Photo: John Doe/Shutterstock

The 4 Spots You Have to See in AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s First UNESCO World Heritage Site

Saudi Arabia Insider Guides Epic Stays
by Eben Diskin Jun 7, 2023

If you know someone who’s been to Saudi Arabia, chances are they visited AlUla. There’s a good reason for that. Located in the Medina province in northwest Saudi Arabia, AlUla is defined by its almost surreal landscape of canyons, wadis (dry valleys), sandstone cliffs, and ancient Arabic rock dwellings and tombs that trace the 7,000-year history of people living in the region. It’s also the home of Hegra, the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, a city built by the Nabataeans – the same civilization that built Petra – over 2,000 years ago. Thanks to this concentration of geographic and historical wonders, it’s no surprise that AlUla has become the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning tourism push.

AlUla might just be one small piece of Saudi Arabia, but there’s still so much to see that it can be difficult to fit it all into one trip. From the ancient city of Hegra to the modern mirrored concert venue of Maraya, these are the AlUla sites you can’t miss on your next trip.

Explore the ancient wonders of Hegra


Photo: Christopher Kane/Shutterstock

Also known as Mada’in Saleh or Al-Hijr, Hegra is an archaeological site known for its well-preserved ancient tombs, intricate rock carvings, and a rich history that dates back to the Nabatean Kingdom over 2,000 years ago. The main attraction at Hegra is its collection of 111 monumental tombs carved into the sandstone cliffs. These tombs feature intricate inscriptions and detailed facades, reflecting the artistry of the ancient Nabateans.

The Qasr al-Farid, also known as the Lonely Castle, is a tomb that’s considered one of the most iconic landmarks in Hegra. A solitary rock formation standing 72 feet tall, this boulder resembles the famous Petra in Jordan. Like Petra, the tomb is chiseled right out of the rock, though the bottom half was left unfinished. The carvings and inscriptions inside reveal a great deal about Nabatean culture, particularly their religious practices.

From the Lonely Castle, head to Jabal AlBanat, one of the largest clusters of tombs in Hegra. These 29 tombs have intricately-carved facades into all sides of their sandstone rock. What really makes these tombs special, however, is that they were commissioned by or for women, with many including inscriptions meant to protect the tomb, threatening to punish anyone who disturbs them.

Maraya brings contemporary design to the desert


Photo: John Doe/Shutterstock

In sharp contrast to the historic architectural allure of Hegra, Maraya is a testament to Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art and design. Rising from the heart of the Ashar Valley like a modern art oasis, Maraya — which means “mirror” or “reflection” in Arabic — is the largest mirrored building in the world with its covering of 9,740 mirrored panels. Despite its modern design, it nonetheless manages to reflect and blend into the surrounding landscape, and celebrates AlUla’s historic role as a cultural crossroads over the past several centuries.

Fittingly, Maraya serves as the cultural focal point of AlUla, hosting concerts, art residency programs, pop-up events, and arthouse films. A new restaurant is being built on top of the building. The menu of Maraya Social, the brainchild of chef Jason Atherton, reflects the flavors of the region with products sourced from local farms to create dishes that draw influence from Arabian, Mediterranean, and British cuisines along with high-quality mocktails.

Rainbow Rock is a stargazer’s dream

Rainbow Rock

Photo: John Doe/Shutterstock

One of the most recognizable rock formations in AlUla, Rainbow Rock is a sandstone arch about 90 minutes from the town of AlUla. Named for its arch-like shape between two rocky clouds, rather than any resemblance to a rainbow’s colors, it’s surrounded by desert diamonds hidden throughout the site. These quartz treasures are embedded in the rock as well as scattered all around the landscape, adding a glittery aesthetic to photos and making for a fun rock-hunting experience.

Rainbow Rock isn’t just a geographical wonder, it’s also a popular destination for astro-tourism. Since the region of AlUla has extremely low light pollution, it’s one of the best places in Saudi Arabia for stargazing. The remote location of Rainbow Rock makes it particularly attractive for astrophotographers.

Elephant Rock lives up to its name

Elephant Rock

Photo: Kaitlind Fasburg/Shutterstock

It sounds like a monument from the Lion King, but this is a geological wonder you can actually visit in real life. At 170 feet tall, Elephant Rock is AlUla’s most prominent geological feature. It doesn’t take much explaining to figure out why it’s called Elephant Rock, either. With a massive trunk-like outcropping forming a small arch, the rock is unmistakably elephant-like, shaped by wind and water erosion over the course of millions of years. Elephant Rock is particularly beautiful at sunset, when the rock turns a striking shade of red.

The rock is completely free to visit, and visitors are welcome to wander around the formation at leisure. The best way to see it, however, is probably from the sunken seating that surrounds the site. The truly intrepid can camp nearby, enjoy the cool desert climate at night, and wake early to watch the sunrise over the rock.

Where to stay in AlUla

When you’re planning to visit a desert that’s notable for its remoteness, it might sound like accommodations prospects are pretty bleak. Luckily, AlUla has some creative and immersive options for travelers looking to get the desert experience with a touch of luxury.

The Banyan Tree AlUla resort is located in the heart of the desert landscape, surrounded by rock formations and the region’s ancient cultural sites. The resort is composed of villas, many of which come with a private pool and outdoor deck area. The traditional mud-brick architecture ensures the villas blend seamlessly into the environment, without sacrificing modern comforts like air conditioning and Wi-Fi. The resort also facilitates activities for guests like camel rides and stargazing tours.

@epic.stays Check out this insane pool nested inbetween the landscape at📍 Banyan Tree AlUla in #SaudiArabia 🎥 IG: @elona #saudiarabia🇸🇦 #traveltiktok #luxurytravel #hotelview #hotelguide ♬ original sound – ozu ♚

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