Once Upon a Time in Abha
Once Upon a Time in Abha
A local, insider guide to the capital of the Asir Province capital, known for its mountains, wildlife and flower wreath-wearing men.
Walking through the streets of Abha I’m once again lost in its beauty.
Surrounded by evocative scenery, this city of my childhood – known to us locals as Abha Al Bahiya (Bride of the Mountain) – often feels like a dreamy painting. The red dunes and desert breeze often associated with Saudi are nowhere in sight.
Tucked high above the region, Abha rises some 2,200 metres, its towering peaks stretching into fog.
A visit to this southwestern destination is only a short flight from any of Saudi’s major metropolises, and for newbies to the kingdom, Abha has more than a few surprises up its sleeve. Here is a land of valleys and slopes less travelled, where life slows down to a welcoming pace and is connected to nature in many ways. It’s also home to lush greenery, violet jacaranda trees and mild weather, as well as castles, palaces and heritage homes-turned-museums where visitors can find a story waiting to be told.
Although I know Abha quite well, I often feel I don’t know it all. And that is exactly its charm, a city where even its people feel like explorers, where every corner holds a discovery to be made – little-known camping spots, a world of cultural heritage, great destinations for adventure and gastronomy and everything in between.
So, take a walk with me and uncover the best that Abha has to offer.
What To Do
Now that you’ve settled in, it’s time to venture out and discover why Abha was named the 2017 Capital of Arab Tourism. Be warned: this is a city where there is never enough time. From archaeological and heritage sites, to adventure-filled spots and untamed wilderness, there’s so much to see and do, and this month – with its pleasant days and chilly evenings (a light jacket will suffice) – is an ideal time to
experience it all.
Abu Nuqta Al-Mutahami Palaces
A walk inside the palaces of the Abu Nuqta al-Mutahami family is an enchanting experience, with an unexpected mix of heritage and contemporary elements on site. There are souvenir shops in the vicinity, restaurants overlooking the village and its farms, and a bakery specialising in freshly baked southern bread – served piping hot from the tandoor.
You can also book a stay here, so be sure check out the suites while you're there.
This castle, said to have once been the main gate to the city of Abha and its first line of defence, sits atop Shamsan Mountain. Recently renovated, the beauty of its three towers is immediately apparent upon a closer look at the castle’s architectural design and its overall impressive presence.
TheArt Street, is a stretch of road lined with decorative elements and jacaranda trees, and where all forms of art are on display. If you need a break from walking, there’s also the occasional concert and theatre performance, high-end restaurants and
cafés scattered around, and a library in the middle of the street for literature fans.
A remarkable setting of houses hanging on the edge of a cliff, Habala’s location also has stunning vistas of Tihama and the old village. There’s Habala Falls (who doesn’t like lazing near cascades of water?) and seven-minute cable car rides that go from the top of the summit to the village of King Faisal. If you’re hungry, try the village’s selection of eateries, and when you need that after-meal walk, there’s a decent selection of family-friendly spots such as the zoo, an archaeological museum and a theatre.
Said to be the first national park in Saudi, Soudah is a must-visit destination. There’s nothing I love more than walking below a charming fog brushing the tops of juniper trees, and Soudah is where such a stroll is possible. There’s a cable car but if you’re looking for a more adrenaline filled, sky-high adventure, try skydiving like I did. It’s such a thrill, and the scene below is truly spectacular. You can also go mountain climbing, explore by bike, try horseback riding, or go paragliding. The park has designated areas for kids to socialise and have a tons of fun, as well as picnic and barbecue spots and food kiosks.
Did someone say camping? Soudah is the perfect spot for pitching that tent and stargazing to your heart’s content.
Al Dabbab (Fog) Walkway
This popular and almost-surreal spot is located at an altitude of about 2,800 metres above sea level, extending some 7km. From waterfalls to its iconic foggy surroundings, Al Dabbab is where nature gives it all to amaze you. Surrounded by flowers and trees, Al Dabbab is perfect for sitting and chatting, a hike with friends, a walk with the kids, or a sunset stroll.
Asir National Park
Another park that offers something for everyone is Asir National Park.
Home to walking paths that wind through misty valleys overlooking small villages and terraced farms, the park also has opportunities for paragliding and is a popular camping site.
Where to Stay
Although a quick flight from Riyadh or Jeddah sounds tempting, I love the drive from Riyadh to Abha (an approx. 12-hour trip on Al-Jaber Hotat Bani Tamim Road) or Jeddah (almost eight hours of sights and sounds).
Once you’re in Abha, it’s time to unpack and recharge for the days ahead, and this city offers stays of every kind – from luxe to laid-back.
A short drive from the airport, this conveniently located hotel offers rooms with mountain views, as well as family friendly facilities such as an outdoor swimming pool, fitness centre, garden terrace, sauna and a playground for the little ones. My favourite part? Citadines' Irish/Engligh breakfast, delicious!
Abha Palace Hotel
Overlooking the city's dam lake, this establishment embodies the splendour of a palace. It also has a spa, gym, swimming pool, and sauna. And, it's main restaurant offers a buffet of both local and international dishes.
Not far away are the breathtaking cable car rides, and there is also a nearby theme park for a day of family fun.
Sarwat Park Hotel and Resort
If you’re looking for a location close to the city’s major landmarks such as Abu Khayal Park, Muftaha Palace Museum, Abha Dam and Andalus Park, Sarwat is perfect. When you’re not out exploring, you can stay in and enjoy the hotel’s relaxing terrace, restaurant and gym.
For those looking for a more midst-of-nature option, Gamra’s camp setting is ideal for nights under the stars and evenings enveloped by a cool breeze. Described as a “luxury glamping escape,” book one of its elegantly designed cabins nestled in the mountains and surrounded by juniper trees.
Where to Eat
All this exploration can leave a person famished. Luckily, Abha is home to various culinary options, from high-end restaurants with well-curated menus and interiors, to casual joints serving a range of finger-licking finger foods.
Let's start our food tour with Al Tall, a restaurant and café located near Al Rashid Mall. One of my go-to eateries, it specialises in diverse meals from different cultures. We’re talking grilled meats, pizzas, pastas, salads, soups, desserts, appetisers , juices, coffee and more. Not only is the menu generous, the space is as well, with a fountain that greets you as you enter, a green outdoor dining area and its various inside seating options.
This is a Damascene-style restaurant offering regional specialties and Levantine kebabs, as well as international dishes. If you’re looking to treat yourself to lunch, there’s a buffet every day, from 12pm until 5pm, and if privacy is a dining must, this eatery has comfortable secluded areas. Of all the great items on the menu, I usually crave Naranj’s cream of chicken soup, made using fresh ingredients and spices, and served with delicious appetisers .
What’s a trip to Abha without a satisfying breakfast? Milos is where I head to when I want to start my day with a plate of shakshuka, labneh, apricots and dried figs. Sometimes, I switch things up and order the makdous (stuffed baby eggplant) instead, along with feta cheese, smoked cheese, cream doused with honey and tea. I also like the appetisers, such as the spiced hummus with avocado. The fresh salads are a must-try (I suggest trying the quinoa tabbouleh or goat’s cheese salad), the butternut squash soup is filling, and my favourite main is the risotto with black truffles. Milo's is choice overload.
La Scene Cafe
Located in Abu Kheyal Park, this restaurant overlooks lush greenery and provides outdoor seating in a mist-like atmosphere. As its menu is diverse as well, I’d say try the kebab with cherries, the very fresh tabbouleh, some of its hot appetisers, and a refreshing drink or two. This is also a restaurant that serves fluffy pancakes, filling pastas and even shawarma, and for those with a sweet tooth, I recommend my favourite: Umm Ali.
Where to Shop
After all that food you’ll no doubt need a walk, and Abha has plenty of scenic options. This city has everything you could want, from traditional crafts and artisanal items, to trending pieces and luxury brands.
Towards the southern part of Abha is the famous historical Tuesday Market. This is the place to find artefacts, pottery, ironwork, traditional clothes and jewellery, as well as food items such as local ghee, honey, plants and aromatic flowers.
Local Dagger Souq
In Abha’s Khamis Mushait, you’ll find a market for traditional daggers, leather sheaths and more. If you’re looking to get an understanding of the history of forging and craftsmanship of the region’s bladesmiths, this marketplace is worth visiting.
Khamis Mushait Boulevard
Traditional crafts are always fun to shop for, but when in Abha, you can’t miss a bit of high-end shopping. Khamis Mushait Boulevard is my favourite, a shopping destination where you can find perfumes, stylish clothes, sunglasses, watches and more. It also has food and café options, as well as a games area for bowling.
All imagery courtesy of Ibrahim Sarhan.