Saudi Arabia’s capital city is one of the richest in the world, with a reputation for glitzy shopping malls and momentous new developments – but that doesn’t mean it’s a place that is devoid of culture. Delicious local food, historic sites and soul-affirming desert trips are all on hand to balance the indulgence. Take it all in with Culture Trip’s guide to spending a day in Riyadh.
Start your day with a hearty traditional Saudi breakfast
There are foul houses that serve traditional Middle Eastern breakfast dishes all over the capital, but we love no-frills Foul Tamis near the KFC in Al Wizarat. The service is fast, the food is delicious, and the prices are super-cheap. Your foul (stewed broad beans) is scooped out from a large, traditional, long-necked cooking pot, generously topped with olive or camel oil and lemon juice and garnished with fresh onions and shadda (chilli). Once the staple of the Bedouin, foul is eaten as a dip with complimentary khobz (bread), which is traditionally baked in clay ovens and is very, very large.
Pro tip: Hire a car, as public transport is practically nonexistent in Riyadh.
From Foul Tamis it’s a short drive south to the Riyadh National Museum, where your education in Saudi culture and heritage begins. Excellent displays and artefacts are on offer, including an in-depth multimedia story of how the Saudi kingdom was born. There’s even a life-size re-creation of one of the tombs from the ancient Nabatean city of Madain Saleh in the country’s northwest – an enigmatic, soul-stirring sight.
Pro tip: Before leaving the museum, see if you can climb the nearby water tower for great views of the city.
For lunch, keep it light by stopping at the elegant White Garden Café in Al Olaya, as you cross the city to your next destination. Artisan coffee, great meze-style lunch platters and excellent kenafeh (sweets made from vermicelli and cheese) make this a great pit stop.
Pro tip: Remember that offices and shops all close briefly during the five daily prayers in Saudi Arabia.
Discover where the Saudi dynasty began
About 15 kilometres (nine miles) northwest of the White Garden Café, on the very edges of modern Riyadh, sits the UNESCO World Heritage site Diriyah, the ancient mud-brick city where it all began for the Saudi dynasty. It was here, in 1744, that Muhammad ibn Saud, the great ancestor of King Salman, formed an alliance with the local cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to establish the Emirate of Diriyah (or the first Saudi State).
Today, visitors wander around restored mud-brick palaces that feel like an ode to traditional Najd architecture, beneath which young princes and princesses once played, shaded by shuttered windows. Highlights of Diriyah include the towering, four-storey Salwa Palace (home of the first Saudi monarch), the decorated doors of the Al-Turaif Bath House and the Palace of Saad bin Saud. With its beautifully restored turrets and colourful wooden doors, it offers a fleeting glimpse of Diriyah’s glory days.
Pro tip: Avoid this site during the midday sun, as it’s all outdoors.
Dine like a Bedouin before scaling red sand dunes beneath the starry desert sky
For dinner, walk across Wadi Hanifah, a valley that cuts through the city, to a branch of Riyadh’s most famous traditional restaurant, Najd Village. Sit in a mock Najd mud house atop richly decorated carpets and lean back on armrest cushions as if in the desert. Traditionally attired waiters will then bring you the house special, in which you dine on their famous kabsa – succulent lamb or chicken in lightly spiced rice – served on a communal tray. Don’t wait for your own plate – you’re doing this Najd-style, so tuck into your corner of the platter, being sure to use only your right hand.
Pro tip: Those feeling energetic could head to Kingdom Centre to watch the sunset, as there is an equally good branch of Najd Village nearby in Al Mathar Ash Shamali.
If you’re not experiencing a rice-induced coma by now, take a drive into the desert, making for the Red Sands southwest of Riyadh near Al Awsat. Find your own space and lay out a large rug beneath the starry sky. Listen to the silence of the desert, with the beautifully sculpted red sand dunes as your backdrop. If you still have energy left over from the day, hire a quad bike from a local Bedouin and scale the sandy dunes or race other city slickers who have made their way out to the desert.
Pro tip: Cheap picnic rugs are available to buy all over Riyadh. Keep one in the boot of the car at all times for stargazing.
Bed down in the most luxurious prison on earth
When you’re done stargazing, the route back to Riyadh passes the most luxurious prison in history: the uber-indulgent Ritz Carlton. Several Saudi politicians and businesspeople briefly found themselves under house arrest here during a national investigation into state corruption. The Ritz is no longer a prison but is now the palatial luxury hotel it was built to be. Pop into the classically European café for a coffee nightcap, brewed with beans sourced from the country’s leading roastery, the Roasting House. If your budget can accommodate it, spend a night in one of their classic, super-spacious rooms, where you can even have your own butler. There’s even a luxury spa on site to soothe away the aches and pains of a day of exploring. In the morning, you can wander the manicured, landscaped gardens and admire olive trees older than the city of Riyadh itself.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting on a special occasion, tell the hotel, and you’ll get an extra-special reception.