Discovering Alula – Saudi Arabia’s Once-Hidden Gem

If you think you’ve ticked off all the major bucket-list destinations, think again. Nestled in the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia, Alula is the gem that’s been hiding in plain sight—until recently. Known for its breathtaking landscapes and deep historical roots, this ancient city is emerging as a must-visit for adventurers and culture seekers alike.

Alula’s story is as old as time itself, woven into the fabric of the Silk Road and frequented by traders and travelers who left their marks on the sandstone cliffs. For centuries, this archaeological wonder was shrouded in mystery, accessible only to the local tribes who cherished and protected its secrets. It was the kingdom that time forgot, until Saudi Arabia opened its doors wider to international tourists, transforming Alula into a crossroads of ancient heritage and contemporary exploration.

Elephant Rock, AlUla
Elephant Rock, AlUla | @vacanzeggiando

Today, Alula stands as a testament to the past, showcasing well-preserved Nabatean tombs that rival Petra, yet without the crowds that flock to Jordan’s more famous counterpart. But Alula isn’t just a trip back in time; it’s a journey into a land where history meets luxury and where every stone tells a story. Ready to explore? Let’s dive into the heart of Alula and discover why this ancient wonder is the Middle East’s newest sensation.

Why Alula?

What exactly sets Alula apart from the myriad of travel destinations across the globe? It’s not just the allure of unexplored terrain—it’s the enchanting mix of history, culture, and untouched natural beauty that makes Alula stand out. Imagine walking through landscapes that have remained largely unchanged since ancient caravans traversed the Incense Route, trading spices and silks between civilizations.

The cultural richness of Alula is palpable at every turn. This area has been a meeting point for different cultures for millennia, which is evident from the eclectic mix of archaeological sites. From the labyrinthine streets of AlUla Old Town to the majestic tombs of Hegra, Alula offers a direct line to the past, preserved not just in its monuments but in the continuing traditions of its people. The local community, with their warm hospitality and deep-rooted customs, adds a layer of authenticity that’s rare in more commercialized destinations.

But Alula is not just a historical exhibit to be admired from afar; it’s a living, breathing museum. The Saudi Arabian government’s recent initiatives to develop Alula as a premier cultural and travel destination have infused the region with a new vigor. Cutting-edge art installations, such as the Desert X AlUla contemporary art exhibition, sit juxtaposed against ancient rock formations, creating a fusion of the ancient and the avant-garde that speaks directly to the urban traveler seeking experiences far beyond the ordinary.

In Alula, every stone, every path, and every market stall tells a story, creating a rich, immersive experience that’s as educational as it is exhilarating. Whether you’re a history buff, an art lover, or an adventure seeker, Alula offers something to capture your imagination and leave you longing for more.

AlUla, Saudi

Navigating the Ancient Wonders

Alula is home to some of the most impressive and significant archaeological sites in the Middle East. Each of these attractions not only offers a glimpse into ancient times but also provides a unique narrative about the people who once inhabited this land.

Hegra, the Crown Jewel

Often referred to as Saudi Arabia’s Petra, Hegra is an awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage site that cannot be missed. It is the largest preserved site of the Nabatean civilization south of Petra.

This ancient city features over 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut out of the sandstone mountains. The best way to explore Hegra is by taking a guided tour, which not only helps in understanding the historical context but also provides access to some of the less visible, yet equally fascinating, sites.

Hegra, AlUla
Hegra, AlUla | @ursulafricker

AlUla Old Town

For those looking to peel back layers of time, AlUla Old Town offers a captivating journey through the ages. Recently reopened to the public after extensive restoration, this town is a labyrinth of old mudbrick houses and narrow alleys, offering a vivid snapshot of life in bygone centuries.

The old town also hosts live cultural events, markets, and has several cafes where local cuisine can be savored amidst the rustic charms of ancient architecture.

Elephant Rock

This natural rock formation, resembling an elephant with its trunk touching the ground, is one of Alula’s most iconic landmarks. Visiting this geological marvel at sunset offers travelers breathtaking views as the setting sun paints the rock and surrounding sands in warm hues.

It’s a perfect spot for those Instagram-worthy photos and a moment of tranquility away from the bustling city life.

Alula, Elephant Rock

AlUla Travel Guide

Planning a visit to Alula isn’t just about marking a destination on the map; it’s about preparing for an adventure in one of the most captivating regions of the Middle East. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you navigate your journey to this ancient wonder.

Getting There:

  • Flight Options: The nearest airport to Alula is Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport, located about 35 kilometers from the city center. Several major cities within Saudi Arabia offer direct flights to this airport, making it a convenient entry point for domestic travelers. For international visitors, connecting flights from major hubs like Riyadh or Jeddah are your best bet. Booking in advance can help snag better rates and avoid last-minute hassles.
  • Local Transportation: Upon arrival, the options for getting to your final destination in Alula include pre-arranged airport transfers, car rentals, and local taxis. Renting a car gives you the flexibility to explore at your own pace, which is ideal for those who want to venture beyond the main sites.


  • From luxury resorts that offer a perfect blend of modern amenities and traditional architecture to more budget-friendly hotels, Alula has begun to cater to a wide spectrum of travelers. For those looking to immerse themselves fully in the natural environment, eco-friendly tented camps are also available, offering a unique overnight experience under the stars.

Best Time to Visit:

  • Alula experiences a desert climate, which means hot summers and mild winters. The best time to visit is between October and April when the temperatures are cooler and more conducive to exploring the outdoor sites. This period also coincides with several local festivals and events, providing an added layer of cultural immersion.

What to Pack:

  • Given the climate, packing light, breathable clothing for the day and warmer layers for cooler evenings is advisable. Don’t forget a good pair of walking shoes as there’s a lot of ground to cover on foot. Sun protection, including hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen, is crucial, along with a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated.

Local Etiquette:

  • Saudi Arabia is a country with strict codes of conduct, and it’s important for visitors to respect these cultural norms. Dress conservatively, particularly when visiting public places like markets or when interacting with locals. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, and always ask permission before taking photos of people.
Swimming in between the mystic rocks of AlUla
Swimming in between the mystic rocks of AlUla | @hudson_v

Tips and Tricks For Your Visit

Embarking on a journey to Alula like no other. To make the most of your adventure, here are some tips and tricks tailored specifically for the urban explorer:

Costing Overview:

  • Budgeting for Your Trip: Alula offers a range of experiences that can fit varying budgets. Entry fees to major sites like Hegra are typically around 100 SAR ($27 USD), but comprehensive passes are available that cover multiple attractions. Dining options vary from local eateries to upscale restaurants, with meals ranging from 20 SAR ($5 USD) for a local dish to over 100 SAR ($27 USD) for a dinner at a finer restaurant. Accommodation costs can vary widely, with luxury resorts starting from around 1000 SAR ($267 USD) per night, whereas more modest hotels and eco-camps might range from 200 to 500 SAR ($53 to $133 USD) per night.
  • Saving Tips: Booking your flights and accommodations in advance can help reduce costs significantly. Also, consider visiting during the shoulder season (just before or after peak tourist season) for better deals and fewer crowds.

Navigating Alula:

  • Getting Around: If you choose not to rent a car, local taxis are available but ensure to agree on the fare before starting your journey to avoid any confusion. For a truly local experience, some smaller hotels and tourist services offer bicycle rentals, which can be a delightful way to explore the town and its surroundings.
  • Language Tips: While Arabic is the official language, English is commonly spoken in tourist areas. Learning a few basic Arabic greetings can go a long way in showing respect and enhancing your interaction with locals.
Habitas, AluLa | @cali_cut_

Beyond the Beaten Path

To truly unlock the magic of Alula, venturing beyond the main tourist attractions can offer unique experiences and a deeper understanding of this ancient region. Consider these lesser-known gems:

Dadan: The ancient kingdom of Dadan is one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula and a precursor to the Nabatean civilization. The site offers insights into early Arab kingdoms and features impressive tombs and inscriptions left by ancient civilizations.

Jabal Ikmah: Often referred to as the ‘open library,’ Jabal Ikmah is a mountainous outcrop located just outside Dadan. The area is filled with hundreds of ancient rock inscriptions in several languages, providing a fascinating glimpse into the area’s historical linguistic diversity.

Adventure Opportunities: Alula isn’t just for history buffs. It offers a plethora of activities for the adventure seeker. Rock climbing in the stunning sandstone canyons, hot air ballooning for breathtaking aerial views of the landscapes, or night-time stargazing sessions in the desert—all provide thrilling experiences that make the most of the natural environment.

Your Alula Adventure Awaits

From the echoing tombs of Hegra to the bustling streets of AlUla Old Town, from the majestic landscapes of the desert to the quiet dignity of its ancient texts, Alula offers a journey that transcends the typical tourist experience.

It’s a place where the past is alive, and every path leads to a story waiting to be discovered.

Whether you are seeking a connection with history, a touch of adventure, or a peaceful retreat into nature, Alula promises an enriching, soulful journey.

So pack your bags, bring your curiosity, and prepare for an adventure that you will remember for a lifetime.

Alula isn’t just a trip to a destination; it’s a voyage into the heart of Arabia’s hidden heritage.