Introduction to Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia
It is the 6th century BC. A desert oasis with fertile soil and plenty of water becomes one of the most pivotal strategic locations for trade in the Arabian Peninsula. Incense, spices, silk and many more luxury items are passing through Arabia, Egypt and India. The hustle and bustle of supply and demand ripples through the tombs and the mountains.
Fast forward to January 2020. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the flight attendant said over the intercom. “The text that you are about to hear is a supplication that the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to pray before traveling.” The prayer begins as the Airbus engines let out a loud roar. I am flying from Riyadh to Al-‘Ula for Winter at Tantora Festival.
Al-‘Ula – Saudi Arabia’s best kept hidden treasure, is tucked away about 700km north of Jeddah. Although relatively small, Al-‘Ula was once the Capital of two ancient Arab kingdoms – Lihyan and Dedan. It is home to over a hundred preserved tombs, each meticulously carved with text, human figures, sphinxes, snakes and other animals. When the sun melts into the horizon, the landscape is scatted with gold mountain tops.
Getting to Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia
Al-‘Ula (IATA: ULH) is about a two hour flight from Riyadh (IATA: RUH) and a one hour flight from Jeddah (IATA: JED). Riyadh and Jeddah have two busy and large airports in Saudi Arabia that service many direct flights from popular destinations around the world. You will be flying into one of them before transferring to the short-haul leg to ULH. Saudia Airlines operates flights to Al-‘Ula on Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday and rumor has it, Saudia Airlines as well as local low-cost carriers are looking to add more flight options in the near future.
Please note that a visa is required for travel to Saudi Arabia and you can see the list of eligible countries, as well as the visa process here. I applied with an American passport and the process was seamless: it took less than an hour and the visa was sent to me as a pdf file via WhatsApp messenger in addition to my email address!
Winter at Tantora Festival in Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia
Under the auspices of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, significant change and modernization is happening in the region. Perhaps the most important part of the economic diversification plan (Vision 2030), is the bid to ramp up tourism. MBS is making major investments in sustainable energy, tourism, and “entertainment villages” with sports arenas, theme parks, movie cinemas, and arts venues. Part of this initiative is something called “Saudi Seasons” which showcase various regions of Saudi Arabia with major events, concerts, and unique experiences. The end goal is to transform Saudi Arabia into one of the most important tourist destinations in the world. Winter at Tantora Festival in Al-‘Ula is part of Saudi Seasons and it runs from December – March. This is the only time that tourists can experience a range of unique events and activities, pop-up restaurants, and historical sites. After the festival ends in March, the area will be closed for tourist activities until the season starts again towards the end of the year.
Winter at Tantora Festival Packages
Quick note: $1 – 3.75 Saudi Riyal (SAR)
There are a number of different Winter at Tantora Festival packages available. Weekend packages (below) are from Thursday – Saturday.
One day Winter at Tantora Festival passes (below) are also available.
There is also a plethora of extra activities that you may add to the packages. You can buy them as a bundle (ie. “AlUla from Above” includes a hot air balloon ride, a vintage plane ride and a hot air balloon show for the price of SAR 1,755) or individually. The options are endless and you can read more about them here.
One of the most memorable experiences for me (an avid avgeek) at the Winter at Tantora Festival in Al-‘Ula was flying in the North American T-6 Texan, a trainer aircraft that dates back to World War II. Seeing the iconic terrains of Al-‘Ula from above is simply spectacular. Seeing them from a vintage aircraft is easily one of the most unique things I’ve ever done!
Accommodation and Dining in Winter at Tantora Festival Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia
There are a number of hotels nestled in between the mountains or scattered around the desert in Al-‘Ula. Every property is unique in its own way! I stayed at the RV Camp which is a brand new concept in the area. The RV’s were shipped from the United States and feature all the basic amenities that you need: a small living area, kitchen, shower, bathroom and either full or double beds in the bedrooms. I had the pleasure of having breakfast at Asher, the five start desert camping resort, and it was absolutely phenomenal.
I never associated Saudi Arabia with a modern food scene. So when I found out that a relatively low-key desert area 700km north of Jeddah has pop-up’s of Sass Cafe, Annabel’s, La Cantine du Faubourg (pictured below) and more … I was both shocked and excited. These restaurants are exclusive and special to begin with, but in Al-‘Ula, they are in a whole new dimension. We were literally sitting in between these massive and narrow rock formations – many of which, by the way, are meticulously carved with text and other inscriptions dating thousands and thousands of years back. And this is the incredible thing about the region – it is untouched and well-preserved. I imagine there are very few places left like this in the world.
Entertainment and Activities in Winter at Tantora Festival Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia
The Maraya Concert Hall is one of the most iconic places in Al-‘Ula. ‘Maraya’ means mirror in Arabic and that’s exactly what it is: a huge mirrored building like a mirage in the middle of the desert. As brilliantly stated in Archronicle, ” The “Maraya”, a giant mirror cube, is a site-specific “object- architecture”, an experience that makes us reflect on the incomparable spectacle of the geological epic, the radical abstraction of the surroundings and the singular incursions of man into the landscape. The mirror cube will highlight the surroundings instead of competing with nature. Unique in its genre, this landscape itself becomes an exhibition space.” The concert hall has set the stage for some of the top international artists and musicians and every year some of the biggest stars come there to perform during the Winter at Tantora Festival.
The tomb in the image below may look familiar to you! If you thought of Petra and Little Petra, you are correct. The similarities are palpable. This site, called Mada’in Saleh isn’t as prominent as Petra, but it was the second largest city in the Nabateans’ Empire (Petra was the Capital). The Nabateans’ were among several nomadic tribes in Northern Arabia. They were wealthy thanks to the way they monopolized trade routes and took advantage of their geographical position (notably: underground water resources). The Nabateans carved massive buildings, temples and tombs out of sandstone rock. Each of these historical structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nabatean Era.
There are over one hundred tombs in Mada’in Saleh – many with unique inscriptions that give insight on life thousands of years ago. Interestingly enough, many Muslims believe that the area is cursed after the Nabatean’s refused to renounce their gods in favor of Islam. Consequently, they don’t go there. Whatever the truth may be, one thing is for certain: in Mada’in Saleh, time has truly stood still. There aren’t many places in the world where historical areas are this well preserved. I hope you all get a chance to see it … and to let it vibrate through your soul. Taking in thousands of years is not easy, but it is possible. And it is worth it.
- What is the weather like in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia?
Winter time in the northern part of Saudi Arabia can get fairly cold! In early January, when I visited, the temperatures dropped to the single digits at night. The daytime was typically a lot warmer (15-20 degrees).
- Do I need to book activities in advance?
Yes! You should plan ahead and book all your activities in advance. Visit the official website to book your package and accommodation before it sells out.
- Do women need to wear an abaya?
Under the new laws, women are no longer required to wear abaya’s in public. Both men and women to dress modestly (with knees and elbows covered). My recommendation is for women to still wear one. These laws are still in their infancy and while you won’t deal with any consequences for not wearing an abaya, overall you will be more comfortable in public and you’ll draw less attention to yourself if you wear one. That said, many activities in Al-Ula require hiking and walking so wearing comfortable clothing is appropriate.