We just got back from visiting the new epicenter of tourism in Saudi Arabia – Al Ula and the Nabatean settlement of Mada’in Saleh. We’ve had loads of people ask about the trip seeking tips and advice, so with that in mind, below is a bit about our trip, including a logistical details for others who wish to visit.
We visited 9 years ago, before the area was developed for tourism. When we first visited, there was only one basic motel and very little local or online information about the history and touristic points of interest in the area. At that time, we were supposed to register for a police escort on the route and I even remember printing out MapQuest maps to get there!
This time, we were looking for a domestic destination because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, and we were curious to see how the area has changed since the recent opening of tourist visas to the Kingdom. I’ll share more at the end of this post about our reflections on the differences in this short period.
Here are the top 3 reasons I recommend a visit:
- Al Ula is a rich green oasis situated in a valley among picturesque sandstone cliffs. The brittle sandstone is the canvas of both the natural and manmade art which is attracting the interest of tourists from all over the world.
- This area is worth visiting to see the magnificent tombs which the Nabatean civilization carved into elaborate sandstone facades. Mada’in Saleh is one of five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia.
- Al Ula is full of kind, friendly, open, and knowledgable people. Many of the people we came across have been recently trained in tourism and hospitality, and they are very welcoming and helpful. As well, you can find local farmers, bedouins, and business owners who keen to exchange cultures.
Where is it?
Mada’in Saleh is located in the north-west of Saudi Arabia. It takes about 6.5 hours to drive from KAUST or 3.5 hours from Medina. A trip can also be paired with visits to Um Lujj or NEOM.
Al Ula is the closest city to Mada’in Saleh. It’s 20 km south of the site, and has an interesting history of its own. Make a point to check out the mud-brick houses!
Tourism in Saudi and Al Ula
Until recently, tourism was not permitted in Saudi Arabia. However, last year, the Saudi Government announced new tourism visas and lots of resources are being pumped into supporting this budding new industry.
Al Ula, and the surrounding region, has seen heavy investment in tourism, and this beautiful area appeals to a young and adventurous crowd from around the globe who want to enjoy nature, history and the traditional Saudi culture.
Places of Interest
The natural beauty of the area is reason alone to go visit. However, here are a few of the spots I recommend checking out:
Mada’in Saleh, which is more accurately called Hegra, is the main attraction of the area. Mada’in Saleh is the southern-most settlement of the ancient (1st Century CE) Nabatean people. You may already be familiar with Petra in Jordan – this was built by the same civilization. These settlements are well known for their interesting architecture: They built tombs with breathtaking and massive facades cut into the rock.
At the site, you can also visit remains of the Hejaz railway.
Please note that the site has a gate around it and (at time of writing) is only open during the winter months. Check these details before you plan a trip to avoid being disappointed.
Even if you can not visit Mada’in Saleh there are still plenty of other sites and experiences available in the area that are well worth a visit.
Elephant Rock is what it says on the tin. It’s a big hunk of sandstone that looks a bit like an elephant. Vessel Hole Rock is also within eyesight.
At the time of our visit a few days ago, this site was completely without facilities. However, I understand that there have been times where pop-up food and coffee vendors were situated here which I bet was pretty fun!
This place has some accommodations, a handmade mosque and museum, beautiful canyons, and a wonderful and dedicated family looking after it all. During the Winter at Tantora festival, they used the canyon as the entrance to an exquisite restaurant.
This place also has some accommodation, however the owner does not speak English, which may make it tricky to work out the details if you don’t know Arabic.
- Map Location – Waterfall Resort
This rock formation is a bit out of town, but well worth the drive! We stopped by at sunset and it did not disappoint.
I suspect you’ll need a guide to point out the exact locations of local petroglyphs, but there are quite a few.
Al Ula Old Town & Mud Brick Houses
One of the astonishing things about Al Ula is that much of the historical downtown still exists – though abandoned and in ruins. The last people to move out of these mud brick houses left in 1983, and many of the construction practices can be seen in newer buildings all around town.
In our first visit to Al Ula in 2011, we were able to take a walk around the mud brick houses and see them for ourselves. Today, it is fenced off and I suspect a guided tour is required, though we did not inquire about this. Beyond the main downtown area, other mud brick house ruins are scattered across the city and can be seen up close. I recommend to view them from your car though so as to not disturb the sites – or get hurt.
After a decade living in the Kingdom, it still never gets old seeing camels. The bedouins around the Al Ula area were as hospitable and generous as their reputation indicates. And, we have found that randomly stopping to speak with camel farmers has always been a positive experience, despite the language barrier.
Where to stay?
If you like camping, there are tons of free and beautiful spots to pitch tent for the night. Perhaps sleeping under Elephant Rock or Rainbow Rock would be a nice way to spend an eventing.
If you’re looking for something a bit more up-market, I can recommend the lovely Shaden Resort which is just a few minutes drive from Elephant Rock. The site is beautiful, situated between the sandstone rocks, and the resort includes a pool and lots of amenities. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price and the rooms are well equipped and modern. The royal suite is a nice option if 6 families (or more?) would like to travel together.
I really recommend getting a local guide to take you around. This helps to ensure you’re going to places at the right time, getting information from the right people, and finding all the local points of interest without
arguing with your spouse any difficulty.
If you need a recommendation on a local guide, I will be happy to send you this information privately.
What do I wear?
Things are changing regarding what is acceptable attire for foreigners in Saudi Arabia. When we went to Al Ula in 2011, I wore an abaya and head scarf the whole time and our tour guide very kindly took the women out to buy head scarves because we didn’t bring any! For this trip, I kept my abaya handy when we were in town, but otherwise opted for trousers and a tee shirt in tourist areas, always aiming to dress conservatively and respectfully. Nobody seemed at all bothered by my attire, which was great.
There is more information about laws and etiquette on the official Visit Saudi website which I recommend reading before you visit to Saudi.
What do I need to know about the drive to Al Ula?
Food, water, and fuel for the journey are really important. Use a 4×4 car and and try to keep fuel above a half a tank whenever possible since petrol stations close at prayer time. The roads are well maintained, but beware of the occasional unmarked speed bump, normally along the highway near the entrance to villages.
There are local food places along the way where you can get fried chicken and other bits and bobs. These are mostly open in the afternoons and evenings, so I recommend packing a picnic to ensure access to food for breakfast or lunch.
Please also be aware of camels in the road. Camels are very picturesque but they are also the perfect dimensions to land right on you through your windscreen if you hit one.
I was very pleasantly impressed with this trip. During our first trip, it felt like we were quite far off the beaten path. We felt like we were on our own to explore and learn which was great, but there was not a lot of local infrastructure to support us. This time around we found it quite easy finding accommodation, food, a tour guide, and more. It’s got a nice balance of being culturally authentic, with the infrastructure to a comfortable tourist experience.
What did I miss?
Do you have questions or comments about my post? Have you been to the area and have something to add? Leave a comment below – or contact me directly to discuss writing your own guest blog post on ClaireSale.com.