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Saudi Arabia – Day 7: Exploring Riyadh

Having flown from AlUla to Riyadh, I had a full day to explore the Capital City!

Riyadh is a huge city seemingly plonked down in the middle of the desert! I Ubered from my hotel into the old city center and was amazed to see that the supposedly bustling market was totally shut down apart from a few small eateries. I quickly learned that most shops really open in Riyadh at around 4pm and then stay open very late. The heat is just too much.

My first sightseeing stop was the impressive Masmak Fortress. In a city where almost everything dates from the oil boom, this is one of the very few buildings from the olden days.  A huge building, the Masmak Fortress was once the seat of power of a rival clan to the Saudis, and the Fortress is a museum commemorating its capture by the Saudi tribe in 1902, who went on to eventually conquer the rest of the country.  The exhibitions are interesting – and one does not need more than an hour to explore.

My next visit was to the National Museum. I walked there, which was a harrowing experience, Riyadh is not built for walking and the sidewalks are simply not sufficient to navigate through the traffic. The National Museum is excellent – modern displays covering the entire history of Saudi Arabia, with an especially fascinating and very large section on Mohammed and his life, as well as scale models of the holy sights of Mecca and Medina.

By now, it was time to eat, and I went to a very trendy part of town for a late lunch. One of the best things to buy in Saudi Arabia are dates. One can of course buy dates in the markets, but there are also very high end stores specializing in dates, and I went to Bateel, where I bought the best dates I have ever eaten – and I love dates! Expensive, but absolutely amazing!

After a quick visit to the hotel, I was back in an Uber and spent the evening at the Riyadh  Season Boulevard.

Riyadh Season is a massive festival spanning a few months. It features huge international bands (in 2019/20 BTS from Korea were performing) , Michelin chef demos and much more. I didn’t plan for any of these major events, but the Boulevard is a family friendly, central attraction with restaurants, shops, a huge artificial lake and just a fun place to spend a few hours. I had a cup of traditional coffee – cooked in hot sand!!

Finally, I stopped in at one of the huge malls, to get an idea of what real life is like in Riyadh. When people go out, they mainly go to the malls,  which are air conditioned and home to food, movies , international shops and more. I was amazed to learn that movie theaters had only been allowed to open in 2018! It was clearly very popular!

Malls are one of the major attractions of Riyadh even for tourists – I didn’t go the famous Sky Bridge, but that can be for another time. There are also great day trips outside of the city into the desert, but I just didn’t have the time.

Later, I was at the airport and starting the journey back home.

Saudi Arabia is a fascinating destination. It is still in the early days of tourism, and we can expect it to become a major tourism center in the coming years. At the moment, cities are not yet ready – excellent accommodation already exists ( aimed at business travelers), but they need more guides and tour companies, and sites need more explanations in English. At AlUla , things are developing well, and the hotel and food selection is growing.

Covid aside, I foresee Saudi being a major tourist draw within the next ten years – especially once the Red Sea resorts come on line.