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.
King Abdulaziz on the way to recapturing Riyadh
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 (طريق الملك فهد tariq al-malek al-Fahd), which runs north to south across the city, and Makkah Rd (aka Khurais Rd), which runs west to east, intersecting at Cairo Square — which is actually just a cloverleaf interchange.
The modern business districts of Olaya (العليا, pron. Oleyah) and Suleimaniyah, containing most offices and better hotels, are to the north of Makkah Rd. Here Riyadh's two skyscrapers serve as handy orientation points: Faisaliah Tower (the pointy one) is towards the southern end of Olaya, while Kingdom Centre (the bottle opener) is at the northern end. Both are located between King Fahd Rd and the parallel thoroughfare of Olaya Rd, which is Riyadh's main upscale shopping strip.
The historical core of Riyadh is to the south of Makkah Rd. The district of al-Murabba hosts the sprawling grounds of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Park, home to the National Museum and the Murabba Palace, while a kilometer to the south is the dense warren of al-Bathaa, host to the city's cheapest food, lodging and shopping and the hub of the minibus network. Further south yet is Deira, centered on as-Sa'ah Square, which has souqs (traditional markets), the Masmak Fortress and, more morbidly, the execution grounds.
Located squarely in the middle of the central highlands of the Nejd, 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.
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. The terminals are right next to each other and are connected at the arrivals level, so transfers involve lugging your stuff for a few hundred meters or, more sensibly, hiring a porter to do the job.
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.
When checking in, one airport quirk bears noting: you have to pass your bags through an X-ray before checking in, and after getting your boarding pass, you have go right through the same security gate in reverse to find immigration and departures. Don't go up the staircase — it's a dead end leading only leading to the viewing lounge.
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 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.
The main East-West road through Riyadh is Highway 40 from Dammam and the causeway from Bahrain to Khobar with other road links mainly leading to the North of the Kingdom.
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. Drivers will usually use the meter without asking if you do not propose a fixed price, and with a starting fare of SR 5 and the meter ticking up SR 1.60/km after the first kilometer, most metered trips within the city cost under SR 30. However, locals usually prefer to negotiate fares in advance, and this can often be cheaper than using the meter: short hops start at SR 10, a longer journey might be SR 15.
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. Note that solo male travelers are expected to hop into the front seat, next to the driver.
Flat-fare minibuses (SR 3) rumble the streets of Riyadh, but these are mostly used by laborers. They are quite difficult for the casual visitor to use: there are no posted stops, and routes are usually written only in Arabic. Most routes converge on al-Bathaa, and the adventurous visitor can try his luck on route 9, which runs from al-Bathaa up Olaya Road.
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. In al-Bathaa, though, the situation is almost reversed: some of the alleys are too narrow or congested for cars, and walking is the only way of getting around.
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 floodlit at night
The pointy facade of the National Museum
Riyadh at night, seen from the Skybridge of the Kingdom Centre
Masmak Fortress (قصرالمصمك 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-noon 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.SR15.
Thinking of going to see a beheading?
"You don't want to see one," an older friend of mine named Fred told me a short time later.
"Believe me, you're going to see enough ugly stuff by the time you're my age without having to carry around the memory of a beheading the rest of your life," Fred said. "You think it won't bother you, but it's a hard thing to see. Harder to forget. Wish I never went."
As-Sa'ah 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 will 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 4-9 PM. Undoubtedly Riyadh's most stunning piece of modern architecture, at 305m the Kingdom Centre is the 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.SR25 (Skybridge).
Although almost no Saudis play 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 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 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.
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. 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.
Traditional markets (souqs)
Souq al-Thumairi (شارعالثميري), 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. English is generally spoken, and haggling is obligatory.
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.
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 miniscule in size but cheap at SR3 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.
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.
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.
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.SR30.
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.
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 just outside city limits at Thumamah St, about 10km 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...
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 SR300-SR600+.
Scoler, Khozama Center. 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.
This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Most of Riyadh's budget accommodation is in al-Batha.
Al Jazeera Hotel, Al Bathaa Street, +966 1 412 3479. Good value hotel offering singles/doubles from SR60/100.
Al Batraa, Al-Dai'ri Ring Road, +966 1 248 4310. Furnished, clean apartments in the Al-Quds district.
Almuthana, King Fahd Rd (between Tahlia St and Faisaliah), ☎ +966-1-2931230, . Modern, stylish hotel offering four-star quality at half the price of its branded equivalants, but service is rather inept. Free wireless internet, small indoor pool and limited gym (open only in the evening).SR300.
White Palace (Al-Qasr Al-Abiyad), King Abdul Aziz Street, ☎ +966 1 478 7800. Pleasant hotel in the Al-Dubat district, with character and a total of 135 rooms, all furnished with a TV and ensuite bathrooms. Singles/doubles SR160/200.
Faisaliah tower (right) and the al-Faisaliah hotel (left)
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 SR600.
Al Faisaliah, King Fahd Rd, ☎ +966-1-2732000, . Located in the same complex as the Faisaliah tower (but not in the tower itself), this is probably Riyadh's top hotel. Impeccably stylish, excellent service and priced to match — a coffee in the lobby will set you back SR60!SR1400.
Al Khozama, Olaya Rd, ☎ +966-1-4654650, . Once among Riyadh's top hotels, but now getting a bit long in the tooth. Somewhat cramped but clean rooms. The location right next to al-Faisaliah is excellent though.SR800.
Four Seasons Riyadh, Kingdom Tower, King Fahd Rd, ☎ +966 1 211 5000, . It doesn't get any cooler than staying in the 302-meter itself, and the Four Seasons features what you expect from a luxury hotel.Singles from SR1200, doubles from SR1400.
Holiday Inn Al-Qasr, Olaya Main Rd, ☎ +966-1-4625000, . Formerly the Howard Johnson Olaya Palace, but thoroughly renovated and reopened in 2007. Modern design, decent rooms, central location, basic gym. Internet SR100/day, breakfast buffet SR105.Rooms from SR550.
Intercontinental Hotel, ☎ +966 1 465 5000. Popular hotel for visiting businessmen. Large meeting facilities, good restaurants, close to Olaya Road business district.
Luthan Spa and Hotel, Aruba Rd (Near King Khalid Eye Hospital), ☎ +966-1-4807799, . The first and only women-only hotel in Saudi. Most visitors are locals coming here for the spa, but there are also 25 rooms for overnight visitors.SR350-979.
Marriott Riyadh, ☎ +966-1-4779300, . In desperate need of a facelift and awkwardly located to the east of the city core. About the best that can be said is that it's clean and quiet.SR1000.
Radisson SAS Riyadh, King Abdulaziz St, ☎ +966-1-4791234, . Very comfortable modern hotel with a Scandinavian touch. Nice gym with two saunas and pools, free Internet and a rather good breakfast. Has four in-house restaurants including a Japanese and an Italian one.SR800.
Sheraton Hotel, King Fahd Rd, ☎ +966-1-4543300, . checkin: 3 PM; checkout: noon. Older but well-maintained property about 3 km north of the city center, handy for both the airport and doing business. Good restaurants, but virtually nothing within walking distance.SR900.
Internet cafes can be found in the computer souq in Olaya.
Riyadh is among the most conservative cities in Saudi Arabia. The mutaween (religious police) are numerous in Riyadh and not to be messed with. Women must cover themselves with an abaya (available in shops everywhere in Riyadh) and it's advisable to carry a headscarf as well. Read, understand and follow the guidelines in the Saudi Arabia article to stay out of trouble.
In 2002-2004, Riyadh was the site of numerous terrorist attacks on Westerners, including shootings, car bombings and kidnappings, culminating in the May 12, 2003 compound bombings that killed 35 and injured over 160. In response, Saudi security forces cracked down brutally, and there have been no terrorist attacks in Riyadh since 2004. Security remains very tight though, particularly at housing compounds for foreigners, and police and army units, often heavily armed, are a common sight in the city.
Riyadh can be challenging destination to live and work in. Some tips for easier adaptation:
Arrange a car and driver, or at least arrange a regular cabbie. This is easier, safer and quite possibly cheaper than relying on taxis for transport.
Organize your day around prayer times, with late lunches (after noon prayers) and very late dinners (after evening prayers).
Socializing with the family-oriented Saudis is virtually impossible, so get in touch with the local expat community if you want to have any semblance of a social life.
Try to get out of Riyadh on the weekends, when virtually everything is closed or inaccessible to single males.
If your budget stretches to flights, Saudi Arabia is your oyster, with the entire country within a 1.5-hour radius of Riyadh.
Jeddah — the largest port on the Red Sea and the gateway to Mecca and Medina, but with good scuba diving too
Bahrain — if you have a car, the 4-hour drive through the desert to the comparatively liberal state of Bahrain is not too bad