Dazzling like an emerald in the dunes is the fertile oasis of Al Ahsa, where over three million palm trees sway in the warm breeze of the Eastern Province. Located between Riyadh and Dammam, this sleepy UNESCO World Heritage site is among Saudi’s most enchanting destinations, and easily accessible by train or car.
The natural springs for which the area is renowned ensure the landscape here is as storied as it is vibrant. Archaeological finds suggest that this region housed civilizations that pre-dated Islam, with evidence of settlements dating as far back as 5000BC. Al Ahsa’s gentle shade was also a haven for traders and caravans crossing ancient trade routes, or pilgrims making the long journey to Makkah.
This rich history can be experienced everywhere in Al Ahsa, including its ancient mountainside pottery factory, superbly preserved Ibrahim Palace, and even at restaurants like the charming Al Koot Heritage Hotel, where the region’s culture and cuisine come together. Don’t leave without trying the region’s sought-after Khalas dates, five tons of which are produced each day.
A visit to Al Ahsa Oasis offers entry to a scenic mosaic of lush greenery, sunburnt hamlets and cool palm groves. The bubbling, mineral-rich springs of Al Jawhariah, Al Khodoud, Um Sabah and Al Harrah are a prime summer spot, and popular with locals for their curative effects. For the best view of the oasis and to understand how humans have cultivated it, head in the direction of the Al Ahsa National Park, where the Al Qarah Mountain awaits. Standing 75 meters tall, and with a network of caves and caverns, Al Ahsa’s farmland and villages spread out in a panorama of beautiful geography from its peak.
The Souq Al Qaisariya presents Al Ahsa’s rich trading legacy in all its glory, and at one of Arabia’s oldest marketplaces, its clay walls and archways faithfully restored following a fire in 2001. Visitors are immersed within a maze-like network of over 400 stalls, selling everything from mabkhara incense burners to spices, herbs and even sickles and axes innovatively forged from disused car suspensions. Al Said café, at the north end of the souq, makes the perfect people-watching spot with a pot of Arabic coffee for company.
For a further delve into Al Ahsa’s past, take a day trip to the coast to Uqair fort and beach, an hour’s drive along the scenic camel-silhouetted landscapes of route 6448. Free to attend, the enigmatic square-turreted fort was once a thriving trading hub that connected Arabia to the Indian sub-continent. Nearby, Uqair beach offers 13km of pristine Gulf coastline and a wealth of watersports, with chalets and barbecue facilities making overnight camping stays a popular family excursion.
Where to stay: Choose from Al Koot Heritage hotel for old-world charm, or opt for modern style at the Best Western Premier Grand Hotel. Al Muhaidb Residence Al Ahsa offers a central location and mountain views.
Where to eat: Head to pretty local gem Mistca for contemporary Arabic food, or delve into traditional dishes at Al Ahsa Heritage Village restaurant. For delectable pastries, cake and coffee, visit Dot Bakery Cafe.
Where to have fun: Explore Al Ahsa’s heritage with a visit to the striking Ibrahim Palace, or get hands on with local crafts at the famed Dougha Handmade Pottery Factory. Don’t miss the Asfar Lake, also known as the yellow lake: a natural stretch of water encircled by desert, and home to an array of native wildlife.
Learn more: Palms Land Tours’ Al Ahsa day trip takes in the bustle of Souq Al Qaisariya and the handicraft market, while My Trip tours include excursions to the city’s famed date farms and Al Qarah mountain caves.
The northeastern city of Tabuk has long been a resting point for Jordanian and Egyptian pilgrims, with a rich Bedouin culture that can be felt in the bustling Souq Twaheen, which still supplies patterned rugs and goat-hair tent covers for modern nomads.