Saudi Arabia’s Hidden Heritage: AlUla Now Open To Explore

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If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to experience an authentic adventure through time in a place of wonder and magnificence, to marvel at some of the most grandeur architectural sights and to immerse yourself in cultural heritage that dates back more than 200,000 years, then look no further than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s greatest gift to the world – AlUla. With its ancient historic cultural sites, gorgeous oasis valleys, and sandstone mountains, not to mention the upcoming contemporary arts hotspot Wadi AlFann, AlUla is truly a testament to human endeavor and natural beauty. Although it was once an essential crossroads along the famous incense-trading routes spanning throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, due to the fact that the country was closed to tourists for a long time, AlUla’s fantastic landscapes had only been seen by few. However, thanks to the sweeping development of the “Journey through Time Masterplan” program, this magical destination is now more accessible to tourists than ever.

Getting to AlUla

You have several options for getting to AlUla. Due to the recent infrastructure project within the aforementioned program, airline companies such as Saudia Airlines, flydubai, Royal Jordanian, and flynas offer direct flights to AlUla’s newly renovated international airport. As for those visitors who are looking for an additional adventure, there’s the option for a beautiful scenery-filled road trip from Medina, which is roughly a four hour drive.

Where to stay

Situated in a picturesque valley and seamlessly blending itself amongst dramatic sandstone mountains lies the Habitas Hotel. This five-star resort prides itself on its immersiveness and rightfully so. Habitas understands the importance of creating the right ambience for its visitors and each guest is welcomed with a special ceremony to mark their spiritual journey. As for accommodation, the tranquil resort pathways lead guests up to each of the 96 guest rooms, which are divided into three tiers: the premium Celestial Rooms, Alcove Rooms, and Canyon Rooms – each with its distinguishing characteristics and guaranteeing that no two stays are ever the same.

Equipped with a yoga deck, wellness and fitness centers, and a swimming pool, Habitas provides a truly rejuvenating experience. On top of that, with their program for accommodating art and culture, you’re invited to expand your knowledge of this historical region with weekly outdoor cinema screenings featuring cultural films and documentaries. As for dining, located in the heart of this magnificent resort, Tama offers a variety of dishes that represent a blend of International and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Another carefully curated option that’s going to cater to your most unimaginable desires is the delightful desert sanctuary, Banyan Tree. A pioneer in luxurious hospitality, this all-villa resort, inspired by the natural surroundings, invites you to a multi-sensory experience. This enchanting space allows you to choose from one of their elegant tented villas, all lavishly decorated with authentic handcrafted antiques and a fire pit, and a private swimming pool, which redefine glamping. And if you’re looking to experience the rest of the comforts this resort offers, you can visit and swim in their famous Rock Pool, surrounded by sandstone mountains, or revitalize yourself in their wellness center and fitness facility. For on-site dining and drinking, you have two options. Decorated with locally made rugs and earthenware, Harrat offers a relaxing ambience and a vast range of dishes that represent an Arabic and International fusion, prepared by local chefs. Whereas, if you’re in the mood for a more intimate setting, Banyan Tree’s own Thai restaurant, Saffron, has got you covered. The first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, here you can expect a culinary journey through genuine Thai flavors.

Restaurants

You want to try authentic Mediterranean flavors created from local, fresh ingredients and spices once traded along the incense route, but don’t know where? Somewhere! This gorgeous farm-to-table concept situated in the Cultural Oasis District comes equipped with plenty of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options as well as their own hummus and fatteh bars.

Don’t forget to stop by AlNakheel Cafe, located right next AlUla Old Town, With a variety of hot drinks, cold refreshing beverages and traditional Arabic cuisine, their carefully curated menu offers a casual dining experience after a day of exploring in a relaxed, old-fashioned atmosphere.

Shopping

Whether you’re looking for inspiration or a memento to take home, you’re sure to find both strolling through the Old Town Market. Established as a traditional marketplace, here you can find displays of genuine handmade crafts, jewelry, clothing and accessories, and souvenirs made by local artisans, as well as home decorations and nature-based health and beauty products. The stalls and shops are beautifully decorated with natural herbs, handcrafts and flowers, and display a perfect mix of heritage and artistry that will make you feel like you’re truly in an old town. After shopping, you can relax and enjoy local specialty foods and Arabic coffee in one of the many traditional restaurants in this marketplace underneath starlit skies as the perfect end of your day.

To Do

AlUla has been a place of creative inspiration and cultural exchange for millennia for artists across civilizations and with gorgeous desert landscapes, the potential for an unforgettable adventure tourism is endless. This gorgeous oasis is filled with wondrous inspiration everywhere you turn for you to enjoy, from the red rock formations that are naturally occurring to the flourishing green palm trees and the startling contrast between the sky’s brilliant blue color and the surrounding desert landscapes. The spirit of the arts is alive and well in this valley, from contemporary artists projecting light against the rocks to locals studying traditional handicrafts. Aside from the traditional arts, contemporary artists are also finding new ways to express themselves amid AlUla’s breathtaking scenery.

Such examples are the Desert X 2020 and 2022 exhibitions. Known as an organization for contemporary art that brings international artists together, Desert X is probably most famous for its exhibitions in the Coachella Valley of California. However, for the first time in 2020, in order to expand its mission to present international contemporary art exhibitions that engage with the desert environments, the organization held its first-ever exhibition outside of the United States and the first-ever site-responsive exhibition in Saudi Arabia. Its success was followed up with the Desert X AlUla 2022 collaboration where artists delivered new installations with various representations spanning from illusion and myth, camouflage, fiction, and disappearance and appearance. But when it comes to contemporary art, nothing may be as grandeur as the announcement of Wadi AlFann, AlUla’s iconic new cultural destination. This Valley of the Arts is a new global destination for contemporary art, where the Royal Commission for AlUla has recently commissioned some of the most monumental artists across the world to create era-defining works that will be permanently placed in this extraordinary region from 2024. The first commissioned artists are Manal AlDowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater, and James Turrell. For those traveling to AlUla imminently, Wadi AlFann kickstarts its pre-opening program with the world premiere of Nine Songs, 26-27 November.

Another opportunity for you to bask in both modern and historic artistry are the Madrasat Addeers Workshops. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to not only admire but also create art through ancient techniques with a modern twist, their vocational training program also invites you to participate and gain new artistic skills and have the opportunity to create your own beautiful designs on topics like: natural pigment and dye making, wood carving and dyeing, stone carving, palm weaving and more.

Excellence, both modern and that of the ancient civilizations surrounds you at every turn in this desert oasis. However, no piece of art is as stunning as the Maraya. Designed to seamlessly camouflage into the surrounding landscape, it ascends from the sand like a mirage. A true definition of the state-of-the-art project, this structure is covered in 9,470 mirrored panels that reflect the mesmerizing beauty of AlUla and shine brightly like a diamond in the desert. While the structure stands alone as art, it was also designed to be a fully functional multi-purpose venue. Maraya has hosted a number of high-profile performances, VIP experiences, and pop-up events, including concerts by international superstars. And if that wasn’t enough, atop the structure awaits you the Maraya Social. Led by one of Britain’s most admired chefs, Jason Artherton, this stunning new dining concept that reflects the flavors of the AlUla Oasis. Using ingredients from nearby farms, Maraya Social offers a variety of sharing plates and premium mocktails that are all served in Atherton’s distinctive style.

If you’re looking to further explore the heritage of this ancient land, look no further than the Mada’in Salih; also known as Hegra. Proclaimed by UNESCO as a site of patrimony, Hegra is Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site. This ancient necropolis is scattered across a vast region and you have the options to either explore on foot or participate in the Vintage Land Rover Hegra Day Tours. Although the numbers keep growing as new discoveries are being made, for now, it’s a home to 138 ancient tombs. These impressive structures date back more than 2000 years and were carved out of sandstone, which isn’t the most resilient material, so it’s amazing that they are still standing today. Even though it’s partly due to the climate, this historical structure serves as a testament to the brilliance of the ancient Nabataeans. Originally, each tomb was created to symbolize the status and wealth of its owner and amongst these ably-made tombs, you can find the main attraction; the Qasr Al-Farid, also known as the Lonely Castle. Although it wasn’t fully completed, its design and decorations are nothing short of mesmerizing. And if you think this necropolis is impressive during the day, stick around and immerse yourself in the three-part Hegra After Dark experience. Stimulate your senses with a stunning candle-light display amid ancient tombs, explore Hegra’s vast countryside by chariot and to cap off the evening, attend a captivating performance with tales of Hegra’s most renowned ruler.

For those who want a more leisurely experience, the Oasis Heritage Trail offers a three kilometers long stroll amongst ancient mud-brick houses and towering palm trees. Along the way, you can even sit and interact with the locals, sip on authentic Arabic coffee or refresh yourself with a fresh cold beverage.

And lastly, if you’re looking for a unique viewpoint of the breathtaking landscapes then get ready for a 30-minute helicopter tour of AlUla. Flying above AlUla’s seven most famous landscapes, you can expect a one-of-a-kind experience that’s guaranteed to instill a new appreciation for this place’s genuine beauty and heritage.

All in all, if you’re a lover of art, appreciate ancient history and heritage that dates back thousands of years, or you’re just looking for a magical adventure, then AlUla is the perfect destination for you. From ancient tombs and immersive stories of past civilizations to luxurious villas in the middle of the desert and unique art exhibits, this place offers you an adventure once unattainable as well as the opportunity to try world-class cuisines with ingredients once traded on the famous Incense Trade Route.

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