Saudi Arabia; where does one begin? A land of supreme contrast and ethereal beauty. The birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and home to Mecca, the holiest city. A unique earthly coordinate where tradition and the modern collide, yet the collision is but an Oriental amalgamation dance, with opposing forces voluntarily, even eagerly, intertwining – and indefinitely so.
What do we know about Saudi Arabia and its capital, Riyadh? We know about Arabic coffee, veiled women, oil, mosques, innumerable palaces, Bedouins, sword-wielding dances, horses, and, of course – sand deserts. Exotic, mysterious, primal, divine; the ultimate treat for any mystery-driven traveler. Without further suspense, let’s take a look at some of Riyadh’s iconic and cultural hotspots.
Very much like Saudi Arabia, Riyadh also enjoys this idiosyncratic quality: juxtaposition. Here’s a taste: fun fact no.1: Till this day, Riyadh remains the country’s largest, proudest camel market, selling up to 100 camels each day. It is also recognized as the world’s biggest camel market, spreading across 2 square miles along the outskirts of Buraydah in Al-Qassim. From a historical perspective, camels were once the ultimate transportation option; today – we have cars.
Nonetheless, camels still hold a sentimental, special place in Arabic culture. The opposing fun fact no.2: Over the past decade, a total of 100 skyscrapers have been built in the city, with the PIF tower (finished in 2021) becoming the tallest construction at 385 meters. Welcome to the city of supreme contrast. Travel advice: be sure to pack your photo equipment.
Red Sand Dunes
Covering around 250,000 square miles, Rub’ al-Khali (“The Empty Quarter”) is the world’s largest and driest sand desert. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, lies amid this unique ecoregion, gifting us an unparagoned experience. The towering dunes of the Red Sand lie some 80 kilometers outside the city – a mere 45-minute drive. If you’re looking for a superb off-the-beaten-track experience, this might be it. Arabian nights—coming to you live.
If this is your first time visiting the Middle East, we can’t recommend this enough. Before you immerse yourself in the city bustle – visit a camel farm in the desert. Enjoy diverse activities such as dune bashing, sand-boarding, quad bike and camel rides, and Henna tattoos, along with some high-quality BBQ. Oh, and let’s not forget shisha. P.S. The rumor has it that Saudis love a little haggling. So, go for it; no shame in bargaining.
Deerah Souq or Al-Thumairi Souq (located along Thumairi Street) can be found near the Al Masmak Fort and Al-Zel Souq in the city’s old quarter. What is it famous for? Its antique and gold Souq sections, of course. Treasure abundance awaits, from souvenirs, silver, gold, and carpets, to traditional clothing, antiques, and furniture. Deerah Souq is considered one of Riyadh’s iconic and cultural hotspots due to its rich history and tourist-friendly vibe.
Most sellers speak English, so work on your bargaining game. (in most Arab countries, the bargaining dance is a must. You’re not insulting anyone; you’re merely participating.) This Souq should imperatively be on your itinerary, given that it represents a rare opportunity for us tourists to witness a glimpse of the country’s well-veiled history. Time travel through a plethora of antique objects – what more can one ask for, really?
This is where the juxtaposition’s echo surfaces; despite the city’s swarming streets, cutting-edge skyscrapers, business centers, and hectic traffic, Riyadh’s rich history and heritage take the overtone position. The silent parts of the city are louder than the bustle – and that’s the beauty of it in a nutshell.
The father of modern-day Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, recaptured Riyadh in 1902 as part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by orchestrating a coup d’état that consequently cemented the city as the kingdom’s capital. The fort was restored in the 1980s before re-opening as a museum in 1995. Today, visitors can explore the awe-inspiring fort (1865) and learn all about the rise, as well as the formation of the Kingdom. The museum is dedicated to the momentous occasion and Riyadh’s history as the capital, including a throne, well-preserved artifacts, and fine furniture.
Now, on to the modern. The Kingdom Center, previously known as Kingdom Tower, is a 302.3m spectacle of a skyscraper in Riyadh. Becoming the tallest building in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, the tower showcased a unique design specifically selected to symbolize the grand city of Riyadh. The innovative architectural solution, a massive triangular opening at the top, can be seen from nearly all parts of the capital.
A trademark. The Chrysler of Saudi Arabia. The Sky Bridge is located on the 50th floor of the colossal piece, giving visitors an exclusive opportunity to absorb and admire Riyadh’s panorama and its stunning architecture – especially at night, when you can see other skyscrapers in a variety of majestic colors. Saudi Arabia is evolving rapidly; its progressive, more inclusive politics (and design) are finally opening the gates. If you’re planning on organizing an overseas move to Saudi Arabia, we suggest you get a helping hand—rely on experts for this cultural experience.
Once the home of the Royal Family (and the first capital of Saudi Arabia), Diriyah stands tall as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (and one of the largest on the Arabian Peninsula). The year-long siege of the Ottoman finally broke the historic site’s beauty, but only from the outside. And barely.
Although destroyed, the city is now a tourist destination where one can enjoy Saad bin Saud Palace and its famous courtyard, traditional mud-brick architecture, numerous parks, and its potent crossroad history of traders and pilgrims. The seat of First Saudi State’s governance opened its doors to the public for the very first time on December 4th, 2022. It’s okay if you catch post-travel blues—too much beauty.
The ultimate advice? The best way to explore Riyadh’s iconic and cultural hotspots is to simply – roam. Get familiar with the locals. Let them show you the well-hidden treasures, respect the culture, and enjoy the experience.