As Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh is a cultural hub that seamlessly presents ancient fortresses with modern glass skyscrapers standing side-by-side.
Even though Riyadh is an immense city with nearly 1,800 square kilometers, it is in its modest historic center (or downtown) where most of the interesting attractions are located, including remnants of the old city walls that once protected this ancient stop along the desert trade route.
Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia in general, are not a typical destination for most travelers, especially Americans, but the country is campaigning to change that with the recent introduction of a new online visa scheme that allows easy access to the country with a single entry visa (within a 30-day period).
Now, what are the best places to visit in Riyadh and what shouldn’t you miss seeing there? Here are the city’s historic and modern highlights.
Top Historic Places to Visit in Riyadh
Some of the most interesting historic attractions found in the city even outdate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.
Riyadh has been at the center of the Saudi Kingdom since its establishment in 1901, but many of its archaeological sites and fortresses are over 1,000 years old.
1. Al Masmak Fort
Among the best things to do in Riyadh is the famous Masmak Fort.
Masmak Fort is among the most historically important sites in the city of Riyadh. “Masmak” means “strong,” and local legend suggests that if this fortress falls, the Kingdom will fall with it.
This well preserved 19th-century clay and mudbrick fortress played a vital role in the recapturing of the city of Riyadh in 1902 –led by Ibn Saud– cementing its role in the unification of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The fortress is now a museum that offers visitors to look back to that key moment in history and beyond the history of Riyadh as the capital of the Kingdom.
I personally enjoyed the well-preserved artifacts and the architecture of the fortress itself – including the perfectly maintained Arabic sitting room (called a Diwan) complete with luxury furnishings and a throne.
The museum is free to visit but check out admission in advance as they have family days, singles days, female days, etc. (As a conservative city/country, many locales separate males from females and families).
Also, I highly recommend getting this Riyadh’s History and Al-Masmak self-guided walking tour to have a more in depth experience at the fortress and surrounding areas without the need of a group tour.
2. Deerah Souq
Also known as Al-Thumairi Souq (because it’s along Thumairi Street) and Al-Zel Souq, the Deerah Souq is located in the old part of the city near the Al Masmak Fort. It is famous for its gold souq and antiques souq sections.
Hundreds of little shops show a plethora of product that ranges from carpets, gold, silver, souvenirs, traditional clothes and props, antiques, and even furniture.
Most shop owners speak some English, so this souq is very tourist-friendly. Hop from shop to shop and don’t be afraid to bargain.
In my opinion, this is not only one of the most popular Riyadh attractions, but it is also the most interesting souk I visited there since you could see a glimpse of history through the many antique artifacts being sold there.
If you can only visit a souq in Riyadh, make sure it’s this one!
On the other hand, if you have time and are willing to head out of the city, you can visit Souq Al Jamal – located 30 km north of the city center.
This is one of the largest camel markets in the Arabian Peninsula, so you’ll surely have an interesting cultural experience there, especially if you place a bid. Since the area is under development, ask locals about the souk’s current status and location.
3. Murabba Palace and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center
The King Abdul Aziz Historical Center offers a unique journey through Saudi Arabia’s history. Although the center is built in a modern version of royal Saudi architecture, it surrounds the authentic former royal palace of Murabba – which is well worth a visit.
In it, you’ll find an abandoned courtyard house, a historical car collection, the old majlis, and an old water tower. You’ll also see a remodeled mosque, based on the original royal mosque that served the palace.
The center is now considered the cultural heart of modern Riyadh. In fact, the center is not just this Murabba Palace complex, it consists of several historic buildings across the city, including Al Masmak Fortress.
4. Historical Diriyah
Located on the northwestern outskirts of the city, Diriyah was once the home of the Saudi Royal family and the first Saudi capital.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was one of the largest cities on the Arabian Peninsula until it was destroyed and was actually destroyed in the early 19th-century during the year-long siege where the Ottoman and Saudi armies clashed.
The city is now a tourist destination where visitors can enjoy up-close the ancient mud architecture, numerous parks, and its interesting spaces – including the Saad bin Saud Palace, which is famous for its courtyard.
You can reach Diriyah by taking a taxi to the city outskirts, or you can enjoy an in-depth half-day tour like this one.
Top Modern Places to Visit in Riyadh
5. The National Museum
Even though the National Museum is full of historic artifacts and located just next to Murabba Palace, it is housed in a modern building, which is why it’s in this category. It is also part of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center.
The museum contains an expansive collection of all things that define Saudi culture and its people. Everything from fossils, to old architecture and structures, Pre-Islamic trade routes, and items from the Arab Kingdoms are on display.
The entrance fee costs SAR 10 for adults and it’s free for children. There are audio-visual presentations both in English and Arabic.
6. Deera Square
Also known as Justice Square or Chop Chop Square, Deera Square is a modern public square where executions (usually by beheading) still take place as capital punishment.
Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is the only country that still practices public executions in the form of beheading.
After Friday prayers, police and other officials clear the square to make way for their executions to take place. After the condemned are beheaded, the head is stitched to the body and they are wrapped up for the final rites and taken away.
While the might not be the best place to be at during execution, it is a nice square to visit where you’ll see kids running and playing with the water fountains.
7. Sky Bridge at Kingdom Center
Want to see Riyadh from above? Then this is the place to do it!
The Sky Bridge is located on the 50th floor of the Kingdom Tower, which is currently the third tallest skyscraper in Riyadh.
The 65-meters long sky bridge gives you a perfect panoramic view of the city from 300 meters above the ground.
At the base of the tower is the Kingdom Center Mall, where you can find all kinds of luxury brands.
The views both day and night are stunning, but they are probably better at night when you can see the city lights and the other skyscrapers also glowing in various colors.
8. Al Faisaliah Tower
The Al Faisaliah Tower is another iconic tower in the Riyadh skyline. Its pointy shape towards the sky and golden shiny ball at its top make it unmissable – a geometric design that is a nod to the traditional Arabic design that once dominated the city.
With 44 floors, this is the fourth tallest tower in the city and it towers over Riyadh at 267-metres high. Just like with Kingdom Tower, you can go up to its viewpoint at the top and find a mall at its base.
I recommend choosing one tower or the other to visit its sky bridge/viewpoint.
Top Natural Place to Visit in Riyadh
The Edge of the World
Ok, here’s a bonus entry that’s outside of Riyadh, but well worth visiting while there. Have you heard of the Edge of the World?
Jebel Fihrayn, also known as the Edge of the World, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular tourist destinations.
Its nickname comes from the uninterrupted view of the horizon overlooking the surrounding plain, atop its 300-meter-high cliffs. It’s a stunning spot and even a bit terrifying!
Those plains below the cliff were once the ocean bed. From the top of the cliffs, you’ll spot dried rivers weaving across the land and witness the beauty of a truly unspoiled desert landscape.
You may even spot camels moving along the ancient caravan route that once passed through these grounds.
While there, keep an eye out for fossils! These are historic evidence of when the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula was a shallow tropical sea during the Jurassic period (150 million years ago).
The best way to get to the Edge of the World is by taking a day tour like this one from Riyadh.
Some Additional, Essential Information You Should Know Before Going To Saudi Arabia.
It Is Very Conservative
Unlike many other modern cities in the Middle East, Riyadh is very conservative – even when compared to other cities in the Kingdom like Jeddah and Dammam.
It wasn’t until 2018 that women were allowed to drive, but still, they cannot mix with men unless they are married to them or are direct blood relatives.
Be aware that some places, like restaurants, malls, parks, etc., might have separate entrances, sections, and even separate buildings for males and females or singles and families. Always try to use the entrance that applies the most to you.
Having said that, since Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) came to power as the crown prince, the country has slowly become more progressive and slightly “westernized.”
So as time passes, you’ll see more and more places without said separate entrances and sections and more social mingling among genders.
Saudi Arabia is still quite conservative so it’s best to err on the side of caution and respect. Until recently, all establishments stop their operation during prayer times which is five times a day.
Now, since MBS rule, some of them can choose to stay open during prayer times.
There also used to be a religious police (or mutawa) found everywhere, keeping an eye on all of this, but lately, they’ve been stripped of “their power” in an effort to provide some flexibility in a more “modern” society.
What to Wear
You should dress conservatively at all times. Men have to wear long pants and sleeved shirts/t-shirts (short sleeves are fine). Flip-flops are fine too.
Even on your flight to Saudi Arabia (especially if you’re flying Saudia), you must dress conservatively. Saudia will not allow you to board the plane if you’re wearing shorts or any non-conservative dress.
Women no longer need to wear headcover or the black abaya –the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety– as long as their attire is “decent and respectful.”
That means loose trousers or skirts and long-sleeved loose shirts. The more you cover, the better.
Climate and Temperature
Riyadh can get extremely hot, and you’ll feel the heat, especially when wearing “a lot” of clothing. The temperature can reach up to 120+ degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius) during the summer.
During winter it is an average of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius). Stay hydrated at all times and avoid long hours of exposure under the sun during the summer, especially during mid-day.
Alcohol is illegal, even in hotels. Don’t expect alcohol on the flight to Saudi Arabia. It is forbidden to bring alcohol into the country.
Getting Your Flights and More Info on your Saudi Arabia Trip
Last but not least, when planning your trip to Saudi Arabia, I highly recommend using services like WayAway Plus membership to not only get cashback on your bookings for flights, hotels, car rentals, tours, and more, but also to take advantage of premium support.
WayAway local experts are available to help you navigate any questions you may have about planning your trip to Saudi Arabia. You can ask questions like what visa you need based on your passport, where’s the best place to stay in Riyadh, where you can find the best food and more.
Cover photo from Flickr Creative Commons.
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Read about the restriction on clothes. Does same restriction applies on beaches over there??
Would like to visit ryidh with my family
November 2021. In Riyadh most women still wear an abaya, even many expats. It is the easiest way to be sure you are dressed conservatively and they are actually pretty comfortable because you can wear shorts and a short sleeved shirt underneath as long as the abaya stays closed. No need for the hijab (head scarf) or niqab (covers all of face and ears except eyes). It is now appropriate to wear colorful abayas in a variety of materials so you can actually be quite fashionable. The abaya can be open as long as you have conservative clothes underneath. Other areas of Saudi vary in the degree of conservatism in dress. I am an American employed in KSA and I find it most comfortable to wear an abaya when I go out in Riyadh and in some of the smaller cities and rural areas. Jeddah and Dammam are not as conservative. When I go to the pool or beach I wear long swim pants and a swim top with short sleeves (not sleeveless) and this seems to be in keeping with the dress code. I am not at all conservative when I am at home in Florida but do feel it is polite to respect the country’s culture in terms of dress.
The religious police (or mutawa) are no longer active but there are many police around and I have noted them kindly (yes, kindly) asking anyone not behaving in a quiet, respectful manner to tone it down. If you start to inadvertently wander into an area that is not open to the public the police are usually polite and say, “sorry ma’am/sir, you are not allowed” and that is all. I have never been approached related to my behavior or dress.
Many of the traditional stores in the souqs close for prayer but most stores in the malls do not. Prices in mall stores are firm but often shopkeepers in the souqs will negotiate on price within a relatively small range.
For the most part, there are no longer men’s, women’s, or family entrances or sections. However, I have noted that most restaurants will accommodate a conservative woman by placing her and her family in a more private area.
Thank you! The post has been updated to reflect this.
A lot has changed since this post
1. Public executions no longer take place at Deera Square or anywhere else in Riyadh.
2. You don’t need to cover your head as a woman or wear “lots”. Clothing just needs to be loose, non-transparent and cover from neck to ankle (women) and above navel to below knees (men).
3. The religious police no longer operate.
4. The ban on establishments being open during prayer times has been lifted and they can now choose whether to close or stay open.
5. Separate entrances for men and families/couples has been scraped too. It’s up to the establishment.
6. Although it is illegal, there are people who pose as married couples when they are not. Without religious police, they get away with it. They would have to prove they are related or married when booking hotel rooms and if they are caught by normal police for other reasons, they would have to prove their relation.
Just stating what I’m witnessing here in Riyadh. All of these changes happened as of 2019.
Thank you! The post has been updated to reflect these.
Could you go out and see city as my transition stay is 10 hour
Amazing and beautiful picture of edge of the earth And hiking there how many days take
Are the restaurant more like west and any vegetarian food served