Riyadh in Saudi Arabia - A travel guide to an obscure metropolis!

With an increasingly globalised and accessible world these days very few places can be considered as the last frontiers of tourism – Saudi Arabia is one of them. My parents have been living in Saudi Arabia for the past ten years so because of that I’ve had the opportunity of visiting the Kingdom numerous times and here’s my account from a recent trip to the Kingdom.

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On most advertisements in the Kingdom the faces of the models are censored.

The Saudi capital Riyadh is a fascinating place – it is like entering a constantly evolving museum where the contradictions and complexities of modern day Saudi Arabia are most evident. Most of the world tends to have a very skewed and uni-polar view of Saudi Arabia and the Saudis in general - most of these opinions revolve around these three words conservative, backward and petrodollar. Before travelling to the country - like most outsiders and skeptics I too did hold most of these generalized opinions. While there is some truth to all of this – I realized later that it is just a small part of a much greater story.


Riyadh - blend of old and new

Riyadh is modern yet it is old, its young population is increasingly forward and west leaning and open to new ideas and innovation yet their activities continue to be monitored closely by the “Haya” (religious police), there’s a nascent arts scene in the capital yet it all occurs carefully behind closed doors, Arabic is the national language yet you can easily get by on Urdu/Hindi alone because of the massive expat population from the Indian Subcontinent– all this and more made Riyadh a mindbogglingly exciting place to explore.

The first thing that hit me while being driven around the streets of Riyadh was how modern and developed the city was. The city has a decent skyline not exactly like Dubai or New York but getting there, the roads are wide almost like mini intercity highways and it is immaculately clean yet pretty desolate and devoid of any trees or other vegetation. Before landing into the city you can see from your airplane window how barren the desert surroundings of the city is.

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A modern skyscraper in Riyadh

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Kingdon center

There are many modern looking buildings located in the city. The honeycomb like building on the left is the King Fahd National Library and the ballpoint like futuristic skyscraper up straight is the Faisaliah Tower – one of the first few proper skyscrapers in the city.

The Kingdom tower is probably the most prominent and iconic buildings in all of Riyadh. It has sort off become the city’s unofficial symbol. The sky bridge connecting the two top halves of the building is a popular tourist attraction in the city.

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Another view of Kingdom Center

The Riyadh skyline as seen from the observation deck of the Faysaliah Tower. Far off in the distance is the KAFD (King Abdullah Financial District) a Manhattan from scratch cluster of around 50+ skyscrapers.

Being a more off the beaten track traveler, I was looking for something different and slightly more cultural rather than the usual Dubai-esque fare. After some research and asking around I headed towards the old downtown area of the city. I’ve been to many souqs all over the region namely the Souq Waqif in Doha , the Bab Al Bahrain Souq in Manama and the various different souqs in Dubai – the Souq Al Thumairi in downtown Riyadh is  by far the most authentic souq I’ve ever been to in the region. There was nothing kitsch, touristy or disneylandish about it – I guess it’s because it barely gets any tourist activity aside from an odd expat or a visiting businessman. This was the one place in Riyadh where I had to make use of my rather forlorn and broken Arabic skills. Everything from local garbs to ceremonial swords & daggers to traditional slippers and aromatic Ouds (local agarwood derived perfumes) were on sale at the souq.

Paradoxically the headquarters of the “Haya”(religious and moral police) and the infamous “Chop Chop square”(Locals know the area as Maidan e Adal, Square of justice, expats refer to the area as Chop Chop square) was a stone’s throw away from this relatively touristy area. The infamous “Chop Chop” square aka Maidan e Adal (The justice square) sits side by side to possibly the most touristy part of the city.

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Maidan e Adal

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Traditional Arabic coffee pots and other handicrafts on sale in the main souq square.

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Activity at the Souq in the evening.

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Madas Sharqi

Traditional Saudi sandals locally known as “Madas Sharqi” (literally translated to Sandals from the east) for sale at the souq. They are worn year round, anytime and anywhere by almost all Saudi males underneath their traditional dress. I was told they are a popular souvenir item with the tourists – so I bought the white pair.

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 Local men shopping for traditional garb at the souq

Located right next to the main downtown souq area The Masmak Fort is one of Riyadh’s oldest buildings. Built in 1865 on the site of an early fortification it is now a well kept modern museum. I had to return back again on a different day to check out the interior of the museum because they were separately allotted visiting days and timings for single men, women and families. This is something you have to get used to when visiting the Kingdom. In the evenings the area around the museum functions as a public space where families gather to either picnic or simply relax.

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Masmaq Fort

Evolution of art scene in Riyadh

During my stay in the Kingdom I was invited to the first contemporary art fair in the capital РArt Riyadh being held at a local art gallery. Truth be told I did not expect much РI expected most of the art to revolve around themes of patriotism and Islam long story short I expected it to be very safe - nothing too risqu̩ or controversial.

From the outside the gallery seemed to be just another regular unassuming building on a busy city thoroughfare- once inside the gallery was a hive of artistic activity. The art fair wasn’t segregated along gender lines like most public spaces in the country. Surprisingly the majority of the artists were all female. Young savvy intellectual Saudi men and women were free to interact with another over here. As I was ambling along each particular art display I decided to have a little chat with each of the artists asking them about their particular art work and what it depicted. From identity crisis to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to mortality and everything in between the art fair covered a diverse plethora of topics. I was pleasantly surprised to come across this side of Saudi Arabia – I did not expect to visit an art gallery and come across passionate and talented local artists in the Kingdom.

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A local woman appreciating a bunch of murals at the art gallery.

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Men at the art gallery 

The interior of art gallery was a hive of activity. By worldly standards it was a pretty small art gallery but for Saudi Arabia this was groundbreaking.

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Arabic Coffee themed art at the contemporary art fair.


Street Art in Riyadh

After heading out of the art gallery I was told by a few of my local friends that Riyadh has a pretty up and coming street art and graffiti scene also. Obviously the next thing I did was ask them to show me their favorite murals. Most of the works were scattered all over town and not clustered in one particular area like in the west. Unlike regular popular graffiti worldwide, the majority of Riyadh’s street murals were pretty small and safe usually covering a small portion of a wall and were mostly made using black spray paint. Most of them were made by one particular artist by the name of Turki Al Andas - I was told he was quite the local celebrity with thousands of followers on Instagram. The fact that my friends bothered to tell me about these works spoke volumes about how big a deal this was in the Kingdom.

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Just goes to show that Game of Thrones has a truly global audience.

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Patriotic themed street art featuring a portrait of the King.


Religion is an extremely important part of day to day Saudi life. Literally life comes to a standstill 5 times a day – almost all shops close and work stops during every prayer time.

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Prayers an important part of life


Things to do for a tourist in Riyadh

From a recreational point of view there is not much to do in the Saudi capital other than checking out the local restaurant scene and hanging out with friends. Riyadh is a pretty multicultural place yet a very segregated and divided city at the same time –people from all walks of life and nationalities reside here. Yet when people hang out with one another they tend to mostly stick to their own nationalistic cliques rarely venturing out of their comfort zones – Pakistani/Indians with the Pakistani/Indian crowd, Filipinos with the Filipinos and Arabs with the Arabs. I guess this was because most of the expats resided in their own communities where they were in the majority or because most of them lived in gated communities called “compounds” completely segregated from the local community who tend to reside in their own separate areas. It was pretty normal to come across an expat who had been living in the kingdom for 20 odd years yet had no local friends – yet without fail each of them had a particular stereotype and preconceived notion attached to the local community and each of the major nationalities residing in the city.

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A desert picnic

Desert picnics are a favorite national past time. Everyone has a spare rug in their car trunk to open up and lay down anywhere anytime. During my stay in the kingdom I happened to enjoy a fair share of Wadi picnicking.

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A high end restaurant in Riyadh

Most restaurants and cafes in the capital tend to have separate family and men sections in them. But the more upscale establishments in the city tend to be lax on these rules – usually a simple booking is all you need to get in. Pictured here is the uber posh Globe restaurant – a restaurant located high above the city inside the giant golden ball/globe of the iconic Faysaliah Tower.

At the end of my journey through this fascinating yet very misunderstood corner of the world I came to the realization that the country I visited and the people I met there were not exactly what they were portrayed like in the mass media. No doubt this is a very complex country. I learnt one thing for certain that stereotyping an entire country based solely on news headlines can be dangerous it creates fear and anxiety that prevents oneself from getting out there and seeing the bigger picture and hence forming your opinion.

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Believe it or not there are guide books on Saudi Arabia!

I consider myself lucky to have resided in a mixed community in the city where I got the opportunity to befriend many people from the local community and learning more about them. Like anywhere else not everyone is super religious, some are happy to embrace change some are not, some are very educated forward thinking individuals while some hold extremely archaic point of views, some appreciate modern art while some loathe it. The country is as diverse and heterogeneous in general thinking and opinions as is any other part of the world. Putting it into one box full of stereotypes would not be fair to the entire population of the country.


About the author:

M Bilal Hassan is a Doctor by profession who loves travelling to obscure and off the beaten track locations around the world in his spare time. He enjoys writing about art, travel and geopolitics. He currently resides in Karachi – Pakistan.

He can be reached by email or on Instagram.

Comments

  1. What a super interesting post. I know little of Saudi Arabia except for what we see in the British Media, and it is fascinating to hear your perspective, especially as you have been so many times. It seems like Riyadh has so much to offer as it constantly evolves into a modern destination, but there is still some tradition charm left.

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  2. oh wow! I've never realised that Riyadh is actually that modern! The stunning view from Kingdom Centre reminds me of Sheikh Zayed road in Dubai. Reading your post makes me want to visit Riyadh even more. I can easily picture myself getting lost in the Souq and buy a pair (or 5) of that Madas Sharqi. Even though that's sandal for male, hahaha.

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  3. Riyadh has never really been on my radar to visit so it's very interesting to read more about it as a potential travel destination. The modern side of the city looks very much like all modern cities but it's the old downtown area that is what I'd be interested in too, the cultural historical sights are far more appealing for me. And I'm a sucker for a great souk!

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  4. I know Saudi to be a wonderful place, especially vising the souks. How they endeavor to dress in clean white attires, I can't fathom. Riyadh is such a beautiful town and I'll not mind to live here The skyscrapers, the museum, and street art are enough for me to fall in love with Riyadh. Talking about souvenirs, no one leaves Saudi Arabia without one form those souks. Your pictures of Riyadh are beautiful.

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  5. It is fascinating to see the combination of old and new, that architecture is really stunning and the remade old fort and other historic treasures, they did that so well.

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  6. There is very little shared about Riyadh as a tourist destination. I guess most of us don't really consider the place owing to the restrictions. It is nice to see what goes behind that curtain on the place. The markets look interesting and that bit about the Footwear, I did not know. Also, the moral policing area makes me curious to know more. Thanks for sharing it all.

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  7. I so I so enjoyed reading this. I really didn’t know very much about Saudi Arabia. I remember seeing a TV programme about the opening of the art gallery so it’s great to see that it’s flourishing. I think art is an incredibly powerful tool for social change.

    The views look wonderful! I think I would love the sky bridge and the view from the Globe restaurant.

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  8. I don't really know anything about Saudi Arabia so it was very interesting reading this and learning about Riyadh. The view from the restaurant looks quite spectacular!

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  9. Riyadh looks really beautiful. I love that there's such a beautiful, intricate blend of old and new. I always am so inspired by cities who have that cohesive flow. That art gallery looks really interesting. I'd love to visit!

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  10. There are definitely beautiful places in Saudi Arabia. My friends told me that. Thank you for sharing your experiences and travel tips for Riyadh.

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  11. I have never been to the Middle East but this is kind of how I'd imagine a capital in this region to be. Fancy modern buildings, combined with plenty of culture when you look just a little beyond the tourist attractions. Was the Lonely Planet guidebook useful? I somehow find the quality of their guidebooks not what it used to be anymore ...

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  12. Hi,
    Nice article to read.Got useful information .Kindly give me updates regarding this topic

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  13. Nice and the most detailed article on saudi !!
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