Once an isolated oasis on a desert trading route, today soaring skyscrapers meet ancient culture in Riyadh. In this expat’s guide to visiting the Saudi capital, Layla from Blue Abaya explains why the city is no longer a business-only destination.
"Come with an open mind and don't be afraid to explore the city – you won't regret it!" Layla's advice for travelers arriving in Riyadh makes it clear just how enthusiastic she is about the city that's been her home since 2008. Her blog Blue Abaya (the title links the skies of her native Finland with the culture of Saudi Arabia) is an invaluable resource for newcomers to Riyadh.
Get a bird’s-eye view
Riyadh’s skyline is constantly evolving; “new buildings, shopping malls and restaurants are literally popping up like mushrooms after the rain.” Soaring above its ultra-modern surroundings, the distinctive Kingdom Centre dominates Riyadh's skyline, particularly at night, when its inverted arch lights up with continuously changing colors. Looking a little like a needle with a great eye overlooking the city, it's just a short drive from our Radisson Blu Hotel, Riyadh. The SkyBridge is a 300-ton steel bridge that connects the two sides of the tower – visit after dark for a spectacular view of the illuminated capital.
Feast on regional cuisine
For first-time visitors, Layla says "the Najd Village restaurant is a MUST visit! The restaurant, which is built as a replica of the traditional mud houses typical to the Najd region, serves delicious Saudi cuisine in private majlis (living rooms)." Seated on the floor, utensils are very much optional as you dig into great dishes like camel served with a fragrant lime, cardamom and tomato sauce. For breakfast, Layla recommends Paul's on Tahlia Street: "you can pick up freshly baked breads, mouth-watering cakes, pies and their famous croissants."
Go on an adventure
“A visit to Riyadh would not be complete without a trip out to the desert,” says Layla. “Highly recommended would be visiting either the Red Sand Dunes or the spectacular ‘Edge of the World’, which both offer unforgettable experiences for travelers.” Just outside the city limits, the aptly named ‘Edge of the World’ is a massive ridge of gold-toned rocks jutting out of the desert floor, which you can climb. Layla has produced a guide to this stunning region on her blog, and is well worth seeking out for more information.
Within the city, Layla recommends starting in the Diplomatic Quarter, or "the 'DQ', as locals call it. It's a gated area where the foreign embassies are located and many westerners live there." Inside, you'll find "over 30 beautifully landscaped lush gardens and a 20km-long nature walking trail which encircles the quarters and provides spectacular views to Wadi Hanifa. The architecture in the Diplomatic Quarter is the work of internationally renowned architects from all over the world, making the area even more appealing to visitors."
Discover the past
Layla describes the National Museum as “one of the best museums in the entire Middle East”, where “visitors get an excellent introduction to the Arabian Peninsula’s history, culture, geography and religion.” Exhibits include samples written in some of the world's oldest alphabets and a model mastodon, an extinct species related to the woolly mammoth. She also advises that “the surrounding area of the National Museum, the King Abdulaziz Historical Center has enough attractions and activities to keep the visitors busy for the whole day.”