Riyadh is at first glance a modern metropolis, its highways hives of activity under the glare of its urban high-rises. But delve beneath its shiny new façade and the city’s fascinating centuries-old history can still be found within its atmospheric souqs, compelling museums and ancient architecture. Throw in a burgeoning art scene with contemporary settings like Mono Gallery and Noqtah Studio, and this blend of medieval and millennial makes for a beguiling cultural union, one where Arabia’s first roots can be traced, and where its bold future can be envisaged. It’s the perfect setting for a staycation or weekend break, exploring the best of the capital’s cultural appeal.
The Saudi National Museum has over 3,700 antiquities on show, documenting the grand history of Arabia over millennia. Beginning with pre-historic skeletons and a meteorite from the vast Rub Al Khali desert, through pre-Islamic Arabian kingdoms, it portrays the birth and rise of Islam, and the creation of the modern kingdom, following the 1902 capture of Riyadh. The famous battle behind this birth centres on another must-visit location, Al Masmak Fortress. Built in 1865 and superbly preserved, the fort houses a collection of photographs charting the city’s evolution over the years.
Located only a few minutes’ walk from the Masmak Fort, the Souq Al Zal remains as noisy and vibrant as when it first emerged back in 1901. Filled with the scent of burning oud and the din of cheerful hawkers, the crackle and hubbub here is at its peak on Friday evenings during the Haraj auction, when merchants display their rarest goods of the week. Everything from gold coins to quirky handcrafts and dusty antiques can be found here, with traditional Saudi items such as dallah coffee pots, hooked jambiya daggers and mabkhara incense burners making for excellent souvenirs.
Perhaps the best way to experience Riyadh’s cultural fusion is through its cuisine, with combined dining and heritage experiences like that at Najd Village. Here, faithfully recreated Najd architecture creates a traditional environment and authentic recipes like kabsa, jareesh and hashi are served in a setting ideal for group dining, with its plentiful platters the best way to sample the full menu. More contemporary takes can be found at the sophisticated Takya, serving Saudi fusion food inspired by the country’s regions, and Suhail, with its modern spin on traditional Saudi favourites.
Where to stay: Riyadh has no shortage of hotels to choose from, many offering spectacular views across the city. Choose from the Ascott Rafal Olaya Riyadh, the sleek Hilton Riyadh Hotel, or the stylish Burj Rafal.
Where to eat: Try Najd Village for Arabic cuisine in an old-world setting, or Fairouz Garden for contemporary local dishes with rooftop views. Sample Eastern flair at Hualan or dip into Riyadh’s famed coffee culture at cafés Bateel, Five Elephants or Elixir Bunn, the latter in Riyadh’s ancient Ad Diriyah.
Where to have fun: Explore the contemporary capital with a trip to the Riyadh Front, where deluxe shopping and dining awaits, or step back in time with a trip to the 1,500-year-old Ushaiger Heritage Village. Thrill seekers will enjoy testing their skills at Doos Karting, or drinking in the views from the Edge of the World.
Learn more: Palm Land Tours offers bespoke trips to Ushaiqer Heritage Village, while Masarat provides outdoor adventure with hikes to the Edge of the World and Jebel Tuwaiq. Al Shitawai and Al Mosafer show you the best of the capital with tailored city tours.
Reset with world-class shopping, restaurants and hotels.
Trade the city for the forest with an overnight camping trip to this beautiful reserve.
Enjoy sensational views from the 99th floor of this Riyadh skyscraper.
A treasure trove of items unearthed from key archaeological sites across the kingdom and a direct link to the country’s past.
Saudi Arabia’s cultural scene is evolving and nowhere is this more apparent than in its capital with its thriving arts scene.
If you need a break from the hustle and bustle, Al Kharrarah National Park should be top of your list.
The Edge of the World is aptly named and can be reached through a trail that runs along a ridge of the Tuwaiq escarpment.
Find an enticing undercurrent of Riyadh's concept stores to explore.
If Riyadh wasn’t your first pick for an up-close encounter with a cheetah, a trip to Nofa Wildlife Park can change your mind.
The northeastern city of Tabuk has long been a resting point for Jordanian and Egyptian pilgrims, with a rich Bedouin culture that can be felt in the bustling Souq Twaheen, which still supplies patterned rugs and goat-hair tent covers for modern nomads.