Al Ula – gateway to Madain Saleh – is a small town about 400km north of Medina. Once an oasis with fertile soil and abundant water, it was founded in the 6th century BC and originally inhabited by the Lihyanites. The town was formerly a strategic trade route for spices and incense from the Levant, Egypt and North Africa.
If you can only visit one place in Saudi Arabia, make it Unesco World Heritage–listed Madain Saleh. This crossroads of ancient civilisations, pilgrims, explorers, trade caravans and armies finds its most remarkable expression in the elaborate stone-carved tombs of the Nabataeans.
Taima is famous above all for its extraordinary well (Bi’r Al-Haddaj; 9am-5pm Sat-Wed). Not merely the oldest well in the Kingdom, it’s also the largest, measuring over 18m across and 12m in depth. It is believed to date back to Babylonians time (the early 1st millennium BC), though it may even be older.
Remote and rural Sakaka has a host of little-visited archaeological sights, particularly Rajajil (Standing Stones; opposite) 25km from town. Lady Anne Blunt and her husband Wilfred visited Sakaka (which they called Meskakeh) in 1879; Lady Blunt’s book, A Pilgrimage to Najd, provides a rare portrait of Arabian society in that era.