Arabic hospitality, Martial landscape and Nabateean heritage with a touch of luxury
As you probably know, Saudi opened its gates to tourism only recently, about 4 years or so. But now is trying to catch up with the rest of the Middle Eastern countries and we suspect that in 10 years or so it will become like UAE.
The country is extremely big and it would take weeks to explore most of its amazing places but for the moment we decided to explore Al Ula via Madinah.
How to get there
Now, the cheapest and fastest way via Europe should be with Wizzair. In case they don`t cancel the flight. 😁
Alternatively, you can go via Dubai or Doha and Saudia has some direct routes, as well.
The main hubs in the country are Riyadh and Jeddah but if you want to go straight to Al Ula, there is also an airport over there, about 30 km from the town itself.
However, if you would like to explore a bit more of the country, you can also land in Madinah and Jeddah and drive to Al Ula. There is about 4-5 hours drive from Madinah and probably 7-8 hours drive from Jeddah but the roads are well maintained.
We had to land in Riyadh for the best connection and then we took a domestic flight to Madinah, where we booked a rental car.
Currently, there are two options, depending of the nationality, obviously. There is the standard visa on arrival and the online visa. Both of them are expensive, compared to the rest of the countries.
I think the biggest difference in between them is the visa validity, which is longer for the online visa. And, of course, the waiting time in te airport.
We opted for the online visa and paid about 130 $ per persson and the visa is valid for a year, multiple entries. It took approximately 10 min to issue the visa and it was sent via e-mail.
The official website to apply for it is https://visa.visitsaudi.com/ and works very well.
In the main cities you can get around via public transport, taxi, Uber or Kareem ( the local Uber ).
In between the main cities, you can either fly ( if the distance is too great ) or take buses. However, these tend to run better around the important Muslim centers.
However, we think the best way is to rent a car, which will give more flexibility and a better experience.
In Al Ula itself, there are not so many taxis or Uber and the distances are pretty big in between the hotels, the main towns and the important places to see ( such as Hegra, Maraya, Elephant Rock etc ). Therefore, even it is still possible to go around without a car, you will end up paying a lot because the country is not exactly the cheapest.
The roads are pretty well maintained but the drivers are typical middle eastern, but all manageable.
The most important thing that you need to know when you rent a car in Saudi is that YOU NEED A CREDIT CARD. Actually, we had to make a credit card just for this reason, after doing some research and hearing that some people were refused the rental when they showed a debit card.
We tried to contact several companies, including both local ones and international ones but no one accepted debit cards.
In the end, we rented a small car from Budget and the service was overall really good. They blocked a deposit of approximately 1200 SAR which were released after approximately 10 - 14 days.
The deposit varies depending on the type of car and the rental company.
In terms of which company to use, we heard good reviews from all the major international rental companies but we were advised to avoid Yelo.
Are drones allowed in Saudi?
Theoretically, they are, however it is not very easy to bring them to Saudi, if you are a tourist.
Why I am saying this?
Firstly, because any drone heavier that 250 g ( which is basically any drone except Mavic Mini ) needs to be registered on GACA website.
Secondly, in order to register it, you need a Saudi ID, which obviously you cannot get as a tourist.
So here is the paradox.
Alternatively, you can risk it, as some people do, and hope that they won`t realize when they scan your carry on luggage just after passport control. We asked some people which managed to go unnoticed.
As a last resort, you can place it in your checked in luggage, WITHOUT the batteries obviously, and hope that the luggage doesn`t get lost. 🙂
We thought about all these options, we even contacted GACA witho no reply and since our last drone was new, we decided not to risk and we didn`t take it.
What to wear
It's important for both men and women to dress modestly, wearing loose clothing that covers their shoulders and knees. Wearing clothes that promote racism and drug use, for example, is prohibited, along with wearing sleepwear or underwear in public.
For women, it is not necessary to wear abaya or even burkas and the hair doesn`t have to be covered. However, we tried to be as conservative as possible, as a sign of respect for the locals.
Costs and payments
Saudi Arabia is a rather expensive country, but the standards are also pretty good. However, it is not more expensive than Europe, mostly now, after the inflation.
Take into account that the taxi/ Uber will cost a bit when going around the cities as the distances are really big. Most of the tours tend to be expensive, as well.
Payments can be done mainly by card/ contactless, however, have some cash with you as some places don`t accept Master Card and Visa, such as all gas stations.
Al Ula has a lot of amazing accommodations, most of them resort - like, featuring restaurant, pool etc. The most famous ones are Habitas Al Ula and Banyan Tree, I believe. However, all the reviews said that the valley where Habitas is located is the best. So that is what we chose and the place was absolutely amazing.
Now, this is an expensive accommodation, normally over 1000 euros a night. However, if you don`t go in their high season, which is winter in Europe, the prices can be even as low as a third of the normal price.
Madinah and Mecca
A lot of people are concerned about being allowed to enter Madinah or Mecca, including ourselves. Although we had no intention to visit Mecca, we did have a flight landing and departing from Madinah.
So, long story short, as a non - muslim, you are allowed to enter Madinah, with the exception of Nabawi Square, where the Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi mosque is located. This is the second biggest mosque in the world.
The situation is different in Mecca. Saudi Arabia's government restricts entry to Mecca to Muslims only. Documentation will be checked upon entry, and anyone not showing proof of being a Muslim will be denied access.
What to visit
As mentioned before, we mainly went to Saudi for Al Ula but since we landed in Madinah, we did a bit of sight seeing over there as well.
Below, there is a list of places that we saw and which were also reccommended by the tourism center in Al Ula.
Hegra or Mada`in Salih is probably the most iconic image of Saudi Arabia on social media, simce the country opened its gates to tourism in 2019. For those who don`t know, these tombs belong to the same ancient civilisation that built Petra as well, the Nabateeans.
The place became an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 and it is the first one of its kind in Saudi. Currently, the archaeological site is still being excavated.
In the picture below is the tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza, one of the most iconic places of Al Ula. Unfortunately, the tomb is empty as the owner died in war and the body was never recovered.
The site can only be visited in an organized way: by tourist bus or by vintage jeep.
They don`t allow people to drive around by themselves.
The tickets can either be bought on the spot, from one of the gates, or online, on www.experiencealula.com.
It is not possible to book independently, via your hotel.
In high season, it is better to book the tour ahead of time, but for some reason, a lot of people
( including ourselves ) encountered issues with the online payment, which doesn`t go thorugh. There were no isssues, however, when paying at the tourism office.
Obviously, going by bus is the cheapest way but booking the private tour offers more exclusivity, less people in your photos and better times to catch the sunrise or sunset. The jeep can fit up to 7 people.
The Largest Mirrored Building on Earth, the Maraya Concert Hall in Saudi Arabia holds the Guinness World Record for largest mirrored building on earth. This place totally looks out of this world.
Harrat View point
Harrat Viewpoint is an outdoor seating area and outlook at the top of Harrat Uwayrid. Free to all, visitors are welcome to stay for as little or as long as they would like.
Old town Al Ula
The houses were designed to be attached to one another, providing fortification, which points to defence being a priority for the city's early inhabitants. At one point, the city was accessed by 14 gates, which were opened in the morning to welcome travellers, pilgrims and other visitors, and closed each evening.
Known in Arabic as Jabal Al Fil, this sandstone formation is a wonder to gaze upon at any time of the day, but dusk is particularly magical.
This place is in the middle of the desert and has an amazing cafe just next to it, where you can enjoy a shisha under the stars.
One of our favorite places over there.
The cafe in the cave or the cafe in the middle of teh rock formation. We didn`t get the chance to go there but from the pictures looked very nice.
This is a palce to hang out in the middle of an oasis, very close to Al Ula town. They have a terrace and a coffee shop and some places to hang out. We enjoyed being there but we didn`t take any pictures, unfortunately.
Oasis heritage trail
Since we went there in the middle of the summer, it was too hot to do this activity.
Stretching almost six kilometres past remnants of mudbrick houses, working farms and ancient city walls, the Heritage Oasis Trail is free and open to visitors day and night. This beautiful, designated trail has multiple entry and exit points, so you can choose between long, leisurely walks or a just short stroll.
Medina is generally considered to be the "cradle of Islamic culture and civilization". The city is considered to be the second-holiest of three key cities in Islamic tradition, with Mecca and Jerusalem serving as the holiest and third-holiest cities respectively. Al-Masjid al-Nabawi , 'The Prophet's Mosque' is of exceptional importance in Islam and serves as burial site of the last Islamic prophet, Muhammad, by whom the mosque was built in 622 CE.
We stopped there only for few hours and we must say we were the only non - muslims. The only foreigners that we saw were the Muslim pilgrims, coming from Asia. However, it was an interesting place to see and it is definitely worth to pay a visit.
Next, feel free to enjoy our photo gallery, taken with our Sony A7III and 35mm, 85 mm and 135 mm lenses. The videos were shot with our Sony A7 IV and mostly 20 mm lens. Enjoy!