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. The country is campaigning to change that by introducing a new visa scheme (since April 1, 2018) that allow for a single entry to the country within a 30-day period.
You can check more info about the Saudi Arabia visa for US Citizens here.
Now, what shouldn’t you miss in Riyadh? Here are the city’s historic and modern highlights.
Historic Attractions 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
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).
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 was the most interesting souk I visited since you could see a glimpse of history through the many antique artifacts being sold there.
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 from up-close the ancient mud architecture, numerous parks, and its interesting spaces – including the Saad bin Saud Palace, which is famous for its courtyard.
Modern Attractions 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 cost 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.
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 most places, like restaurants, malls, parks, etc, 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.
All establishments stop their operation during prayer times which is five times a day.
There is a religious police, (or mutawa) found everywhere, keeping an eye on all of this.
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.
Cover photo from Flickr Creative Commons.
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