From gleaming glass towers to traditional Najdi palaces, few cities can rival Riyadh's architectural diversity. Here's a tour of five stand-out structures, old and new.
Often transliterated as 'The Garden', Riyadh lives up to its name in more than one way. Not only is it situated in a fertile oasis on the Arabian Peninsula, it's also blooming and growing at an impressively fast rate. With skyscrapers shooting up next to ancient castles, there's no shortage of architectural marvels for visitors to admire.
Kingdom Centre: A Symbol of Contemporary Riyadh
This spectacular landmark has been described as Saudi Arabia’s most important tourist attraction. Rising 302m over the city, it provides an unrivaled view of the whole of Riyadh from the 300-tonne steel and glass Sky Bridge that connects the two edges of its inverted archway.
Designed by Richard Tenguerian, visitors can take high-speed lifts up to the 99th floor, travelling at 180 km/h before arriving at this spectacular viewpoint.
Murabba Palace: Fit for a King
Once the private residence of King Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, Murabba Palace represented the first major expansion beyond Riyadh’s walls when construction started in 1936. It took nine years to complete the complex of residential and administrative buildings that form the palace, which was built in a traditional architectural style using a combination of indigenous stones, bricks, tamarisk trunk and palm leaf stalks. Renovated in 1999, it's now a fascinating museum.
Al-Faisaliah Tower: A Globe in the Sky
Conceived by British architect Norman Foster, the Al-Faisaliah Tower opened in 2000 and was the first of Riyadh’s ambitious new buildings to rise above its centuries-old skyline. With a huge glass globe close to its summit, the 44-storey tower has more than a passing resemblance to a giant ballpoint pen. Encapsulated within this stunning golden orb is The Globe, a European restaurant that complements its servings of lobster thermidor and duck foie gras with sweeping panoramic views of the city.
Al-Masmak Fort: Traditional Najdi Symmetry
Also known to locals as Al-Masmak Palace, this is an older example of traditional Najdi architecture. The overall appearance is symmetrical, with its four turreted towers linked by impenetrable red-brick walls. Built in 1865, renovated in 1995 and again in 2012, Al-Masmak Fort now attracts around 25,000 visitors a day during the Haj holidays. It's as historically significant as it is architecturally impressive – at the turn of the twentieth century, King Abdul Aziz dramatically seized it from the Al-Rashid family, thus restoring Saudi control over Riyadh.
Located just twenty minutes' drive from the Radisson Blu Hotel Riyadh at the southern end of the city centre, Al-Masmak Fort is best reached by local taxi. Drivers typically charge five riyals (80p) per one or two kilometres, though it's best to agree a price beforehand.
National Museum: Inspired by the Sand
A fine example of Middle Eastern modernist architecture, the two-storey National Museum is regarded as one of the region’s leading historical institutions. It was designed by Raymond Moriyama, inspired by the forms and colours of the ‘Red Sands’ outside of Riyadh. The museum is unusual in that emphasis isn’t placed on isolated exhibits. Instead, visitors are encouraged to view artefacts collectively, to understand the context.