Riyadh (الرياض ar-Riyāḍ) is the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Known by local wags as the Dead Center of the Kingdom, Riyadh is the most straight-laced of the Kingdom's big cities. With most forms of entertainment banned, few sights of interest and a brutal climate, Riyadh is a business-only destination if there ever was one, but it's also the best place in the Kingdom to watch the continuing collision of tribal Wahhabi conservatism grappling with modern technology and Western influences.
A dusty little oasis of under 10,000 people only a hundred years ago, 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 bin 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.
Riyadh is vast and sprawling. The main roads are King Fahd Rd (north-south) and Makkah Rd (west-east). The historical core of Al-Bathaa lies along King Fahd Rd to the south of Makkah Rd, while the modern business districts of Olaya and Suleimaniya are to the north. Riyadh's two skyscrapers serve as handy orientation points: Faisaliyah Tower (the pointy one) is towards the southern end of Olaya, while Kingdom Centre (the bottle opener) is at the northern end.
Riyadh is a long way from anywhere, so odds are fairly high you'll be arriving by plane.
Riyadh's King Khaled Airport (IATA: RUH) is located about 35 km north of the city. A large, architecturally striking structure in white and desert brown, hypermodern when opened in 1983, it has aged reasonably well but remains a famously boring place to get stuck in: there aren't even any duty-free shops to entertain you, although there are a few mildly overpriced cafes and, of course, large prayer rooms. Sit near (or, preferably, in) the Al-Fursan lounges to mooch off their free wifi.
There are three terminals in use, with Terminal 1 used by international carriers, Terminal 2 for Saudi Arabian Airlines international flights, and Terminal 3 for all domestic flights. Aside from Saudia, direct connections from outside the Gulf are surprisingly limited, but options includes Lufthansa from Frankfurt, bmi from London-Heathrow, Air France from Paris and Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong. The most international popular route, though, is via Dubai, from where there are at least half a dozen flights daily. Domestically, Riyadh is one of the main hubs and there are flights to every corner of the Kingdom, including near-hourly departures to Jeddah.
Unlike Jeddah's pilgrim zoo, immigration and customs clearance at Riyadh is usually fairly straightforward. You'll probably be accosted by touts as you soon as you exit customs, but just ignore them and head to the taxi ranks outside. While the official taxis are supposed to use a zone-based flat fare system, with most of central Riyadh in the SR 45 or 55 zones, the list of zones is available only in Arabic. A metered fare to the city should cost around SR 70-90, but more often than not the driver will just ask for a flat fare, which may even work out a little cheaper. The trip to the city takes about 30 minutes in good traffic.
Riyadh's train station is on the western outskirts of the city, with four trains daily to Dammam via Al-Hofuf. Try to show up 30 minutes early, as you'll need to pass through security before boarding the train.
The Central Bus Terminal (tel. +966-1-2647858) is inconveniently located in the Aziziyah district some 17 km south of the city center; expect to pay at least SR30 for a taxi to get there. Buses from Dammam take a tolerable 4.5 hours, while it's a punishing 10-12 hour haul to Jeddah or Mecca.
Most roads are tarmaced, albeit to varying levels of repair. Driving standards are slightly more sensible than those of the city centres, but caution is still needed. Some highways see heavy usage from lorries and petrol tankers, often in convoy.
Riyadh is very much a car-oriented city, and public transportation is Riyadh is badly underdeveloped. There are no street addresses as such in Riyadh, as mail is delivered to post office boxes, so getting around requires knowing landmarks near the place where you want to go.
Most visitors rely on white taxis, which are abundant in the city centre but can be harder to find on the outskirts or at night. Most drivers will use the meter without even asking, and with a starting fare of SR 5 and the meter ticking up SR 1.60/km after the first kilometer, most trips within the city cost under SR 20. The level of English spoken varies from decent (esp. Indian and Pakistani drivers) to non-existent, so try to find out the name of your destination in Arabic before you head off.
Flat-fare minibuses (SR 3) rumble the streets of Riyadh, but are virtually impossible for the casual visitor to use: there are no posted stops, and routes are usually written only in Arabic.
The best option for traveling in Riyadh is your own car, ideally driven by somebody else used to the conditions, but many expats take the plunge and drive themselves. The traffic in Riyadh is, by Saudi standards, fairly sane: ubiquitous raised bumps on lane markers keep cars traveling more or less in straight line, and radar-equipped cops on the major highways zap the craziest of speeders. Still, the local driving style can charitably be described as "aggressive", with swerving from the leftmost lane to the exit ramp on a four-lane highway being par for course, and central Riyadh jams up almost daily during rush hour.
The modern, northern half of Riyadh is very pedestrian-hostile, with 8-laned roads filled with speeding SUVs making crossing the road a dangerous exercise. Pedestrian bridges are very few and even at stoplights you need to keep an eye out for crazy drivers. Add in the fearsome summer heat, and it's little surprise that there aren't too many people walking about.
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.
Although almost no Saudis are playing golf, there are surprisingly good golf courses around. The best one is the 18-holes course in Dirab Golf & Contry club a good 30 minutes drive west of Riyadh. Nice layout with green and inviting grass, and the last 9 holes are even floodlight. 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 floodlight. 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 down towards the Makkah Road for 30 minutes, and you'll end up in the Tuwaiq Escarpment. Here you will get a good feel of the desert with dunes and buttresses.
Riyadh's main roads are nothing but one shopping mall after another.
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 under 10 riyals.
Fast food places abound in Riyadh's shopping malls, with a full meal with drink averaging around 20 riyals. If you want something other than the usual hamburgers and kebabs, Pizza Hut offers a pretty good salad buffet.
With alcohol, movies, music and dancing 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 on the outskirts of town, about 10km away from the center. 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...
At the upper end, hotel prices in Riyadh have increased rapidly in the past few years and are now almost as bad as Dubai. Expect to pay north of SR500.
The Mutaween, the religious police, are numerous in Riyadh and not to be messed with. Women should cover themselves with an abaya (bought in shops everywhere in Riyadh)
Gay travelers must be very, very discreet. Men sharing a hotel room is not considered offensive since it's a common way of saving money, but take care in public.
If your budget stretches to flights, Saudi Arabia is your oyster, with the entire country within a 1.5-hour radius of Riyadh.