Ancient fortresses and gleaming glass skyscrapers stand side-by-side in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabia capital. Though the ancestral palace of the Ibn Saud family draws the most attention as the focal points of the city, it contains countless other must-see destinations. With so much to do and see in the nearly 1,800-square-kilometre city, it can be overwhelming for first-time travellers. Here are the highlights to hit for Riyadh newbies.
An array of historic attractions dot the city, some of which outdate Saudi Arabia itself. Riyadh has been at the centre of the Saudi Kingdom since it was established in 1901, but many of the major fortresses and archaeological sites are more than 1,000 years old.
Masmak Fortress is among the most historically important sites in Riyadh. “Masmak” means “strong,” and local legend suggests that if this fortress falls, the Kingdom will fall. Visitors venturing inside the fortress will find a perfectly maintained Arabic sitting room, called a Diwan, complete with luxury furnishings and a throne.
The King Abdul Aziz Historical Center offers a unique journey through history. The centre is built around the former royal palace of Murabba and is the cultural heart of modern Riyadh, although many of the buildings are modified versions of the originals. The site is home to a remodelled mosque, based on the original royal mosque, an abandoned courtyard house, a historical car collection, an old water tower, and the old majlis. The National Museum is also located in the centre.
Although Riyadh is a historic city, state-of-the-art buildings are constantly popping up across the Saudi capital. The Al Faisaliah Tower is the fourth tallest tower in the Kingdom, and towers over Riyadh at 267-metres high, spanning 44 floors. Although the tower is metal and glass, the geometric design is a nod to the traditional Arabic designs that once dominated the city. An expansive luxury mall and restaurant complex occupies a number of floors in the tower.
The Sky Bridge at Kingdom Center is one of the hottest attractions in Riyadh. The bridge, connecting the two towers of the Kingdom Center, is 65-metres in length, 300-metres above the ground, and weighs some 300 tonnes. A high-speed elevator takes visitors to the 50th floor, where a second elevator takes them to the bridge. The views from the bridge at night, as the city is lit up with glowing lights, is simply spectacular.
Riyadh shopping experiences
Shopping is as much a part of Riyadh life as driving an SUV and spending the weekend in the desert. Traditional souk shopping has changed little since medieval times, and no visit to Riyadh would be complete without experiencing the city’s extensive markets.
Souq Al Jamal is a sprawling marketplace with everything imaginable on sale—including prize-winning camels. The souk is one of the largest in Arabia and offers a unique insight into how traders sold their wares in times gone by.
In the north of the city, Owais Souq is more diverse than Al Jamal. From expensive gold and diamond jewellery to carpets and shisha pipes, travellers can find everything their hearts desire.
Many of the world-famous Arabic foods have their origins in Saudi Arabia, so where better to sample local cuisine than in Riyadh?
Shawarma street stalls are littered across the capital’s streets, offering a cheap, filling meal. A shawarma is a wrap stuffed with mixed meat and salad that has been grilled for a whole day. Shawarma can be bought for as little as two Riyals.
Foul and Tamis, a dish of fava beans and spiced vegetables served with a flatbread, is another local delicacy. Foul Zamani Restaurant is one of the highest acclaimed restaurants in the city that serves this tasty dish.
Kabsa is another must-try dish while in Riyadh. Kabsa is a huge dish of mixed rice, spices, raisins, and grilled chicken. It’s usually a sharing dish that brings family and friends together, and Najd Village Restaurant offers an authentic take on this most traditional dish.
From ancient to modern, and from camel markets to famous foods, the Riyadh experience is a uniquely varied one. On your first visit to the Saudi capital, these destinations will give you an overview of the city so enticing, you’ll start planning your second trip on the way home.