Saudi Arabia’s capital city and one of the richest cities in the world, Riyadh is a beguiling mix of opulence and tradition. The city has all the trappings of Middle-Eastern luxury and wealth: uber-modern architecture, ostentatious resorts, high-end restaurants and incredible shopping, but it is still far more conservative than its relatively laid-back neighbour, Jeddah. The flashy glamour of the lifestyle and soaring, sparkling skyline seem at odds with the deeply traditional ethos, but if you draw your focus from the Mutaween (religious police) and focus instead on the incredible architecture, galleries and resorts, you may just grow to love Riyadh’s unique charm. Riyadh is perfectly situated to explore other beautiful cities: it is a short flight from Riyadh to Jeddah or Riyadh to Dubai, and you will be able to get to know the individual characters of some of the Middle-Eastern super-cities.
Direct flights to Riyadh will bring you to King Khalid International Airport (RUH), about 21 miles from the city.
Riyadh’s climate his hot and dry, reaching 40°C during the summer, and dropping to a more relaxing 25°C in the winter months. In winter, evening temperatures can drop dramatically, occasionally going as low as 8°C. Winter season is also peak season in Riyadh, so if you are looking for cheap accommodation and cheap flights to Riyadh, aim for September-November, when temperatures are balmy and there are great deals to be found.
Despite its wealth and status in the contemporary world, Riyadh is very much in touch with its roots, and most inhabitants are practicing Muslims. The National Museum gives an interesting insight into Arabian culture of today and yesteryear, its two floors and eight galleries showcasing examples of Arabian art, culture and history, from rock carvings to a full-size replica of a Nabataean tomb. The modernist exterior is as impressive as its interior, so if the museum thing isn’t for you, take a moment to gaze up at the impressive outside. At the College of Tourism and Antiquities’ Antiquities Museum, you can see ancient artefacts unearthed during the excavations of significant archaeological sites in the south and north of Saudi Arabia: Rabdha and Faw. Seeing writings, jewellery, pottery and coins from thousands of years ago fills you with a sense of awe, and reinforces the importance of Saudi Arabia’s ancient traditions. In 1957, a zoo was opened in Saudi Arabia, to house the animals given to the ruling clan: the Al Sauds. The zoo was refurbished in the 1980s and opened to the public in 1987. Although it is relatively small compared to many international zoos, Riyadh Zoo is the largest in Saudi Arabia. Opening times are dictated by prayer times, so check to see it’s open before you go.
The range and scale of architecture is dazzling, and promises to be one of the highlights of your trip to Riyadh. Masmak Fortress whisks you instantly back in time. Built in 1865, it was at this vast, low-lying fortress that Ibn Saud’s raid took place in 1902. During the fierce fighting, a spear was thrown at the main door; the head is still there today. The Kingdom Centre is one of Riyadh’s primary landmarks, its 302-metre-high towers joined by a massive glass and steel bridge, which weighs in at 300 tonnes. Venture up to the Sky Bridge on the 99th floor for phenomenal views; prepare for an adrenalin rush with a ride to the top in the lift which travel at a stomach-churning 108 miles an hour. Aim to go earlier in the day and during the week, as evenings and weekends can be crowded. Al Faisaliah Tower is much more than a thing of architectural beauty, it is still seen by many as the beginning of Riyadh’s remarkable transformation. The first contemporary structure to spring from Riyadh’s formerly traditional skyline Al Faisaliah was designed by Norman Foster. Its most striking feature is the vast glass globe, which is a massive 24 metres in diameter and is formed from 655 glass panes. At 267 metres tall, the tower is not the tallest in Riyadh, but it will forever be remembered as the start of Riyadh’s transformation.
It will come as no surprise that Riyadh’s retail opportunities range from the devoutly traditional to the ludicrously luxurious. Souk al Jamal is more of a cultural experience than a shopping one, but it is worth seeing on your trip to Riyadh. The market is about 20 miles from the city centre; head there in the afternoon to see the traders in full swing. While you’re in full window-shopping mode, why not visit Owais Souk? The traditional Arabic market is a favourite among the locals of Riyadh, selling exquisite gold and lush fabrics. If you fancy getting more hands-on, there are some good flea market stalls that are more suited to the Western budget. If you fancy seeing how the other half lives, head to Kingdom Tower, with its myriad designer stores. The choice is so vast and the shopping centre so large that the second floor alone – known as Ladies’ Kingdom because it isstrictly women-only - boasts around fifty designer boutiques.Souk Thumairi provides a more traditional Arabian shopping experience, filled as it is with winding alleys packed with crafts, silver curios, jewellery and coffee pots – it is here and in the many other traditional souks and stalls that you will get a glimpse into the past amid the almost sterile opulence of the city.
Like many Saudi traditions, the food in Riyadh has remained pretty much unchanged for generations. Saudi Arabians were originally a nomadic people, their food hearty, simple fare cooked with love over an open fire with just one pot. Dates, flat bread, pulses and a delicious combination of spices make traditional food in Riyadh truly unforgettable. One of the main staples is kabsa, a dish of rice, nuts, vegetables and meat – it is so popular that locals eat it on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. As a Muslim country, alcohol is not permitted in traditional Saudi. With its rise in tourism, most hotels and resorts do sell alcohol, but be careful to be respectful of the local customs. It is easy to dismiss Riyadh as the Saudi Arabia’s conservative, serious capital, but if you can plan a few days in the city when travelling from Riyadh to Dubai or Riyadh to Jeddah, you won’t be disappointed: still waters do run deep, and Riyadh has a lot more to offer a curious tourist than first meets the eye. Do you want help planning your Arabian Adventure? Travangelo can help you find cheap flights to Riyadh.