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Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, located slightly east of the center of the country in the heart of the Tuwaig escarpment.
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Points of Interest in Riyadh
Sightseeing in Riyadh is a frustrating exercise in careful timing: not only are most sites closed on weekends (Thu-Fri) and during prayer hours, but visiting hours are segregated between men and families. The one saving grace is that many sites stay open until 9 PM.
Museums and historical sights
- Masmak Fortress (قصر المصمك Qasr al-Masmak), Deira. 8 AM-noon and 4-9 PM on Sat, Mon, Wed for men, Sun, Tue, Thu for families. The heart of old Riyadh, this was the fortress stormed by King Abdul Aziz and his men in their daring reconquest of Riyadh in 1902. Renovated in 2008 to an inch of its life, the mud brick structure now looks like it was built yesterday, but the museum inside does a pretty good job of recounting the story of the raid and has some fascinating photos of old Riyadh as well. Alas, the second half is devoted to extolling the greatness of the Sauds in everything from agriculture to education. Free.
- Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba) (next to National Museum). 6-9 PM Sun-Fri. Riyadh's second old mud-brick palace, built by King Abdul Aziz after he conquered Masmak Fortress and figured he should built something harder to conquer. This two-story structure does indeed look pretty intimidating, but permits are no longer needed to venture inside, where you can find sights including the first royal Rolls-Royce. Free.
- National Museum. Open Su-Mo,We-Th 9-1 PM for men, 4:30-9 PM families; Tu 9-noon women only, 4:30-9 PM men; Fr 4:30-9 PM families; Sa closed. Undoubtedly the top sight in Riyadh, this museum (opened in 1999) is done up with the latest technology and is very accessible to visitors, with almost everything available in English. There are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend an entire day here doing virtual tours of Madain Salih or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed's battle of Medina. Highlights include a kiswah cloth that once covered the Qaaba in Mecca. Half the time, though, it feels more like a propaganda exercise than a museum: the display on plate tectonics starts with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds is rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam. Note: Many cabbies will not recognize the English name, ask for the neighboring Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba) instead. SAR10.
- As-Sufaat (Deira Square). Next to the Great Mosque and the mutawwa headquarters, this nondescript expanse of cement is known by expats as Chop-Chop Square as convicts are publicly beheaded by sword here. Executions take place on Friday mornings (but not every week), just after the noon prayers. Beware that any Westerners nearby have been known to be taken to the front row and forced to watch the whole thing, in order to further shame the condemned.
- Kingdom Centre (المملكة Al-Mamlaka). Daily 4-11 PM. Undoubtedly Riyadh's most stunning piece of modern architecture, at 305m the Kingdom Centre is the second tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a sight, especially when lit up at night. The centre hosts an (expensive) three-story shopping mall, with one floor reserved for women, but the main reason to visit is the 99th-floor Skybridge connecting the two peaks at a height of 300m. Best visited at dusk or after dark, from here you'll get great views over the vast and flat but well-lit expanse of the city. SR35 (Skybridge).
A dry and sharply defined riverbed (wadi) begins about 40 km north of Riyadh and runs in a north-south direction for over 120 km, cutting through the western edge of the city, known as Wadi Hanifah. Wadi Hanifah was once the lifeblood of the Riyadh area, rich in groundwater, filled with palm groves and farms and dotted with a string of small towns and villages throughout history. In recent decades, the Wadi has been used as a large dumping ground for wastewater, sewage, and industrial waste, but a recent ambitious rehabilitation project has just been completed. An 80 km stretch running through western Riyadh is now essentially an 80-km desert park, though many parts of the Wadi floor are occupied by private estates and farms with high walls. The Wadi has several entry points, but perhaps the easiest route is by taking King Abdullah Road west past the university and into the town of Arqah. Eventually, you will reach a large round-about. Take the exit heading downwards into the Wadi. Follow the road even as it winds and weaves its way through the Wadi (do not be tempted to turn onto any side streets). Eventually, you will reach a police checkpoint, to the left of which is an entry point to the Wadi floor. A narrow paved road runs along the Wadi floor. Heading southwards, you will eventually find designated picnic and barbecue spots facing the Wadi's cliff-like walls.
While dry for most of the year, wadis can flood very quickly with a moderate amount of rain. Never approach a wadi during the rain or even its immediate aftermath. Even looking over the edge of a wadi can be dangerous as the Wadi's edges can break off during the rain. Every year, several deaths are reported from flash floods all across Saudi Arabia.
Located on a hill overlooking Wadi Hanifa, Al-Dir'iyyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, is the ancestral home of the Saudi royal family and served as the Saudi capital until 1818. The ruins of the old city are currently being restored and renovated and are thus closed off for tourists, but the surrounding area can still be worth the visit in the meantime.
Until the 16th century, Riyadh (or, more accurately, Ar-Riyadh) was known by the name Hajr, an important city of central Arabia dating from at least the 3rd century AD (and probably older). In the Middle Ages, Hajr served as the capital of the province of Al-Yamamah, whose viceroys presided over most of central and eastern Arabia.
With the decline in the fortunes and wealth of central Arabia after the 10th century, the name Al-Yamama gradually disappeared, and Hajr became subsumed under the name "Najd," which had previously referred only to areas lying further west. The name Hajr also gave way to the name "Ar-Riyadh" (meaning "the gardens"), as the old city broke into several towns and farming estates.
Only a hundred years ago, Riyadh was a dusty walled town of under 20,000 people surrounded by palm groves, fertile wadis, and a number of small villages. Riyadh (or, rather, the neighboring hamlet of Diriyah) is the ancestral home of the al-Sauds. Driven out by the Rashids in 1891, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud famously raided and recaptured the city in 1902. The city was made the capital of Saudi Arabia when the country was born in 1932, and has grown explosively ever since then — as of 2008, the city is estimated to have some 5,000,000 inhabitants, and is still growing fast.
Located in the middle of the country, Riyadh suffers from the worst of Saudi Arabia's climatic extremes. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 50°C, while winter temperatures can fall below zero. It's bone dry throughout the year, and when the wind blows the city is often covered in a haze of sand. However, while summers are blazing hot, they are not humid, which goes some way to alleviate the pain. Summer evenings are generally tolerable and one even encounters the occasional cool breeze, especially on the outskirts of town.
Beware that in the last few years, the climate has been shifting in this part of the world as well. Temperatures near 50°C are usually only reached end of July and in August. In 2009, the temperature in Riyadh hit 48°C mid-June. Especially if you wear a business suit, it is imperative to stay out of the sun.
Although few Saudis play golf, there are surprisingly good golf courses around. The best one is the 18-holes course in Dirab Golf & Country Club a good 30 minutes drive west of Riyadh. Nice layout with green and inviting grass, and the last 9 holes are even floodlit. They offer tennis, swimming and horse-back riding as well. There's also a quite nice 9-holes short range course connected to the Hotel Intercontinental almost in the dead centre of the city. Nice but short - also floodlit. If you travel about 20 minutes to the north-east you will find a not so nice desert course with browns instead of greens (the putting area consist of sand/oil mixture instead of grass).
Head west down the Makkah Road for 30 minutes, and you'll reach the edge of the Tuwaig Escarpment. As you make the 200 meter sharp drop from the Tuwaig escarpment to Najd-proper, you will get a good feel of the desert with dunes and buttresses.
Heading northeast of the airport to the Thumama sand dunes, one can engage in "dune bashing" in 4x4 SUV's or in rented ATV's.
Saudi Arabia is football-mad country, and big matches at the King Fahad Stadium can attract crowds of 50-70 thousand, creating an electric atmosphere. However, note that football stadiums are off limits to women.
Eating out is one of the few pleasures of Riyadh — there's a pretty good selection of restaurants for various cuisines, ranging from cheap and hearty to fancy and expensive.
Your best bet for cheap, filling meals are Riyadh's countless small Pakistani/Indian restaurants, which can fill you up with curry and rice for about SR11.
Fast food places abound in Riyadh's shopping malls, with a full meal with drink averaging around SR20. If you want something other than the usual hamburgers and kebabs, Pizza Hut offers a pretty good salad buffet.
- Al Fawar, Olaya St (across the road and one block south from al-Faisaliah), ☎ +966-1-4657776. Cheap and cheerful Lebanese eatery offering tasty shwarma, kebabs, dips and more. Shwarma SR3/6.
- Al-Malaz Restaurant, off Olaya Rd (behind Holiday Inn al-Qasr). No-frills, somewhat fly-blown South Indian eatery that's always packed thanks to tasty food, low prices and generous portions. At lunchtime, you can get four curries (meat or veg), pickles, fresh veggies, rice, chapattis, pappadums, dessert and tea, all with infinite refills, for the scarcely credible price of SR6.
- Mama Noura Juice Center, Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz St, Al-Rahmaniyah (and three other franchises), ☎ +966-1-4708881. Immensely popular chain which does excellent thick, fresh juice cocktails as well, but the main draw here is the famous shwarma, arguably Riyadh's best. They're minuscule in size but cheap at SR4 a pop, so most people order at least three! The menu (available in English) also covers freshly baked pastries, kebabs and some Lebanese treats. Place your order and pay first, then queue at the counters. You can eat in at the diner-style high counters among towering piles of fruit, but most opt for take-away. Under SR10.
- Paragon Family Restaurant, Batha (Opp Suncity Supermarket), ☎ 4083852, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 5am-2am. Providing traditional Malabar cuisine, North-Indian and Chinese. Paragon specials are biriyani, kudukka biriyani (served in a pot) and traditional style fish items.
- Shayah, Kingdom Centre B1F Food Court. Iranian restaurant offering a good range of kebabs and a better range of mezze like tabbouleh, hummus, eggplant, vine leaves etc. Single portions under SR10, huge set meals SR21.
- Ya Mal Asham, Olaya Rd (off Musa ibn Nosayr St, next to Jarir Bookstore). All the ambience of a giant school cafeteria, but there's a great selection of Arabic food from shwarma to soups, grills, stews and desserts and the "take a tray and point" style of ordering makes it easy to choose (although they do have an English menu as well). Shwarma SR4, full meals SR15-20.
- Cafe Amore, Tahlia St. (Heading east on Tahlia with the Olaya intersection behind you, the restaurant will appear among a row of restaurants on your left. Take the next u-turn.). Probably the best, slickest and most professionally-run Italian restaurant in Riyadh. SR30.
- Najd Village, Takhassusi St. (On Takhassusi about 500 meters southeast of Euromarche.). Probably the restaurant with the nicest decor in Riyadh, traditional saudi food, you will be sitting on a the floor." SR75.
- Abdulwahab, Tahlia St. (Heading east on Tahlia with the Olaya intersection behind you, the restaurant will appear on your right.). Modeled after a restaurant in Beirut of the same name, this restaurant has quickly become one of the most popular and reputable Lebanese restaurants in town. SR30.
- Burj Al-Hamaam, Takhassusi St. (On Takhassusi opposite to Takhassusi Hospital.). One of the older Lebanese restaurants in town, this sparsely-decorated restaurant has had an enduring reputation. It is especially known for its "Sayyadiyya" and its "Kibbe in pomegranate sauce." SR30.
- Tokyo, Oruba St. (At the eastern end of Oruba St.). This is an oldest Japanese restaurant in town (dating from the 80's). It is said to be run by Japanese and to serve excellent Sushi. Closed on Fridays. SR30.
- Assaraya, Talatheen St, ☎ +966 1 464 9336. This very popular Turkish restaurant is packed during the evening hours. Meat is the name of the game here, and it comes in numerous tasty variations. The bread is superb! SR30.
- Chilis, Tahlia Street. Quite good rendition of TexMex with a typical American look-and-feel. If you're from the Northeast of the US, the Buffalo Wings / Tenders are recommended - excellent hotsauce. SR60.
- Korean Palace, Makkah Rd (opp Holiday Inn al-Qasr), ☎ +966-1-4631102. Korean-run eatery offering reasonably authentic Korean, Japanese, and Chinese food at reasonable prices. Popular with the local Asian community. SR50.
- Mirage Restaurant, Al-Takhassosi Rd, North West Riyadh (west of Kingdom Tower), ☎ +966-1-4834127. Taiwanese-Saudi run Chinese restaurant offering a variety of foods from throughout Asia, stick to the Taiwanese or Chinese menu items. The pigeon is a great appetizer as an alternative to the deep fried appetizer menu. The restaurant is accepting of business mixed gender groups. Ask for a table on top of the illuminated fish tanks in the center of the restaurant. Getting there can be difficult as it is in a side strip mall, look for the pagoda top and the neon Chinese gate. SAR80.
- Duo, North Ring Rd.. Chain Italian restaurant that caters to families. The selection is decent, but quality is lacking. If you go, try the Spaghetti Curry dish - fried chicken, peas, pineapple curry pasta - sounds weird, but tastes good. If going as a bachelor group (all males), the room is off to the side with limited service. SAR60.
- Steak House, North Ring Rd.. Basic chain steak house - think Ponderosa - with a decent selection of steaks and other meat products. One of many locations throughout Riyadh. SAR60.
- Teatro, between Olaya and King Fahad Rd. next to Pizza Hut on Olaya. Teatro is an amazing find in the small area between Olaya and Kind Fahad Road. The bachelor side (the only side visited this trip) looks like a very odd dance club. We were escorted to the "VIP room" and were not told about the extra SAR 30 charge per person. Although this was disappointing, the area is a mix of 1960's mood lighting, lava lamps, odd kitsch, and a hunter's room with hunted animals every where. Add in Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (a bit of irony for the Kingdom) and a few huge screen TVs - the place is a den for sports fans in Riyadh. We were told the place sells out on football nights. The food was international in style and average. The pizza had too much cheese. Overall the food was average, but the decor and oddity of finding a place like this in Riyadh will entice a return visit during a football match. There is a family side that looks just as interesting. SAR 60/SAR 90 VIP.
- Avadh, on Tahlia across the street from Outback Steakhouse (go West on Tahlia from Olaya until you see Avadh on the left, across the street from Outback Steakhouse). Avadh is a traditional north Indian restaurant on the Tahlia strip (western style shops/restaurants). The family section is quite nice. The food is traditional, authentic, and expensive in comparison to other Indian restaurants. The naan and roti are fresh. The lamb "dum style" was the best dish of those ordered. SAR 120/person.
- Taste Of India, Batha Main Str (Near 2nd Cross Bridge, just behind the Mist multi-shop.), ☎ 4091333/0505923330. regular. Indian (North and South) food at reasonable rates. The settings are nice and clean, dishes range from delicious biryanis and tandoors to south Indian rice specialties. 10-40 SAR.
- Mondo, Intercontinental Hotel 7F (across King Fahad Road from the Ministry of Interior). Probably the most expensive and highest quality restaurant in Riyadh, with varied, international cuisine. SR100-300 per person, not including taxes, service or drinks.
- Al-Nakheel, Khozama Centre 7F (next to Al-Khozama Hotel). Dubbed no less than the best restaurant in Saudi by a certain well-known travel guide, one can only presume that either standards in Riyadh have skyrocketed or this place has gone into terminal decline. With decor unchanged since the 1970s and an uninspired buffet (no a la carte menu) of the usual Arabic standbys, the only visitors seem to be tour groups and hotel guests -- the locals know you can get better stuff for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Dinner buffet SR110, not including taxes, service or drinks.
- Sheraton Riyadh offers a very rich buffet for breakfast, covering a wide spectrum of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern delicacies, as well as regular European food. The Italian restaurant in the ground floor of Sheraton Riyadh is excellent. The pasta with its freshly prepared sauce is recommended.
- Spazio: located at the top floor of Kingdom Center, this restaurant is nominally Italian but in fact serves a varied international cuisine. Despite the view and cost, the food is not especially impressive.
- Fairuz Garden: Excellent Lebanese restaurant with outdoor seating. Driving north on King Fahd road, just a few blocks from Kingdom Tower, you will see it on your right. The setting is lovely and food is delicious.
With alcohol, cinema and nightclubs all banned, Riyadh's nightlife is infamously nonexistent. Even that mainstay of the Arab street, shisha (water pipe) cafes, are banned from the center of town — although they can be found just outside city limits at Thumamah St, about 10 km away from the center off the road to the airport. Ask a local (or any taxi driver) for his favorite. What's left, then, are coffeeshops, which can be found in abundance throughout the city, particularly on Tahlia St (officially Prince Mohammed Bin Abdul Aziz St) in Olaya.
For the foreign workers - the expats - the social life can be quite (well, comparatively) rich however. There are always a good party going on in the embassy area or in one of the compounds. And at these private parties there's always a chance to find some illegal booze.
In case you run into it, especially within expat communities, Saudi champagne refers to a non-alcoholic drink, typically a mix of Sprite and apple cider.
- The Globe, Al-Faisaliah (entry via South Lobby), ☎ +966-1-2732000. Suspended 240 meters above Riyadh in the giant glass ball of the al-Faisaliah building, the Globe is the hippest cafe-restaurant and probably the single best splurge in town. So dimly lit at night that the waiters fade into the shadows, you can settle back in a plush leather seat, order a bottle of (non-alcoholic) bubbly, puff on a Cohiba and watch the lights of the city twinkle below. Reservations required, but they'll make one for you at the lobby if there's space. On the way out, stop at "the experience" level outdoor viewing platform. Day SR100, night SR170 minimum charge, dinner SR175.
- Scoler Express, Khozama Center, ☎ +96614622780. One of half a dozen cafes in the alley between al-Faisaliah and the Khozama Hotel, this is the only one that's not an obvious chain outlet. The menu has a good range of drinks hot, cold, caffeinated and juicy, including espressos made with fancy Tonino Lamborghini gear, and the outdoor seating is cooled down with a nifty water spraying system. SR10.
Riyadh's main roads are nothing but one shopping mall after another.
- Al Faisaliah, Olaya Rd. At the foot of the Al Faisaliah skyscraper, this is one of Riyadh's swankiest malls, anchored by a Harvey Nichols department store. The food court on the third floor is among the best in the Kingdom; the one in the basement, on the other hand, is deserted. There is a fun park in the basement near the entrance on Olaya road. Families only Wed-Fri.
- Al Mamlaka, Olaya Rd (Kingdom Centre). One of the swankiest malls in the Kingdom, with the third floor Ladies Kingdom reserved exclusively for women. Good food court on the lower level and even a Planet Hollywood restaurant.
- Jarir Bookstore (Makatba Jarir), Olaya Rd (south of Musa ibn Nosayr St). The two-level flagship store of Saudi Arabia's largest bookstore, most of the store is actually taken up by a wide range of computer gear, stationary, music and DVDs. The best English-language magazine and book selection in Saudi — which, alas, isn't saying all that much.
- Sahara Mall, Intersection of King Abdul Aziz Rd and Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Rd. Enormous mall on the northern side of the city. The mall has 180 shops anchored by a Tamimi supermarket and features what may be the largest food court in the city — and if you can't find what you want here, the adjacent Sahara Plaza annex has more.
- Localizer Mall, Tahlia St. A great place to visit if you are in Tahlia. They have wide range of clothing store as well as fine dining restaurant such as Outback.
Granada Mall, near the airport has a Carrefour, H&M and Sun & Sands shops
Traditional markets (souqs)
- Souq al-Thumairi (شارع الثميري), Deira (next to Masmak Fortress). Also known as Antique Souq, this is Riyadh's most touristy souq, which isn't saying all that much. It specializes in Arabic goods cheap and expensive, authentic and fake, with carpets, coffee pots, daggers, jewelry and more. Most of it is made elsewhere, nothing is authentically Saudi. English is generally spoken, and haggling is obligatory.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Riyadh on Wikivoyage.