The city of Riyadh predates the development of Saudi Arabia itself, and its museums capture some of the city’s vast history. Explore pre-Islamic civilisations or delve into the development of the Kingdom – there’s plenty on offer at the best museums in Riyadh.
When the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (also known as Ibn Saud), unified the tribes of the region and founded the modern-day Kingdom, he established Riyadh as its capital and made it his goal to turn it into a thriving global city.
He certainly succeeded. Today, Riyadh has a population of more than 7 million, and is the busiest city in the country. The city is home to dozens of diverse museums that explore its history, heritage and ever-evolving culture.
This museum is located in King Saud University – the oldest in Saudi Arabia – and highlights cultural and historical artefacts that have been discovered and collected through various excavations conducted by the university. It’s important to note that as King Saud is a men-only university, only men are allowed in. The museum was initially set up to familiarise students with archaeology as an academic practice, but is now open to visitors. The museum has two main halls: the first focusses on the Faw and Rabdha excavations that took place in Northern and Southern Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and includes artefacts that date back to Roman and Hellenic times, such as statues of Apollo. The second hall houses antiquities including coins and statues, many of which are still being analysed, which suggest that developed civilisations have been living in the region for centuries. Visiting hours are from 8am to 2pm, Saturday to Wednesday.
As the name is Arabic for a thick, fortified building, it might come as no surprise that the Masmak Museum was originally a fort, one part of a large palace in the centre of Riyadh. Developed in 1895 by Abdulrahman ibn Sulaiman ibn Dabaan, the prince of Riyadh, this building was constructed using mud bricks, clay and straw, and it has stood the test of time, with the help of a series of restorations in the 1980s. Masmak even temporarily housed King Abdulaziz between 1902 and 1938. It was converted to a museum in 1995 and primarily tells the story of the unification of Saudi Arabia, which took place between 1902 and 1932. The exhibits comprise paintings, photographs and antiquities, including weapons such as guns and swords used by tribes and sheikhdoms during that time.
Saqr Al-Jazeera is one of the biggest aerospace museums in the region and explores the history and accomplishments of the Royal Saudi Air Force. It showcases a different side to Saudi Arabia through its collection of model airplanes, collectables, pictures, historical documents and audiovisual installations that explore the country’s aerospace journey. There is also a special section dedicated to the astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was the first Muslim in space. After a visit to the museum, the prince donated many of his possessions, including his spacesuit, and many of these are on display today. Note that visits must be coordinated and approved by the museum’s curator.
The National Museum in Riyadh is the largest and most visited museum in Saudi Arabia, and one of the biggest in the Middle East. The huge two-storey building forms part of the King Abdulaziz Historical Centre, an urban project that also has green spaces and cultural offerings including a mosque, a library and a conference hall. The National Museum is the main attraction, capturing the history of Saudi Arabia, Islam and human civilisation itself through eight galleries that include ‘Man and the Universe’, ‘Pre-Islamic Eras’ and ‘Hall of the Prophet’s Mission’. The galleries are arranged chronologically, each one displaying a vast collection of sculptures and antiques. The museum is also a stone’s throw from the Murabba Palace, which served as the family residence and court of King Abdulaziz in the mid-20th century and today houses many historical artefacts, photographs and installations. Entry is 10 Saudi riyals (roughly £2) for adults and free for students and children.
The Torath Museum of Arts and Crafts, also known as the Heritage Museum, highlights the history of fine arts and fabric crafts in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Founded by Nasser bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a former governor of Riyadh, it consists of four separate areas, each of which focusses on a different theme based around a specific tribe and its culture. The venue showcases fabrics, paintings, jewellery and antiques, and also explores how fabric crafts have evolved in the Arab world, primarily during the early years after the Kingdom was established in 1932. There are also a few exhibits that predate the Kingdom. Torath is most popular among students of fine arts, but there is something for everyone here.
The Museum of Currencies is a specialised museum that showcases the different currencies used in the Arab world over the course of its history. It is also known as the Money Museum and is managed by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA). The institution contains currency that dates back to pre-Islamic civilisations, as well as rare notes and coins from modern Arab countries. It also explores the production of money, displaying rare raw materials used in banknote printing and coin minting, with explanations that detail how currency is made and preserved. The museum is located in the SAMA Head Office Building in Riyadh.