Located in the north-western part of the Kingdom, Al Ula is nestled in a large, spectacular valley, with palm groves running down the centre of a wadi and rising red-sandstone cliffs on either side. It has a mysterious air about it with traces found here dating back to the Bronze Age. Walking through this old city is like navigating a maze, with glimpses of ancient history at each turn. Once a bustling civilisation, the walled city of Al Ula was founded in the 6th century BC along the “Incense Road,” that facilitated the trading of spices, silk and other luxury items through many parts of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. Now abandoned, these 800 tightly packed mud-brick and stone houses are some of the best examples of traditional northern Arab architecture, parts of which are over 2,000 years old.
Al Ula stands on the site of the biblical city of Dedan, founded as the capital city by Lihyan that ruled from the 5th to 2nd century BC. Most of the original houses of the old town were rebuilt over the centuries but some of the old stones from ancient ruins were used for building the foundation and still have Lihyanite markings on them. Surrounded by a host of fascinating pre-Islamic sites, Al Ula is also the gateway to UNESCO World Heritage site Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia’s version of ‘Petra’. The city also has religious significance as most of the Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed through Al Ula on his way to the Battle of Tabuk that took place in 630 AD between the Arabs and the Byzantines.
Top Tourist Spots in Al Ula
Here are some of the top tourist attractions in Al Ula and things you can do if you are planning to visit this ancient city.
Enjoy the Stunning View at Al Ula Viewpoint
Located just outside Al Ula, the view of the red-rocked landscape from the top is spectacular and so is the journey up to this gem of a spot that offers glimpses of what is to come. You move through a windswept road and arrive at a park with a precarious fence at its edge. From here, the breath-taking view of the entire Al Ula valley comes into sight, surrounded by majestic red-rock mountains disappearing into the horizon, that reminds you of a surreal painting. It’s easy to understand why Nabataeans chose this Martian-like landscape for their settlement and kept it completely out of sight. It is among the top things to see in Al Ula. Head west at the north of Old Al Ula and you will reach a point where routes 375 and 70 meet. From here, drive into the mountains along the unmarked road that leads up to the viewpoint. The road is safe but as there is no lighting, avoid driving at night.
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Get a Glimpse of Past at Al Ula Heritage Village
Also known as Ad-Deerah, Al-Ula Heritage Village is the traditional Arabian village where people of the oasis moved over eight centuries ago and inhabited the place until the 20th century. There are plans to develop this as a formal tourist venue shortly but for now, visitors can enjoy wandering through the mud ruins where people lived for centuries. The village was built on a higher part of the valley to keep it clear from the floods that can occur during the rainy season. It contained over 1,000 houses adjacent to one another creating a wall around the town to defend the population. While you’re here, it is also a good idea to explore Al Ula fort and the Tantura (sundial) as well as the old mosque. The ruins are divided by the highway – those on the upper west side are renovated whereas the one in the lower east side is not in great condition.
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Admire the Rock-Cut Tombs at Jebel Khuraibah
The ancient Kingdom of Lihyan consisted of the fortress and the three peaks of Jebel Khuraibah. You can still see the rock-cut tombs at the foot of these peaks with ‘Lion Tomb’ being the most impressive one, named after the two lions carved on either side of the entrance. A large, headless sandstone figure can also be seen as you climb to the top of the central peak, revealing stone stairs and the huge walls linking all three cliffs together into a fortress city. It is counted amongst the top sights in Al Ula and is a must-visit spot in the Kingdom.
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Explore the Majestic Al Ula Fort
Al Ula Fort was built in the 6th century by its inhabitants to protect the ancient village who used red-sandstone blocks to construct this castle on a promontory offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding valley. It is worth climbing to the castle which takes moderate level hiking but you’ll be blown out by the view of the red-tinged cliffs and the sweeping valley below. Al Ula Fort is one of the main attractions of this little ancient town.
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Get to Know About Al Ula History at Antiquities & Heritage Museum
A must-visit if you’re interested in the history and culture of this region. Although small but attractively designed, this museum showcases some fascinating and informative displays on the history, culture, flora and fauna of the Al Ula region as well as Madain Saleh and the Nabataean culture.
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Hike to Umm Al Daraj
Umm Al Daraj (Mother of Steps) is located few kilometres north of old Al Ula and worth a visit. You will have to climb the hill to see the three red-sandstone religious structures, a Lihyanite sacrificial altar and some stunning Lihyanite inscriptions. We advise you to hire a guide in Umm Al Daraj, who will offer you all the insights and let you know about the history related to this place. It is currently being renovated and there’s no point of access.
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Visit Mt. Almejder
Situated to the east of Al Ula, this 300 m high mountain boasts stone settlements as well as fascinating caves with pre-Islamic inscriptions and drawings. But visitors cannot access it currently and is likely to be open soon. Contact local guides if you wish to visit here as they are likely to know when the cave will be accessible to the tourists.
Attend Winter at Tantora Festival
Named after the sundial located in the old town of Al-Ula, winter at Tantora (sundial) was traditionally celebrated to mark the start of the 40-day winter season. Locals used the sundial to mark the changing of the seasons. The first contemporary “Winter at Tantora” was celebrated on 20 December 2018 with a series of different themed events including music, arts, entertainment and cultural events. It is one of the top things to do in Al Ula if you’re planning to visit in winter. Visitors have the chance to participate in a wide array of unique events and experiences, from visiting historic sites of the region to attending spectacular musical performances.
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What is the Best Time to Visit Al Ula?
Al Ula experiences long and sweltering summers and short and dry but mostly clear winters. The temperature typically varies from 38°F to 101°F and rarely goes below 31°F or above 105°F over the year. Winter (from November to February) is the best time to visit Al Ula as the weather is mild and comparatively cool to explore the forts and other attractions. However, carry a jacket as it gets extremely cold in the night.
Tips for Tourists:
- Be respectful towards local rules and customs during your visit and stay mindful of your surroundings.
- Public spaces tend to be segregated with separate entrances or seating areas for men and women. Avoid public display of affection.
- Ask for permission before photographing locals. It is a punishable offence under the public code of conduct and so is playing music during prayer times and any dress code violation.
- Female tourists are not required to wear the Abaya but dress modestly when outside and avoid tightly fitted and revealing clothes in public.
- Stores and restaurants get closed during prayer times, five times a day. Plan your itinerary accordingly to make the most of your trip.
- Consumption of alcohol and drugs is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
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