“Hundred mile high city” – Ocean Colour Scene.
We arrived into Riyadh by train from the northern city of Ha’il. That train journey was so odd and really cannot compare to any of my other train journeys ever. For so many reasons. Firstly the train itself was almost empty – we could have sat in any carriage we wanted. Secondly we had designated seats but never sat in them nor was our ticket ever checked. Thirdly they wouldn’t let us board even though we all had tickets. Fourthly they banned me taking a coffee in so I snuck back out again and put it in my pocket and walked on. Finally the organisation for tourism here was lacking. Despite all that the train was very fast, modern and arrived on time. It was an interesting adventure.
On arrival into Riyadh we headed to the Plaza Inn Business Hotel, our base for three nights here. This hotel was average at best but I might still review it sometime, there was intermittent Wi-Fi though. I shared with long term traveller Albert, a man of endless stories and adventures.
Once we had checked in, travel buddy Eduardo and I headed for a shit double cheeseburger meal at the nearby John,ny Rockets (which was empty), I grabbed a couple of non-alcoholic beers and jelly pizzas and we headed to sleep with a busy day ahead.
We were up the next day to backpack the sights of the city. Because I was on a group tour as part of the Young Pioneer Tours adventure while working at the Hotel Show, the itinerary for travel was a bit stricter than normal. We also visited Ushaiger, Shaqra, Salt Flats, Sand Dunes and Rabat.
I was still able to post my postcards and buy fridge magnets, but a visit to the national football stadium was out, hence why it didn’t make my top sights list. Here is my list.
1.Walk across the Skybridge at the Kingdom Centre
Riyadh’s iconic Kingdom Centre (Tower) is instantly recognisable in the city’s skyline. A skyscraper resembling a bottle opener or a garden hoe, the building’s splendour demonstrates the power of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For sublime views far and wide, pay the 63 Riyal charge and head to the top. Here, on floor 99, you can walk across the Skybridge admiring this huge city from above. Views are exquisite and, there is also a restaurant called Spazio on floor 77 and a huge shopping mall on the lower floors. The shopping mall was full of females when I was there!
King Abdullah Rd, King Fahd, Riyadh 12271, Saudi Arabia +966 11 211 2222
2.Bargain for gold, swords or carpet in the Souq
Riyadh’s famous Souq is a lively market where local Saudi Arabian traders sell their goods and have done so for generations. Wander through the narrow passageways looking for items that catch your eye. Most of these little shops are cash only, and bargaining is essential if you want to get a good deal. You can buy all sorts of things within, ranging from art to carpets to swords to clothes to gold. Souvenir hunters can also find what they need, including old coins, stamps and banknotes as well as stalls selling postcards, fridge magnets and Saudi branded gifts.
3.Admire the King Khalid and Alowidah Mosques
Boasting the holiest two cities in Islam (Mecca and Medina), Saudi Arabia is the spiritual home for Muslims the world over. Riyadh has thousands of Mosques, but if you can see just one, make it the King Khalid Grand Mosque. If you have time to see a second one, visit the Alowidah Mosque. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter, but if you go here during one of the day’s five prayer times, you can see the Islamic religion in action. From outside, you can watch the hordes of worshippers go in and out of one of the city’s most important buildings.
Umm Al Hamam Al Gharbi, Riyadh 12326, Saudi Arabia +966 11 488 9700
4.Backpack through the streets of “Old Riyadh”
Get a feel for the old and new in Riyadh by visiting the Old Town and the more recently renovated streets around it. The old streets and buildings remain pretty, despite being in urgent need of repair. By wandering these vintage little streets you can chat with local vendors, grab a coffee by the main square (Alsafat Square) and visit the old fort, city gate and clock tower. The area has had funding in recent years in an attempt to restore these buildings to their former glory. Palm trees line the boulevards while mud-style buildings set the scene for what life would have been like before the city was a skyscraping metropolis.
5.Get a guided tour of Masmak Fortress
In the heart of Old Riyadh sits a magnificent fortress. Masmak Fortress is a square building made of mud and concrete. It was built in 1865 and later played a significant part in Saudi Arabian history since it was right here in 1902 that Ibn Saud led his troops to recapture the city of Riyadh. Check with the locals for opening times and information on how to organise a guided tour. The tours are available in Arabic and English, but please note there are different visiting times for males, females and families.
6.Visit the National Museum
In an elaborate building in central Riyadh sits the city’s state of the art National Museum. Also known as the King Abdul Aziz Museum, this is an important exhibition detailing the development of the city and country through the years. The ground floor takes you all the way back to prehistoric times with dinosaur fossils on view. After that, there are exhibits from the birth of Islam and the Nabatean Kingdom era. As part of this display, there are mock replicas of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mada’in Saleh and Jeddah Old Town. On the upper floor, there is a corridor dedicated to the life of the Prophet Mohammed and numerous displays of Saudi Arabian life since the kingdom was formed in 1932.
King Faisal Rd، Al Murabba, Riyadh 12631, Saudi Arabia +966 11 402 9500
7.Visit the Al Faisaliah Tower
For a spot of elegant dining with a view, go up the elevator of the Al Faisaliah to the famous Globe Restaurant. This is one of the swankiest restaurants in Riyadh and also offers incredible views over the city’s skyline. The building was built in 2000 by the Osama bin Laden construction company. If you time your visit for sunset, you will be able to enjoy a vantage point of the city as day becomes night. The restaurant requires bookings in advance and the prices are expensive.
7411 King Fahd Rd, Al Olaya, Riyadh 12212, Saudi Arabia +966 11 273 2222
8.Tour Diriyah UNESCO world heritage site
On the west of Riyadh sits a magnificent UNESCO-listed world heritage site. Diriyah contains a district known as Turaif. Here in Turaif, you can tour the old city walls and ruins and check out the stunning Salwa Palace. Recent funding has meant the site has been closed for renovation work as the entire area has been converted into a modern, open-air museum. Across from the UNESCO site, there are new, well designed promenades to stroll along. There are leafy parks, lots of cafes and restaurants and four museums in the modernised zone.
9.Swig a Coffee in the Ritz
The elaborate, swanky, stylish Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh was once used as a prison to hold the richest Saudi Arabians. Now it is a hotel, a spa, a cafe, a bar – it is huge and so modern. I would even go to say it is the most elegant hotel lobby I have ever been in! Bring your dollars – it won’t be cheap!
The Ritz Carlton, Saudi Arabia, +966 11 802 8020
10.Night on the Rip
A night on the rip are you kidding? Well come on this is the cpital city of the country!! Riyadh plays home to 7 million people!! We visited 4 bars in Riyadh and I tried a few non-alcoholic beers. On our last night we all went together to the nearby Courtyard by Marriott Hotel which has a more swanky bar. I actually had three non-alcoholic beers in here. As well as this, we also visited Johnny Rocket’s Applebee’s, Plaza Inn Bar and the lunchtime restaurant Ainadeg.
I wish this had been a top 11 and included the national football stadium, but alas I only saw it from the window of my taxi on the way out of the city. Maybe another time, Riyadh.
How to Organise a trip to Riyadh
As Saudi Arabia continues to develop its tourist potential, there are still no tourist visas available. However, if like me you have a work event, a business opportunity or commerce, you can get a business visa. Once you have that, organise your trip with two of my partners, Young Pioneer Tours and Haya Tours:
Young Pioneer Tours
No. 2804 South Block Lijing Building, Caiwuwei, Jintang Road 48#, Guiyuan Street, Luohu District, Shenzhen City, 518000, CHINA
First Floor, Alia Plaza, Exit 6,
Cnr: Thumamah Road and Abi Bakr As-Siddiq Street,
Ar Rabi, Riyadh 13316
Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia
Email: [email protected]
Here are some videos from my time exploring Riyadh while backpacking in Saudi Arabia: