Sights & Landmarks in Riyadh
Sightseeing in Riyadh is a frustrating exercise in careful timing: not only are most sites closed on weekends (Fri/Sat) and during prayer hours, but visiting hours are segregated between men and families. The one saving grace is that many sites stay open until 9 PM.
Museums and historical sights
- Masmak Fortress (قصر المصمك Qasr al-Masmak), Dirah. 8 AM-noon and 4-9 PM on Sat, Mon, Wed for men, Sun, Tue, Thu for families. The heart of old Riyadh, this was the fortress stormed by King Abdul Aziz and his men in their daring reconquest of Riyadh in 1902. Renovated in 2008 to an inch of its life, the mud brick structure now looks like it was built yesterday, but the museum inside does a pretty good job of recounting the story of the raid and has some fascinating photos of old Riyadh as well. Alas, the second half is devoted to extolling the greatness of the Sauds in everything from agriculture to education. The Masmak Fortress is found around the older part of Riyadh, along with adjacent areas of "Jabrah" or "Mikal". Free.
- Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba), (next to National Museum). 6-9 PM Sun-Fri. Riyadh's second old mud-brick palace, built by King Abdul Aziz after he conquered Masmak Fortress and figured he should build something harder to conquer. This two-story structure does indeed look pretty intimidating, but permits are no longer needed to venture inside, where you can find sights including the first royal Rolls-Royce.
- National Museum. Open Su-Mo,We-Th 9-1 PM for men, 4:30-9 PM families; Tu 9-noon women only, 4:30-9 PM men; Fr 4:30-9 PM families; Sa closed. Undoubtedly the top sight in Riyadh, this museum (opened in 1999) is done up with the latest technology and is very accessible to visitors, with almost everything available in English. There are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend an entire day here doing virtual tours of Madain Salih or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed's battle of Medina. Highlights include a kiswah cloth that once covered the Qaaba in Mecca. Half the time, though, it feels more like a propaganda exercise than a museum: the display on plate tectonics starts with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds is rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam. Note: Many cabbies will not recognize the English name, ask for the neighboring Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba) instead. SAR10.
- As-Sufaat (Deira Square). Next to the Great Mosque and the mutawwa headquarters, this nondescript expanse of cement is known by expats as Chop-Chop Square as convicts are publicly beheaded by sword here. Executions take place on Friday mornings (but not every week), just after the noon prayers. Beware that any Westerners nearby have been known to be taken to the front row and forced to watch the whole thing, in order to further shame the condemned.
- Kingdom Centre (المملكة Al-Mamlaka),. Daily 4-11 PM. Undoubtedly Riyadh's most stunning piece of modern architecture, at 305m the Kingdom Centre is the second tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a sight, especially when lit up at night. It was voted "Skyscraper of the Year” in 2002 . The centre hosts an (expensive) three-story shopping mall, with one floor reserved for women, but the main reason to visit is the 99th-floor Skybridge connecting the two peaks at a height of 300m. Best visited at dusk or after dark, from here you'll get great views over the vast and flat but well-lit expanse of the city. SR60 for adult, SR20 for children under ten (Skybridge).
A dry and sharply defined riverbed (wadi) begins about 40 km north of Riyadh and runs in a north-south direction for over 120 km, cutting through the western edge of the city, known as Wadi Hanifah. Wadi Hanifah was once the lifeblood of the Riyadh area, rich in groundwater, filled with palm groves and farms and dotted with a string of small towns and villages throughout history. In recent decades, the Wadi has been used as a large dumping ground for wastewater, sewage, and industrial waste, but a recent ambitious rehabilitation project has just been completed. An 80 km stretch running through western Riyadh is now essentially an 80-km desert park, though many parts of the Wadi floor are occupied by private estates and farms with high walls. The Wadi has several entry points, but perhaps the easiest route is by taking King Abdullah Road west past the university and into the town of Arqah. Eventually, you will reach a large round-about. Take the exit heading downwards into the Wadi. Follow the road even as it winds and weaves its way through the Wadi (do not be tempted to turn onto any side streets). Eventually, you will reach a police checkpoint, to the left of which is an an entry point to the Wadi floor. A narrow paved road runs along the Wadi floor. Heading southwards, you will eventually find designated picnic and barbecue spots facing the Wadi's cliff-like walls.
While dry for most of the year, wadis can flood very quickly with a moderate amount of rain. Never approach a wadi during the rain or even its immediate aftermath. Even looking over the edge of a wadi can be dangerous as the Wadi's edges can break off during the rain. Every year, several deaths are reported from flash floods all across Saudi Arabia.
Located on a hill overlooking Wadi Hanifa, Al-Dir'iyyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, is the ancestral home of the Saudi royal family and served as the Saudi capital until 1818. The ruins of the old city are currently being restored and renovated and are thus closed off for tourists, but the surrounding area can still be worth the visit in the meantime.