Al Ula in Saudi Arabia is one of the most incredible destinations that has opened to the world in recent years. I lived in Saudi for a year and had the great pleasure of visiting this enchanting place. It did not disappoint!
In this article, I would like to share with you my experiences at Al Ula as well as provide recommendations for your visit. Before I do so, please allow me to introduce myself. I’m Zuzana Grezingerova from Slovakia.
I have always been a dreamer. During my studies, I started working as an editor for a Slovak women magazine called La Femme. I worked there for six years. Lifestyle and traveling were always my favorite topics.
Then I worked for an advertising company as a copywriter. Sitting in the office in front of the computer for hours made me burnout. I knew I had to leave, otherwise I would never be able to create anything good anymore. I wanted to travel the world but I didn’t have any decent savings.
So I decided to become a flight attendant. It sounded like a good idea to earn money and get the opportunity to explore the world. My passion for traveling grew with each new country and culture that I experienced.
Living in Saudi Arabia for a Year
I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year when I was working as a flight attendant for Flynas Airline. I remember Saudi Arabia as being a very strict country where girls and women couldn’t talk to men in public if they were not their family.
One of my friends spent three days in jail because she shared a taxi with her male friend. Despite the strict rules, I had a very good life and even a boyfriend. After some time, I knew how not to get caught. And everything else was interesting and fascinating for me. It was one big adventure!
But at that time, I was mainly meeting other expats in Saudi Arabia. I still knew very little about Saudis. My only source was my local Saudi boyfriend – a colleague from the airline. After one year, I moved to Abu Dhabi and got a job for Etihad. It was a bigger company that gave me more opportunities.
My passion for traveling expanded but the Middle East and their culture stole my heart. I started to see beauty in all of our differences – in their values and point of view. My boyfriend and I had a long distance relationship or were more like “on/off” because I was traveling too much.
Usually we met in Abu Dhabi or somewhere else. With our staff discounts, this was easy. Visiting Saudi without a working visa at that time wasn’t possible. Then suddenly, we found out that the country was opening up to the world in September, 2019. I could easily apply for a visa online!
Saudi Arabia Opening Up to Tourism in September, 2019
After September, 2019, Instagram was full of my favorite influencers posting photos of Saudi Arabia. I was shocked! I had lived in Saudi for one year (in Riyadh) and had no idea there was such hidden beauty in the country.
Neither did my boyfriend know. Al Ula, Rijal Almaa and Umluj (Saudi Maldives). I never knew Saudi Arabia was so diverse. It can be green and wild like Vietnam, sandy and rocky like Utah, and even azure like the Maldives! Then combine that beauty with an enchanting cultural heritage.
I was curious to learn more. The country was so unexplored, untouched by tourism and very appealing. I secured a one year multiple entry visa within a few minutes. Whenever I got a few days off in a row, I traveled from Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia. I visited Riyadh, Abha, Rijal Almaa and Al Ula.
Coming back to Saudi Arabia surprised me in so many ways. I could now go to a restaurant freely with my boyfriend and I didn’t have to be covered. It was like being in an open music concert in Riyadh full of young people.
Five Amazing Days in Al Ula
I spent five days in Al Ula. It was such an impressive and amazing place. I saw photos on Instagram before going but I had no idea there were over 130 tombs! I knew only one from photos – Mada’in Salih.
To me, it was even more incredible than Petra – which is regarded as a wonder of the world. 131 masterpieces carved into the rocks in the middle of the desert and we had no idea it even existed. I had my Indiana Jones moment here. Al Ula is definitely something you have to see in your life.
Favorite Place in Alu Ula – Hegra/Mada’in Salih
From my trip to Al Ula, it would be hard to choose one favorite place. Everything there was so impressive – the kindness and warmth of the local people, beautiful movie-looking landscapes and luxury desert camps.
However, the most outstanding attraction has to be Hegra otherwise known as Mada’in Salih. Here you could find a complex of Nabatean tombs as well as the Maraya Mirror Concert Hall – a masterpiece of modern architecture built in the desert. I loved how it reflected the sky and desert.
When we were approaching the building it looked like a mirage. The air rippled in front of our eyes and only when we were very close could we recognize the shape of the building. Maraya means reflection in Arabic.
Top 6 Attractions in Al Ula
- Experience Winter at Tantora: A music festival during the winter. You can enjoy Saudi Arabia in a totally different environment. This time there are the best concerts, art installations and performances. In one package you can have all of this together with exploring the sights of Al Ula, fine dining and accommodation in a luxury desert camp. As far as I know this is the only time you can get closer to Maraya Concert Hall. It’s not open to the public outside of concerts.
- Visit Hegra/Mada’in Salih: A Nabatean Kingdom and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest and most extraordinary tomb is called the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza otherwise known as Qasr al-Farid (“Lonely Castle”). The tomb measures about 72 feet in height and is still unfinished with chisel markings still to be found on the lower parts.
- Take Photos at “The Siq”: A naturally formed passage.
- Have Shisha or Arabic Coffee: This is a must-do especially while watching the sunset at the desert set-up around Elephant Rock.
- Rent a Vintage Airplane or Helicopter: In Al Ula, you can fly over the tombs and get to see a different view of the desert. From above, it must look even more majestic! I still haven’t done this yet. Maybe next time!
- Try Fruit at Al Ula Fresh: Meet some locals and try local fresh fruit.
Where to Stay in Al Ula
Al Ula opened to the world and tourism just recently. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation came along. So there are not many accommodation options available at the moment but by next year there will be a lot of new resorts. I have heard, for example, about Banyan Tree and Aman Resort.
We stayed at the Shaden Resort during our visit and loved it! Breakfast was great. For the more adventurous souls, I would recommend Canyon Camp. These are RV luxury carts with bathrooms and twin beds under the stars.
Local People of Saudi Arabia
I have met many locals in Saudi and they are all friendly, humble, curious, welcoming and helpful. Perhaps the only other country where I met such friendly people was Japan. Local people definitely don’t rush. They might seem slow or lazy but they are just in peace with the flow of life.
Myself, an uncovered white woman, was on the road in front of the airport and was approached by a fully covered woman without any judgement just because she thought I was looking for help. It’s these small encounters that stay with me when I remember what the people of Saudi Arabia are like.
Need to Know Before you Go
Prepare to drop your prejudice/preconceived ideas about Saudi Arabia. Even though abayas are not mandatory anymore I would still recommend that girls wear something loose and modest out of respect to their culture.
Jeans and a long sleeved shirt is fine. Or a long skirt. I preferred to wear the abaya because I love wearing them. Nowadays, they can be colorful and well shaped. Expect temperatures in the desert at night to drop. Remember during the day the temperatures will be hot!
Avoid traveling during Ramadan or in the summer months when it’s simply too hot! You can rent a car and drive around the country yourself. Saudi is a very safe place. For more comfort, you have full packages here.