Our Editorial team's advice
Riyadh, translated as 'the gardens' in English, is the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is no longer the calm green oasis that it used to be pre 1930's. Riyadh is the largest city in the country and comprises over 130 districts. Busy and polluted, it is also one of the richest city in the Middle East and it is the 80th richest city in the world. Riyadh is an important business hub in the region due to private conglomerates and companies, including national banks, setting up their headquarters here. The Olaya District is the most-visited by tourists due to its developed infrastructure including a wide range of dining, entertainment and accommodation options. The Kingdom Center, al Faisalyah and al-Tahlya Street are the area's most prominent landmarks. Another district that tends to attract tourists is the Diplomatic Quarter, or 'DQ' for short. Here, you will find the country's embassies surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. There are also a number of popular shopping centres in this area. One of the greenest parts of the city, it has some beautiful examples of Islamic architecture, which has served as a model for other structures across the Islamic world. al-Bathaa and al-Dirah, the oldest part of the city, also make up its centre to this day.
Since the expansion of the original centre of Riyadh over the years, there is very little original architecture left of what used to be a walled oasis. The city started being expanded outside its walls in the 1930's. Visitors will notice a strong modern influence in the architecture, which bears strong resemblance Dubai's futuristic skyscrapers. Much like Dubai in fact, the bulk of the action takes place along the city's main road, the King Fahd Road. The city has now outgrown Jeddah, a converging meeting point for pilgrims along the coast, in size and importance. The international airport, King Khalid International Airport is located 20 miles north of the capital.
Visit the 19th century al-Masmak Fort for original architecture of the old part of Riyadh. There are a number of original mud brick houses in the area, although most have fallen to ruins as they have never been restored. The Museum of Archeology and the Murabba Palace, which was the residence of Ibn Saud, the first Saudi King, are also worth dropping by to visit. For traditional markets like the al-Mu'eiqilia and traditional buildings, like the Grand Mosque, al-Dirah is the place to explore. Otherwise there are a number of contemporary examples of contemporary architecture to visit in order to be able to understand the evolution in style - the architecture resembles that of better-known metropolises like in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The main structures include: the Burj al Mamlakah, Burj al-Faisaliyah, Riyadh TV Tower, Ministry of Interior Building and al-Masmak Castle. And last but not least, try to attend a camel race at one of the city's numerous race tracks as these events are a strong part of local life.
A visit of the National Museum, one of the best in the region, is a must while in Riyadh. With eight floors brimming full with engaging displays of Arabia's history, including virtual visits of the country's attractions and monuments (in English), gives the visitor a good base of what to see in the city without having to trawl through its streets constantly looking at a guidebook. Make sure you experience the evening atmosphere by dining out at a shopping centre or at one of the capital's fancy luxury hotels. To get a good idea of the city's size, visit al-Faisalyah Tower's viewing platform on the 34th floor. The tower, built in 2000, was designed by Norman Foster and Partners, and it is one of the most emblematic buildings on the Riyadh skyline. If heights are your thing, then you must not miss out on being zoomed up the Kingdom Tower's Sky Bridge's 99 floors - the views are breathtaking, but it gets extremely busy at weekends, so try to go during the week if you can. For ladies wanting to do a spot of shopping away from prying male eyes, then try the Kingdom Tower Mall, which has a whole floor dedicated to women only. Masmak Fortress is one of the main monuments to see in the area - built in 1865, it is a prime example of original pre-Saudi architecture.
- + A very different interesting culture to explore.
- + The evolution in architecture.
- + Lots of great restaurants to try.
- + One of the cradles of Islam for adepts.
- - The laws are strict so you must monitor your behaviour closely at all times.
- - Not much to do unless your main interest is in the local religion.
ar-Riyadh : view all photos
To think about
Saudi Arabia's reputation for being extremely strict when it comes to abiding by local Islamic law is no myth. The authorities are extremely and mercilessly strict with locals and foreigners alike - even with diplomats, despite their immunity and privileges.
Think carefully about the clothing to bring when packing your suitcase - men, like women, must not wear short-sleeved tops/shirts and shorts are frowned upon, especially in public and this applies throughout the seasons. Religion is the basis of life here and there are no less than 4,300 places of worship in Riyadh alone.
The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal; as is an intention to convert others. The Saudi authorities do, however, accept the private practice of religions other than Islam, and you may bring a Bible into the country as long as it is for your personal use. However, importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties, as it will be viewed that it is your intention to convert others.
Homosexual behaviour and adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty.
The penalties for the possession of, or trade in, alcohol are severe. Both result in prison sentences. The punishment for importing drugs includes the death penalty. You should not arrive in Saudi Arabia under the influence of alcohol: the consequences could be serious. You should carry with you a doctor's prescription for any medication you have with you. The importation of pork products is also forbidden. The possession of pornographic material, or of illustrations of scantily dressed people, especially women, is prohibited.
If you are going to be visiting during the Ramadan, check the exact dates and be prepared to take part in the religious tradition fully.
Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) advice - last updated 5 December 2011: as the threat from terrorism is still high in Saudi Arabia, you should maintain a high level of vigilance, particularly in public places, and take sensible precautions for your safety and that of your vehicle. You should avoid any large gatherings or demonstrations. You should follow news reports and be alert to regional developments. Any increase in regional tension might affect travel advice.
Avoid offending the locals as you could easily get into trouble for things that seem completely banal here at home, like wearing revealing clothing and making affectionate displays, or even physical contact between males and females, in public.
Photography of government buildings, military installations, and palaces is not allowed. You should avoid photographing local people. It is illegal for women to drive.
It is illegal to hold two passports in Saudi Arabia; second passports will be confiscated by the immigration authorities if they are discovered.
When travelling in the Saudi Arabian capital, make sure you try the national dishes: hashi (baby camel) and Kabsa (meat with rice). Both are traditionally made with lamb, although some variations are made with chicken instead. A great local place to sample traditional local dishes in a traditional Saudi atmosphere is 'Najd Village'. Designed like a central-region village, the restaurant is very popular with the local crowd, especially for its selection of 14 mains, coffee and dates. Manid, a Yemeni dish is also very popular with the locals. Otherwise you'll see that fast-food, like everywhere else, is gaining more importance. Eating out is a main source of entertainment in the city.
To bring back
Some beautiful handicrafts made locally make great souvenirs to bring back home. Lamsa, at the al-Futah National Museum, is a good option for inexpensive bits and pieces. Coffee pots, daggers, carpets and silver jewellery are just some of the souvenirs you can expect to find all over the city; one of the best places to go is the original souk, the Souq al-Thumairi in the heart of the city, al-Dirah, just south of the Masmak Fortress.
Saudi Arabia : Discover the cities