Saudi Arabia is opening its borders to tourists, and that can only be good news – for both the country, and us globetrotters that love to visit new and exciting places and cultures.
For many, the capital Riyadh will be their first stop in Saudi Arabia, and that opens up some amazing opportunities for adventurous tourists.
That’s because this city has so much to offer, so read on to see our top ten picks of things to do in Riyadh!
Explore downtown Riyadh (al-balad)
Downtown Riyadh, also known as al-balad (the Arabic word for town) is a myriad of centuries-old criss-crossing streets which take you back to the very beginnings of this city and country.
It’s the complete opposite of Riyadh’s modern side, and a welcome respite from posh hotels and towering skyscrapers.
Here, the hustle and bustle of the souk (Arabic word for market) repeats the same scene that has happened for decades – while visiting, why not barter for spices, or souvenirs to take home.
Downtown Riyadh is also full of architectural wonders – al-Maskak Fort is one such example. The mud and brick fortress lies in the city center and was integral to the capture of Riyadh by the al-Saud family in 1902.
Go for a camel ride
It may be a bit of a stereotype, but camels remain an important part of Bedouin, and therefore Saudi, culture.
And there’s definitely something special about seeing the Saudi desert surrounding Riyadh from camel back.
There’s no doubt it can be a little uncomfortable if riding for long periods of time, but it’s an authentic Bedouin experience everyone should try at least once in their lifetime!
A note of caution – some camels are grumpier than others! So don’t be afraid to request one camel over another.
Saudi cuisine: The food you must try in Riyadh
There’s no better place in Saudi Arabia to try the culinary delights of the nation than the capital, and digging into the local cuisine is one of the best things to do in Riyadh.
Here you can get everything the country has to offer – and oh boy is the food good.
First off you must try Kapsa – the chicken and rice dish infused with delicious spices.
Then try Maamul – Saudi shortbread packed with dates, nuts, or similar tasty treats. Make sure to have an Arabic coffee with it for the full experience.
Just want a snack? Then why not try the street food. Schwarma, Falafel, and Mutabbaq (folded savory pancakes) are always good choices in Saudi Arabia!
Try out a different kind of nightlife
It’s not the same as European capitals, but the nightlife in Riyadh is definitely worth experiencing.
Ok, so don’t expect vodka-fueled antics at boozy bars – instead expect lively conversation over coffee and shisha into the early hours.
Head to Tahlia Street on weekend evenings and take a seat in one of the many coffee shops lining the road. This is Riyadh’s best place to chat to locals.
Don’t worry if you’re traveling solo, this street is a place to meet new people, and many a Saudi couple have been created here under Tahlia’s shisha smoke.
Be adventurous: Quad biking in Riyadh
So a ride on a camel isn’t doing it for you? Why not go fast and furious Saudi desert style and go quad biking!
This is a super fun activity that the whole family can do, and with incredible red sandy dunes just a few miles north of Riyadh, there’s no excuse not to get in the hot-seat and enjoy an exhilarating few hours in the desert.
In summer, head to either the aptly-named Red Sand Dunes or Thomama during the morning to avoid the heat of the day, and rent a quad bike from one of the companies there. In winter, the temperature is usually cool enough to enjoy the activity throughout the day.
Go shopping Saudi style
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of shopping, but seeing the grandeur of Saudi shopping is worth it just for the experience.
Riyadh has the top brands and shops in the world, and an afternoon window shopping and seeing how the other half lives is quite something.
Head to Kingdom Centre Mall, the largest building in Saudi Arabia and one owned by a prince. Make your way to the top and check out the Sky Bridge for incredible views over the city.
Horse racing in Riyadh
Want another version of glitz and glamour that’s a little more down to earth, then head along to the Equestrian Club of Riyadh – Saudi Arabia’s biggest and best horse racing track.
Horse racing is becoming a big thing in Saudi Arabia, and races here draw huge crowds. The atmosphere is electric, and with a huge $20 million of prize money up for grabs in the Saudi Cup, this is big stakes stuff.
Most weekends have at least one race day – the club is also a great place to grab an elegant lunch or dinner.
Explore Riyadh’s natural side
Most images of Riyadh include stylish hotels and modern shiny skyscrapers, but did you know the city’s name in Arabic actually means ‘a place of gardens and trees’?
And no wonder, Riyadh is in an area with stunning natural sites and hidden gems, whilst Wadi Hanifa valley actually runs directly through the city.
Early in the morning you can go hiking in the valley, or why not head to Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter and enjoy one of the 30+ gardens there.
Visiting in Spring? Then go to King Abdullah Malaz Park where a Spring festival takes place every year involving 600,000 blooming flowers.
Not just a desert after all.
Experience ancient Saudi Arabia
On the outskirts of Riyadh is a spectacular site that takes you back thousands of years to neolithic times.
Called Graffiti Rock, this massive rock-face in the desert is home to art painted by the very first people who lived in Saudi Arabia.
The drawings include images of camels, battles, and day-to-day scenes of ancient life.
Not many tourists know Graffiti Rock exists, and there’s no doubt it’s a real hidden gem.
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diriyah
Not far from Riyadh is the incredible ancient ruins of Diriyah – the former capital.
The buildings made of mud and sand hark back to the beginnings of this country, and look spectacular when the sun shines on them.
Made up of a defensive wall, fortresses, as well as homes, this is a centuries-old city that has been spectacularly preserved, and must be seen to be believed.