Shaped over eons by various kingdoms and civilisations, accumulating layers of history, culture and art along with its breath-taking natural beauty, is the city of AlUla in Saudi Arabia.
Now also a hub of contemporary culture alongside its deep heritage and expanse of sand dunes and speckled mountains, the city offers a plethora of unforgettable experiences unlike any other.
Strategically located on the incense route, one of the world’s most ancient trade trails, AlUla was once a powerful trading hub filled with the chatter of a myriad languages – evidence of which can be found in inscriptions across the city. Venture into an open-air library on the mountain of Jabal Ikmah, and see the whispers of merchants and travellers with your own eyes.
Drive 15 minutes north to Dadan, to see the city of stone built by the kingdoms of Dadan (late 9th and early 8th century BCE) and Lihyan (5th to 2nd century BCE). Meticulously crafted from desert rocks and still standing tall, it is a testament to the dexterity and commitment of these foregone civilisations.
A little further north lies the archaeological site of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here the secrets of the enigmatic Nabataean kingdom can be explored in 110 well-preserved tombs, where the elite were laid to rest.
A visit to AlUla is hardly complete without seeing the famous geological rock formation Jabal AlFil, also known as Elephant Rock. This looming three-storey red sandstone beast features a ‘trunk’ and ‘body’ shaped by millions of years of wind and water erosion, and turns a remarkable shade of red in the light of a setting sun.
Find reprieve from the desert’s dusty golden sands and warm sunrays by exploring the lush AlUla Oasis. Depending on which of the five entry points you take, the three-kilometre Heritage Oasis Trail offers different experiences from strolling beneath towering palms in a historic archway of a mudbrick house, to taking in the fragrance of mint and jasmine growing on farms, or pausing for a picnic on plush seating areas surrounded by green shade.
As the night paints the sky black, turn your eyes upward to see it light up with stars. Without bright city lights in the way, the vast open desert provides the perfect backdrop for stargazing around a fireplace in the company of those you hold dear.
North of the city lies one of Saudi Arabia’s most fascinating heritage sites, AlUla Old Town – a maze of narrow alleys winding through almost 900 houses, 400 shops and 5 town squares. Among the remnants of original stone and mudbrick buildings, discover centuries-old etchings in stone alongside contemporary murals, artisanal workshops teaching ancient techniques and an outdoor market where local craftsmen sell vibrant masterpieces from intricate hand-painted plates with geometric patterns to hand-spun fabrics.
Travel next to the adjacent AlJadidah Village, a lively hub often referred to as New Town. It is home to five plazas where everything from delicious food in Muayada Square, live music in Oasis Square and contemporary art in Art Square are ready to be explored.
From there, a 20-minute drive takes you to the World’s Largest Mirrored Building, Maraya, meaning ‘reflection’ in Arabic. This impressive contemporary structure is designed to reflect the stunning scenery like a mirage, and is home to the rooftop restaurant Miraya Social, by the well-known British chef and owner of Michelin-starred restaurants, Jason Atherton.
Among the sandstone canyons of AlUla’s desert also lies a vast adventurer’s playground. Climb ladders and bridges up 200m-high cliffs on the via ferrata route in Canyon Hammock, or race at speeds of up to 120 km/h on a zipline across sun-scorched valleys. Enjoy a bird’s eye view from a helicopter or hot-air balloon tour and soar over the desert to spot all of AlUla’s extraordinary sights, including Hegra, Elephant Rock and the Oasis.
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