Riyadh - Abbey Travel, Ireland



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Welcome to Riyadh


Rising from the barren desert, its towering skyscrapers glittering in the fierce sun, the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, is one of the most splendid and affluent cities in the modern world, sprawling across about 600 square miles (1,600 square kilometres) of desert in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.

Once a small oasis known for its date orchards (hence the origin of its name which in Arabic means 'place of gardens'), Riyadh's phenomenal growth spurt began in 1902 when the desert lord Ibn Saud took over the city determined to turn it into the centre of his Arabic kingdom. Thirty years later it became the capital of the new country of Saudi Arabia, and fuelled by the revenue of the country's abundant oil fields, it has burgeoned into an awesome modern metropolis with a population well in excess of four million.

Modern it may be, but visitors to Riyadh are never likely to forget that they are in the heart of the Arab world. In between the towering, futuristic buildings, glitzy shopping malls and broad, sweeping highways are nestled ancient mosques and other remnants of times gone by, shady trees and date palms line the avenues, and camels sometimes sway between the luxury vehicles. The city is also run on a strictly Islamic moral and cultural code, and visitors should respect the rules while exploring the sights, both ancient and modern, in this fascinating city. Women have restricted access to certain attractions and sites.

The original 'wadis' (dry river beds), where wells were sunk to water the historic infant oasis settlement, have now been supplemented by numerous vast dams and piped in desalinated seawater to adequately quench the thirst of this prosperous capital, quite justly dubbed 'Queen of the Desert'. Travellers can therefore drink deeply of this unique urban landscape, which will not be found wanting in both historic interest and modern wonder.

Information & Facts


In general conditions in Riyadh are dry and hot, but the city does receive about four inches (102mm) of rain a year, most of it falling between January and May. In summer hot winds can send temperatures soaring up to 113°F (45°C). In winter it can be surprisingly chilly, however, particularly at night when the thermometer can plunge below freezing. The best months in Riyadh, when days are pleasantly tolerable and nights are cool, are between October and May.

Eating Out

Travellers will be pleased to know that Riyadh has a great selection of restaurants to choose from and visitors will be spoiled for choice. Middle Eastern fare might dominate the dining out scene, but there has been an increase in international eateries springing up in recent years, creating even more choice for avid foodies. Now, everything from spicy Indian fare to good old American favourites like cheeseburgers and fries are on offer. Head to Tahlia Street for both fine dining and cheap eateries where the bright lights and catchy slogans of fast-food outlets like McDonald's and KFC line the street too. Many travellers will opt to dine at their hotel restaurant where many of the five-star eateries are owned by celebrity chefs and provide a one of a kind dining experience. Travellers should note that these hotel restaurants have done away with segregation between men and women, as well as the family section but they should not be alarmed if they come across this in other restaurants. Service charge is usually included in restaurant bills but a tip of 10% is the norm.

Getting Around

Public transport is available to a limited degree, consisting of minibuses, which ply a few routes and usually operate for men only. Buses that do admit women have a screened off area, separating them from the men. A better option for visitors, though, are taxis (white in colour), which can be booked through the hotel or hired directly from an amenable driver. Fares are reasonable and the taxis are metered. Car hire is also possible, but driving can be a little daunting, despite the deceptively easy-looking wide roads. Directional road signs tend to have English translations, but street signs are in Arabic only. Some traffic rules differ from those in the west, and penalties for speeding or reckless driving are severe.

Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, but English is widely understood.

The Saudi currency is the Riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. Foreign currency can be changed at banks and exchange bureaux. Banking hours are generally Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm. All major credit cards are accepted at shops, hotels and restaurants in Saudi Arabia. Travellers cheques are also accepted and ATMs are widely available. There are no taxes in Saudi Arabia, so shopping is good value.


You won't find a street in Riyadh that doesn't have a string of shopping malls, boutiques, or markets. Shopping centres can be confusing to foreign visitors however, as most have some restrictions on visiting hours for men, women and families. One of the biggest and fanciest shopping malls in Riyadh is Al Faisaliah on Olaya Road, which also has a fun park in the basement and is open to families and single women only from Wednesday to Friday. Al Mamlaka, also on Olaya Road, has a third floor Ladies Kingdom reserved exclusively for women. Kingdom tower offers great deals on luxury brands like Hugo Boss and Lacoste. Other popular malls include Sahara Mall on King Abdul Aziz Road, and Granada Mall near the airport.

Riyadh also has a few traditional souks, including Souq al-Thumairi, which is most popular with tourists for its wide range of Arabic goods and English-speaking touts. Remember in Riyadh markets, haggling is obligatory.

Shopping in Riyadh is tax-free, so you can find good deals on luxury brands and high-end products. Popular Riyadh souvenirs include Persian rugs, leathergoods and handbags, and local jewellery.

Local time is GMT +3.

Al Murabba'a Historical Palace was built in the early 1900s as private accommodation for the king. Now a principal component of the King Abdulaziz Darat (an institute and library devoted to preserving Arabian history), situated just outside the original city walls, the palace has been preserved as a living example of Arabian royal life in days gone by. On the ground floor are the guard's room and storerooms, while upstairs visitors can view the reception salons, political offices and private apartments.

An important landmark and heritage site in the city of Riyadh, the Musmak fortress was built around 1865 and is the site associated with the foundation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom as the original stronghold of King Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Rasheed. The castle is open to the public, who can explore its impressive rooms, pillared mosque, gate, watchtowers and well.

The ruins of the historically significant city of Diriyah, standing imposing and silent in the desert about 12 miles (20km) northwest of Riyadh city centre, provide an interesting excursion. The city, stronghold of the powerful Saud family, was the site of an important Islamic reform movement in around 1745, when two influential Imams called for the people to return to the true faith and abandon heresy, polytheism and superstition. The city was once the biggest in the Arab Peninsula, but was overtaken by Riyadh after being destroyed by the Turks in the early 19th century. The ruins of many of the mud-brick buildings remain to be explored.

The place to see and be seen in central Riyadh is at the remarkable Kingdom Centre, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia, owned by a Saudi prince and built to an unusual elliptical award-winning design. Besides containing modern offices, apartments, the Four Seasons Hotel and a fitness club, the Kingdom Centre also houses a state-of-the art three-level shopping mall with more than 160 stores, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Debenhams department stores. The centre also boasts dozens of world-class international restaurants.

This museum, chief among the numerous museums in Riyadh, showcases local art, religion and culture, as well as the diverse and intriguing history of the Arabian kingdoms, in eight sections. Artefacts such as clothing, weapons, jewellery and musical instruments, dating as far back as the Stone Age, are on display. Other city museums worth visiting are the National Museum, which contains ancient documents and furniture; the King Abdulaziz Military Museum; and the Museum of Antiquities and Folklore.

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