As the flight descents over the sweeping, rocky hills of the Saudi Arabian desert, we’re treated to a Martian sight that takes our breath away. It’s a heated debate between staring out the window to take it all in versus capturing as much of it as we can on video. The former wins.
Here, calling to us is the ancient Arabic oasis city of AlUla, a trip to which is akin to a journey back in time. Steeped in history and culture, AlUla was once the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, which controlled the caravan trade in the first millennium BCE. Scattered across its magnificent landscape in northwestern Saudi Arabia are remnants of those who once occupied the region, where today, AlUla presents a richly woven tapestry that binds together past and present civilisations.
Having always been an attraction to travellers, it continues to hold the same appeal at present, drawing history buffs and adventure junkies alike to its expansive fold of unceasing sandstone hills. For us, what ensues is a journey of a lifetime, of experiences that will forever remain etched in our memories.
A walk through the world’s largest museum
For those travelling from India, the microscale airport encircled by low mountains is reminiscent of Leh—albeit several degrees warmer and without a snow cover. But the drive from the airport couldn’t be more different. Endless stretches of roads with recurring views of strangely-shaped rocky hills lead the way, till we reach our welcoming destination, Habitas AlUla. The staff is warm and hospitable, drawing us in with the strong aroma of Saudi-special coffee and plying us with a variety of dates.
After a quick change, our chock-a-block schedule has us rush to Harrat Viewpoint, an outlook atop a mountain that offers us not only spectacular vistas of AlUla’s landscape, sparkling amid the lights of the city, but a mesmerising view of the night sky. But what excited our ravenous lot the most was Okto, a high-end restaurant nestled here at Harrat, offering a menu of classic Greek flavours with a contemporary twist. No sooner did the plates arrive than the food disappeared. From the halloumi entrée to the truffle mushroom spaghetti to an assortment of desserts, it was a treat for our palates, the strong winds the only distraction from the spread before us.
The feast was only the beginning of what awaited us. For AlUla plied us with scrumptious meals that we ate our weights in, in addition to many a history lesson in a place that has a story associated with every turn.
Topping our list was our two-hour excursion around Hegra—Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site—in vintage cerulean Land Rovers that would make any autophile jump in joy.
The largest preserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra, Hegra houses 111 well-preserved tombs that represent the Arab tribe’s fascinating history and architectural expertise. We marvel at the monolithic 72-feet-tall tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, the intimidating ancient banquet hall at Jabal Ithlib, Jabal Albanat (a cluster of 29 tombs with skillfully carved façades commissioned by women), Jabal AlAhmar (the recently excavated home of 18 tombs) and so much more.
While Hegra tells its own tale, a walk around Old Town gives us a glimpse of the simple yet functional ways of the settlers, pilgrims and travellers who made AlUla their home from before the 12th Century up until the early 1980s. A rawi (guide) takes us through a maze of the remnants of original stone and mudbrick buildings and up 300 stairs to AlUla Castle (pick comfortable footwear!), dating back to the 10th Century, where a spectacular view of the entire stretch of Old Town welcomes us—as well as our next destination across the road…
No visit to AlUla is truly complete without time spent in the natural splendour of the Oasis. Meandering, shaded paths, picture-perfect shots of tall date palms and a welcome calm await us at the heritage trail. Newly-opened here is Daimumah, an amalgam of art, nature and heritage in the heart of the oasis, where we find ancient qanats (irrigation channels) and farmlands restored to their former glory, growing the fruit and vegetables that end up in the kitchens of farm-to-table restaurants.
Among the most significant discoveries of the region is the city of Dadan, the ancient capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms that shaped AlUla. Here, we learn that Dadan was one of the most developed 1st-millennium BCE cities in northern Arabia, given its proximity to incense trade routes.
A short 10-minute drive from Dadan takes us to one of the clues that AlUla was truly a crossroads of civilisations—Jabal Ikmah, an enthralling open library of inscriptions, rock art and petroglyphs set in a stunning desert canyon. Visited by those wishing to leave their inscriptions and offerings en route through AlUla, Jabal Ikmah houses over 450 inscriptions that present a visual and intellectual treat. Besides minds buzzing with all the history we’re regaled with, we take home from the Ancient Inscriptions Academy here a special memento: a piece of sandstone with our names carved in the Dadanitic script!
Bringing our exploration of AlUla’s heritage to a close are trips to Jabal Alfil—a 52-metre tall geological marvel that’s popularly known as the Elephant Rock, for it perfectly resembles a tusker—and Rainbow Rock on the outskirts of AlUla, which brought with it encounters with herds of grinnings camels and the most breathtaking views of the Arabian sunset.
An architectural marvel
While most of AlUla is about preserving the history of civilisations from aeons ago, there’s one architectural marvel from recent times that stands out—Maraya Social. A concert hall set against the stunning desert landscape, it’s the world’s largest mirrored building comprising 9,740 mirrored panels on its façade, designed for the structure to blend into its surroundings. The result is an astonishing visual treat, wherein Maraya serves as a contemporary canvas, camouflaging into its setting and reflecting the remarkable heritage of the area—the perfect modern ode to the past.
The cherry on the cake of this remarkable experience was a special tour of ‘FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla.’ This one-of-a-kind exhibition, produced in collaboration with The Andy Warhol Museum, highlighted Warhol’s fascination with fame and celebrities, and showcased some of the artist’s most iconic works.
Not for the faint hearted
Thrilling would be an apt description of the kind of adventurous activities one can partake in here. Zipline through the majestic mountains, hike up or abseil down their rugged ridges, or even explore the trails in a guided biking experience—AlUla has something for every kind of thrill-seeker.
But for us, the most exhilarating experience was climbing up the 45-metre suspended ladder stairway — a challenging climb on a swaying stairway that’s not meant for acrophobics! Plus, once you make your way up the AlUla Stairway, the only way down is through a zipline!
The one adrenalin rush that’s a must-try at AlUla is the Giant Swing—and it stands true to its name. While it resembles bungee jumping, it’s the swinging motion here that’s the high point (pun unintended). One leaps from a mountain’s ledge (often after much screaming and coaxing) to swing, or should we say fly, through the canyon’s terrain while taking in the splendid views. Remember to keep your eyes open!
AlUla from above
While breathtaking at eye level, AlUla is a sight to behold from the skies. Enter: the AlUla Skies Festival. The itinerary brought with it experiences that made it worth the ungodly wake-up calls and the long waits for our first meal of the day!
Topping our list was a ride in a hot air balloon! While the changing course of the winds made it a bit of a challenge, watching the sun rise over the hills in the distance, sailing over Hegra, finding a few adventurous souls floating around in nothing but a chair attached to their balloon, and interacting with the pilot—a delightful Turkish man named Hakim—made all aboard throw caution out the proverbial window.
The building dry heat of the morning, exacerbated by the heat of the fire fuelling the balloon, did nothing to dissipate our excitement. While Hakim steered the basket around and we listened to his tales of the city, we also had Ziggy, an intimidating Peregrine falcon, enthral us as it interacted with its human. This was a particularly special experience since falcons are considered sacred in Arabian culture and flying alongside them, even more so.
Another exhilarating highlight of the AlUla Skies Festival was our 30-minute helicopter tour. The overpowering noise and daunting sight of the whirling blades aside, it was an all-in-one excursion, so to speak, as the chopper took us over every prominent landmark of AlUla from an unparalleled vantage, offered stunning vistas of every stop, starting from the mesmerising Maraya Social to Hegra, Elephant Rock, Old Town, as well as Dadan and Jabal Ikmah.
We saved the best for last. We live in an age inundated by lights and screens, dimming the lights on the natural world around us. But awaiting us an hour out of AlUla, in the remote escape of Gharameel, was a blanket of stars, ready for us to turn off our minds and train our sights upwards.
As we lay back and gazed upon a sky full of stars, greeted on occasion by a shooting star or satellite sailing by, we are regaled by tales of the local legends surrounding the constellations before us and educated about the significance of many.
As thrilling as it was to hang many feet above the ground and time travel to eras gone by, stargazing at Gharameel was unarguably the best possible way we could have rounded up our trip to AlUla—one we leave behind with memories we’ll hold close to our hearts the rest of our lives.