Riyadh skyline at dusk

Sunset in Riyadh. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

A Weekend Guide to Riyadh

Riyadh is the capital and most populous city in Saudi Arabia, and its tourism industry is set to expand as a result of increased visa availability and cultural liberalizations. As the city has emerged as one of the Middle East’s key business hubs, business travelers have been extending their time in the city in order to explore its unique cultural and historical sights.

Located in the midst of an arid desert, this former walled village built on historic tribal trading routes has quickly emerged as a glitzy modern city. And as the capital, Riyadh is at the center of a changing society that is rapidly developing both culturally and practically.

The city can appear conservative at first, but with a little know-how, you can enjoy your time as you extend your work trip in Riyadh. Until the much-anticipated Riyadh Metro opens, traversing the grid street system is best done by taxi, Uber or Careem. If you do take a taxi, be sure to bring Saudi Riyals and plan to pay for your ride in cash.

It is important to keep in mind that in Saudi Arabia, the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday. Here’s how to best enjoy your time in the capital.

Day 1

Riyadh’s central business district could easily rival nearby Dubai for its towering skyscrapers and glass high-rises that push the boundaries of architecture. Walk past the tallest building in the city, the 1,010-foot Burj Rafal Hotel, and look up to see if the top is shrouded in clouds.

Also scan the skies for the golden ball that seems to hover above the Al Faisaliah Tower, the first skyscraper built in Saudi Arabia, said to be inspired by a ballpoint pen.

things to do in riyadh
The Al Faisaliah Tower. (Photo: Getty Images)

Stop off for a bite to eat at Riyadh’s premier restaurant, The Globe, inside the ball at the top of the Al Faisaliah Tower. Dine on modern European dishes or enjoy afternoon tea as you watch the sun setting across the city and the skies glowing with a red hue — a phenomenon common in the desert.

As evening falls, head to the 992-foot-tall Kingdom Centre Tower; the building’s upper third is constructed as an inverted arch that lights up with a show of neon beams dancing in the night sky.

Take the elevator to the 99th-floor sky bridge, which spans some 213 feet, and don’t leave without taking a selfie with the city and surrounding deserts as a backdrop. You’ll stand in good company alongside the many smartly dressed Saudis who come here with their families.

Day 2

Start the day in Old Dir’aiyah (Riyadh), where the city long ago emerged as a walled oasis. A few ruins are all that is left of the original walls, with a handful of crumbling mud-brick houses.

things to do in riyadh
The Masmak Fortress. (Photo: Getty Images)

At the center of the old district you will find the towering clay and mud Masmak Fortress. Walk through the al-Khokha, a narrow opening in the door just large enough for one person to pass, climb one of the four watchtowers and look out across the city. Pause and imagine Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his army attacking the fortress in 1902 when they were recapturing the city.

Next, head to the tribal home of the Saudi royal family in the Al-Turaif District. Depending on which way your taxi driver chooses to travel, you’ll pass one of three impressive historic palaces — Al-Murabba Palace (the home of King Abdul Aziz), Shamsiya Palace or Al-Yamama Palace (home of King Salman).

Once in Al-Turaif, you will find countless sandy palaces and important architectural sites. Spend some time admiring the Guest House, a former hotel where visiting dignitaries would stay; the At-Turaif bath house; and the Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the country.

You can’t miss the imposing sand-colored Saad ibn Saud Palace, the first royal palace of the Al Saud family and the base of one of the first independent Arab states in the Gulf.

After a day exploring Saudi history, satisfy your hunger at Najd Village, a restaurant serving popular local dishes, including kabsa (meat and rice) and shawarma (roasted meat), in a traditional Saudi building. Opt to dine in the courtyard and choose from the set menu of 14 dishes, or sample a sharing plate beside the stone fireplace.

After dinner, head back to the city center and enjoy a stroll along the wide walkways of King Abdullah park, then relax while watching its popular evening fountain show.

Day 3

After a traditional Arabic coffee pick-me-up in Café Bateel or a hearty buffet breakfast at the Atrium Café at the Riyadh Marriott Hotel, arrange to meet your taxi and prepare for a journey into Saudi nature.

About 25 miles from the center of Riyadh, you’ll experience the seclusion of Ain Heet Cave, an expanse of underground caverns and hidden lakes that many people would not expect to find in one of the driest countries in the world.

Walk through the cave’s entrance and along an ever-narrowing passageway for about 330 feet. You’ll eventually encounter a small freshwater lake that’s a perfect place for a dip.

things to do in riyadh
The At-Turaif bath house. (Photo: Getty Images)

End the day with a visit to the National Museum, the largest museum in Saudi Arabia, which showcases how the country emerged from its tribal roots, as well as the influence of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula and the development of human civilization in this harsh part of the world.

If you’re more interested in glimpsing dramatic natural vistas than heading underground or into museums, plan a day trip to the Edge of the World, a spread of steep, towering cliffs that dramatically rise nearly 1,000 feet from the desert floor — the ancient result of shifting tectonic plates. Standing atop the cliffs offers an extraordinary, uninterrupted view of the rocky desert landscape — keep your eyes open for the remnants of dried river beds and other geological formations.

TIPS FOR TRAVEL TO RIYADH

The Saudi Kingdom’s announcement of the launch of a new tourist visa program is expected to open up the country to mass tourism for the first time. As more visitors head to this religiously conservative country, it’s critical they understand some travel basics when visiting the Kingdom.

Respect Islamic Traditions

Saudi Arabia is a deeply Islamic country, and it is important to respect the religious sensitivities in Riyadh. While it’s common for men to shake hands with each other, women should wait until the man extends his hand before doing so, and pious Muslim men might not shake hands with women at all.

Alcohol is forbidden outside of private homes, and pork is not available anywhere in the city. Drugs, including many that can be purchased over the counter in the West, are also not available without a prescription in the city.

Dressing modestly is also required when spending time in Riyadh. Women must cover their shoulders and legs in public. Many female visitors choose to wear a scarf that can be used as a head covering when required.

During the holy month of Ramadan, eating and drinking in public during daylight hours is strictly forbidden. At night, however, restaurants and cafés host large iftar meals to break the fast. When eating, avoid using your left hand, as it’s considered unclean.

Stay Safe in Riyadh

Riyadh has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so safety should not be a problem. Driving can be erratic, and taking a taxi is the safest way to get around the city; many local drivers frequently do not signal, stop at lights or abide by speed limits.

Taking a taxi or hiring a car with a driver who is familiar with local driving conditions is the best way to travel quickly and safely between sights.

Hotel Etiquette

The rules on hotel stays have recently undergone significant changes to attract more Western tourists to the Kingdom. Unmarried couples are now allowed to share hotel rooms, and foreign solo female travelers can stay in hotels alone.