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Welcome to the mysterious land of AlUla, an enchanting destination tucked away in the desert region of northwest Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia opened its doors to tourism in 2019 and since then adventurous travelers have been drawn to this captivating country, with AlUla garnering significant interest. Unveiling a treasure trove of historical wonders and natural beauty, AlUla offers a mesmerizing experience like no other. From the impeccably preserved tombs of Hegra to the architectural marvel of Maraya and the iconic Elephant Rock, AlUla holds many hidden gems waiting to be explored.
Although traveling to this intriguing destination might require some planning, the rewards are unquestionably worth it. In this comprehensive guide to AlUla, you’ll find everything you need to know about this incredible destination including the best time to visit, exceptional hotels in the region, and the best things to do in AlUla.
How to Get to AlUla
There are a handful of airlines that offer flights to AlUla, including Saudia, Flydubai, Flynas, and Flyadeal. Flynas and Flyadeal are considered low-cost budget carriers, with Flyadeal being owned and operated by Saudia. AlUla is accessible from major hubs such as Jeddah (JED), Riyadh (RUH), and Dammam (DMM). The flight duration from Jeddah to AlUla is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, Riyadh to AlUla takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes, and the flight from Dammam to AlUla is around 2 hours and 10 minutes.
When planning your trip, it is essential to note that flights to AlUla are not as frequent as those to other destinations. Each airline operates its routes to AlUla on a weekly or biweekly basis, with Saudia offering slightly more frequent flights. If you intend to visit surrounding countries before or after Saudi Arabia, it is advisable to book the AlUla portion of your trip first to ensure a smoother travel itinerary.
For my journey from LAX, I flew Turkish Airlines to Dammam with a short layover in Istanbul. From Dammam, I continued with Flyadeal to AlUla. Despite some initial hesitancy due to Flyadeal’s mixed reviews, I had an easy and pleasant experience with the airline. This route worked well for me and minimized layover time.
How Many Days in AlUla?
The number of days you spend in AlUla depends on your travel preferences, interests, the activities you plan to do, and what time of year you visit. During the high season when attractions are bustling and fully operational, it’s advisable to allow a bit more time. On the other hand, in the off-season when places are closed and/or less busy, you can consider a slightly shorter stay.
To truly savor the beauty of AlUla, I recommend staying 5 or 6 days. This timeframe allows you to explore AlUl’as attractions at a leisurely pace while also providing time for relaxation. If you’re staying at one of the area’s luxurious properties like Habitas AlUla or Banyan Tree AlUla, it’s worth dedicating an entire day to enjoy the amenities and unique offerings of the hotel.
Best Time to Visit AlUla
AlUla is not a year-round destination due to its extreme summer heat. The best time to visit AlUla is during its winter season, which generally spans from November to April. Alula experiences minimal rainfall, making winter an ideal time to plan your trip without concerns about weather disruptions.
Among the winter months, March is the prime choice for a visit. The weather in March typically sees an average high of 82°F (28°C) and a low of 51°F (10°C), providing a comfortable environment for both pool relaxation and site exploration. It is advisable, however, to carry layers and a jacket, as evenings can still get chilly during this time. As April progresses, temperatures begin to rise, reaching their peak in August, where it can get as hot as 105°F (40.5°C).
Although I visited AlUla in April and found it to be bearable, the midday heat can be challenging. Visiting during the shoulder season does present certain advantages, such as excellent hotel deals, minimal crowds, and easier photography opportunities at the main sights. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that some establishments close during the day due to the heat. You will not get the same experience as those visiting during the winter.
Throughout the day, it may be difficult to find open lunch options, with only a few places serving breakfast and closing by 10:30 AM. Dinner services start around 4 or 5 PM at the earliest. If planning a trip during the off-season, selecting accommodation with an on-site restaurant is advisable. Fortunately, many hotel restaurants operate throughout the day, offering services for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
How to Get Around AlUla
Exploring AlUla is relatively straightforward and there are a few options for getting around:
Car Rental in AlUla
Renting a car is the best way to get around AlUla, providing you with the freedom to explore the region at your own pace. Given the considerable distance between attractions, walking is not an option. There are a few car rental agencies, such as Lumi Car Rental and Budget, that operate in AlUla and airport pickup is easy to arrange.
I suggest reserving your vehicle in advance, particularly during the peak tourist season or if you require an automatic transmission. Before leaving the airport, double-check the fuel level as gas stations are few and far between. I didn’t realize my car was given to me on empty until it was almost too late.
Tip: I rented from Budget and had a seamless experience. However, you will not be able to reserve through the USA version of the Budget website as AlUla will not show up as a pickup location. You will need to visit the Saudi version.
Driving Conditions and Navigation in AlUla:
AlUla’s main roads are well-paved and easy to navigate. However, exercise caution on side streets, as some may not be in the best condition, having rocks and potholes. Though Google Maps generally works well, occasional discrepancies in street names may occur. For peace of mind, opt for a vehicle equipped with navigation, providing visual assistance throughout your travels.
International Driving Permits (IDPs) in Saudi Arabia:
I found conflicting information regarding International Driving Permits (IDPs) in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia recommends having one, it may not be mandatory. I checked with Budget in advance and as an American, it was not required and I was not asked for one upon arrival.
Can Women Drive in AlUla?
Certainly! The ban on female drivers was lifted in 2018 and women can confidently drive in AlUla. While there may be more male drivers on the road, I personally encountered no issues, strange looks, or discomfort while driving in the area. AlUla felt entirely safe for my female friend and me. I’m confident in recommending a car for solo travel as well.
Tours / Shuttle in AlUla
To experience many of AlUla’s attractions, tours are necessary, with the majority organized by Experience Alula. These tours typically require you to meet at Winter Park or directly at the site. You may be able to book a local/private guide to arrange these bookings for you and provide transportation; however, I didn’t personally explore this possibility.
A hop-on/hop-off shuttle service is being introduced (winter 2023) for the busy season offering several lines with access to various destinations. The Red Line stops at Winter Park, Elephant Rock, and Shaden Resort. The Blue Line covers Winter Park and Habitas AlUla, while the Yellow Line includes stops at Winter Park, AlJadidah, and AlManshiyah Plaza. Given that this shuttle service is still in development, you should conduct your own research in advance.
Taxis / Rideshare
A limited number of taxis can be found at the airport but are not widely available throughout AlUla. I honestly don’t even remember seeing a single one. Rideshare service through the app, Kaiian, is available in AlUla but is extremely limited. Expect long wait times for pick up. I also ran into issues registering with apps in the area because I could not verify my international number.
Things to Do in AlUla
There are many activities and places to see in AlUla. Immerse yourself in ancient archaeological sites, marvel at architectural wonders, or take in the region’s beautiful natural landscapes. The best things to do in AlUla are:
1. Tour Hegra (Al-Hijr / Mada’in Saleh)
Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts an extraordinary collection of well-preserved tombs dating back over 2,000 years. It’s considered one of the top things to do in AlUla. Constructed by the Nabataeans, the same civilization responsible for Jordan’s Petra, these ancient tombs feature intricate carvings and incredible rock-cut facades. The site also features some 50 inscriptions and cave drawings.
To access Hegra, visitors must opt for a guided tour, available exclusively through Experience AlUla. It’s advisable to secure bookings well in advance, as they tend to sell out quickly, especially during the high season. There are two tour options to choose from, I experienced both:
Hegra Group Tour:
The first option is a group tour, where a shuttle transports a large group between sites. During the high season, this tour is similar to a hop-on / hop-off situation where you can spend ample time at each site and then get on the next shuttle. However, during the low season, only one scheduled shuttle is available, and participants must continue on the same one. I found the summer version to be a bit rushed, particularly for photography enthusiasts who require more time to capture the perfect shot.
Hegra Tour in Vintage Land Rover:
The second option is a private tour in a vintage Land Rover, which comes at a higher cost but offers certain benefits. Like the group tour, this option also felt a bit rushed. Nonetheless, it was great not having a crowd of people in my photos. It’s worth noting, however, that the “private tour” might not be entirely private, as you may be joined by another small group arriving in a separate vehicle. Regardless of the chosen tour option, a visit to Hegra is an incredible experience. Tickets can be purchased from Experience AlUla.
2. Get Lost in AlUla Old Town
AlUla Old Town is a historical gem that takes visitors on a journey back in time. The ancient town boasts well-preserved mud-brick buildings, narrow winding streets, and traditional architecture that reflect the rich heritage of the region. Get lost in its quaint alleys, explore centuries-old structures, wander the AlJadidah arts district, or spend the night roller skating at Alula on Wheels.
3. Watch the Sunset at Elephant Rock
Prepare to be amazed by the iconic Elephant Rock in AlUla, a natural rock formation with a striking resemblance to a colossal elephant standing amidst the desert landscape. The rock has become a must-see attraction, drawing visitors from around the world.
Dusk is the ideal time to visit Elephant Rock. It’s one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed. I suggest arriving just before 4 pm, so you are able to secure seating before it gets too corroded. The area has in-ground seating, a nearby restaurant (SALT), and a takeaway cafe (Key Cafe). Grab a coffee, fresh juice, or dessert while settling in for a remarkable evening. This was my favorite among this list of things to do in AlUla.
Elephant Rock can easily be reached by car. The road is unpaved but a 4×4 is not necessary.
4. Explore Dadan & Jabal Ikmah
Dadan & Jabal Ikmah are two remarkable archaeological sites offering a glimpse into the region’s rich history and cultural heritage. Dadan, an ancient city, showcases the ruins of a once-thriving Arabian civilization.
Jabal Ikmah allows visitors to explore ancient rock formations, inscriptions, and petroglyphs. The Dadan & Jabal Ikmah tour is another tour offered and booked through Experience Alula.
5. Walk the Oasis Heritage Trail
Oasis Heritage Trail is set among beautiful desert landscapes and offers visitors a chance to learn about the region’s fascinating history. The 3.7 mi (6km) trail has multiple entry and exit points and winds through towering date palms and mudbrick homes, offering photo opportunities at every turn.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the trail serves as the perfect refuge from the desert heat where the palms provide a cool shade. To add to the area’s charm, there are tree swings and plenty of comfortable seating.
6. Watch the Sunrise at Maraya Concert Hall
Maraya, meaning “mirror” in Arabic, is an architectural masterpiece known for its mesmerizing mirrored facade. It’s covered in 9,740 mirrored panels and holds the record as the world’s largest mirrored building. It blends perfectly into the surrounding landscape and is a stunning sight. For an unforgettable experience, I suggest visiting for sunrise.
Serving as a versatile performance venue, Maraya hosts an array of concerts and events throughout the year. To access the site, you have a few options:
- Purchase a ticket to a scheduled concert or event, providing you with an immersive experience within the stunning venue.
- Make a reservation at the rooftop restaurant, Maraya Social, offering a unique dining experience (please note that the restaurant is seasonal and closed during the summer).
- If you wish to view Maraya from the outside only, I recommend staying at one of the following hotels: Banyan Tree Alula, Habitas AlUla, or Caravan by Habitas. These hotels share a gated access road with Maraya and guests can view the building anytime from sunrise to sunset.
Restaurants in AlUla
I had a long list of restaurants in Alula that I wanted to try but on arrival in April, was disappointed to find that many of them were already closed for the summer. The following are a few I experienced first hand as well as some that were on my list and highly recommended.
Somewhere is known for its fusion of Arabian / Mediterranean flavors and beautiful outdoor garden setting. It’s the perfect spot for a dinner under the stars. Reservations are recommended.
Tama at Habitas
I had the majority of my meals at Tama while staying at Habitas AlUla. Everything was excellent and The restaurant setting is magical. The seafood dishes were amazingly fresh and the poolside mocktails were perfect. Reservations are required for non-guests.
Maraya Social is the rooftop restaurant located atop the beautiful Maraya building. The restaurant is seasonal, so I was not able to experience it but I heard it is exceptional. Jason Atherton is a Michelin-starred chef responsible for the menu of European dishes. Reservations are required.
Coffee in AlUla
I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of great coffee shops In AlUla Old Town.
Coyard Coffee Roasters is nestled within the AlJadidah Arts District. The quaint coffee shop has a charming patio that overlooks Incense Road (an ancient trade route). This spot offers high-quality coffee and specialty drinks, along with a selection of non-dairy milk options.
Origin Cafe, situated at the opposite end of AlUla Old Town, is a fantastic cafe that takes pride in offering specialty beans sourced from various corners of the globe. It has a charming patio and provides an ideal spot for people-watching.
Other Things to Know
- Before your arrival, educate yourself on Saudi laws and culture.
- VISA: An e-VISA is required for Americans prior to arrival. The cost is $143 USD.
- Bring plenty of sunscreen. The sun is intense even during winter months.
- Hijab is no longer required (except for mosques/religious sites), but both men and women should dress respectfully with shoulders/knees covered. While at the hotel, you have a bit more freedom to wear what you wish.
Hotels in AlUla
Habitas AlUla is a luxurious eco-resort that offers a unique blend of traditional Arabian architecture and modern amenities, providing guests with an unforgettable and immersive experience. Each bungalow comes with a complimentary e-bike to explore the property. You’ll find trampolines, a swing, art installations, and the most perfect pool. The property is stunning and is one of my top 3 favorite hotels. I didn’t want to leave and my only regret is not staying longer.
Banyan Tree AlUla is an elegant resort offering world-class amenities, elegant accommodations, and breathtaking views. It has a beautiful pool and a top-notch restaurant on site.
Caravan by Habitas AlUla is a great option if Habitas AlUla is out of your budget. I was able to find an excellent deal on it. Caravan by Habitas offers a unique glamping experience in AlUla’s incredible desert terrain. The stylish and eco-conscious property offers luxury airstreams and fun food trucks.
Cloud7 Residence AlUla provides a convenient and budget-friendly stay with its kitchenette facilities, allowing guests to enjoy homemade meals and save on dining expenses. Cloud7 offers nightly movie showings at the pool, creating a delightful and relaxing evening atmosphere. Moreover, the friendly staff goes above and beyond, exemplified by an incident where they returned $200 USD to my friend who accidentally dropped it at the pool.
Have you been to AlUla? Is there something I missed? I’d love to hear about your favorite things to do in AlUla. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Interested in visiting the ancient city of Petra? Continue to my post, “The Perfect Jordan Itinerary: 5 Days.”