RIYADH: THREE-DAY ITINERARY + TIPS
Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia is a city of contrasts—ancient fortresses and gleaming glass skyscrapers; traditional society shaped by Bedouin culture and firm Islamic beliefs mixed with a modern, youthful vibe and Western influences from ubiquitous fast food joints to luxurious shopping malls.
It is not an easy city to get around and tourism industry is still almost non-existent in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh's traffic is horrendous and because of the construction of the metro, there are many road closures and diversions. The city is dusty and does not have a luxurious feel like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, neither is it clean like the neighboring capitals. There are restaurants and coffee shops everywhere, but the quality of food and service is often just average. It is hard to find tour guides and some sites are still under renovation and closed to the public. However, Riyadh is rich in history and it is exciting and exotic even for a seasoned traveler.
RIYADH THREE-DAY ITINERARY
If you only have a limited time in Riyadh, follow this three-day itinerary to enjoy Riyadh's fascinating architecture, history and culture, as well as its diverse restaurant scene. Plan on arriving on Wednesday evening, so you have three full days, including the weekend, from Thursday through Saturday in Riyadh.
Read our article TOP THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA with some other ideas, should you wish to spend more time in the area.
DAY ONE IN RIYADH
MORNING: KINGDOM TOWER
Most flights arrive in Riyadh late at night or early morning. Sleep in and start your first day in the late morning at the Kingdom Tower. The tower stands out in the city skyline with its unusual shape and looks like a bottle opener. It's most distinctive feature is the steel and glass bridge on the top, lit in different shades of neon at night.
Get your bearings and take in the view of the sand-colored Saudi capital from the top of this 99-story, 300-meter skyscraper. It takes two elevators to reach the Sky Bridge on top of the building and it is so high that you can feel it move slightly in the wind.
On the lower level of the Kindgom Center you will find one of the most luxurious shopping malls in Riyadh. The mall is home to everything from Chanel and Cartier to street fashion, Robinsons and Marks & Spenser department stores, as well as a movie theatre. The food court is on the lowest level with well-known fast food joints dominating the food choices. Café Bateel has a small store down there, selling quality dates in beautiful boxes. It is not a Saudi brand but the Saudi-themed boxes filled with stuffed dates make a beautiful gift to take back home.
For first time visitors it is interesting to see how the shops pull down their screens before prayer times and everything shuts down. Prayer times change daily but it is easy to find out the timings on Google. The stores and restaurants stay closed for about half an hour.
A perfect selfie spot with the Kingdom Tower in the background is at Masaa Café across the street from the tower. The café is the world's largest with 800 seats, and included in the Guinness Book of World records.
The Sky Bridge is open from 12pm to 11pm (4pm-11pm on Fridays). Website: http://kingdomcentre.com.sa/?page_id=17456
Tickets: 63 SAR with VAT, cash only. Access is through the Kingdom Mall.
The Kingdom Mall is open from 9.30am-10.30pm and 4.30pm-10.30pm on Fridays.
Café Masaa is open from 6am to 2am.
AFTERNOON: VISIT DIRIYAH AND AL BUJAIRI HERITAGE PARK
In the afternoon, head to Diriyah, 15-20 minutes from the city center, depending on traffic. The old part of Diriyah, called At-Turaif, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it was the capital of the first Saudi royal dynasty, founded in the 15th century. In the 18th and early 19th century, it became the centre of the power of the House of Saud, but it came to a bloody end in 1818 when it was besieged in the Ottoman-Saudi war.
The At-Turaif District with its mud-brick houses is closed to visitors right now since it is undergoing renovation, but it is expected to be opened later in 2020 (Inshallah, as they say). We will update the post once it is open to the public. You can see the panorama of the mud-brick village from Al Bujairi Heritage Park in the heart of Diriyah. The park is a beautiful verdant oasis with terraces and a river that runs through Wadi Hanifa valley and is lined with date palms. The place is a popular spot for waterside picnics.
The newly developed Diriyah area is lined with typical Saudi buildings with elaborately hand painted doors in the traditional Najdi style. There is art and there are restaurants, it's a popular place among locals.
TRADITIONAL SAUDI DINNER AT NAJD VILLAGE
A perfect place to sample local food is at Najd Village in the heart of Diriyah. This restaurant is famous for its traditional Saudi cuisine and design. Guests remove their shoes and sit on the cushions in booths hidden behind heavy curtains just like in traditional Bedouin tents. The server lays the table cloth on top of the carpet on the floor where food is served. Try their chicken or camel kabsah cooked with traditional spices like cinnamon and cardamon served on a rice platter and jareesh, a crushed whole wheat dish topped with crispy onion. The traditional breads are made in a special oven in the restaurant and are deliciously fresh. Laban, a yoghurt drink, goes well with these dishes.
Najd Village Ad Diriyah branch: Reservations by phone: +966 54 420 5971
DAY TWO IN RIYADH
MORNING: FRIDAY BRUNCH AT THE RITZ-CARLTON RIYADH
Friday brunches are a thing in the Arab world. Start your day with a lavish and delectable Friday Brunch at Al Orjouan in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh. It is a sumptuous spread of Middle Eastern and international dishes, truly a trip around the world. The international culinary journey takes you from Japan to the Middle East to Italy, and is nothing short of gastronomical pampering. Read further here: DELECTABLE FRIDAY BRUNCH AT THE RITZ-CARLTON RIYADH
The Ritz-Carlton Riyadh is located close to the city center across from the Diplomatic Quarter. Friday Brunch is served from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Before noon, they serve mostly breakfast dishes and cold cuts. Around noon, the Peking duck, seafood, lamb chops and other delicacies are brought out.
Address: Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, Makkah Road, Riyadh, 11493 Saudi Arabia
Reservations: +966 11 802 8333 or email@example.com
You may also want to check out the Diplomatic Quarter, across from the Ritz. It is a beautiful area with lush landscaping, trendy cafés on Oud Square and interesting architecture.
AFTERNOON: DEIRA HISTORIC CENTER AND SOUKS
In the late afternoon, head to Deira in Riyadh's old quarters. Deira is 20-25 minutes from the city center, depending on traffic. There is a lot of construction in the area and there are many diversions around town. Take a cab or hire a driver, especially that parking is difficult in Deira.
Deira has a very different flavor compared to the shiny city center. At the heart of Deira is Al Masmak Fort, a thick-walled, clay and mud-brick fortress that once paved the grounds for King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud to establish a modern Saudi nation. The fort created a turning point in the history of Saudi Arabia, when it was stormed in 1902 and the reign of Al-Saud was reinstalled. Riyadh became the capital of the third Saudi Arabian Kingdom, a position it continues to hold today. Now a museum, there are displays of photographs, short films, maps, models, old weapons and traditional objects.
The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays). Entry is free.
There are several fascinating souks around Fort Masmak, as well as a large mosque and a square known as the Chop Chop Square where public executions used to take place.
Riyadh's oldest souk, souk Al-Zal, as well as souk Al-Thumairi and Deira souk are all next to each other, across from the fort. The alleys are lined with antique, perfume, handicraft, and traditional clothing stores. There is even a small gold section there.
There aren't many dining options around the Deira souks, so head back to the city center. Here are some hand picked restaurants to choose from:
Arabian: Café Bateel https://bateel.com/en/cafe/menu/ksa/
Turkish: Sultan's Steakhouse http://www.sultanssteakhouse.com/
Turkish/Arabic: Mama Noura for the best shwarma in town
Lebanese: Karam Beirut http://www.karambeirut.com/
Japanese: Tokyo https://tokyoarabia.com/
Chinese: Hong at the Ritz-Carlton hotel https://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/saudi-arabia/riyadh/dining/hong
Asian fusion: Le Chateau http://lechateau-ksa.com/
Armenian: Lusin https://www.lusinrestaurant.com/ Lusin is located in Centria mall which has several restaurants and cafés, some with outdoor terraces.
Italian: La Rustica Pizzeria in Olaya across from the Narcissus Hotel. Best pizza in town.
DAY THREE IN RIYADH
Check out the Saudi National Museum and explore exhibits from Neolithic rock art, replicas of the beautiful buildings of old Jeddah, and learn about the two holy mosques and Islam.
Saudi National Museum, King Faisal Rd, Al Murabba, Riyadh
Open 8am to 8pm on Saturdays (12pm-8pm on other days, except Fridays 4pm-8pm)
Ticket: 10 SAR
Next to the National Museum is Al Murabba Palace, former home of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz. There is a museum where, among other displays, they have a Rolls-Royce that was presented to the king by Winston Churchill in 1946. You can see the cars though the windows even when the museum is closed.
The area is close to Batha, the oldest commercial area in Riyadh where now most of the South-Asian expats of Riyadh reside. You'll find anything from spices to perfume to car parts at the various souks in Batha.
AFTERNOON: TEA AT THE GLOBE
A perfect place to say good bye to Riyadh is from the Globe at the Al Faisaliah tower. It is a distinct building in the skyline of Riyadh with an enormous glass ball that is 24 meters in diameter and made of 655 glass panels. Inside the glass ball is the Globe restaurant with panoramic views of Riyadh, magical at sunset and early evening. Enjoy their Afternoon Tea, check out the views from the outdoor platform and relax at the Asir lounge on the second floor of the Globe to watch the sun set and neon lights pop up all over the city.
The Globe restaurant website: http://www.alfaisaliahhotels.com/en/dining/the-globe-restaurant.html
Afternoon Tea is served from 3pm to 6pm. Price: 195 SAR with tax.
The tea menu is substantial and includes Arabic dishes as well as sushi, besides the usual scones and clotted cream. Keep your expectations low in terms of food, which is good but nor great. Go there for the experience and views.