Al Ula, Saudi Arabia: tourist's alternative to Jordan's Petra – in pictures

As the Winter at Tantora Festival takes place in Al Ula, we take a deeper look at the kingdom's first city to appear on the Unesco World Heritage Site list

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Until recently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remained a mystery to tourists. But now, with the release of tourist visas, travellers are becoming more intrigued by the sites the kingdom has to offer.

One in particular is the historic city of Al Ula, where The Winter at Tantora Festival is running a jam-packed schedule of performances by world-renowned musicians, a Hot Air Balloon Festival, and high-profile horse race.

Historical significance 

Dating back more than 2,000 years, Al Ula was the capital of the ancient Arabian kingdom of Lihyan. Renowned for their economic prowess, the city was part of the famed Incense Trade Route, which stretched from the Mediterranean to North Africa and the Levant to India and South East Asia.

The city also holds deep historical significance in Islam with the Prophet Mohammed reportedly passing through the city in AD 630 as part of his military expedition to the north-western Saudi city of Tabuk. Today, you can see old Al Ula's abandoned and now crumbling mud-plastered houses and labyrinthine lanes overlooked by a small fortress.

Madain Saleh

Al Ula is also home to the archaeological site of Madain Saleh, which in 2008 became Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage Site, and where nearly a hundred rock-cut facades of tombs pierce the cliffs and spectacular island-like stacks of rock erupt on the desert fringes.

Known as Hegra to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder and Al Hijr in the Quran, the multitude of names for this site in north-western Saudi Arabia is entirely apt for a city that was the nexus for trade routes to the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East.

Built between the first century BC and the first century AD, this cosmopolitan city was home to the Nabataean civilisation in the kingdom's southernmost settlement and is second only to Petra in size and splendour. With 111 necropolises hewn from the sandstone rock and an oasis with about 130 wells, these ruins are a great way to take in the blend of Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic architectural influences without the hassle of the crowds, as Madain Saleh sees only a trickle of visitors.

The Winter at Tantora Festival

One of the biggest draws to this season's Winter at Tantora Festival is the series of music concerts, dubbed Stars Under the Stars, taking place every weekend. With only 500 tickets available for each gig, booking early is essential. Various packages are available, with tickets beginning from SR 712.50 (Dh697) that includes a pick-and-drop bus service from Riyadh (9 hour and 40 minutes) and Jeddah (7 hours) to Al Ula in addition to lunch and dinner.

French violinist Renaud Capucon will play on January 4, followed by one of the Arab world's most famous composers, Egypt's Omar Khairat, on January 11. The following Friday, Chinese pianist Lang Lang is booked to perform a recital. Even the late, great Egyptian diva Um Kulthum will have a performance on January 25 in hologram, backed by a real-life orchestra. This will be followed by an appearance by popular Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who will make his debut concert performance in Saudi Arabia on February 1. It will all be wrapped up by a performance by legendary world star Yanni on February 8.

From January 31 to February 9, the sky above Al Ula will turn multi-coloured as hundreds of evocatively patterned hot-air balloons are released.

Finally, on February 2, the inaugural The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup horse race will take place, with more than 80 riders vying for what organisers say will be one of the largest prize pots for such a race in the region.

For information regarding tickets and packages go to


Read more:

Andrea Bocelli and Yanni to perform in Saudi Arabian UNESCO heritage listed city

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