Sunset over AlUla from Harrat Viewpoint
I can honestly say that AlUla, Saudi Arabia, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. There’s ancient history, fascinating cultures, vast landscapes, and incredibly friendly people. I can’t think of anywhere else on the planet which hasn’t yet hit tourist peak yet but contains a World Heritage Site (Hegra), active archaeological sites (Dadan) and huge nature reserves and sand dunes set within immense mountains. And that’s without considering the festivals, restaurants, live shows and so much more which seem to pop up every month: There’s the annual hot-air balloon festival which I was lucky enough to join this year, the largest mirrored building in the world where I saw Alicia Keys a few weeks ago and one of the largest and most prestigious land art exhibitions in the world (Desert-X) to name a few.
I’ve visited AlUla many times over the last 2 or 3 years the main thing I notice every time I return is the speed of change and the incredible new cultural, heritage and nature sites that have opened up since the last time I was there. This means there’s always something new to photograph on top of the regular areas I love to visit. My advice is if you’re thinking about coming then do it sooner rather than later.
This guide will tell you the best places to photograph, the best shots to take and when to visit those places. My portfolio of AlUla images has been built up by visiting sites many times to find the most beautiful light, shadows, and colours. I’m currently working on an interactive map and a 5-day itinerary which will show you pinpointed spots to get the best photos, but for now please enjoy the written and pictorial guide below. I’ve also put some advice and FAQs at the end such as what to bring with you, practical advice and what to do and not to do. As always, feel free to ask any questions.
When should photographers visit alula?
The first question I usually get asked is when the best time to visit AlUla is. For me (and probably you) it’s all about the temperature. Summer months (May-Sept) get very hot from early in the day. It’s certainly still possible to visit and you’ll find it’s quieter, easier to get accommodation and cool-ish temperatures for sunrise photography. Sunset temperatures can still be high and I personally would avoid shooting mid-day except around enclosed areas like the Oasis Trail. Evening temperatures are pleasant though and sunset photography at Harrat Viewpoint followed by dinner at Okra is a fantastic way to spend a summer evening. Also, because it’s off-peak you will find that there may be fewer activities running. Some of the experiences, such as Winter at Tantora, are only on during peak season.
Winter (Oct-April) is peak season and temperatures are generally 10-25 degrees Celsius (45-70 degrees Fahrenheit). This is clearly the most popular time to visit AlUla so expect more tourists, but there are so many things to do that you can still find yourself quietly wandering around by yourself. The evenings can be cool so if you’re going to Harrat Viewpoint or Al-Gharameel for star gazing do pack a jacket.
Planning for a trip to AlUla
As well as visiting my, hopefully useful, website there are two resources I’d recommend to look at when you’re planning your trip. I’m not affiliated to either, just a photographer who’s trying to put useful information together for other photographers, but they are what I use.
Experience AlUla is the main site for planning your trip to AlUla, buying tickets, getting maps, and asking questions
@alulamoments on Instagram is a good place for the latest news and things that have just been announced.
Sunrise Photography in AlUla
Sunrise is one of the best times to be out and about in AlUla as the temperature is generally pleasant and the colours are vibrant. It varies from around 5.30am at its earliest to 7.15am at its latest. Generally, you’ll find the Experience AlUla tours (Hegra, Old Town etc) will start from 8am so although the sun will already be risen it’s still a good time to be photographing as you’ll have the shadows and colours that will quickly fade in an hour as the sun gets higher.
My recommendation is either get on the first tour of the day (note for Hegra for instance you will only leave Winter Park on the bus at 8am not arrive at Hegra at 8am) or go somewhere yourself if you have a car. The Oasis Trail is one of my favourite things to do and I’ll come to it in detail later, but you don’t need a guide and can walk through by yourself. Some of it is enclosed by palm trees and parts of exposed. You can some nice images of the palm trees and mudbrick houses with the sun rising over the mountains to the east. You’ll also get some great sunburst shots through the palm trees as the sun rises higher.
If you have a guide or someone who knows the area, then another wonderful place to head to is Wadi Rum near Elephant Rock. At time of writing there’s a bike station at the entrance so you know you’re in the right place. This area has the most wonderful long canyons, incredible sky-scraper high mountains and some really good spots for both sunrise and sunset photography. If you’d like any recommendations then message me, but please do go with a guide who knows the area. It’s not a place you want to break down in your own car and in places there is limited to no phone reception.
Sunrise from the top of a harrat mountain in Wadi Rum
One nice spot I did find is just on the opposite side of the road to the Oasis Trail carpark right next to Dadan. If you look over the fence and up to canyons there’s a lone tree and a beautiful V-shape in the mountains which create light beams over the tree at sunrise.
Sunset Photography in AlUla
HARRAT VIEWPOINT is the popular spot on top of the western mountains overlooking AlUla. It’s quite a long drive (30 minutes or so) up winding roads and along the top of the Harrat mountain, so bake in plenty of time to get there before sunset. The good news is there’s a nice restaurant there called Okra where you can get a drink while you absorb one of the best views in AlUla (often best to book a place). From the viewing point you can see dozens of miles to the north and south, picking out the Oasis Trail, Old Town, Dadan and many more sights.
Watching the sunset at Harrat Viewpoint
The sun actually sets behind you as you’re looking out over AlUla, so if you’re looking for a nice “into the sun shot”, turn around and you’ll see the sun setting beyond the Harrat. There’s a great view from the viewpoint through the canyons and directly up towards the sunset. The view out over AlUla is wonderful too and on the right night the sky may go pink and orange.
At time of writing, you do need the Tawakalnna app to access the viewpoint down the side of the restaurant. There’s an electricity substation just before the restaurant on the left. If you park up here you can get magnificent views, with no one around, up to the north of AlUla (and you can see my house!)
One thing I haven’t done yet is head to the viewpoint for sunrise. Given the sun rises in the east you should get a great sunburst over the eastern mountains with AlUla as your foreground. If anyone does go for sunrise, please share an image!
A bird flies towards the sunset at Harrat Viewpoint
ELEPHANT ROCK or Jabal Ilfil is a huge arch shaped rock about 15 minutes by car outside of AlUla. When I first came to AlUla there was just the rock by itself but now there are seating areas and pop-up restaurants. My favourite photo spot is to stand in the car park facing the back side of Elephant Rock (i.e., the one away from the restaurants and seats). If you go just before sunset, you should see the sun go down through the middle of the arch and can take a great sunburst shot. There will likely be people wandering so if you prefer a quiet scene, you can easily edit them out.
If you look up and to the left from that shot, you should see in the distance Jar Rock (I think that’s what it’s called) and it’s a similar arch structure with a huge hole in the middle. You can drive/walk up to this and get nice photos standing in front of it.
Sunburst through Elephant Rock
Daytime Photography in AlUla
Ignore those who say anything about “mad dogs and Englishmen” or that there’s nothing to photograph in between sunrise and sunset. Yes, the temperatures get warm but in Winter it’s very bearable if you’re dressed appropriately (hat), have lots of water and do have rests from the sun. I often go for walks in canyons where I know there’s shade or through the oasis.
With the sun high in the sky the sandstone monuments and mud houses can lose contrast and colour with the shadows that bring the structure disappearing. For that reason, I’d definitely recommend booking your trip to Hegra, Old Town or Dadan archaeological site at the very start or end of the day.
One place I’ve mentioned above and will come to in more detail is the Oasis Trail. Please, please go on this. You don’t need a guide, it’s not the most popular attraction, but in my mind it’s absolutely stunning. Eventually the trail will be over 20km long and the oasis and mudbrick buildings (many of which have fallen down) will be fully regenerated. For now, an incredible conservation job has been done on half of it with work beginning on the second half. I’ll explain more in the OASIS TRAIL section, but this is a walk you can do in the middle of the day as much of it is covered by palm trees and is so much cooler than anywhere else.
Popular Locations in AlUla
I get asked a lot about the times of the day to visit the famous locations of AlUla for the best photographs, so below is a list of the most popular sights, when I’d recommend heading there with your camera and what photographs to take
I’ve visited Hegra at all hours of the day and certainly my preference is late afternoon, moving into sunset. At time of writing, the latest tour was 4-6pm and while I’ve been there that has worked well for the sun beginning to set at the end of the tour [Note the start time is when you leave Winter Park on the bus to Hegra, not your arrival time at Hegra]. So, my advice is to plan a trip that ends closest to sunset.
The first and last stops on the tour currently are The Lonely Tomb, the grandest and most famous landmark in Hegra. During late afternoon it casts long shadows and if you climb up the dune facing it you can get create shots of the landscape behind.
The Lonely Tomb at Hegra
There can be a lot of people on the bus for each tour and as photographers we like a little time to ourselves to set up the shot (without people in it). I tend to sit in the middle of the bus near the centre door so I can be out first and taking shots before the group has assembled. Either that or just take your time and hang back to wait til everyone else has gone. There’s one tomb you’re allowed to enter and if you wait until everyone else has had their turn you should get it to yourself. If you’ve got a wide-angle lens, use it here to get a good image of 3 sides of the tomb interior, looking out the door
Inside a Hegra tomb
The wide angle is also useful when you’re up close and personal to some of the bigger tombs as it can really highlight how big they are. I use a 14-24mm Nikon which is my go-to for a lot of my landscape photography.
Another location which is best shot with your wide-angle is the Nabatean meeting place – a large auditorium cut into the rock with a very narrow canyon to the side of it. Angles are tough here but at the right time of day you can get a nice sunburst either through the canyon with the meeting place at the side or standing in the canyon looking out past the meeting point. At this location there’s one way in and one way out so I advise get there quickly from the bus and stay to the end for shots without people
Nabatean meeting place at Hegra
The other lens I use most is my 24-70mm Nikon and that’s great for detail on the outside of the tombs. There are some incredible carvings around the doorways that look great close up, and also many instances of rock art, thousands of years old, if you go searching for it. I will put together another blog on areas to find and photograph rock art. So far I’ve documented over 500 different artworks which include camels, goats, horses, people and inscriptions. Message me if you’d like further information.
The sun sets on the right-hand side of the bus, and you can get some great shots through the windows of the sun going down behind palm trees and mountains.
Sunset from the Hegra bus ride
DADAN & JABAL IKMAH – Dadan, an ancient city dating back to the late 9th century BC, is an active archaeological site. For most photographers, the highlights of the tour are seeing the lion tombs and visiting the area where archaeologists are working. The lion tombs are tombs carved into the mountain rock face and so called because of the beautiful lion carvings either side of them. It’s not possible to walk up to these but you will be given binoculars to see the detail. If you have a long zoom lens (mine is 70-300mm) you can get decent images of the tombs. It’s very difficult to get those beauty shots including anything other than the tombs because they’re in the centre of the rock face so the photograph tends to be just of the tomb head on. You’ll be given a pair of binoculars to see the tombs. I found that if I positioned my phone camera over the eye piece I actually got a pretty good close-up of the tombs. Give it a go! You’ll then be transported by car or bus to the active archaeological site. Here there are relaxing views of the oasis and mountains behind the excavated landmarks. I was lucky enough to be here during the annual Hot Air Balloon festival and one even floated past, making for a nice photo.
With your Dadan ticket you’ll also be taken to Jabal Ikmah, an outdoor library of thousands of ancient rock inscriptions. Some are high up so worth taking a zoom lens. Some have been created by carving the rock around the letters to make them 3D so it’s worth getting close and at an angle for these. There are so many to choose from my advice is take your time and find your favourites. It’s all in one location that you walk to from the meeting area.
In terms of times to visit these, I’ve tended to go at the start or end of the day, but to be honest if you can put up with the sun then it’s one you could do after sunrise or before sunset. Much of the photography is front on to carvings in the mountain so you’re not benefitting from the long shadows that you’d want to see at Hegra.
Dadan from the air
ALULA OLD TOWN- There are 900 houses dating back to the 12th century in AlUla Old Town and the tour you take will take you down through the narrow alleys and out to the area which contains a sun dial which was used to show the changing of the seasons and when people moved from the summer farms across the road and into the Old Town houses. The tour will continue to the top of Musa bin Nusayr Castle, a 10th century citadel.
Views over the Old Town of AlUla
First recommendation here – although the tour office is at the top (southern end) of Old Town I’d recommend walking up through the main (northern) entrance rather than the south. You’ll go past all the shops and restaurants, and the auditorium on the right. There are lots of good photos to be had here of local products, fruit, dates etc. Once you’re at the tour office they will likely invite you to sit upstairs and have Arabian coffee before the tour starts. Head to the toilet and open the window. This is the best shot I’ve found which looks over the Old Town and Musa bin Nusayr Castle.
Old Town shops
View from the tour office toilet!
As the tour begins, you’ll be led into the covered old town. I find it best to wait the back and take photos looking back with no one in them. Either a wide angle or regular lens is good here and pay attention to little side streets and also look up to see the sky through the ceiling. At the Castle there are also good views out over the Old Town and east across the Oasis.
Inside the Old Town
Al-JADIDAH is the bustling area next to Old Town. There are many good restaurants here (“Somewhere” is my favourite) and lots of good street photography opportunities. I enjoy taking pictures of all the colourful doors. Rumour has it that each door is different. On the east side of the main street (nearest the oasis) you can walk down little paths and join up with the Oasis trail. As you look at it the area is full of palm trees. To the right is the area which hasn’t been renovated and where the palm trees burned down. To the left is the area that has been conserved and rebuilt.
Doors of AlUla
OASIS TRAIL – as mentioned, this is one of my favourite places to be. We live right opposite the start point (at the Dadan end) so I often walk through, rarely seeing people and enjoying the quiet. I’d recommend starting the trail from that point. The parking area is very close to the Dadan car park, just on the opposite side of the road.
Looking up through the oasis
The first half hour of the walk is mostly under the shade of palm trees, winding through narrow paths with carefully restored mud brick buildings on either side
The second half of the oasis trail becomes more exposed as the palm trees here burnt down in a fire. If you make it all the way to the end you'll be rewarded with a stop at the Pink Camel restaurant and a refreshing lemon mint drink.
The unrepaired section of the oasis
Al-GHARAMEEL – I love stargazing and astrophotography. Al Gharameel is a dark sky spot an hour or so from AlUla. The guides will drive you out there, show you the constellations and then you’re given a traditional meal in a large tent. It’s an amazing experience and the sky is absolutely vast, penetrated by these large spindly rocks that make a great foreground for Astrophotography.
I recommend getting there on new moon when the stars are clearest. Later in the year the milky way becomes very visible, but I haven’t managed to get there then yet. I last went in January and even then I could see the milky way in my images, but later in the year it arches like a rainbow very clearly from one side of the photograph to the other. Advice here – obviously bring a tripod, ideally wide-angle lens on the highest f-stop at a high ISO (but not so much that everything goes grainy) and shutter open for 30 seconds of so. See how that goes and then amend the shutter speed/ISO as necessary.
When you get there all the rocks are lit up, but they’ll turn the lights off to show all the stars. Everyone is sat in a seating area as the constellations are pointed out with a laser pen. I asked the guide nicely if he minded if I took photos in the other direction while he was talking and he was fine with that.
Shooting star over Al-Gharameel
HELICOPTER TOUR – as with Hegra (which you will fly over), I’d recommend booking the latest trip possible on the given day. I’ve flown both the first and last flight of the day and found that for photography, the sun was already quite high in the sky during the first flight, so you didn’t see the long, stretching shadows which all photographers want. Take the last flight and you’ll see incredible views of Elephant Rock with the huge hole in the middle creating a bright feature through a long shadow. Hegra from above is also much better to photograph in late afternoon as the shadows cast by the sandstone mountains and standalone tombs bring out three dimensional shape.
Elephant Rock from the air
MARAYA is the world's largest mirrored building. Huge on the inside, impressive on the outside with beautiful reflections of the desert on all sides. Well worth a visit!
ROCK ART – I love finding rock art and there's so much of it in and around AlUla. I've documented over 500 pieces so far, mostly consisting of animals, people and inscriptions. I will put together a map of the key rock art locations
HIKING TOURS – With a company called Hussak, I’ve walked along the highest ridge over AlUla and out to narrow canyons you have to squeeze through. They’re a great company and I can recommend a trip with them
WILDLIFE – One animal you will almost certainly see at some point, particularly if you go the canyons, are camels. They tend to be quite nervous, so I’d recommend shooting from afar or from your car. They don’t seem to mind so much if you stay in your car. I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount of bird life or smaller animals, but if you visit Sharaan Nature Reserve you may see ostriches, ibex and gazelles.
What camera equipment do you use?
I use a Nikon D810 with a 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-300mm lens. I’d say the 24-70mm is on the body most of the time, with the 14-24mm for wide mountain shots, looking up at palm trees in the oasis, getting sunbursts etc. My 70-300mm rarely even gets brought with me but can be good for long views down the canyons, shooting sandstone tombs that are far away or the hot-air balloons if you’re there at the right time. I’ve got a macro lens too but honestly that doesn’t get used on anything but the occasional stag beetle.
Can I take a drone?
Unless you manage to get a licence through GACA, do not bring your drone. It won’t make it past the airport without a licence. Contact me if you’re interested in hiring one as I know a couple of people. I recently saw a video on Instagram of a guy who’d brought a 5m long selfie stick with a go-pro on top and was running around with that. The videos he took actually looked really good and could pass for a low flying drone!
What should I pack for a trip to AlUla?
If you’re coming in peak season, it will be cool in the evenings so do bring a jacket. Conversely, it’ll be hot in the day, so bring a hat, sunglasses, shorts, water bottle, sun cream etc
How to get around
I’ve been there a while so definitely prefer having a rental car (available at the airport or in town). Be aware that many of the speed signs are in Arabic so it’s good to write down the translations so you can stick to the speed limit. Taxis are beginning to pop up in AlUla but seem quite rare, and there are the Experience AlUla buses that will take you to the key sites.
Pick up a local SIM from STC if you’re going to be here a while. Some providers don’t do roaming in Saudi Arabia or it’s very expensive. You can pick up a sim easily from the arrivals area in Riyadh airport on your way over or from town in AlUla and it’s linked to your passport. For about 100SAR (£20) you can get a plan with enough data to last your trip. At the time of writing, all travelers needed to download the Tawakalnna app to prove they’ve been vaccinated in order to get access to sites and restaurants. You’ll need data for this to work, hence why a sim card is a good idea.