Destination :: Al Ula, Saudi Arabia

Photography by Richard Giordano

Amid the northwestern Saudi Arabian desert lies the oasis town of Al Ula. Nestled amongst palm trees, bordered by red sandstone cliffs, and flourishing with citrus and dates, Al Ula is ripe with history due to its location along the Incense Route, where goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh travelled overland to the Mediterranean between the 7thcentury BC and the 2nd century AD.

Today, Al Ula offers visitors plenty to do, including a visit to the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site; attending events, concerts, and festivals; or simply bombing around in the desert aside curious camels and 70-Series Land Cruiser pickups.

al ula

Where to Stay in Al Ula

The best (and cheapest) way to experience the area is to wild camp in the vast desert surrounding the town of Al Ula. If you’re in a pinch, Aparthotels (similar to a hotel room but usually with a kitchen and living area, typically found via booking.com) are good alternatives to expensive hotels in the area—plan ahead as they book up quickly (especially on weekends). Note that Saudi’s two-day weekend runs from Friday to Saturday.

al ula desert

What to Do in Al Ula

Visit Saudi Arabia’s First UNESCO World Heritage Site: Hegra

While many are familiar with the Nabataean kingdom of Petra, there was, in fact, a second city, Hegra (otherwise known as Mada’in Saleh), which served as a bustling metropolis and essential hub for the Incense Route. A visit to the archeological site includes the chance to explore over 110 well-preserved tombs while an Arabic and English-speaking guide explains more about the Nabataeans and their stunning kingdom.

Visit experiencealula.com to book the Hegra tour online or purchase tickets at the South Gate entrance of the Winter Park on the outskirts of Al Ula. Land Rover enthusiasts with a cushier budget should check out the Hegra Vintage Land Rover tour.

land rover

It is important to note that it is not possible to visit Hegra independently—one must join a tour to visit (which is totally worth it).

al ulahegra
hegrahegra

Enjoy the Local Rock Formations

If you take some time to leave the pavement behind, there are some seriously epic rock formations that are worth the trip. The Arch (also called Rainbow Rock) is mind-blowingly huge and could easily fit in amongst the arches of Moab, while the pillars of AlGharameel make for a spectacular backdrop during both night and day.

al ula arch

Wander Al Ula’s Old Town

Inhabited between the 12th century and the early 1980s, the remains of Al Ula’s Old Town include stone and mudbrick buildings with the shadow of the Musa bin Nusayr Castle, a citadel from the 10th century which overlooks the town.

Finally, if you’re looking for a decent cup of coffee and a sweet treat, head to The Lion. The floor-to-ceiling glass, marble floors, and upstairs lounge provide the perfect respite from a long day of walking (or driving).

Experiencealula.com offers an abundance of helpful information for those visiting the area.

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Ashley Giordano completed a 48,800-kilometer overland journey from Canada to Argentina with her husband, Richard, in their well-loved but antiquated Toyota pickup. On the zig-zag route south, she hiked craggy peaks in the Andes, discovered diverse cultures in 15 different countries, and filled her tummy with spicy ceviche, Baja fish tacos, and Argentinian Malbec. You can usually find Ashley buried in a pile of travel books, poring over maps, or researching wild medicinal plants. Ashley is a co-founder of Women Overlanding the World and crew member of Expedition Overland. You’ll find this Canadian-born couple exploring a different continent in 2021, and sharing their trip every step of the way at Desk to Glory.