Welcome to one of the wealthiest cities in the world, home to Saudi Arabia's best museum, a World Heritage Site that relates the Kingdom's genesis story, and some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the country.
Once a walled, mud-brick way station along desert trading routes, Riyadh (meaning 'garden') from afar is a picture of soaring modern towers rising up above the surrounding desert. Up close, it can appear cautious and sober and feels more conservative than other Saudi cities like Jeddah. But the winds of change sweeping the nation are also affecting the capital. A long overdue metro system is on its way, as is a public bus service, and the atmosphere is far more liberal than it has ever felt before. Riyadh recently hosted the country's very first music festival, where a female singer performed live for the first time in Saudi history.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Riyadh.
Surrounded by sand, this squat fortification was built around 1865 and is like a scene out of the movies: a big fortress representing an empire. It was the site of a daring 1902 raid by Ibn Saud, during which a spear was hurled at the main entrance door with such force that the head is still lodged in the doorway. Highlights among the exhibits include maps and fascinating photographs of Saudi Arabia dating from 1912 to 1937, in galleries converted from diwans (living rooms).
This state-of-the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Encased within modernist architecture, its two floors contain eight well-designed and informative galleries covering Arabian prehistory, history, culture and art. The galleries beautifully display evocative rock carvings, engaging models and even a full-scale reconstruction of a Nabataean tomb from Madain Saleh. Films in English shown on 180-degree screens complement the exhibits, as do virtual visits to historical sites and other excellent interactive displays.
Accessible only for children and those accompanying them, this is the largest zoo in Saudi Arabia and began life in 1957 as a small-scale menagerie housing animals gifted to the Al Saud family. Its highlights include the houbara bustard bird, which is almost extinct in the wild in Saudi Arabia. Late afternoon is the best time to visit, when the weather is cooler and kids can ride the mini trains.
The Globe Experience is a spectacular viewing platform inside an enormous glass ball that's 24m in diameter, made of 655 glass panels and suspended just below the top of Al Faisaliah Tower. The panoramic views of Riyadh from inside the Globe are most magical at sunset and early evening. Designed by British architect Norman Foster and built in 2000 by the Saudi Bin Laden construction company, the Al Faisaliah was the first of Riyadh’s major skyscrapers.
Riyadh’s landmark tower, rising 302m high, is a stunning piece of modern architecture – it’s particularly conspicuous at night, when the upper sweep is lit with constantly changing coloured lights. Its most distinctive feature is the steel-and-glass 300-tonne bridge connecting the two towers. High-speed lifts fly you (at 180km/h) to the 99th-floor Sky Bridge, from where the views are breathtaking.
This museum is home to objects found during the Faw and Rabdha excavations (sites in the south and north of Saudi Arabia) by King Saud University in the 1970s. These include beautiful little Roman and Hellenic statues of Hercules and Apollo. There are also ancient inscriptions yet to be deciphered, porcelain, pottery, jewellery, coins, frescoes: items that suggest a highly cultured society once lived at the excavated sites.
Riyadh is rapidly constructing an entire public transportation system, and this structure allows transport geeks a look into the future. Guided tours, offered in Arabic and English, highlight the need for the project through videos, fun-fact graphics and interactive models, and dioramas give perspective on the capital’s sprawl. The highlight is hopping aboard three of the city’s shiny new metro-train prototypes on show, including the golden-hued 1st-class cabins.
Not for the faint-hearted or sufferers of vertigo, here high-speed lifts fly you at 180km/h to the 99th-floor Sky Bridge, inside the Kingdom Centre. The views from the highest place in Riyadh are truly breathtaking. Avoid weekends and evenings after 6pm, when it can get very crowded. Tickets can be bought at the booth on the 2nd floor near the Carolina Herrera shop or at the machines nearby. Both only accept cash.
After visiting the umpteenth mall and restaurant, head a little further out towards Wadi Namar for a pleasant change. The 2km-long dam is surrounded by green spaces, walkways, rocky hills and an artificial waterfall in the middle. You can ride bikes here, take long walks or simply relax by the lake and feed the ducks. At weekends it's as if the whole of Riyadh descends here to have barbecues and picnics or to just sit with a shisha pipe.