Having won a quick one-nighter in Saudi Arabia´s capital out of standby a few weeks ago at first may not sound too exciting for any flight attendant (particularly the female ones), but apart from being a male, Riyadh holds so many exciting sites and places to see and visit, that in my eyes it is quite a tragedy that Western tourism is limited to work visas only.
It was my first time to Riyadh and having been to many countries of Arabian heritage over the years, Saudi Arabia does come with a few specialities concerning tradition and culture in direct comparison with enclosed Emirates such as Dubai, Oman or Abu Dhabi, for instance.
To put it in a nutshell: Comprehension of freedom and lifestyle (particularly for women) is lived in a completely different way from what we are used to in our Western civilization. And I think this is the most challenging part for every visitor that has been or will be coming to this mystic and very authentic piece of Arabian culture and heritage.
But since we are cosmopolitan, every real world traveller knows that differences between one another can only be seen as life enrichments and judgment on these will always result in a limited travel experience. Because in the end, the spice of travel lies in the discovery of the new, don´t you agree?
But anyways, here is what I was able to do and see in more or less three hours when visiting one of the hottest countries in the world!
Speaking of temperatures, during the summer the scale can easily reach 45 degrees celsius or higher. Luckily, it is a very dry heat. So even though walking around in town can be best described as having someone stand in front of you and blowing hot air from a hair dryer into your face, this personally does not exhaust me as much as additional high humidity to the heat.
This explains, why everyday life is limited to the mornings (9am till noon) and evenings (4pm until early morning). In between, the city is more or less dead and almost everything closed down. So when you plan to do sightseeing, prepare to either get up very early or begin later during the day. I did the latter, leaving me only three hours total before flying out home again.
The cityscape reflects best Riyadh´s balancing act between tradition and new-fashioned. A great way to get an overall view is the 99th floor, the so-called Sky Bridge of the Kingdom Tower. The entrance is 60 Riyals and most locals come up here to watch the sunset over the desert. If you like it a little bit less crowded, the best time to come up here is between 4pm and 6pm.
Another hotspot for panoramic view is the elegant Globe Lounge on top of Al Faisaliah Tower. Peculiarly the High Tea buffet is supposed to be a must and I am definitely planning on doing this during one of the future visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Taking photographs in Saudi Arabia is highly restricted, especially at any kind of official or governmental building. The best you can do to avoid any kind of trouble is to ask a security staff or police member always in advance before taking a shot with your camera or your mobile phone. And do take a No as an answer, even if you are not happy with it! I admit, I have been sneaky before, but always be aware that this may have consequences! Taking photos of people (particularly when praying) is a No Go. Please respect this, even if it is tempting from time to time.
If you´re looking for authentic shopping and souvenirs, you should pay visit to one of the city´s popular souks:
- Al Bat-haa Souk (busy on Fridays and famous for its electronic goods and watches)
- Al Deira Souk (men’s traditional dresses, garments and accessories, silverware, antiques, old silver jewelry, Arab spices)
- Al Zel Souk (Arabic rugs, antiques and ancient swords – maybe the most exciting of all the souks)
Al Deira is the part of town where you will also find the famous Masmak Castle, the Grand Mosque as well as the dreaded As-Sufaat (also referred to as Chop-Chop Square), where executions still take place these days.
I ended up here by misunderstanding though. I had actually planned to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site Al-Dir’iyyah where modern Riyadh and the Royal family has its roots, but comprehension issues with the Pakistani taxi driver have left me save this goody for my next visit as well.
My three hours sightseeing tour was completed by a visit to one of the local Starbucks branches. The “Riyadh” and “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” mugs are highly anticipated pieces for Ebay auctions and a very popular with collectors around the globe.
So that´s about it for my first visit to Saudi Arabia. I admit that it felt much better to get my passport back at the airport upon departure, but one thing is absolutely clear: I am going to come back because I am not yet done with exploration!
After researching the net for interesting sites to visit in and around Riyadh, I came across the BlueAbaya Blog by Finnish expat Laura.This is an awesome site for any sort of excursion inspiration and also a fantastic site for Western females as an advice platform for their stay in the Magic Kingdom. Check it out!