As the capital city of one of the more difficult nations to visit in the world, it is tempting to believe that there is nothing much of interest to do in Riyadh. To the intrepid traveler though, the mere act of being in one of the lesser visited cities on Earth from a tourism standpoint is reason enough to make the trip.
While the number of bona-fide attractions here are limited, there is at least a day or two where one can get used to the social norms in this deeply conservative country while seeing what the Riyadh area has to offer. On this point, take the time to plan out your sightseeing properly to account for restrictions placed on women, as some sites require the accompaniment of a male, while some ban women entirely. Other sites are inaccessible during prayer time, or on the Islamic Sabbath (Friday) and holidays, so be sure to ask a local before heading out to certain points of interest to avoid disappointment.
Despite these frustrating aspects of Saudi culture, you are in their backyard, so take these hurdles, unfair as they may be, in stride … after all, you are a traveler, and not a tourist. Adapting to different cultures is what you do best!
Before you depart the capital city for the more fascinating aspects of Saudi Arabia, do take some time to look around this mysterious metropolis that has been largely built on the backs of the booming oil industry, but retains its staunchly Islamic roots in spite of the influences of modernism.
The origins of the present day city of Riyadh has its roots in the conquest of the Masmak Fortress by the ancestors of the present day royal family. Originally built in 1865 by rivals of the Al Saud clan after driving them out of Riyadh, this fort was taken back in 1902 after extensive planning by Ibn Saud from his home in exile in Kuwait. They have retained control since that day, going on to become the dominant political force in Saudi Arabia, uniting much of the Arabian Peninsula into the nation we all know today.
The museum contains depictions of the early days of Saudi Arabia, along with the great gains made by the nation since the dawn of the oil age. Hours of visitation are important to note here, as Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings are open for men only, Friday mornings are closed due to the Sabbath, and Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday-Sunday afternoons are family hours, when women and children are permitted to drop by the fort.
Being home to the Saudi Royal Family starting in 1938, Murabba Palace was the entry point through which many modern innovations eventually found their way into Saudi society. With cars, generator electric power, and indoor plumbing being installed in this royal residence, and much of the palace left with accoutrements that effectively make it a living history museum, this palatial structure is a glance into the lives of Saudi royals, as experienced over 50 years ago.
Again, note the gender specific hours, as the palace is open only to men on Tuesdays in the afternoon, and in the morning on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Sunday and Monday, and Wednesday through Friday afternoons are open to families, while the entire complex is closed on Saturday.
For a general overview of the story of Saudi Arabia, heading to the National Museum will accomplish this end sufficiently. While the story of the rise of Saudi Arabia is chronicled, its pre-history with regards to the life and ministry of the Prophet Mohammed is also covered, making this place a must visit for those looking to learn about Mecca and Medina via high-tech presentations (access to both these cities is barred to non-Muslims). Gender specific hours: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Thursday: 9 am – 1pm for men, 4:30 – 9 pm for families; Tuesday: 9 am – noon for women, 4:30 – 9pm for men; Friday: 4:30 pm – 9 pm for families; Saturday: closed.
One note before we move on to the more modern/natural attractions around Riyadh: if anybody invites you to view an execution (beheading) at As-Sufaat (aka chop-chop square), we strongly discourage going. As a foreigner, they will often bring you to the front row to bring further shame upon the condemned, and you will have to live with the gory memory of witnessing a brutal beheading via sword, guts and all. You have been warned.
All the oil money that has flowed into Saudi Arabia has transformed the country from a backwater to a global petro power, and no aspect of modern Riyadh bears this out more than the imposing prominence of Kingdom Centre. A skyscraper that soars 99 stories into the deep blue sky, this place is the perfect spot to view the modernity that has sprouted up in the midst of what was largely a dry and barren desert little more than a century ago.
While the observation deck is well worth the trip, a decadent restaurant at the top, and an expensive shopping centre (one floor of which is exclusive to women … ditch your complaining husband/boyfriend and shop in peace here:) ) will allow to linger inside for a while longer, a blessing when the temperature soars above 40 degrees Celsius during the long scorching summers.
Not all of Riyadh’s surrounding hinterland is tinder dry though, as Wadi Hanifa, previously a garbage dump with a river flowing through it, was cleaned up extensively in the past generation to become a pleasant place to take a day trip for locals and expats alike. Farmland and private estates dot the 80 kilometre expanse of oasis-like wetness in the midst of a bone dry desert, but much of the land is available for public enjoyment, so take some food out here with local friends and have a BBQ lunch with them if you manage to befriend them on your travels.
If you’re looking to play like the locals as well, follow them out to the Thumama Sand Dunes and participate in some dush-bashing. This petroleum and adrenaline-fuelled sport sees locals and guided tourists taking everything from quads and motorbikes to full-on SUV’s up the side of soft sand dunes in the pursuit of excitement in the desert. Take care not to get stuck or flip your vehicle, and you’ll be certain to have an exhilarating time with your new Saudi friends!