A shorter version of this story on Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia was published in the October issue of SpiceRoute, in-flight magazine of Spice Jet Airlines.
If I had to name one country which called for anxiety or anticipation before traveling, I would call it Saudi Arabia. When I went to Riyadh, 4 years ago, there used to be no tourist visa. And the mandate of wearing an Abaya sounded uncomfortable. However, I gave in to my urge of exploring a new culture, experiencing a different city and digging into delicious food. Despite being one of the largest countries in Arab world, a treasure trove of oil, home to Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has never really been on the tourist map. Let us unravel the hidden gems of Riyadh, the country’s capital and financial hub.
Visa and King Khalid International Airport, Saudi Arabia
For those who come from visa-exempt countries or are headed for Muslim pilgrimage to Hajj or Umrah, it is a cake-walk, else till last year the visa process was cumbersome. It could only be obtained for business travelers, expats and their dependents with the help of the locals. I remember King Khalid International Airport as simple, uncluttered and huge airport, undergoing a major refurbishment. Today, it stands as a very busy airport, having made its place in top 20 international airports in terms of arrivals and departures. The good news is that Saudi Arabia is all geared up to extend warmth to international visitors by providing a tourist visa.
My experience – Olaya Street
I visited the city twice and lived there for two months. I often count it as one of the most unique experiences of my life because it was there where I wore an Abaya for the first time, saw religious police but no women drivers on the road, and survived in a city which had no entertainment theatres. But at the same time, it was also very interesting to see how the city takes its faith and religion very seriously. The city literally comes to a stop (slow down), five times in a day when almost all the locals head to the prayer rooms. The shops remain open but are left empty during the praying intervals. It was only in Riyadh that I ate in restaurants which had separate family and bachelor section. Overall, it was relaxing to see a city which had no touristy obligations to meet. I found Riyadh raw and unpretentious. Also, I ate some of the best “Kabsa”and “Kunafa” there.
Having lived in Olaya District, in close proximity of King Fahd Road (lifeline of Riyadh), let me share some of my experiences from there.
King Fahd Road and tallest building with a hole
King Fahd Road is the longest and busiest road of the capital that runs through the center of the city and takes you through the downtown. It has close access to its contemporary architectural delights and urban sprawl. My hotel was very close to the skyscraper, The Kingdom Tower. With 99 floors and an observation deck on the top, the building also claims it name to fame as the world’s third-tallest building with a hole. One third of its façade creates an inward hole, lending a very unique shape and identity to the whole structure. There are buzzing shops and offices inside. On the weekends, it used to be my haven for good food and shopping. The bridge on the 100th floor is popular among the locals and visitors for its impressive view of the city. Evenings are the best time to take the ride to the top, to watch the sunset and see the transition from day to night. Soon after, Riyadh sizzles when the lights are switched on. There is an admission ticket to the top floor and I definitely recommend it if you have a fascination for architecture and skyline. “The King Abdullah Mosque” is situated on its 77th story.
Al Faisaliyah Centre, Ministry of Interior and National Museum
Another building that often fascinated me, still exists and looks like an uncapped pen pointing towards the sky. It is known as Al Faisaliyah Centre, also called “Star Dome”. I used to call it a ballpoint pen building. I was told that it was the first commercial skyscraper of Saudi. Made of 44 floors, it boasts of a global restaurant at the top and a shopping mall too. While talking of buildings, The Ministry of Interiors on the King Fahd Road is also one of the landmark structures and features a designer interior dome. From far away, it also looks like a huge flying saucer.
Since there are not many touristy hotspots in the city, the National Museum is a star attraction. Located in the center of the city, it makes for a popular indulgence. It introduces one to Arabian Peninsula, faiths of Islam, pre-history and the birth of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There is an excellent round-up on topography, archaeology, ethnography and history of the region and the country.
Edge of the World
Saudi Arabia his home to some of the largest desert areas like, An Nafud and Rub al-Khali. If you are looking for some real adventure in Riyadh, you really have to drive towards the wilderness of the deserts. It takes a ride of 2 hours to reach this edgy and thrilling corner, where beautiful soft rocks make for deep and steep edge point of Tuqwaiq Escarpment. These canyons of Central Arabia are famously nicknamed as “Edge of The World”. The views from here are amazing, especially, sunset and sunrise are surreal. This is an off-roading activity, ensure you have a 4×4.
Masmak Fortress and At-Turaif District
In the old quarters of the capital, one may go and explore the Masmak Fortress, the one which has seen history. It is a sandcastle comprising of watch towers, courtyard, museum and shops. History lovers will find it intriguing as well as interesting for it tells the story of Arabs and the unification of Arabia. On the outskirts of Riyadh, At-Turaif District in Ad-Diriyah is one of the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Saudi Arabia. It is a hidden gem and an authentic old city. The remains of the settlement date back to 15th century. It used to be the first capital of Saudi dynasty and one of the seat of royal family. This arid, rocky area is a place to go, see the mud houses, picnic, wander amongst the palms or just stop at the cafes around.
Rawdat Khuraim and Wadi Hanifa
The visit to the desert isn’t complete without finding an oasis. Rawdat Khuraim, also called King’s Forest is a green area and popular among the locals for day picnics. It is a serene natural landcape which is great place to get learn about the flora and fauna of the desert. Riyadh definitely boasts of some of the most untouched natural landscapes and Wadi Hanifa would be one of them. It is a beautiful valley with paved and trees. Locals love it for its greenery.
Haven for Arabic Food
What better place to stand under date tress and eat them too. You get some of the best varieties of dates here. If you have a fetish for good food and especially non-vegetarian menu, this is the city to be in. Saudi flavors are influenced by mixed variety of spices. I loved the freshly made flatbreads (khubus) with their thick curries. Some of the must-try dishes are Shwarma, Fattoush, Tabbouleh salad, Sambosa (fried patties with fillings), Kebabs, Falafel. Alcohol is banned in the city and a cup of Gahwah (Coffee) conveys hospitality. Do taste the thick yoghurt (Laban) and do not miss the Kunafa, the heavenly Arab dessert layered with cream and cheese. Al Kabsah, a chicken and rice recipe used to be my comfort food.
Fashion and Hypermarkets
When you will see the shops on both the sides of King Fahd Road and the shopping malls, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that Riyadh socialites are fashion fanatic. From stylish boutiques to high-end clothing, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Crème de la crème of fashion brands. I bet you will want to visit the hypermarkets too. The capital city has multitude of superstores that offer exhaustive range of products and world class experience.
Present -The reformations are in the air!
Without doubt, when I visited it was different. I often skim through its news to read about the changes and progression. And I am glad there is always something good to read. Riyadh has VOX Cinemas now. There are some special screening time for families. The capital city did its first fashion week, some concerts and dance shows too, last year. The women are already loving their command on the driving wheel. The Red sea coastline is undergoing major transformations. The metro work is in full swing while the present prince is keen of welcoming tourists to Riyadh in the coming years.