Riyadh is considered the most straight-laced of the Kingdom's big three cities. With most forms of entertainment banned, few sights of interest and a brutal climate, Riyadh is mostly a business destination. Although everyone adheres to the dress code thawb for men and abaya for women, you might come across many Saudis in Westernized clothing. English is spoken by most Saudis (most in Riyadh speak it well) as well as most foreigners.
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.
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, the Governor's offices and, more morbidly, the execution grounds.
Located in the middle of the country, Riyadh suffers from the worst of Saudi Arabia's climatic extremes. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 45°C, while winter temperatures can fall to just above 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.
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. However FRAPort, the owner of Germany's Frankfurt airport, has recently started to manage KKIA and is slowly improving things. Fairly spacious shopping areas can now be found in terminals 1 and 2, there is a choice of coffee and snack shops, and new light and spacious, if a little warm, Lounges have been opened for Business and First Classes on the right side upper level of terminal 1 (by Gates 17/18) where the old viewing area was. Please note that some airlines are not partnered with the Lounge and there is a charge of SAR160 (Business) or SAR210 (First) for those airlines' passengers to use the Lounges. The business class lounge offers free wi-fi, hot and cold buffet, and hot and cold drinks (and probably cleaner toilets!)
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. It is also possible to walk between terminals 1 and 2 once air-side.
Aside from Saudia, direct connections from outside the Gulf and South Asia are surprisingly limited, but options includes Lufthansa from Frankfurt and Munich, British Airways from London-Heathrow, Air France/Saudi (code and operator share) from Paris, Turkish Airlines from Istanbul-Ataturk 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, immigration and customs clearance at Riyadh is usually fairly straightforward (unless the computer system is down). Beware that standing in the wrong line for immigration may work out fine for you, or you may be catapulted back to the end of a different line when you hit the front position (making all that waiting worthless). The row for "Exit / Entry Visas" is only for resident expats that have left the country temporarily, to visit family for example; although this is often ignored.
You'll probably be accosted by touts as 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. If you've let yourself be scored by one of the private drivers (that are not only inside the terminal building but also outside), make sure the price you agreed on is truly agreed on, or your driver may tell you that he didn't agree to 80 Rial but rather 180, meaning you'll settle on 120. The better bet is taking an official taxi! A good alternative - if offered - is to take a hotel limousine. These are often not much more expensive than the taxi trip, but mostly high-quality, comfortable cars rather than run-down, creaky old clunkers with worn-through seats.
The trip to the city takes about 30 minutes in good traffic. Don't be irritated if the taxi is stopped at a control point by police (at which time the driver will put on his seatbelt and his mobile onto handsfree, two actions that are usually reversed as soon as the control point is passed).
Allow plenty of time when traveling from this airport. Only travelling passengers will be able to proceed more than a few meters beyond the airport entrance. There are 2 sets of check in counters available in terminal one - left and right. In general these counters open 2 hours before flight time as many are shared with other airlines. Each set of counters has 2 x-ray machines where you must first scan all your luggage (hold and carry-on) before you get to the check-in counters; and only travelling passengers are allowed through this area and the lines can be quite long. Once you have checked in and obtained boarding documents, you must then pass through passport control and additional x-ray machines. The length of time for this part of departure is difficult to predict given the number of flights leaving in proximity to one another. There is a "Family Lounge" area upstairs on the left from the Terminal 1 check-in area before passing through passport control (as of 18 Sept 2013 - this lounge is closed and under renovation).
Riyadh's train station is approximately in the middle of the city, with seven trains daily to Dammam (six stopping at Al-Hofuf and Al-Hasa and one nonstop) in each direction. Try to show up 30 minutes early, as you'll need to pass through security before boarding. There is a brand new train station located on the northern outskirts of the city (near the airport) with daily trains to Ha'il via Majma'ah and Qassim.
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 with several stops on the way.
Most roads are tarmacked, 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 in Riyadh is badly underdeveloped. There are street addresses everywhere in Riyadh, but normally mail is delivered to post office boxes. Getting around requires knowing landmarks near the place where you want to go.
If you are travelling by your own car then it is wise to carry a GPS. Plan your route before start of journey. Although many streets, roads and landmarks are marked in both Arabic & English yet there are few important major streets, roads and exits that are still marked in Arabic only.
It is important to carry your Valid Identification (i.e. Passport / National ID / Iqama) at all the times. You may experience difficulties obtaining accommodation and may experience bigger problems if you are stopped at any of the city's check points (these can be both permanent or temporary). Not being able to show valid identification when asked by the police may land you in jail. Therefore, it is also advisable to keep details of your sponsor on hand in case you require assistance while out and about.
Riyadh is building a metro system which is under construction, and expected to become operational in 2021.
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. Ride hailing apps such as Uber and Careem are popular.
Single women are legally allowed to take registered public taxis, but many female visitors and expats choose not to, opting for transport provided by a hotel, their company or compound instead.
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. Solo male travelers are expected to hop into the front seat, next to the driver, while women must sit in the back.
Drivers are usually familiar with major local landmarks, but you're expected to know your way to your destination from there. Bring a map and the phone number of someone at your destination to call for directions.
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.
Since June 24/2018, women are allowed to drive. If you are visiting the Kingdon you can use your international driver license.
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.
But if you're the fearless type, walking along even the wider roads is a great way to see the city, as you'll be too distracted by constant near-misses while riding in a taxi. Stay in the shade, be careful along stretches without a pedestrian walkway (or one that is blocked off due to construction going on), and you'll be fine.
Sightseeing in Riyadh is a frustrating exercise in careful timing: not only are most sites closed on weekends (Fri/Sat) 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
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 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.
Although few 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 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. For people who are moving to Riyadh/ new residents, the city has a good number of well-equipped modern Gym for men and women. Some fitness centres for women, apart from independent ones scattered throughout the city, can be found in big hospitals (e.g. Hammadi hospital and King Faisal specialist hospital).
Riyadh's main roads are nothing but one shopping mall after another.
Hyperpanda in approx all parts of city
Othaim Hypermarket (mostly their larger stores exists as Othaim Malls)
Lulu Hypermarket in Al Bathaa St. and Al Murraba and Al Nahda
Nesto Hypermarket in Al Bathaa
G-Mart in Al Bathaa near Wasir st. and Khazan st. intersection
Traditional markets (souqs)
Eating out is one of the pleasures of Riyadh — there's a pretty good selection of restaurants for various cuisines, ranging from cheap and hearty to fancy and expensive. The famous Saudi "Kabssa" is worth trying, this spiced up rice, served with chicken or lamb is the main and most favourable dish/meal in the kingdom.
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 SR 6-11.
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.
With alcohol and nightclubs all banned, due to Saudi Arabia being an Islamic country, Riyadh's nightlife is limited. 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. One place you can go for coffee is in coffee shops, 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 rich however. There are always a good party going on in the embassy area or in one of the compounds. In case you run into it, especially within expat communities, Saudi champagne, a non-alcoholic drink, typically a mix of Sprite and apple cider is available.
Most of Riyadh's budget hotel, apartment, and motel accommodations is in al-Batha although if you rent a room from an expatriate and share the utility costs with them, you may be able to haggle your way down to paying 810 SAR a month. An alternative cheap living if the cheap co-rent is unavailable is a budget hotel. It is advised that you should check the room condition and proper functioning of all equipment (e.g. TAP/FLUSH/TV/Power Outlets etc.)in budget hotel prior to check in.
At the upper end, hotel prices in Riyadh have increased rapidly in the past few years and are now almost as expensive as Dubai. Expect to pay north of SR600.
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Internet cafes can be found in the computer souq in Olaya. Riyadh is also pushing forward with its "Smart City" program, which will attempt to provide wireless access throughout the city in the major coffeeshops and hotels, particularly on Tahlia St in the downtown area.
Riyadh is more conservative than Jeddah or the Eastern Province. 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 terrorist attacks on westerners. 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. But Riyadh is now much safer than 11 years ago. You will probably not be bothered. The people are generally helpful and will be interested in helping you.
Although Riyadh has one of the lowest crime rates in world, standard precautions should be taken. The most significant danger to you is driving. Most drivers originate from areas in developing countries and the Middle East which lack traffic laws, driving schools, or even roads for that matter. It's a 'driving culture' where seat belts, mirrors, lane stripes, turn signals and speed limits are ignored. A four-lane highway can easily transform into a seven-lane 'racetrack'. Don't be shy with your horn.
Riyadh can be a challenging destination to live and work in. Some tips for easier adaptation:
If your budget stretches to flights, Saudi Arabia is your oyster, with the entire country within a 1.5-hour radius of Riyadh.