Photo: Volodymyr Dvornyk/Shutterstock

Exploring the Deep History and Culture of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's Capital City

Riyadh Insider Guides
by Dave Gordon Sep 28, 2023

Located in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh, the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia, stands as a testament to the region’s rich tapestry of culture, history, and modernity.

The name “Riyadh” comes from the Arabic word meaning “the gardens,” which is a nod to its position centuries ago as the location of the most fertile land in Arabia. Today, it’s a garden of another sort. One might say an eclectic garden of city life and ancient heritage. From its historic areas and iconic landmarks to its bustling markets and culinary scene, Riyadh, along with Saudi Arabia as a whole, is welcoming in tourists from around the world.

In its want to embrace foreigners as much as foreign influence, the Kingdom is liberalizing and modernizing at a pace that has seen just about every American chain set up shop in the capital: Starbucks, Chuck E Cheese, KFC, IKEA, and on and on. It’s symbolic of the country’s want for change, and trajectory forward.

The country opened to tourists in 2019. Since then, it’s invested heavily to bring people in — Saudi Arabia was named the Chair of the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 2023 and hosted global leaders for the World Tourism Day conference. Part of that push has come through ramping up infrastructure and development. For example, in the ancient region of AlUla, in the northwest, swanky hotels have popped up in addition to new festivals, art shows, a world-class concert venue, hot air ballooning, and adventure tours. Meanwhile, Saudi Vision 2030 – a state plan that among many things involves more tourism development – has inspired a raft of new museums that have been built lately, or will be built over the next few years.

While in Riyadh, I stayed at the Hotel Apollo Dimora, an international chain with a spa, pool, and gym (for an extra fee). For a small fee, you can choose one of two breakfast plans: the American breakfast or Arabic breakfast. I had the latter, compromised of hummus, pita, salad, hard boiled egg, and juice. A hearty, healthy way to start the day.

I chose this hotel for the central location, its reasonable cost, and that it was in an area that features a cornucopia of local souks. In virtually every direction for 10 minutes of walking distance, you’ll find fruit stands, tchotchke shops, restaurants, several malls, shopping plazas, streets lined with food vendors, and discount outlets. You could spend an entire day just browsing and still not get your fill.

Exploring the history and culture of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - February 2, 2017: Visitors at the landmark entrance of the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. The museum is a part of King Abdulaziz Historical Center,

Photo: Crystal Eye Studio/Shutterstock

My first stop was the free National Museum of Saudi Arabia. A full dinosaur skeleton enters people as they walk in. With 3,700-plus artifacts and a footprint of 28,000 square meters, it’s easy to wander about for hours to learn more about the displays, particularly if you manage to nab an on-site tour guide to help elaborate on things. The Museum’s focus is mainly on the region’s history, highlighting centuries-old crafts, stones with ancient inscriptions, Neolithic rock art, tools from the Bronze Age, and a real-life meteor rock the size of a refrigerator that you can actually touch. Along the tour, enjoy interactive exhibits that allow the visitor an audio/video learning experience.

History, however, can be found in much more than the museums.

Salwa Palace at At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage site, Diriyah, Saudi Arabia

Photo: Volodymyr Dvornyk/Shutterstock

A half hour north west of Riyadh, you’ll find the At-Turaif District in Diriyah. Still standing after 500 years, the mud-and-palm trunk-built Najdi and Islamic castles and buildings are now a world UNESCO site. Diriyah was where the Saudi royal family initially lived, and was also the capital of the first Saudi dynasty from 1727 to 1818.

Adventurers should sign up for the one-two punch of quad biking and camel riding through the desert with Viavii. This three hour excursion costs $147 per person (minimum of two people). About a half-hour out of Riyadh, ride the red dunes of Thumama Desert for miles on end to see the deep peaks and valleys and feel the rush you’d get on an ersatz rollercoaster ride. (Pick up and drop off in a luxury car are included.)

Of course, modernity is also on full display in Riyadh. The Kingdom Center Tower – the country’s tallest building – is almost a thousand feet high and should be on any traveler’s checklist. You will be able to spot the Tower from afar, especially since it looks a little bit like a shaving razor. On location, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view from the top for $25 with no time limit. Spot the mosque next to the lookout tower, which is the highest elevated mosque in the world.

Enjoying local and international cuisine in Riyadh

Riyadh / Saudi Arabia - January 8, 2020: Traditional Yemeni restaurant in the capital of Saudi Arabia, with compartments where families sit on the carpets and eat with their hands

Photo: The Road Provides/Shutterstock

At Bujairi Terrace, more than 20 local and international casual and fine dining spots offer a range of options to sit for a meal, whether you’re looking for somewhere classy or just some ice cream or other dessert. I spent time at Somewhere, an Arabic fusion restaurant, and enjoyed mint tea with lovely layer cakes. Once you have some food, hang out in the open air and enjoy the outdoor patios with live music. When I was there, an oud (similar to a lute) player took the stage and plucked out beautiful Arab melodies.

For dishes from the region, try Almajlis Alkhaleeji Restaurant, where you can eat local fare like preparations of camel meat and dozens of soups, rice dishes, and appetizers, including lamb chop soup, meat sambousa, Kuwaiti meat majbous, and goat mandi on a bed of rice. At Riyadh restaurants, it’s not uncommon to have private booths or rooms where people sit on the carpet floor to eat. This is one of those places. Before you go, keep a tradition in mind: always wash your hands after eating camel meat. Folklore has it that the camel doesn’t forget when it has been wronged, and will carry a grudge for as long as it takes to get revenge. Rinsing one’s hands is a symbolic sign to rid one of the camel’s vengeful traits.

For upscale Lebanese fare, head to Ward for elevated food and atmosphere. I had the tabbouleh (parsley and bulghur salad) with grape leaves stuffed with mint and lemon rice. My dining partner had the shawarma plate, and the presentation was worth the price of the food.

Getting to Riyadh

British Airways, Qatar Airways, and Lufthansa all offer flights to Riyadh’s international airport, which is about 30 minutes from the city center. Travelers from the United States will need to get a visa to travel to the country.

To get around, Ubers are your best bet (they’re pretty cheap too). In terms of safety, there wasn’t a time when I felt any danger, and locals were all too helpful in assisting with directions, helping with translation, and on a couple of occasions, offering to buy this foreigner a bite to eat. It all made it easy to see Riyadh and its surrounding area, a place where tradition waltzes with modernity.

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