances.

Old Town AlUla Village walking tours

people in downtown alula

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When visiting the old town, you can take yourself on a self-guided tour, with informational signs posted around a well-marked walking route. However, a more popular activity is to hire a rawi — a traditional storyteller. In Old Town AlUla, locals are trained as skilled rawis, sharing the history of the town as well as cultural knowledge, legends, and stories about the town.

You can join in on a guided tour with a rawi at the Old Town Visitor Center. They’re offered multiple times per day and cost 70 riyals per person (about US $18). The tours go past many of the town’s more than 900 buildings, so wear comfortable shoes.

You can also hire your own rawi if you’d prefer a personal tour. The best way to do this is either from the visitor center in town, or by asking your hotel. Rawis are similar to tour guides, so every hotel will have a few they can recommend. Tip a few bucks at the end if you enjoy the experience.

Restaurants in Old Town AlUla

old town alula restaurants - cafe

Photo: Experience AlUla/Shutterstock

One of the most commonly used ingredients in Saudi Arabia are dates, and in a historic area like AlUla, you can try some of the best traditional date dishes in the country. You can also try all manner of Middle Eastern dishes, from traditional meals to modernized twists. And French cuisine is heavy in the region, too.

Entrecote Cafe de Paris

Entrecote may be one of the most beautiful restaurants in Saudi Arabia, let alone AlUla. The menu focuses on haute French cuisine, with indoor and outdoor dining, both of which are gorgeous options. Reservations are highly recommended.


Suhail is one of old town’s can’t-miss restaurants, with an open air rooftop looking out on the old town. Recipes are modern twists on traditional Saudi dishes, and if you’ve ever wanted to try camel meat, Suhail is the place to go.

The Pink Camel Cafe

The Pink Camel is a popular, more affordable option for where to eat in Old Town AlUla. It has healthier and lighter lunches, plus lots of pastries and bakery items. It’s currently closed as of September 2023 but will reopen after a quick renovation by winter 2023.

Other nearby activities and attractions

There’s plenty to see in the area around Old Town AlUla, so if you stay in the town of AlUla, you’ll be within easy reach of everywhere you want to go.

Elephant Rock

old town alula elephant rock

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Elephant Rock, also known as Jabal AlFil in Arabic, is a striking natural rock formation about 20 minutes by car from AlUla. As its name suggests, the formation resembles the shape of an elephant, with a large body and a distinct head and trunk. Its shape is the result of millions of years of erosion and weathering. It’s a popular spot on day tours, and at more than 150 feet tall, makes for some impressive photos. There are often outdoor events held just in front of the rock, too.


Hegra near Old town alula, saudi arabia

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Hegra, also known as Al-Hijr or Madain Salih, is an ancient archaeological site roughly 35 minute from AlUla. It’s one of the country’s most significant historical and cultural treasures and has earned UNESCO World Heritage status for its well-preserved structures and rock-cut tombs.

Hegra was a vital hub for trade and caravans in the region, and now, its intricate tombs and burial chambers showcase the extraordinary craftsmanship and architectural prowess of the Nabatean civilization. There are multiple tombs as well as other buildings and ruins displaying the city’s Nabatean, Hellenistic, and Arabian influences. You can also tour residential quarters, religious structures, and irrigation facilities; it’s truly unbelievable in real life. Tours leave daily from AlUla.

The Oasis

saudi arabia alula

Photo: Experience AlUla/Shutterstock

The Oasis is immediately next to Old Town AlUla and is a beautiful green area surrounded by no less than two million date palms. Today, it’s used for al fresco dining and outdoor art installations, with a public green space and the 3.75-mile Oasis walking route. There are multiple restaurants, including a tea cafe and the popular Pink Camel.

What to wear to visit Old Town AlUla

When visiting anywhere in Saudi Arabia, it’s best to dress a little conservatively. Shorts aren’t common, avoid any super tight clothing, and women should cover their shoulders. But other than that, you don’t need to wear anything special (though some restaurants may have dress codes). While many Saudi women choose to wear hijabs or head scarfs, it’s not required, and the same goes for foreign visitors. The exception to that is if you want to visit a mosque or other place of worship, in which a head scarf of some kind is required.

One thing you do want to wear are comfortable walking shoes, and you’ll likely want plenty of sunscreen, too. An SPF shirt can also be quite helpful.

Where to stay

Some of the most gorgeous hotels in the Middle East are around AlUla, with luxury desert resorts that alone are worth the trip.

Habitas AlUla


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Habitas AlUla is an all-suites resort worthy of the luxurious Habitas brand, with five-star amenities and very forward-thinking environmental design elements. There’s a weekly schedule with fantastic cultural and outdoor activities for guests, and pretty much every other amenity you could possibly want, too. Rooms start around $516 per night.

Banyan Tree AlUla


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Banyan Tree AlUla is a gorgeous, five-star desert oasis, with dune villas with or without pools. The hotel can arrange any experience you can imagine, and the rock pool is arguably one of the prettiest hotel pools you’ll find in the world. Seriously. Also nearby is Ashar Tented Resort, which shares facilities with the Banyan Tree. Rooms at Banyan Tree AlUla start around $570 per night in the slow season.

Sahary AlUla Resort

Sahary AlUla Resort is slightly more affordable than luxury hotels such as Banyan Tree AlUla, but it has a similar feel of being a desert oasis. Rooms are pretty cabanas designed in a style to mirror the twisting streets of the old town, and the hotel’s restaurant has an awesome location tucked into a rock canyon. Rates start around $160 per night.

Dar Tantora

Set to open in January 2024 is Dar Tantora, an eco-hotel in a traditional architectural and interior design style It’ll be housed in the ancient Old Town with minimal electricity (there’s still a plug in each room), lantern lighting, and lush woven textiles and natural materials. There’s also going to be a high-end traditional restaurant on site.

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