We had already been in the air for about 3 hours, when a female voice came through the intercom, breaking the hum of the airplane.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we just entered the airspace of Saudi Arabia. From now on, we stop selling alcohol and food containing pork meat, as their consumption is forbidden in this country.”
These words marked the beginning of our journey into a land with customs and regulations we had yet to encounter. A mix of nerves and excitement. We were about to step into a country where rules and traditions painted a distinctive cultural tapestry.
Just a few years ago, Saudi Arabia was largely closed off to tourists, primarily attracting visitors for religious pilgrimages. However, things have been changing.
On September 27th, 2019, Saudi Arabia made a significant change by opening its doors to global travelers, extending beyond religious purposes. The shift was monumental, and over 24,000 tourists were welcomed within the first 10 days after the initiation of tourist visas.
This transformation also brought a new level of flexibility, allowing unmarried foreign couples to share hotel rooms—something that was impossible just a few years ago
In this article I’m sharing my impressions of Saudi Arabia, as well as recommendations for the best things to do in Riyadh. I wish I had this guide when we were planning our trip – you’ll find a lot of tips how to plan your time and when to visit what.
Join us as we unravel the tale of Saudi Arabia, a nation evolving to embrace the world.
Map of the best things to do in Riyadh
Where to stay in Riyadh
There are more and more hotels and apartment buildings being built in Riyadh, as the city is quickly expanding. I recommend you to find a place to stay in central Riyadh or in the northern parts of the city, as you’d be closer to most of the attractions, as well as the airport.
Keep in mind that stars of the hotels do not represent the same quality as in Europe, so always look at the reviews.
We stayed in an apartment in northern Riyadh, which turned out to be in a new building which didn’t have Wi-fi yet. The apartment was nice, but at the time of booking we didn’t relize there was no Wi-fi, so that was a bummer. Always check all of the information listed.
How to get around Riyadh
Riyadh is a city of 7 million people and the distances are very big. They’ve been building a metro system, but it wasn’t ready yet when we were visiting.
We found that the best way to get around Riyadh is by renting a car. We used this website which finds you deals from numerous companies out there and allows you to filter by your preferences.
We went for the cheapest option available at that time – a small vehicle from the company Alamo that cost us around €25/day, plus an additional €40 for the full waiver for the whole duration of the rent.
Tip: Always get a full insurance/waiver, so that you don’t need to pay for any damage to the car. People in Riyadh drive like crazy and almost all cars there have dented bumpers.
When renting a car, mileage is almost always limited and you pay a small fee for every kilometer driven over the limit. Ours was 800 km – enough to drive around Riyadh and the nearby areas. Parking is free almost everywhere – we only paid 30 SAR for parking when visiting Diriyah.
Gas is also much cheaper than in Europe, so this was the most cost-effective option for our group of 4.
If you don’t feel comfortable driving, you could also use apps like Uber, Bolt or Careem. Many tourists use them and they say it’s relatively cheap.
And if you want to visit a few cities in Saudi Arabia, I strongly encourage you to check out their domestic flights. They’re quite cheap and much more convenient than driving for hours on end.
Best Things to do in Riyadh
1. Diriyah – the birthplace of Saudi Arabia
Historical Diriyah traces its origins to 1446 AD and it’s where Imam Muhammad bin Saud established the roots of the first Saudi state.
As security expanded within the first Saudi state and urbanization progressed, architecture flourished in Diriyah. This led to a growth in the number of districts and mosques, attracting princes, tribal leaders, and ambassadors to Diriyah’s councils. The main things to see here are:
This is the most important district, being among the five Saudi sites recognized by UNESCO. At-Turaif includes Salwa Palace, where the operations of the first Saudi state were coordinated.
It’s also where you’ll find the beautiful Najd architecture with mud being one of the main materials. The buildings are very close together, ensuring that people are in the shade when walking along the narrow streets.
A place with 20+ fancy cafes and restaurants, both local and international.
We wanted to visit Diriyah on our very first day – after all, it’s one of the main sights in Riyadh. So we woke up *relatively* early, went to grab some breakfast and headed to Diriyah.
The drive from our accommodation was around 30 minutes, according to Google Maps. If you don’t want to arrive at the wrong spot, make sure to put the exact location into Google Maps – here you can see the exact locations to the parking.
Here you can also check the opening times. We arrived here at 10 am and it turned out At-Turaif only opened at 5 pm. The opening time varies throughout the year, so I’ll repeat myself, but it’s very important to check Diriyah’s official website in advance!
When we visited, in September 2023, the entry was free of charge. However, I’ve heard that during other times of the year you need to pay an entry fee, and perhaps even book in advance.
We spent a few hours walking around, so plan at least half a day for Diriyah.
2. Go on a free tour with Scientists’ Gift Organization
After a disappointing beginning of the day with the closed Diriyah, we went for lunch (restaurant recommendations below) and then headed to the Al Masmak fortress in the afternoon.
“Are you here for the tour?” – a local man greeted us right at the entrance.
“What tour?” – we answered, with a very surprised look on our faces.
We hadn’t signed up for anything on that day, so we were definitely not part of the tour, so we were about to brush them off and continue exploring the fortress on our own.
That’s when the man explained that a tour is about to start, and a local guide will take us through the Masmak Fortress, the neighboring market, take us to a mosque to watch the evening prayer, and then go for dinner. And then there was the magic word: it was absolutely for free (including the dinner!).
We were planning on going back to Diriyah that evening, which was going to be impossible if we decided to stay for the tour. So we said we’d gladly join for the first part – the fort and the market, and then we might go.
This was okay because you’re free to leave the tour at any point. Can you guess what happened next?
We decided to stay until the very end! It was so interesting to hear more about Saudi Arabia’s history and culture from a local that we scrapped our initial plans and stayed also for dinner, even though it was at the same restaurant chain that we had visited for lunch that day. 😀
Once we got to the restaurant, the guide gave us traditional Saudi clothing, so we got dressed and that’s how we had our dinner – the most traditional way possible!
We were extremely lucky on our first day to find this free tour because there’s almost no information about it online. They even make a few other tours, taking you to different places around the city. So I strongly recommend you to go on at least one of them!
You can check out their tours and book your spot on their official website.
3. Al Masmak Palace
Standing proudly in the heart of Riyadh, the magnificent Al Masmak Palace is a significant tourist attraction, silently witnessing pivotal events in the history of Saudi Arabia’s foundation.
Constructed during the 14th century in the Islamic Hijri calendar, under the reign of Imam Abdullah bin Faisal, the palace served as his residence, symbolizing power and wealth.
Today, it stands as a testament to the country’s historical journey to regain power and governance, showcasing the essence of that era and its leaders. In 1995/1416 (the second years is according to the Islamic calendar), it was transformed into a museum, preserving the rich history of the region.
The term “Al Masmak” in Arabic denotes a sturdy structure once utilized for storing weapons and ammunition, metamorphosing into a historic milestone and a museum.
4. Souq Al Zel Market
Just a few minutes away from Al Masmak Palace you’ll find Souq Al Zel. This market offers so many local products, such as spices, jewelry, clothing etc.
Walking around Souq Al Zel is among the top markets and one of the best things to do in Riyadh, as it allows you to experience the city through all your senses. And why not even get a souvenir for yourself.
5. Al Safat Square
On your way to the market, you’ll pass through a large square – Al Safat square.
Also known as Deera Square, this place serves as a hub for various national celebrations and is a vital link between two major historical sites of Riyadh: the Al Masmak Palace Museum on the east end and the Grand Mosque on the west end.
Unfortunately, Al Safat Square is infamous for being one of the last places on earth where public executions still occur. It’s sometimes referred to as Al-Safaa Square or Justice Square, and among foreigners as “Chop Chop Square”.
Our guide from the Scientists’ Gift Organization said that there’s zero tolerance in Saudi Arabia when it comes to crime. Especially murder.
6. Sky Bridge at the Kingdom Center
I always love seeing cities I visit from above. Thankfully Riyadh was no exception and there’s a beautiful tower you can go up to and see Saudi Arabia’s capital from a different perspective.
The Sky Bridge is located on the 99th floor of the Kingdom Center and it offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. You can see how big Riyadh actually is, as you can’t even see the end of it.
The entry to the tower is through the shopping mall, between “Mont Blanc” and “Carolina Herrera” stores. The ticket costs 69 SAR (≈ $19) for adults and 23 SAR for kids under 10 years.
7. Boulevard Riyadh City
Boulevard Riyadh City is the largest entertainment center in Riyadh – from luxurious shopping featuring top international brands to restaurants, offering dishes that tantalize your taste buds with local and international flavors.
The place is bustling with people, music, lights, billboards and places for entertainment. It’s open from 4 pm until 2 am, so it can be the perfect ending of a long day of discovering Riyadh. It’s also worth seeing all these lights at night.
There are some rollercoaster rides right next to it, so consider checking them out as well, especially if you’re visiting RIyadh with kids.
8. Take a trip to the Edge of the World
One of the must-see places around Riyadh is the Edge of the World – a majestic 1,131-meter-high cliff located about 100 km from Riyadh, marking the end of the extensive 800 km Tuwaik Mountain range.
This place literally looks like the end of the world… or like you’ve landed on Mars.
Tours take place either at sunrise or at sunset. Since we’re not really morning people, we decided to book the afternoon tour, and we chose a company called Riyadh Hiking.
The price of the tour is between $90 – $100 as of 2023, although you could also find private tours for much more.
Theoretically you could also go there by yourself without booking a tour, but I strongly advise you NOT to do it. A few close people of ours visited Riyadh before us and tried to drive there by themselves, and ended up getting lost. The last 40 minutes of the journey go through the desert and to me it seems impossible to find the way by yourself. Not to mention that it’s very recommended that you come with a high-riding 4×4 vehicle. Overall, trying to come here by yourself is not worth the time and potential headaches – just book a guide who knows the way and will make everything a breeze.
You might have also noticed that the official website of the Saudi Tourism Authority states that the place is closed. It’s not really closed. In my opinion, they’re trying to limit the number of people who come here on their own.
In the future they might mark the way and make it easier for tourists to come here, but right now it’s not advisable.
After a 2-hour drive from Riyadh which got a bit bumpy towards the end, we finally made it to the Edge of the World. We were expecting to walk around 2-3 km, but that was not the case – we only had to climb a bit to get to the top of the cliffs
And then, there it was – the cliffs standing tall and majestic, and in front of them – a desert that seemed to stretch beyond what the eye could see.
After spending about an hour, trying to capture every single millimeter of this incredible view, the sun finally started hiding behind the horizon. It was time to head back to the cars where our guides had already set up a camp and the food was almost ready.
We sat on carpets, serenaded by the rustling of the desert breeze. Fairy lights lit up the scene, adding a touch of magic to the night. It was all so surreal.
And so, we dined and talked, under a sky adorned with a million stars, making us feel infinitely small, as if all of our problems and worries faded away. It was a night to remember.
9. Visit the Red Sand Dunes
One of the top things to do around Riyadh is to visit the Red Sand Dunes. The vast expanse of reddish sand creates a picturesque view, looking like a desert painting. With towering dunes and breathtaking surroundings, this desert is a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering activities like off-roading, dune bashing, and sandboarding.
10. Go on a safari at Nofa Wildlife Park
Visiting the Edge of the World might have been the most magical part of our Riyadh trip, but going on a safari was the most exciting one. Or at least part of it.
I had never been on a safari before, so the excitement was real.
About an hour and a half from Riyadh, you’ll find Nofa Wildlife Park – a place where you can see 18 different species of herbivores, such as giraffes, zebras and hippos. A big part of the animals roam freely in a large desert-like park. But there are still some of them that are closed in cages, like the hyena and the wolves (more on that later).
Within 2 hours, the safari experience takes you through the whole park to all of the animals. In the first hour you’ll be on a vehicle and will go through the desert, where animals like the bisons, impalas, giraffes and zebras roam freely.
We even got to feed the giraffes, which was absolutely amazing. I even got a few licks on the hand with their blue tongues. A bit bad on the breath, but still overwhelmingly cute.
The experience was incredible until we got to the second part of the “safari” – seeing all the animals that were living in closed spaces. We learned that many of them are still babies, for example, so that’s why they’re not out and about.
But my heart dropped when I saw a few eagles and owls with a string on their foot so they can’t fly away. The staff would give you a glove to put on and the bird would jump on the glove, so you can take a photo with it. This was the saddest thing to see and I just couldn’t pose for such a photo. No creature deserves to be tied up like this, for the “fun” of others.
I also felt extremely bad for one sad hyena which was absolutely alone in the cage, and looked incredibly sad. There were also a few wolves in another cage.
The park also allows you to ride a horse or a camel for an extra charge. The camel looked small and weak, and it was like it was praying that no person decides to use her for a ride.
Dear reader, please spare the camels and don’t pay to ride them. They should be free to roam just like other animals. Hopefully more and more people stop paying for such “fun” experiences, so that locals stop using animals like that.
My feelings for this experience are a bit mixed. Overall, I very much recommend the first part of the tour where you get to see the animals roam freely. Sadly, you can’t just separate the tour, but please don’t do anything that would harm the animals, even if it’s just a simple ride.
You can book your visit from their official website. As of 2023 tours take place with the following schedule:
From Saturday until Thursday
- 8 am – 10:30 am
- 9 am – 11:30 am
- 2 pm – 4:30 pm
Price: 150 SAR per person. You pay on the spot.
11. Graffiti Rock
This place was recommended to us by a woman, who we met on the free tour at Al Masmak fortress and who had been living in Saudi Arabia for the past few months.
If you end up doing the safari, I recommend driving to the Graffiti Rock after that, as it’s on the same road – you just need to drive 20-30 minutes further.
Sadly, we only realized how close we had been when we got back to Riyadh, so it wasn’t worth it driving for 1+ hours one way again.
Don’t make our mistake and combine the two places!
The study of Saudi Arabian rock art is relatively new, leaving the dating of these carvings open to debate. This is why I don’t dare to say too much about it in this article. However, it’s evident that Graffiti Rock has been a canvas for artists across centuries, possibly from the Neolithic era (10,000 to 3,000 BCE) up to recent times.
12. Al Murabba Historical Palace
Al Murabba Historical Palace in Riyadh offers a glimpse into the city’s past.
Ordered by King Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s founder, the palace was strategically placed 2 km from old Riyadh to keep pace with the city’s growth. In 1939, it became the official residence for the royal family and a hub for state affairs, even hosting meetings with world leaders.
Al Murabba Palace is designed as a square surrounded by walls, reflecting the local culture’s emphasis on privacy. The palace features 32 rooms spread over 2 floors, hosting receptions for the king’s guests and administrative offices for aides and guards.
Al Murabba Palace is open from Saturdays to Thursdays, from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and later from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. On Fridays, the palace welcomes visitors during the evening from 5:00 to 8:00 pm.
13. Saudi National Museum
Travel through time at Riyadh’s Saudi National Museum, a captivating journey from ancient epochs to modernity.
Nestled in the heart of Al Murabba neighborhood near King Abdulaziz palace, this museum, established in 1419H, spans an impressive 17,000 square kilometers. It houses 3,700 artifacts, including statues, scripts, and unique sculptures, narrating the rich tapestry of history.
14. Al-Faisal Museum for Arab-Islamic Art
The Al-Faisal Museum for Arab-Islamic Art displays valuable collections from the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). It’s a guardian of human heritage, enhancing academic and cultural exploration, and providing a space for inspiration and historical discovery.
The museum is open every day apart from Friday, from 9 am until 9 pm and it’s free to enter.
15. Al Kharrarah National Park + Desert Lake
Al Kharrarah National Park, situated in the southern part of Al Muzahimiyah Governorate, west of Riyadh, offers a tranquil escape from the bustling city. Here, you can unwind amidst lush greenery, sandy dunes, and Lake Kharrarah, which is formed by rainfall.
Restaurants and cafes in Riyadh
Najd Village is one of, if not the most popular restaurant (among tourists) in Riyadh. It’s a very traditional restaurant where you get to sit on the ground and enjoy local food in a unique and authentic way.
Don’t forget to try the Saudi traditional coffee (which tastes more like tea to me). It’s way less strong, but it’s definitely interesting.
There are a restaurants of the Najd Village chain in the city, so just pick the one closest to you.
This was a random find during our trip, as we were just looking for a restaurant with good reviews not to far from where we were. We ended up going to Mama Noura, which is a restaurant that looks like a diner that offers all sorts of local food for a reasonable price.
We loved it so much that we came back a second time, and even got a few shawarmas to eat during our flight back. It was just so delicious!
There’s a few Mama Noura restaurants in Riyadh, so just pick one and try their food.
This cafe is unique for the fact that there are trees inside, making you feel as if you’re outside. The tree itself was real, but its branches were fake, which was very noticeable when you look up close.
Regardless, it was still a beautiful place with delicious coffee and cakes.
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia stands as a truly unique destination, offering an experience unlike any other. Immersing ourselves in its rich culture and traditions has been an enlightening journey, leaving us with memories we will forever cherish. The country’s warm hospitality, fascinating heritage, and breathtaking landscapes have opened our eyes to a world we had never seen before.
With plans to welcome 70 million international visitors by 2030, Saudi Arabia is clearly committed to showcasing its diverse tapestry to the world. As the doors to this captivating land continue to open wider, we recommend Saudi Arabia to any traveller, open to embrace the unfamiliar.