The commercial centre of a vast region and home to a historic old town, Riyadh is an exciting vacation prospect in the waiting. Whether you spend time taking in the view from atop the Kingdom Centre or touring the yesteryear souks, the Saudi capital is likely to keep you engrossed with its ever increasing list of things to try out during a getaway weekend. And that's without even mentioning the kabsa rice and the several other delights that the local cuisine will put forth!
Visiting Riyadh might need a little bit of extra planning given the somewhat tricky commute from one city neighborhood to the other. It is a great idea to base yourself in a suitable part of town beforehand and we will help you get a headstart on planning just that. Here, we have listed some of the best neighbourhoods of Riyadh and what they might have in store for you traveller!
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The business centre of Riyadh, Al Olaya is the obvious choice for many first time travellers. Bustling streets lined with skyscrapers and big shopping malls characterise the cityscape; unsurprisingly, the neighborhood is a dream locale for shopaholics and people who are fond of modern entertainment options. But before we dissect further, here's a reminder for your visit to the skybridge connecting the two towers of the city's iconic steel monolith: the Kingdom Centre. The view of the city from this is not something that you would want to miss!
And going back to the aforementioned entertainment options! For starters, the opportunities to shop for are truly endless at the likes of Kingdom Centre, Al Faisaliyah Centre and Akaria Mall, which gave stores featuring the biggest brands and global eateries to go along with that. The rooftop restaurant at the 267 metre high Al Faisaliyah is especially impressive, as it offers one of the Riyadh's best fine dining experiences in a hall that emulates the shape of a giant globe.
You can continue touring the glitzy part of Al Olaya for similar urbane entertainment options, but the city centre is much more eclectic than you'd think: streetside, you find shawarma houses and several other home-grown eateries serving the best local delights. These establishments, which co-exist in complete harmony with this otherwise cosmopolitan area also lend a bit of character to the neighborhood - one that is uniquely middle-eastern in its appeal.
As the central business district, Al Olaya remains the most well connected part of Riyadh. It is about a 20 minute ride from the International Airport and also fairly close to Thumamah National Park, the one stop in Riyadh for travellers looking to get a peak at the desert. Hotels are in plenty and among some of the finest that the city has to offer!
From the city's financial centre, we now move on to its cultural centre of sorts. The quaint neighborhood of Ad Dirah will draw you in with its distinctive quarters, which look like they might as well have been ripped right out of a history textbook. Standing tall at one end of the central Alsafat Square is the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, a city landmark built in arriyadh limestone. The entire square really comes alive during prayer, and is also a sight to behold under the warm evening lights!
The 1865-built Al Masmak Palace, another one of Riyadh's most recognisable landmarks, is also just a stone's throw from the square. The site of the Battle of Riyadh and the subsequent unification of Saudi Arabia, it now houses a museum holding some of the most important artefacts from the region's past. The nearby thoroughfares (some of which are guarded by stone gates) resemble old-world souqs, housing vendors selling all sorts of things ranging from spices to jewellery to beautiful fabric. All of these things come together to make Al Dirah one of the best places to indulge with the city's eventful past.
Ad Dirah lies in the southern part of Riyadh, but by no means difficult to reach. Highway 65, also known by the name King Fahd Road, runs through a large part of the neighborhood and also connects it to the city centre. Hotel and accommodation options should not be difficult to find, as good options are available in almost all budget ranges.
Al Murabba, Riyadh's expansive central neighborhood brings together the separate qualities of its predecessors together in one space: an overall cosmopolitan vibe as well as a major historic site right in its very heart. Talking on the historic core first; the neighborhood is one of the oldest outside of the original walled city, and was centred around a palatial complex from which the neighborhood also borrows its name. Today, the restored palace is a part of the larger King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre - which also comprises the National Museum and landscaped parks.
And when you are not learning about the region's history at the living museum, as the centre has been called, you can always head over to the northern part of neighbourhoods for the shopping malls and cozy cafes. Creameries, doughnut shops and bistros are a common sight around the Prince Faisal Bin Turki Bin Abdulaziz Street. The Riyadh Avenue Mall goes one up on bringing all these together under one roof, while also adding a hypermarket, top clothing brands and an arcade to an already long list of choices.
Al Murabba lies just south of Medina, and the close proximity to the city centre resolves a lot of the commuting issues that one might face in a few other parts of the city. The neighborhood has a good number of reasonably priced hotel options to choose from, but luxury hotels should not be too hard to find either.
Sandwiched between the historic Ad Dirah and Al Murabba is the smaller neighborhood of Al Futah. Surprisingly, you might find that this rather compact area is one of the best suited for travellers looking for an outdoorsy vacation (Besides its usual family crowds). A couple of great green spaces, and a palm tree garden ensures that you can find a quick change of scenery without ever having to travel too far out; drop by the Palm Oasis and the eponymously named Al Futah park, both of which are very popular for picnics, afternoon strolls and small get-togethers.
Al Futah's appeal for the families goes beyond the regular picnics and outdoor lunches. The blue-and-white striped Riyadh Water Tower is the neighbourhood's other popular destination; it is best known for its giant observation deck and adjacent amusement park that serves as a big draw for children. You can also grab an ice cream from a local parlor and take rounds of the grounds, marveling at the city skyline or simply enjoy it sitting at a park bench by the side of a shady tree!
Al Futah's location between two more prominent locales is an added plus, as you will find yourself a short ride away from most big attractions. Hotels are concentrated towards the eastern end of the neighborhood, and are among some of the most affordable in all of Riyadh.
Another neighborhood that ranks highly with families travelling to Riyadh is the largely residential Al Malaz. Situated a little west of both Al Murabba and Al Futah, it is best known as being the venue for the King Abdullah Park - one of the biggest venues for live entertainment in Saudi Arabia. It is here that you get to witness a captivating lights and music show every evening; the central fountain centerpiece, open-air coffee shops, the park's several walking trails and other outdoor artworks all count as bonuses!
Other major entertainment venues in the vicinity include the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium - a lively venue for soccer fans and sports enthusiasts in general as well as the Riyadh Zoo - which offers guided tours and lush surroundings making for a great day trip in itself. And you can always spend your evenings roaming about the streets near the Stadium, restaurant hopping until you arrive at the one that best suits your taste. Between the Egyptian restaurants and American style hamburger joints, you will have plenty to choose from.
The neighborhood, vast as it is, can be a little harder to maneuver than its more compact neighbors. It would be a good idea to get rental cabs from your hotel deals to drive you around. Talking of hotels, Al Malaz has quite a few great options in mid-range budget; the one around the stadium are among some of the best, but the area can get real noisy on match nights.
And for the last neighborhood on the list, we bring to you the upscale Al Safarat. Home to many official buildings and posh colonies, this should be the go-to choice for people looking for a luxurious stay in Riyadh. While foreign embassies dominate the central avenues, you will also find that the neighborhood has one of the highest number of fine dining restaurants and casual eateries. Be it a four course meal, a Lebanese dinner, kabsa platters or even pizza and take-out food, Al Safarat is likely to have a top-notch option for everything!
Also furthering the upmarket appeal of the neighborhood are Al Safarat's spectacular parks and event spaces. The masterfully constructed Small Wadi Garden, Tuwaiq palace and Assabaa Park, all of which lie adjacent to the Wadi Hanifa (the 120km long valley lying south of Riyadh) host diplomatic events and are otherwise open for tourists. Also impressive is the Yamamah park, better suited for picnics and outdoor lunches. Tying it all together is a quaint walking trail that runs along a small rivulet, connecting many of the aforementioned mentioned parks.
Some of the biggest names in the hospitality business have set up shop in the vicinity of the neighborhood, so expect a pricey stay going in. But if a luxury stay is what you desire to begin with, Al Safarat is just the place for you. Getting to the neighborhood should not be any trouble at all as most hotels here offer chauffeurs for your airport rides; even without that, you can easily hail a private taxi to drop you to any address in the neighborhood.
And that's our complete list from Riyadh, traveller. Take your picks and get packing for your next vacation; the Saudi capital awaits!