An amazing guide to Saudi’s AlUla
Editor’s note: Pots of gold, sand dunes and a touch of the ancient alongside cutting-edge tech—these are the images that come to mind when we think of exploring the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A niche and upcoming destination to visit in the Middle Eastern country is the city of AlUla—brimming with adventure, history, culture and a plethora of culinary delights. Allow Sumita Chakraborty to elaborately take you through the oasis city and its many sights to see and experience.
Written by: Sumita Chakraborty is a Mumbai-based journalist with over 20 years of experience, who writes on lifestyle, travel and entertainment. She was the former editor at Stardust Magazine and is currently the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheGlitz. You can follow her on Instagram @sumita11ster.
Over to Sumitra…
‘Tis the time to lace up your travelling boots and explore horizons that are less traversed, yet are extraordinarily fabulous. One such place is the picturesque land of AlUla in Saudi Arabia, which is called the world’s largest living museum. It is believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world dating all the way back to the 6th century—and was located on the crossroads of the historic Silk Route and the Incense Route. It has several unexplored natural sights and man-made monuments from that period.
How to get there: There are direct flights that are operated by Qatar Airways, flydubai, flynas or Saudia Airlines in and out of AlUla International Airport (ULH) from Doha, Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam.
My first glimpse of AlUla was a bird’s eye view from the window of my chartered plane. All I could see was vast expanses of a stark rugged sandy land replete with craggy sandstone mountains. It was almost as if I was transported into another land.
Where to stay
Banyan Tree: I stayed at the luxe Banyan Tree AlUla resort. This resort is situated in an eco-tourism region and comprises beautiful tented villas dotted around vast expanses of a sandy desert. Inspired by Nabataean architecture, the resort is wonderfully in sync with the beautiful natural surroundings of the Ashar Valley. The villas are spacious, super luxurious and are available with one, two or three rooms.
My two-bedroom pool villa had a plush living room, two huge bedrooms, two powder rooms and spacious bathrooms with bathtubs. The bedroom and living room doors opened to a patio where one could sit and admire the sandy dunes and clear skies. There is a fire pit that is fired up on request. It also has a stunning plunge pool. But what got me super excited was the rock pool (pictured below), which was truly out of the world. (Price range: Rs 65,000 - Rs 150,000)
Our Habitas: This super luxe resort is nestled within the oasis and the desert canyon of Ashar Valley. It includes 96 guest villas that span three tiers — Celestial Villas, Alcove Villas and Canyon Villas. They also have a yoga deck, a Thuraya wellness centre, fitness centres and fine dining restaurants. This resort has a wonderful view of the desert. (Price range: Rs 70,000 - Rs 200,000)
Caravan by Habitas AlUla: Caravan by Habitas AlUla is an immersive glamping and an off-the-beaten path experience for adrenaline seeking adventurers. You can stay in AC caravans and enjoy life in the desert. There are gorgeous food trucks that whip up a sumptuous fare of multi-cuisine to traditional Arabic food. (Price range: Rs 44,000 to Rs 66,000)
Shaden Resort: This resort is located at the heart of AlUla city and is only a hundred metres away from the highway to Hail city. It is the best choice for those who prefer to stay away from the crowded areas but close to the most important facilities. (Price range: Rs 55,000 - Rs 200,000)
The basic FAQ…
Will language be a problem? The people in AlUla are very friendly and helpful. Many of the locals don’t speak English though they make up for it with their broad smiles and twinkling eyes. So I suggest picking up some essential everyday Arabic words, which can help you communicate with them. English is spoken in big resorts and restaurants.
What about the dress code? It depends on individual establishments but women do not need to wear a headcover or an abaya. However, places of worship require you to dress modestly while visiting. In the evenings, the temperature tends to drop in the desert so you need to be suitably covered.
Should I carry cash? The local currency is the Saudi Riyal (SAR). While credit cards and contactless payment are widely accepted, some shops only accept cash—so it's good to have some with you. There are several ATMs in AlUla, but there is no currency exchange; you should exchange money at Dubai, Riyadh or Jeddah airports before your arrival.
How do you get around? It is pretty safe travelling through AlUla. I have traversed through the city with a driver who spoke just a smattering of English and I didn’t face any issues. To get around the city of AlUla, you could ride a taxi or rent a car with a driver. Lamar Luxury Car Rental Services and Daleel AlUla are options you could choose from. An international driving licence is recommended if you wish to drive your own vehicle. You can get the car from car rental offices at the airport, or through popular apps such as Careem and Uber. SUVs are preferred in the region as you can drive in desert areas.
What about SIM cards? I am told that one can activate their country's SIM card in Saudi Arabia such as Jazz from Pakistan, PT Telkom from Indonesia, Airtel and Jio from India without any roaming charges. It means that you don't have to buy a new SIM in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know that unfortunately.
Where to eat
It is a foodgasm fest in AlUla as you can savour tantalising flavours from local delicacies to international culinary delights. The local cuisine includes fresh ‘farm to fork’ delights that range from dates, citrus fruits, local spices to fresh meat. Camel meat is a delicacy here. There are also many multi-cuisine restaurants that serve flavours that veer from Arabic to Mediterranean, Lebanese, Thai and even European cuisine. I tried out a wonderful dish of truffles too. Please note Saudi Arabia as a rule does not allow any liquor—and the rule applies in AlUla too.
There are many eateries here, from top end restaurants that offer you food equivalent to a Michelin Star restaurant to mouth-watering local fare. I’ve put together some of the best places from fine dining to casual eateries that I’ve visited and can recommend. The food in these places varies from traditional Arabic food to fusion continental delicacies that are mildly spiced and are incredibly tasty.
FYI: Fine dining can cost anything from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a meal but meals at smaller cafes can be anything from Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000.
Tama, Our Habitas has an excellent menu of global and Middle Eastern cuisine. There are live counters with great vegan and vegetarian options.
Saffron, Banyan Tree has amazing Thai food with a variety of options.
Sass AlUla has fab multi-cuisine food infused with flavours from Monaco to AlUla.
Maraya Social has an amazing menu infused with ingredients grown in AlUla. The food is a melting pot of Arabian, Mediterranean and British cuisine, which is mouth-wateringly delicious. It has both veg and non veg options.
Alnakheel Café is in the heart of Old Town and it serves excellent Hijazi and Lebanon food.
Café Ruc infuses a Parisian feel in AlUla. The food is multi-cuisine with special emphasis on European and Arabic cuisine.
Somewhere AlUla: The food here is farm fresh and the cooking techniques used are traditional infused with a modern twist. It served Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and was indeed a hidden gem as the food was absolutely fab.
Pink Camel Pastry Boutique: This is a fave morning spot. You can stop over there for a strong cup of coffee, juices and some amazing savouries.
What to see in AlUla?
Alula Old Town (map): In the 12th century, AlUla Old Town was an essential hub in the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Makkah. The houses here are unique as they are attached to each other like a fort. Today, with nearly 900 houses, 400 shops and 5 town squares, AlUla Old Town with its original stone and mud-brick houses remains untouched by the hands of modernity.
Dadan & Jabal Ikmah (map): You can also explore Dadan, the ancient kingdom of the Lihyanite and Dadnite civilizations. After which, you can take a 10 minute ride to Jabal Ikmah situated in the desert canyon. Jabal Ikmah is an open library of inscriptions, petroglyphs and rock art.
Harrat Viewpoint (map): You can scale the black lava stone terrain of Harrat Uwayrid and see the entire landscape of Dadan, Alula Old Town, AlUla Fort and the oasis. The view is spectacular. And if you go there before dark, you can watch the spectacular sunset and see the skies fill up with millions of sparkling stars. There are telescopes for hire which help you check out constellations and stars.
Jabal Ikmah and Jabal Alfil or the Elephant rock (map): The dramatic landscape offsets an amazing view of the Elephant Rock which is AlUla’s most iconic geological marvel. The rock looks distinctively like an elephant and has been created naturally through water erosion millions of years ago. Known in Arabic as Jabal AlFil, this monolithic sandstone formation is a very popular tourist spot.
Maraya (map): ‘Maraya’, covered with 9,740 mirrored panels, means ‘mirrors’ and the world’s largest mirrored building which reflects all of Alula’s beauty. While I was there, the iconic Mariah Carey was performing and I was given the very front seat to get a first-hand feel of her amazing songs and energy. The Maraya auditorium has hosted global icons like Alicia Keys, OneRepublic, Usher and Seal, Andy Warhol and many others.
Hegra (map): Hegra, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the principal southern city of the Nabataen kingdom, today it’s known for its labyrinth of monumental tombs. Walking towards it, I could feel the rapid fluttering of the pages of time showcasing thousands of years of undiluted history—it was indeed spectacular.
In the mood for adventure?
There are helicopter rides that take you over AlUla to give you a bird’s eye view of its glorious heritage sights from the skies. There is horse riding and trekking through the iconic landmarks. There are also many rock concerts, festivals and exhibitions that are usually going on. Incidentally, AlUla Wonder of Arabia exhibition held its grand opening ceremony recently at the Meridian Gate-West Wing in the Palace Museum, at Beijing’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Forbidden City. Promising a journey like no other through AlUla’s 7,000 years of successive civilisations and 200,000 years of shared human history, the exhibition was a collaboration between the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), the Palace Museum and the French Agency for AlUla Development (AFALULA). It featured hundreds of exciting artefacts on display, some for the very first time.
For exhibitions in AlUla: The Winter at Tantora is already on and will end on January 27, 2024. It comprises musical festivals and concerts of legendary musicians and artists. It also has many fashion pop-ups.
AlUla Trail race is a fun marathon race that happens in the city that covers all the iconic locations there, from Maraya to Elephant Rock. It will be taking place from January 11 to 27.
Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo is super popular too and starts from January 17 to 20. The history of polo links back to the kings and this high energy tournament attracts patrons and professionals from across the globe. Fashion too raises its bar a notch higher as the uber chic crowd dressed up in some of the top most fashion brands cheer on the players.
For cycling enthusiasts: AlUla is the home for Saudi Arabia’s only UCI World Tour event. It starts from January 30 to February 3. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup too is in the pipeline. This is in February 2024 and is on its fifth Edition. Riders and horses from all over will compete on the desert track.
The Tough Mudder Infinity AlUla is also on February 24, 2024. This is the first Infinity race to take place outside America and this super tough eight-hour competition challenges athletes to take the largest numbers of laps around an obstacle course. It has the highest sum of prize money awarded in the world in the history of obstacle racing. For people who love art, AlUla Arts Festival starts from February 9, 2024 to March 9, 2024 and it includes carefully curated contemporary art to mammoth outdoor art installations.
Besides this, there are many other fun activities. Also if you’re tired of exploring monuments, you can chill out at the pool at top end resorts.
Where can I go on a shopping spree?
AlUla is famous for its dates and they have several varieties of dates that include Barni dates, Majroob dates that are sweet and sticky and have a hint of toffee, Machrook dates, Halwa dates, Anbara dates and Majhool dates. So if you are in AlUla, you must buy them.
The colourful souks in Old Town (map) are simply beautiful. They are quaint, cute and are done up with colourful murals. They display amazing rich scented oils, essence, spices, pottery and glass work. Besides this, there are local handicrafts, souvenirs and handmade scented candles that are hot faves of tourists. You can find exquisite hand-woven tapestry as well as unique nomadic jewellery here. Local artisans are committed to using eco-friendly materials that focus on sustainability.
Places to shop are at AlUla Old Town market. Madrasat Addeera shop (map) and Hekayat Herfa Shop (map) are famous for their souvenirs. I bought a few scented AlUla candles which had citrusy notes and a hint of Clementine. Besides this, I grabbed a few souvenirs and a coffee table book about the city at the Hegra gift shop (map). Bazaar AlUla (map) and Desert designs (map) too are popular shopping hubs.
One thing remarkable in AlUla is its night shopping, which is spectacular to say the least. You get everything from juicy fruits to intricately woven local textiles and weaves. So you can shop till you drop under the stunning star lit skies.
High end shopping is not available here as yet. Though last year, the Tantora festival at Ashar Valley had fashion pop-ups that included high end designers like Samer Halimeh New York, Michael Cinco, Azza Fahmy Jewellery, Vianney Halter and many others. But there are no high end boutiques here yet.
However, AlUla is gearing itself up to be a fashion hub and has hosted some of the world’s most luxury fashion brands and runway shows including Dolce & Gabbana, who had showcased a collection that had models and horses on the runway.
So go ahead, put fabulous AlUla in Saudi Arabia on your bucket list, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!