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* <eat name="Korean Palace" alt="" address="Makkah Rd" directions="opp Holiday Inn al-Qasr" phone="+966-1-4631102" email="" fax="" url="" hours="" price="SR50">Korean-run eatery offering reasonably authentic Korean, Japanese, and Chinese food at reasonable prices.  Popular with the local Asian community.</eat>
* <eat name="Korean Palace" alt="" address="Makkah Rd" directions="opp Holiday Inn al-Qasr" phone="+966-1-4631102" email="" fax="" url="" hours="" price="SR50">Korean-run eatery offering reasonably authentic Korean, Japanese, and Chinese food at reasonable prices.  Popular with the local Asian community.</eat>
* <eat name="Assaraya" address="Talatheen St" price="SR30" phone="+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.</eat>

Revision as of 05:11, 30 April 2008

The Kingdom Centre and northern Riyadh, seen from the Al-Faisaliya building

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.


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 (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.

Get in

Riyadh is a long way from anywhere, so odds are fairly high you'll be arriving by plane.

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.

By train

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.

By bus

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.

By car

The main East-West road through Riyadh is Highway 40 from Dammam and the causeway from Bahrain to Jeddah 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.

Get around

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.

By taxi

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.

By bus

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.

By car

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.

On foot

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.


Riyadh at night, seen from the Skybridge of the Kingdom Centre
The pointy facade of the National Museum

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.

  • Kingdom Centre (المملكة Al-Mamlaka), [1]. 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 towers 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).
  • Murabba Palace.
  • Masmak Fortress.
  • 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 Madein Saleh 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.
  • 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.


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.

  • 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.
  • Al Mamlaka, Olaya Rd (Kingdom Centre), [2]. 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), [3]. 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.


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-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.
  • Shayah, Kingdom Centre B1F Food Court, [4]. 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 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...

  • The Globe, Al-Faisaliah (entry via South Lobby), +966-1-2732000, [5]. 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. Day SR100, night SR170 minimum charge.
  • Scoler, Khozama Center. One of half a dozen cafes in the alley between Khozama Center and the Al-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.



  • 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-Qouds district.


  • White Palace (Al-Quasr Al-Abiyad) Hotel, 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.


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.

  • Four Seasons Riyadh, Kingdom Tower, +966 1 211 5000, [9]. It doesn't get any cooler than staying in the 302-meter Kingdom Tower 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, [6]. Formerly the Howard Johnson Olaya Palace, but thoroughly renovated and reopened in 2007. Decent rooms, central location, free Internet, basic gym. Badly overpriced breakfast buffet (SR105). SR550.
  • Intercontinental Hotel, +966 1 465 5000. Popular hotel for visiting businessmen. Large meeting facilities, good restaurants, close to Olaya Road business district.
  • Radisson SAS Riyadh, King Abdulaziz St, +966-1-4791234, [7]. 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.
  • Luthan Spa and Hotel, Aruba Rd (Near King Khalid Eye Hospital), +966-1-4807799, [8]. 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.
  • Sheraton Hotel
  • Al Khozamah
  • Marriott


Stay safe

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.


Get out

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

This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!