The city of Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia and is located in the centre of the country in the Tuwaig escarpment.
Originally an oasis settlement best known for its date orchards, Riyadh (which means 'place of gardens' in Arabic) embarked on a period of phenomenal growth in 1902 when King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud determined the city would be the centre of his Arabic kingdom. Exactly three decades later Riyadh became the capital of Saudi Arabia and its growth continued courtesy of the country’s vast and newly-discovered oil reserves.
Present day Riyadh continues to be fuelled by oil income, and the sprawling city now encompasses more than 1,600 square kilometres of towering skyscrapers and traffic-clogged highways, juxtaposed with ancient mosques and barren deserts. A modern metropolis with a population of more than five million, Riyadh is run along strict Islamic moral and cultural codes and hence foreign visitors should ensure they are aware of the rules before visiting this fascinating city.
As the most conservative of Saudi Arabia’s three big cities, Riyadh is considerably more attractive to business visitors rather than those looking for leisure. However, the sprawling city offers plenty to see and do between arrival and departure.
Despite the city’s size, it’s relatively easy to get your orientation. The main roads are King Fahd Road which runs from north to south, and Makkah Road (also known as Khurais Road) which bisects Riyadh from east to west.
The historical core of Riyadh is to the south of Makkah Road where the district of Al-Murabba hosts the expansive grounds of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Park. The park is home to the National Museum, arguably the city’s major tourist attraction and full of English language presentations and mini-theatres.
Next door is Al-Murabba Palace, constructed in 1937 by Ibn Saud and preserved as a living example of Arabian royal life in days gone by. Big enough to home a household of 800 people, the palace was frequently mistaken as the walled city of Riyadh by travellers approaching from the north.
Further south still is the district of Al-Dirah where visitors can explore the heavily renovated rooms and pillared mosque of Al Masmak Fortress. An important landmark and heritage site which was built in 1865, the fortress is intrinsically associated with the foundation of Saudi Arabia. Next door is the Antique Souq where you can haggle for Arabic goods including carpets, coffee pots, daggers and jewellery. Avoid the nearby Dirah Square on Fridays at all costs: it is known by expats as Chop-Chop Square for good reason.
Eating out is one of Riyadh’s pleasures, and with more than 40% of Riyadh’s population hailing from India, Sri Lankan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, its restaurants span a diverse range of cuisines.
Upmarket hotels, many of which can be found north of Makkah Road in Olaya and Suleimaniyah, offer a variety of equally upmarket cuisines such as French and Italian, while the city’s countless Asian restaurants will provide a filling and delicious meal for a fraction of the price. Food on-the-go abounds in Riyadh’s many shopping malls with virtually every conceivable fast food franchise is represented in the city.
Western nightlife options – and of course, alcohol – are not allowed. If an expat offers you Saudi Champagne, don’t get excited; this typically consists of a non-alcoholic mixture of lemonade and apple juice. Cinemas are also outlawed and even Shisha cafés (the social focus of most Arab cities) are banned from the city centre. Evening entertainment activities are therefore restricted to dining out or enjoying a coffee at one of the city’s abundant coffee shops, many of which can be found on Tahlia Street in Olaya.
Once the lifeblood of the Riyadh area – rich in groundwater and filled with palm groves – Wadi Hanifah is a dry riverbed which cuts through the city and suffered many misfortunes before becoming the focus of an ambitious rehabilitation project. Today, a stretch is essentially an 80km desert park which includes picnic spots along the Wadi’s jagged walls. Nearby is Al-Diriyah, the ancestral home of the Saudi royal family which served as the nation’s capital until 1818. The ruins of the old city are currently being renovated but the surrounding area is still worth a visit in the meantime.