The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing a rapid transformation as it embraces both foreigners and foreign influence. This is evident in the growing presence of American chains such as Starbucks, Chuck E Cheese, KFC, and IKEA in the capital city. It reflects the country’s desire for change and progress. In 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to tourists and has since made significant investments in infrastructure and development to attract visitors.
As part of its tourism push, Saudi Arabia has become the Chair of the United Nations World Tourism Organization and hosted the World Tourism Day conference in 2023, bringing global leaders to the country. One example of the country’s efforts to enhance its tourism offerings is the development of the ancient region of AlUla. This area now boasts swanky hotels, new festivals, art shows, a world-class concert venue, hot air ballooning, and adventure tours. Additionally, Saudi Vision 2030, a state plan that includes tourism development, has inspired the construction of new museums that will showcase the country’s rich history and culture.
During my stay in Riyadh, I chose to stay at the Hotel Apollo Dimora due to its central location, reasonable cost, and proximity to local souks. The hotel is an international chain that offers amenities such as a spa, pool, and gym for an additional fee. For breakfast, guests can choose between an American breakfast or an Arabic breakfast. I opted for the latter, which consisted of hummus, pita, salad, a hard-boiled egg, and juice. It was a hearty and healthy way to start the day.
Riyadh offers a wealth of opportunities to explore its history and culture. One must-visit destination is the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, which houses over 3,700 artifacts and covers an area of 28,000 square meters. The museum provides insights into the region’s history, showcasing centuries-old crafts, ancient inscriptions, Neolithic rock art, tools from the Bronze Age, and even a meteor rock that visitors can touch. The museum also offers interactive exhibits for a more immersive learning experience.
However, history is not confined to museums alone. A thirty-minute drive from Riyadh takes you to the At-Turaif District in Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, you can explore mud-and-palm trunk-built castles and buildings that have stood for over 500 years. Diriyah was the initial residence of the Saudi royal family and served as the capital of the first Saudi dynasty from 1727 to 1818. For a thrilling desert experience, visitors can sign up for quad biking and camel riding tours through the Thumama Desert with Viavii. This three-hour excursion allows you to witness the beauty of the red dunes, offering an adrenaline-filled adventure.
In addition to its rich history, Riyadh showcases modernity through architectural marvels like the Kingdom Center Tower, the tallest building in the country. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views from the top of the tower for a fee and also admire the highest elevated mosque in the world, located nearby.
When it comes to dining in Riyadh, there is a wide range of options to satisfy all tastes. Bujairi Terrace offers over 20 local and international dining spots, ranging from casual to fine dining. One such restaurant is Somewhere, which serves Arabic fusion cuisine. I enjoyed their mint tea and layer cakes while listening to live music on the outdoor patio. Another restaurant worth trying is Almajlis Alkhaleeji, where you can savor local delicacies like camel meat preparations, various soups, rice dishes, and appetizers. For a more upscale dining experience, Ward offers Lebanese cuisine with dishes like tabbouleh and grape leaves stuffed with mint and lemon rice.
To reach Riyadh, several airlines, including British Airways, Qatar Airways, and Lufthansa, offer flights to the city’s international airport, located approximately 30 minutes from the city center. Travelers from the United States will need to obtain a visa to enter the country. Uber is a convenient and affordable option for getting around Riyadh, and the city is generally considered safe, with friendly locals always willing to assist visitors.
Riyadh is a city where tradition seamlessly blends with modernity. Its rapid liberalization and modernization efforts, coupled with its rich history and cultural offerings, make it an intriguing destination for both tourists and foreigners looking to experience the Kingdom’s unique charm.