Eight Magnificent Adventures in Riyadh and Surroundings, Saudi Arabia
Would you like to visit one of the world's most underrated cities? How about experiencing life in the Arabian desert? Do you want to learn more about Arabia's volatile history? What about visiting a safari where animals roam free in huge enclosures? Does eating huge portions of traditional Arab food sound good to you? Is experiencing the highlife in a five-star hotel appealing at all? How about going up 99 floors in a lift for an unbelievable cityscape view? All this and more is possible in Saudi Arabia's capital city Riyadh, so read our list of eight magnificent adventures to enjoy there and book a flight soon!
Until recently Saudi Arabia was closed to all non-Muslims unless you entered on a business or working visa. However, everything suddenly changed in late 2019 with the introduction of tourist visas; all part of Mohammed Bin Salman's ambitious reform agenda to transform the Kingdom into a modern country. While Riyadh has long had the reputation of being a boring city, a season of entertainment and changes to the enforced wearing of abayas has radically altered the feel of the city into something a whole lot more exciting. Famous bloggers are already queuing up to visit the Kingdom and their followers will inevitably come next as Saudi opens the doors to international tourism. Go there now before the crowds start to build!
1. Revel in the Majesty of the Edge of the WorldIf you want to see a slice of truly majestic desert scenery, don't miss the opportunity to visit the Edge of the World, Riyadh's premier tourist site. Situated about two hours drive from central Riyadh, the easiest and cheapest way to get there is on a group tour with Riyadh Hiking Company. For 250-300 SAR per person, Riyadh Hiking will transport you to the site in a comfortable minibus, guide you on the short hike to the dramatic viewpoint and provide dinner in an authentic desert setting, where you'll be able to ride a quad bike and visit bat caves for no extra charge. If you prefer exploring independently, Riyadh Hiking Company offer trips on request starting from US$160 for 2 persons.
2. Step Back in Time at Masmak FortWhile much of Riyadh is futuristic and modern, Masmak Fort’s beautifully preserved architecture gives you a feel for how life was in Arabia before the oil boom. Situated just fifteen to twenty minutes drive from Olaya, the obvious way to get there is by grabbing an Uber. Once you get dropped off, just find the entrance to the fortress and allow at least one hour (possibly two) to fully immerse yourself in the history of this wonderful country. Unbelievably, this attraction is totally free. If you feel like a bit of retail therapy or gift shopping, there are a few market stalls in the vicinity to wander around before heading home.
3. Ascend 99 Floors in the Kingdom Tower to the Sky BridgeProbably Riyadh's premier city centre attraction, you'll love the epic cityscape view from the very top of the Kingdom Tower unless, of course, you suffer from severe vertigo. To find the entrance to the sky deck enter the Kingdom Centre and follow the signs - the ticket desk is between the stores of Mont Blanc and Carolina Herrara. After paying the entrance fee (63 SAR/US$17), you'll get whizzed to the 77th Floor before moving into another lift for a swift journey up the final 22 floors to reach the viewing platform. Floor to ceiling glass panels provide great views at all times of the day, but go at sunset or on a crisp, clear winter day for the best experience. Also, choose a weekday if you'd like a bit of peace and quiet up there. It's open from 12pm-11pm Saturday to Thursday, and 4pm-11pm on Fridays. Don't forget to check out the upmarket shops in the Kingdom Centre once you return to ground level. Full of designer boutiques and trendy coffee shops, you'll need a couple of thousand dollars to really treat yourself here.
4. Experience a Unique Desert Animal Safari at NofaWhile any animal lover would definitely want to give Riyadh's old and faded downtown zoo a wide berth, Nofa's Animal Safari experience is an entirely different affair. Of course, if you believe animals should only be in the wild it won't be for you, but at least they roam free and look relatively healthy at Nofa. The best way to see them is by booking a guided safari drive (100 SAR/$25) during which you'll probably witness galloping giraffes, sleepy lions, sprinting ostriches and more than seven hundred other animals living on the golden plains of Saudi Arabia. After the safari drive, you can interact with reptiles, birds and animals under the supervision of professional wildlife staff at the Nofa Wildlife Centre. Alternatively, if you're on an extravagant vacation, stay overnight at the wonderful Radisson Nofa Resort for $500 per night and up.
5. Indulge in High Tea or Brunch at Riyadh's Four SeasonsMyriad hotels in Riyadh offer brunch or high tea including at the iconic Globe Restaurant and the now infamous Ritz Carlton. If you feel like a spot of indulgence, don't hesitate to splash out $100 on a couple of high teas or $200 on brunch in any five-star establishment in Riyadh. It'll make you feel super rich for an hour and the quality of food on offer will simply blow you away. As for me, I have a bit of a penchant for the Four Seasons brand (after visiting their Cairo branch two years ago) so we opted for high tea at Riyadh's Four Seasons located in the Kingdom Centre. Sadly, brunch was only available on Fridays, and we had committed to the Edge of the World on that day, so we ordered two different high teas: Arab and Traditional. Such an amazing deluxe experience! Next time we'll stay the night.
6. Tuck Into Traditional Arab Meat and Rice at Najd VillageGorge yourself senseless on plates of meat and rice in a traditional Arab setting at one of three Najd Village branches located across the city. Although it's possible to get breakfast here, it's definitely a better lunch or dinner place. Order the Chicken or Lamb Magloba for a super tasty rice feast topped with succulent meat and vegetables or go for a Sofra for two to try small portions of many Najd Village specialities. You won't be disappointed by the moderate prices (50-200 SAR for two people), superb atmosphere and tasty food here so it's really a must-visit. You might even get an instagrammable photo or two too, but it's quite dimly lit so lunchtime provides the best opportunity for photography.
7. Ride the Fabulous Ferris Wheel at Winter Wonderland (Seasonal)Nowhere more than at Winter Wonderland's large park could I feel the transformation of Riyadh under Mohammed Bin Salman's dramatic reform program. Loud music, no closures at prayer time, exhilarating rides, and hordes of youth gathering to enjoy life were just a few things at the park no one could have imagined happening in Riyadh just a few years ago. Whether Winter Wonderland returns to Riyadh this winter and beyond is another question, especially in these pandemic days. Whatever happens, we loved every minute of our time here. The only downside were the rather expensive prices (50-100 SAR per ride), but it was still epic!
8. Grab a Train to the Eastern ProvincesOnce you've exhausted all of Riyadh's key attractions, you might feel like a bit of sea air or even an Arabian Gulf swim. If so, don't hesitate to jump on a Saudi Railways train for a wonderful four-hour ride through the desert and Al Hasa (where you can stop as well) to Dammam. Millions of people live in the joined cities of Dammam, Khobar, Dhahran and Qatif, so don't expect a quiet tropical oasis. It's a bit dusty, usually very hot, and a bit chaotic. However, there's plenty of great restaurants including Salt Khobar. Situated right on the sand, it offers a relaxed vibe, burgers, and a few coastal sports like stand up paddle boarding and swimming in the sea opposite the restaurant. Women have to wear appropriate clothes for swimming at all public beaches in the Eastern Provinces, including the coastal stretch near Salt. Therefore, head to to Baher Villas or another private compound if you want to wear something like a bikini.
After you get bored of eating and swimming, you should definitely check out Ithra at the King Abdulaziz Centre in Dhahran. It's full of interactive exhibits, cool art displays, a wonderful cafe and so much more. If shopping's your thing, go to Mall of Dhahran, Al Rashid Mall or Marina Mall. Just beyond the city of Qatif is probably the best city in the Eastern Provinces: Jubail. Head here for an Arabian Gulf boat trip (enquire at the beautiful little harbour area), some great public beaches and a relaxed coastal vibe.
Follow in our footsteps– Check Booking.com, Agoda and Airbnb for places to stay in Riyadh, Dammam, Khobar, Dhahran, Qatif and Jubail. As for us, we stayed in the Plaza Business Hotel in Riyadh, which was affordable, perfectly located in Olaya District (walking distance to Kingdom Tower) and included a pretty decent buffet breakfast.
– Use Skyscanner, one of the best flight search engines around, to find best flight prices to Riyadh and elsewhere in the Kingdom. Expect to pay from £300 round trip (Pegasus) to £600 round trip (with a more reputable Middle Eastern carrier like Saudia, Emirates or Gulf Air).
– Click on this Saudi Railways link to check availability of trains between Riyadh, Al Hasa and Dammam. For shorter journeys just install Uber on your phone and call a taxi.
– Remember, the best weather in Saudi is from November - March when it's usually sunny, cool in the mornings and great for exploring (don't forget rainy days and sand storms are possible, especially in December and January). Expect very hot weather in the summer months from mid-April to October (it's unbearably hot in July-September).