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Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, located slightly east of the center of the country in the heart of the Tuwaig escarpment.
Riyadh is considered the most straight-laced of the Kingdom's big three cities. With most forms of entertainment banned, few sights of interest and a brutal climate, Riyadh is mostly a business destination. Although everyone adheres to the dress code thawb for men and abaya for women, you might come across many Saudis in Westerized clothing. English is spoken by most Saudis (most in Riyadh speak it well) as well as most foreigners.
Riyadh is vast and sprawling. The main roads are King Fahd Rd, which runs north to south across the city, and Makkah Rd (aka Khurais Rd), which runs west to east, intersecting at Cairo Square — which is actually just a cloverleaf interchange.
The modern business districts of Olaya and Suleimaniyah, containing most offices and better hotels, are to the north of Makkah Rd. Here Riyadh's two skyscrapers serve as handy orientation points: Faisaliah Tower (the pointy one) is towards the southern end of Olaya, while Kingdom Centre (the bottle opener) is at the northern end. Both are located between King Fahd Rd and the parallel thoroughfare of Olaya Rd, which is Riyadh's main upscale shopping strip.
The historical core of Riyadh is to the south of Makkah Rd. The district of al-Murabba hosts the sprawling grounds of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Park, home to the National Museum and the Murabba Palace, while a kilometer to the south is the dense warren of al-Bathaa, host to the city's cheapest food, lodging and shopping and the hub of the minibus network. Further south yet is Deira, centered on as-Sa'ah Square, which has souqs (traditional markets), the Masmak Fortress, the Governor's offices and, more morbidly, the execution grounds.
Located in the middle of the country, Riyadh suffers from the worst of Saudi Arabia's climatic extremes. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 50°C, while winter temperatures can fall to just above zero. It's bone dry throughout the year, and when the wind blows the city is often covered in a haze of sand. However, while summers are blazing hot, they are not humid, which goes some way to alleviate the pain. Summer evenings are generally tolerable and one even encounters the occasional cool breeze, especially on the outskirts of town.
Beware that in the last few years, the climate has been shifting in this part of the world as well. Temperatures near 50°C are usually only reached end of July and in August. In 2009, the temperature in Riyadh hit 48°C mid-June. Especially if you wear a business suit, it is imperative to stay out of the sun.
Riyadh is a long way from anywhere, so odds are fairly high you'll be arriving by plane.
Riyadh's King Khaled Airport (RUH) is located about 35 km north of the city. A large, architecturally striking structure in white and desert brown, hypermodern when opened in 1983, it has aged reasonably well but remains a famously boring place to get stuck in. However FRAPort, the owners of Germany's Frankfurt airport, have recently started to manage KKIA and are slowly improving things. Fairly spacious shopping areas can now be found in terminals 1 and 2, there is a choice of coffee and snack shops, and new light and spacious, if a little warm, Lounges have been opened for Business and First Classes on the right side upper level of terminal 1 (by Gates 17/18) where the old viewing area was. Please note that some airlines are not partnered with the Lounge and there is a charge of SAR160 (Business) or SAR210 (First) for those airlines' passengers to use the Lounges. The business class lounge offers free wi-fi, hot and cold buffet, and hot and cold drinks (and probably cleaner toilets!)
There are three terminals in use, with Terminal 1 used by international carriers, Terminal 2 for Saudi Arabian Airlines international flights, and Terminal 3 for all domestic flights. The terminals are right next to each other and are connected at the arrivals level, so transfers involve lugging your stuff for a few hundred meters or, more sensibly, hiring a porter to do the job. It is also possible to walk between terminals 1 and 2 once air-side.
Riyadh's train station is approximately in the middle of the city, with four trains daily to Dammam via Al-Hofuf and Al-Hasa. Try to show up 30 minutes early, as you'll need to pass through security before boarding.
The Central Bus Terminal is inconveniently located in the Aziziyah district some 17 km south of the city center; expect to pay at least SR30 for a taxi to get there. Buses from Dammam take a tolerable 4.5 hours, while it's a punishing 10-12 hour haul to Jeddah or Mecca with several stops on the way.
The main East-West road through Riyadh is Highway 40 from Dammam and the causeway from Bahrain to Khobar with other road links mainly leading to the North of the Kingdom.
Most roads are tarmacked, albeit to varying levels of repair. Driving standards are slightly more sensible than those of the city centres, but caution is still needed. Some highways see heavy usage from lorries and petrol tankers, often in convoy.
Riyadh is very much a car-oriented city, and public transportation in Riyadh is badly underdeveloped. There are street addresses everywhere in Riyadh, but normally mail is delivered to post office boxes. Getting around requires knowing landmarks near the place where you want to go.
If you are travelling by your own car then it is wise to carry a GPS system. Plan your route before start of journey. Although many streets, roads and landmarks are marked in both Arabic & English yet there are few important major streets, roads and exits that are still marked in Arabic only.
It is important to carry your Valid Identification (i.e. Passport / National ID / Iqama) at all the times. You may experience difficulties obtaining accommodation and may experience bigger problems if you are stopped at any of the city's check points (these can be both permanent or temporary). Not being able to show valid identification when asked by the police may land you in jail. Therefore, it is also advisable to keep details of your sponsor on hand in case you require assistance while out and about.
Riyadh is building a metro system, which will be operational in 2017.
Most visitors rely on white taxis, which are abundant in the city centre but can be harder to find on the outskirts or at night. Drivers will usually use the meter without asking if you do not propose a fixed price, and with a starting fare of SR 5 and the meter ticking up SR 1.60/km after the first kilometer, most metered trips within the city cost under SR 30. However, locals usually prefer to negotiate fares in advance, and this can often be cheaper than using the meter: short hops start at SR 10, a longer journey might be SR 15.
Single women are legally allowed to take registered public taxis, but many female visitors and expats choose not to, opting for transport provided by a hotel, their company or compound instead.
The level of English spoken varies from decent (esp. Indian and Pakistani drivers) to non-existent, so try to find out the name of your destination in Arabic before you head off. Solo male travelers are expected to hop into the front seat, next to the driver, while women must sit in the back.
Drivers are usually familiar with major local landmarks, but you're expected to know your way to your destination from there. Bring a map and the phone number of someone at your destination to call for directions.
Note: Do not Hire taxi from the airport which is driving by local Saudis. Pakistan/Asian drivers by and large are reliable.
Flat-fare minibuses (SR 3) rumble the streets of Riyadh, but these are mostly used by laborers. They are quite difficult for the casual visitor to use: there are no posted stops, and routes are usually written only in Arabic. Most routes converge on al-Bathaa, and the adventurous visitor can try his luck on route 9, which runs from al-Bathaa up Olaya Road.
The best option for traveling in Riyadh is your own car, ideally driven by somebody else used to the conditions, but many expats take the plunge and drive themselves. The traffic in Riyadh is, by Saudi standards, fairly sane: ubiquitous raised bumps on lane markers keep cars traveling more or less in straight line, and radar-equipped cops on the major highways zap the craziest of speeders. Still, the local driving style can charitably be described as "aggressive", with swerving from the leftmost lane to the exit ramp on a four-lane highway being par for course, and central Riyadh jams up almost daily during rush hour.
Please be aware: Women may be arrested for driving. It is illegal for women to drive.
The modern, northern half of Riyadh is very pedestrian-hostile, with 8-laned roads filled with speeding SUVs making crossing the road a dangerous exercise. Pedestrian bridges are very few and even at stoplights you need to keep an eye out for crazy drivers. Add in the fearsome summer heat, and it's little surprise that there aren't too many people walking about. In al-Bathaa, though, the situation is almost reversed: some of the alleys are too narrow or congested for cars, and walking is the only way of getting around.
But if you're the fearless type, walking along even the wider roads is a great way to see the city, as you'll be too distracted by constant near-misses while riding in a taxi. Stay in the shade, be careful along stretches without a pedestrian walkway (or one that is blocked off due to construction going on), and you'll be fine.
What to see
Sightseeing in Riyadh is a frustrating exercise in careful timing: not only are most sites closed on weekends (Fri/Sat) and during prayer hours, but visiting hours are segregated between men and families. The one saving grace is that many sites stay open until 9 PM.
Museums and historical sights
Masmak Fortress, Dirah. 8 AM-noon and 4-9 PM on Sat, Mon, Wed for men, Sun, Tue, Thu for families. The heart of old Riyadh, this was the fortress stormed by King Abdul Aziz and his men in their daring reconquest of Riyadh in 1902. Renovated in 2008 to an inch of its life, the mud brick structure now looks like it was built yesterday, but the museum inside does a pretty good job of recounting the story of the raid and has some fascinating photos of old Riyadh as well. Alas, the second half is devoted to extolling the greatness of the Sauds in everything from agriculture to education. The Masmak Fortress is found around the older part of Riyadh, along with adjacent areas of "Jabrah" or "Mikal".
Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba), (next to National Museum). 6-9 PM Sun-Fri. Riyadh's second old mud-brick palace, built by King Abdul Aziz after he conquered Masmak Fortress and figured he should build something harder to conquer. This two-story structure does indeed look pretty intimidating, but permits are no longer needed to venture inside, where you can find sights including the first royal Rolls-Royce.
National Museum. Open Su-Mo,We-Th 9-1 PM for men, 4:30-9 PM families; Tu 9-noon women only, 4:30-9 PM men; Fr 4:30-9 PM families; Sa closed. Undoubtedly the top sight in Riyadh, this museum (opened in 1999) is done up with the latest technology and is very accessible to visitors, with almost everything available in English. There are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend an entire day here doing virtual tours of Madain Salih or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed's battle of Medina. Highlights include a kiswah cloth that once covered the Qaaba in Mecca. Half the time, though, it feels more like a propaganda exercise than a museum: the display on plate tectonics starts with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds is rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam. Note: Many cabbies will not recognize the English name, ask for the neighboring Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba) instead. SAR10.
A dry and sharply defined riverbed (wadi) begins about 40 km north of Riyadh and runs in a north-south direction for over 120 km's, cutting through the western edge of the city, known as Wadi Hanifah. Wadi Hanifah was once the lifeblood of the Riyadh area, rich in groundwater, filled with palm groves and farms and dotted with a string of small towns and villages throughout history. In recent decades, the Wadi has been used as a large dumping ground for wastewater, sewage, and industrial waste, but a recent ambitious rehabilitation project has just been completed. An 80 km stretch running through western Riyadh is now essentially an 80-km desert park, though many parts of the Wadi floor are occupied by private estates and farms with high walls. The Wadi has several entry points, but perhaps the easiest route is by taking King Abdullah Road west past the university and into the town of Arqah. Eventually, you will reach a large round-about. Take the exit heading downwards into the Wadi. Follow the road even as it winds and weaves its way through the Wadi (do not be tempted to turn onto any side streets). Eventually, you will reach a police checkpoint, to the left of which is an an entry point to the Wadi floor. A narrow paved road runs along the Wadi floor. Heading southwards, you will eventually find designated picnic and barbecue spots facing the Wadi's cliff-like walls.
While dry for most of the year, wadis can flood very quickly with a moderate amount of rain. Never approach a wadi during the rain or even its immediate aftermath. Even looking over the edge of a wadi can be dangerous as the Wadi's edges can break off during the rain. Every year, several deaths are reported from flash floods all across Saudi Arabia.
Located on a hill overlooking Wadi Hanifa, Al-Dir'iyyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, is the ancestral home of the Saudi royal family and served as the Saudi capital until 1818. The ruins of the old city are currently being restored and renovated and are thus closed off for tourists, but the surrounding area can still be worth the visit in the meantime.
Although few Saudis play golf, there are surprisingly good golf courses around. The best one is the 18-holes course in Dirab Golf & Contry club a good 30 minutes drive west of Riyadh. Nice layout with green and inviting grass, and the last 9 holes are even floodlit. They offer tennis, swimming and horse-back riding as well. There's also a quite nice 9-holes short range course connected to the Hotel Intercontinental almost in the dead centre of the city. Nice but short - also floodlit. If you travel about 20 minutes to the north-east you will find a not so nice desert course with browns instead of greens (the putting area consist of sand/oil mixture instead of grass).
Head west down the Makkah Road for 30 minutes, and you'll reach the edge of the Tuwaig Escarpment. As you make the 200 meter sharp drop from the Tuwaig escarpment to Najd-proper, you will get a good feel of the desert with dunes and buttresses.
Heading northeast of the airport to the Thumama sand dunes, one can engage in "dune bashing" in 4x4 SUV's or in rented ATV's.
Saudi Arabia is football-mad country, and big matches at the King Fahad Stadium can attract crowds of 50-70 thousand, creating an electric atmosphere. However, note that football stadiums are off limits to women. For people who are moving to Riyadh/ new residents, the city has a good number of fairly well-equipped modern Gym for men, women though have limited options , fitness centres for women are mainly in big hospitals ( e.g. Hammadi hospital a,d king Faisal specialist hospital).