Photo: Ahmed Hasan Ali Taher

AlUla, Saudi Arabia, Is the Middle East’s Most Underrated Hot-Air Balloon Destination

Saudi Arabia
by Eben Diskin May 24, 2023

When we think of hot-air ballooning, we tend to imagine the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in New Mexico or the balloon-filled skies above Cappadocia, Turkey. With Saudi Arabia bursting onto the tourism scene, however, it’s perhaps no surprise that AlUla, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the northwest of the country, is hosting its own hot-air balloon festival called AlUla Skies. The region is marked by gorgeous desert landscapes and otherworldly rock formations, making it a no-brainer for hot-air balloon enthusiasts looking for a cool flyover environment.

What is AlUla?

AlUla is a historical and archeological region in northwestern Saudi Arabia, situated in a valley of sandstone cliffs that’s home to some of the most significant ancient sites in the Arabian Peninsula. One of the main attractions is the ancient city of Hegra (also known as Mada’in Saleh), which was once the southern capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, the same civilization that built the famous city of Petra in Jordan. Hegra features over 100 well-preserved monumental tombs carved into sandstone cliffs, many of which display intricate facades and inscriptions. In 2008, Hegra became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

@matadornetwork We sent @matadornetwork #CreatorInResidence @Natalie Chaban to explore the wonders of Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 From the awe-inspiring rock formations to the well-preserved tombs and rock art, here are four must-see spots in AlUla. #AlUla #saudiarabia #hegra #elephantrock #saudiarabiatravel ♬ original sound – Matador | Travel + Adventure

AlUla is also home to an Old Town, a walled settlement with mud-brick houses and narrow alleyways that date back to the 12th century. The town was inhabited until the 20th century, after which it was abandoned and left in ruins. The ancient Dadan Kingdom is another highlight, with its erstwhile city dating back to the 9th century BCE. The area contains numerous rock-cut tombs, sculptures, and inscriptions that provide valuable insights into the lives of the Dadanites and the Lihyanite people who later inhabited the region.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in the development of AlUla as a major cultural tourism destination. The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was established to preserve and promote the region’s historical and natural treasures while creating sustainable economic opportunities for the local community. Plans include the development of new hotels, museums, and visitor centers, as well as the organization of cultural events and festivals, such as the two-week AlUla Skies hot-air balloon festival.

Take to the skies at the AlUla Skies Festival

The AlUla Skies Festival took place from April 26 to May 13 in 2023, with a range of events showcasing the natural beauty and heritage of the region. Of course, the festival’s main event is hot-air balloon rides through AlUlA’s morning skies, over vast deserts, dramatic rock formations, and ancient heritage sites. Even when they’re anchored to the ground, dozens of hot-air balloons glow in a synchronized glow show, a colorful spectacle set to music during certain nights of the festival.

But it’s not just about hot-air balloons. For a slightly less nerve-wracking experience, you can also take a helicopter tour over AlUla for a bird’s-eye view of its historical sites. The 30-minute tour will bring you over AlUla’s iconic Elephant Rock formation; the ancient city of Hegra; the historic Hejaz Railway; the largest mirrored building on Earth, Maraya, which is a concert venue located in a desert canyon of the Ashar Valley; the ruins of the Dadan Kingdom and nearby Jabal Ikmah mountain; and the AlUla Old Town.

If you’d prefer to appreciate the area’s beauty from the safety of solid ground, you can take advantage of the festival’s stargazing and astrophotography workshop. AlUla’s minimal light pollution makes it an ideal destination for stargazing and taking pictures of the celestial wonders above. While surrounded by AlUla’s surreal Gharameel rock formations, you’ll not only learn all about the constellations, planets, and celestial events from an astronomy expert but also how to capture photos of the night sky.

Other AlUla Skies Festival activities

Thrill-seekers who weren’t sufficiently exhilarated after hot-air ballooning can check out the Giant Swing, a 230-foot swing, one of only seven in the world. The experience involves leaping from the edge of a mountain and flying between canyon walls, enjoying the views as you glide through the air. You can also climb the AlUla Stairway, a 147-foot suspended ladder that leads up a mountain, and take the 492-foot zipline back down to the valley floor.

For something a bit more relaxed, throw it back to your childhood by flying a kite through the desert alongside hundreds of others, filling the sky with colorful sails. Or catch a movie under the stars at the festival’s outdoor cinema, a family-friendly cinema with vintage decor. With Hot-Air Balloon Day coming up on June 5, now is the perfect time to start planning your hot-air balloon experiences for next year’s AlUla Skies Festival.

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