Riyadh sits in the centre of Saudi Arabia, well served by the country’s motorways and – albeit fledgling – railway system, placing it within striking distance of a number of the Kingdom’s awe-inspiring and spectacular sights. Some of these will require putting in a bit of mileage, but a few are right on the capital’s doorstep.
One of the wealthiest cities in the world, Riyadh’s shiny skyscrapers can blind visitors into believing nothing lies beyond the perimeter of Saudi Arabia’s capital city. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll find World Heritage Sites, stunning natural features, traditional mud villages, and sweeping vistas – all a day trip away.
Rev your engine hard as you climb up, down and around large dunes of brick-red sand just southwest of the capital, near the settlement of Al Awsat. The Tuwaiq Mountains provide an atmospheric backdrop to the place known simply as the Red Sands, where you’ll be joined by hundreds of Riyadhians looking for a weekend desert escape. Most will scale the tall red dunes in their 4x4s or race each other on rented quad bikes. Others will arrive towards the latter part of the evening, when the light has faded and the heat of the day is no more. We suggest brewing a pot of kawa (local coffee) on the embers of a barbecue, before reclining beneath the stars. The Red Sands are 40 minutes from the city centre by car.
Resembling a mini canyon, this fascinating natural feature – essentially a dry, old wadi (river) – is best appreciated in the winter after heavy rainfall, when the floor of the canyon becomes flooded. Clear pools of water collect between the carved-out rocks, making it an ideal place for a refreshing swim. The canyon sits either side of a small dirt road just off Route 509, as it heads southeast out of Riyadh and takes an hour by car. You’ll find yourself almost alone on most visits, except weekends when several vehicles will pull up, find their own spot, spread out a picnic rug and light a brazier to roast their meat.
You’ll pass nesting birds and the odd bat as you scramble down into this fissure at the foot of a looming rock face. Deep in the bowels of the desert mountains, you’ll find an aqua-green, subterranean pool perfect to leap into. Be careful when you do though – shallow rocks lurk just beneath the surface in parts. Heet Cave is behind an industrial area, 45 minutes southeast from the centre of Riyadh along Route 65, which is just beyond the city limits. Follow the winding dirt track around a large landmass before the sand-coloured mountains come into view. The cave’s exact location is beside an abandoned old hut, covered in graffiti. From here the land slides steeply down towards the water. Use the ropes to clamber down, making sure you have solid footwear and a torch in your bag. Note that Heet Cave gets busy during the weekends.
The vast crater Al-Waba measures two kilometres (a little over a mile) across, and has a milky blue lake of sodium phosphate crystals in the centre, giving it an ethereal look. A new visitors’ centre and viewing galleries have been built at the end of the road that comes off the 8454 highway, but the best way to experience this stunning natural phenomenon is to either camp along the eastern edge near the green palm forests, or hike the trail close to the abandoned huts west of the entry road. The route down, along the zigzagging, rocky path is a fantastic hike and offers stunning views over the crater’s cracked floor and central lake. Note that Al-Waba takes almost six hours by car from Riyadh, so visitors may want to camp and spend more than 24 hours at the site. Far flung and off the tourist-track, the area is miles away from the chaos of the city. Arrive with plenty of water, good shoes and a sun hat.
This geological wonder is one of the most difficult spots to get to in Saudi Arabia. Miles away from a road, and deep in the mountainous interior along the Tuwaiq Escarpment in northwest Riyadh, this is what the edge of the world would look like if there was such a thing. The reward for getting there is pretty darn spectacular. Stand at the edge of a precipice – a sheer drop – to stare out over a wild, barren landscape straight out of an alien movie set. Time your trip to coincide with sunrise or sunset, and watch as the sun slowly basks this extraterrestrial landscape in a crimson glow. It’s a three-hour drive from Riyadh, and the tricky route means it’s generally quiet. Pro tip: don’t even think about attempting this without a 4×4.
Known for its mud-brick buildings, this Unesco World Heritage city was the ancestral home of the Al Saud royal family during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it sits on the western edge of the country’s capital in stark contrast to modern Riyadh’s glitzy veneer. Wander among Dir’iyah’s complex of fully restored mud palaces, mosques and houses, where you can imagine young Saudi princes playing in its narrow alleyways. Admire the decorative doors on the Al Turaif bathhouse, and tour the wonderfully preserved royal mud palaces that were once home to Nasser and Saad Ibn Saud. The mud turrets, stairwells and beautiful wooden doors are an evocative glimpse of a world long ago. A taxi to Dir’iyah from the centre of Riyadh will cost around 50 Saudi riyal (about £10) and take about 20 minutes.
Famously known as the largest area of sand on earth, the Empty Quarter, or ‘Abode of Silence’, is surprisingly easy to access from Riyadh (two-three hours along Route 10). It’s even easier to get lost in, so if you have ambitions of becoming a modern-day Thesiger or St John Philby, come prepared. Bring a guide, a robust 4×4 vehicle, supplies, and only then head off in search of those huge, sculpted dunes desert lovers dream of. For those who want to truly experience the interior of Saudi Arabia and spend a few days trekking, visiting wells and oases known only to local Bedouin, it is best to hire an experienced guide or join a tour with an agency.