Riyadh to AlUla Road Trip
RECOMMENDED TRIP LENGTH: 3 DAYS - 1 WEEK
You could spend a week exploring Saudi Arabia’s vibrant and modern capital city, but since AlUla’s wondrous heritage sites are your ultimate destination, a handful of its highlights should make the top of your list before you head north-west.
Beyond the gleaming skyscrapers, world-class shopping centres and a flourishing international dining scene, Riyadh is an excellent place to discover Saudi Arabia’s cultural roots. Start your day with an overview at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, where eight galleries lead visitors from prehistoric times to the present. Look for artefacts ranging from a mastodon skeleton to hints of the ancient kingdoms you’ll soon see in AlUla — the Dadanites and the Nabataeans — to the advent of Islam and celebrations of the Bedouin culture.
Nearby, Al Murabba Palace is the former home and court of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Completed in 1938 in the Najdi architectural style, the palace is home to several hectares of manicured gardens, a central courtyard, personal items belonging to the king, photographs of his life and multimedia displays.
Next, head to the city’s old quarter to tour the Al Masmak Fortress. Built in 1865 and captured by King Abdul Aziz in 1902, the massive clay and mud-brick fortress protected the city and served as an ammunition warehouse. Today it’s filled with historic artefacts, artwork and exhibits dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s recent history.
Just outside the fortress, stroll the bustling narrow walkways of Souq Al Zal for a few souvenirs. You’ll find local crafts, traditional jewellery and clothing, woven rugs and tapestries, spices, incense, Arabian coffee pots, handmade sandals and much more at the city’s largest and oldest market.
On your way out of Riyadh, stop at Ad Diriyah in the Wadi Hanifa, where behind soaring mud-brick walls, there are remnants of a desert city that was the country’s capital starting in 1745. Inside the maze of streets sits a former palace (now the Diriyah Museum), geometrically patterned walls and demonstrations of traditional crafts such as weaving and calligraphy. Its main quarter, At-Turaif district, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
Riyadh to Hail
Now you’ll begin the drive to Hail — an ideal stopping point between Riyadh and AlUla — via the Qassim region. Along the way, you’ll traverse the country’s iconic desert landscape and spot the lush date palm farms of oasis areas. About 270 kilometres from Riyadh, you’ll come upon Al Zulfi heritage village, a traditional oasis village that’s home to a well organised museum and examples of Najdi architecture.
Another 118 kilometres west in the Qassim region, Unayzah is along the highway, which offers restaurants, gas stations and historic sites. Seek out the traditional Al Musawkaf Market in Unayzah. Sit in the courtyard while you enjoy an Arabian coffee and stroll the stores selling local handicrafts.
The drive from Unayzah to Hail will take about 3 hours, covering around 277 kilometres. The desert views give way to more mountainous scenes as you approach Hail.
Hail was an important oasis resting place along ancient caravan routes and the home of Hatim al-Tai, an Arab poet and character from “One Thousand and One Nights.” Today, it hosts several hotels and plenty of options for your evening meal. Spend the day touring the main sites of one of Northwest Arabia’s larger cities.
Overlooking the city is the A’Arif Fort, where windows and watchtowers allowed its residents to keep a close eye on the city in the 17th century AD. Qishlah Palace is a more modern attraction. Built in the 1940s, it was constructed to house troops protecting the city.
From the city centre, wander the booths of Hail’s souq for local spices, fruits and vegetables grown nearby, as well as clay pots and other souvenirs.
In the evening, visit Samra Mount Park, where families gather around a fountain. From the park, a road leads to the top of Al Samra mountain for views of the twinkling city below.
As you drive around the city, keep an eye out for the large-scale sculptures that adorn the traffic rotaries throughout Hail — many of the artworks reference traditional symbols of Saudi Arabian hospitality, such as a coffee pot.
About 90 kilometres north of Hail just outside Jubbah is a site that’s a bit off the road to AlUla, but worth the detour. Visitors to Jabel Umm Sinman, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will see rock carvings possibly dating back as many as 10,000 years and from four different time periods. There are representations of camels, horses, ibex and lions, as well as humans with tools, hunters with dogs and kings. This area was once near a lake, which drew humans and animals to its shores.
Hail to AlUla
The final leg of your trip will take about 5 hours, covering 513 kilometres. This is a remote section of road, so be sure to stop for petrol before you leave Hail.
On this portion of the drive, you’ll see a mix of scenery, from wind-kissed desert dunes to volcanic mountains darkened by basalt lava flows, as well as the exotic shapes of the sandstone rock formations that have become widely associated with AlUla’s many geologic wonders.
About halfway between Hail and AlUla, diverge from the route a bit to gaze out at Harrat Ithnayn. This volcanic field is home to several large basaltic flows and lava caves, all more than 4,500 years old.
Final Stop: AlUla
Get to know why AlUla is known as the world’s largest living museum by touring its major heritage landmarks. Start with the more than 100 ornate Nabataean tombs of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Embark on a tour to learn about the historic hub at Hijaz Railway, the northern gateway entrance to Hegra, and explore the 18th century Hegra Fort’s double water tower and renovated reservoir. Next, go further back in time at Dadan, an ancient crossroads of trade for millennia to see well-preserved tombs cut from soaring red-rock cliff faces. Another awe-inspiring stop is Jabal Ikmah, known as the open library, where records in the form of rock art are etched into canyon walls. Lastly, make your way to the labyrinth of AlUla Old Town, where hundreds of mud-brick houses, shops, squares and a mosque paint a picture of a thriving city that welcomed travellers and pilgrims throughout history.
Take a hike on AlUla trails, where a guide will detail flora, fauna and geology. Adventure and Oasis trails are excellent places to explore. For a thrilling time in the desert, take a one hour dune buggy ride over the sand, or try bike park trails. Visit Sharaan Nature Reserve, a haven that protects the ostriches, Nubian ibex, Idmi gazelles and other animals who have called this region home since time immemorial. One of AlUla’s most iconic landmarks is Jabal AlFil (or Elephant Rock) , which overlooks desert sands and dwarfs other rocky outcrops. When night falls, the area’s incredibly dark skies are perfect for stargazing far from city lights and noise; when available, reserve your place on a tour with an expert guide.
Uncover the bounty of the AlUla oasis on a farm tour, at gift shops throughout the valley and in the souk of AlUla. The gem of the oasis are the dates that come from the emerald-coloured palm trees found throughout the valley. More than 200,000 citrus trees produce sweet lemons, kumquats, red grapefruit and torounge (a lemon hybrid first cultivated by the Nabataeans). The botanical oil extracted from the Moringa Peregrina trees’ seeds is added to fragrances and cosmetics — you’ll find it in soaps, candles and other luxury products. You’ll enjoy local flavours at the AlMakher café or Barzon restaurant in Old Town, then take the short journey east to your accommodation. Luxurious surroundings await at either the Shaden or Sahary AlUla resorts near Old Town. The nearby Shaden RV Park offers delightful lodging in comfortable Airstreams. Just north of Old Town, the Habitas AlUla and Ashar Valley resorts and Ashar RV Park are excellent choices as well.