Flying into this spectacular modern metropolis it will be hard to spot evidence of the small, isolated town it was as late as the last century. Look a little closer, however, and its heritage is everywhere – not least at the Masmak Fort slap-bang in the centre of the city. Exploring Riyadh is your key to discovering all aspects of Saudi culture.
Built from mud and clay, the 19th-century Masmak Fort is an icon of Saudi history, being the place where the kingdom wrestled back control of Riyadh from the Al Rashid clan. It’s now a major museum, with key exhibits including old maps and photographs of Saudi life in the early 20th century. The National Museum delves a little deeper into Riyadh’s heritage, with artifacts from Arabian and Islamic history, and even dinosaur skeletons and a large meteorite found in the region. Other great archaeological finds can be found at the Antiquities Museum, which is part of King Saud University.
If seeking insight into Riyadh’s religious culture or simply a place for prayer, there is not one but two Grand Mosques – the Al Rajhi Grand Mosque and the King Khalid Grand Mosque.
People and Traditions
The people of Riyadh are very conservative and rooted in Saudi traditions even more so than other cities in the region. You’ll find them to be cautiously welcoming, but visitors should be mindful when it comes to discussing matters of religion or politics. Islam plays an important role in day-to-day life and the city is often bustling with pilgrims on their way to or from Mecca.
The city’s largest cultural event is the Janadriyah Festival, which lasts for two weeks in February and celebrates all aspects of Saudi culture. Plan you trip accordingly to witness traditional artisans at work, explore the heritage village, and enjoy authentic local entertainment from musicians and dancers.
The Riyadh climate is hot during the day and, at least throughout winter, cool at night. Temperatures regularly exceed 40ºC from May to September, but only half that from December to February. The cooler months also see temperatures plummet to lows of around 10ºC. March and April are the rainiest months, though still tend to be quite dry. Meanwhile, dust storms can occur throughout the year so it’s wise to keep an eye on the forecast.
Riyadh has several terrific parks, such as the King Abdullah Park and Salam Park, which is particularly well-suited to families due to its large lake and many play areas. There’s also the Riyadh Zoo, which is one of the finest in the region. It has a wonderful range of animals exhibited in conscientiously designed enclosures. For further respite from the urban sprawl, head to the Wadi Namar reservoir. It’s scenic and – so long as you don’t visit on weekends – also quite serene.
For shopping, Riyadh has many malls, including the Al Nakheel Mall, the Riyadh Gallery Mall and the Granada Centre. The most unique, however, is the Sky Shopping Mall up the Burj Al Faisaliyah. The Souq Al Jamal is also worth a visit, if only to watch traders bid on camels. Or for something more adventurous, why not go on a scuba-diving adventure in the city’s prehistoric Heet Cave?
The sights of Riyadh’s skyline include some of Saudi Arabia’s tallest buildings, including the striking Kingdom Tower, the Burj Al Faisaliyah, and the even more immense Burj Rafal. Both the Kingdom Tower and the Burj Al Faisaliyah provide breathtaking views from their viewing platforms, but if you visit only one, the former’s Sky Bridge is especially thrilling.
On the western outskirts of the city lies Old Dir’aiyah, which was the original home of the Saudi royal family. This spectacular archaeological site is home to many ruins of old clay houses and towers, as well as gardens, palm groves and well-kept estates.