Riyadh (city)

The political and historical heart of Saudi Arabia


Riyadh is a big city. Geographically it covers just under 2,000 km2, and has a population officially estimated to be around 7.5 million people. It seems much larger than cities of similar populations elsewhere in the world, though, as most of the accommodation is not made up of apartment blocks, but of family villas of no more than two stories, hence a lot of ground area is used in housing a smaller number of people.


Historically the centre of town has been the area known as Batha’a, close to the National Museum and Masmak Fortress. Both of these are worth visiting. The museum has a unique dispay about the early years of the region and the people who lived there, and a large section devoted to the emergence and spread of Islam.

Al-Masmak Fortress was the Riyadh HQ of King Abdul Aziz and his companions when they were in the process of unifying the Kingdom. In the area around the fortress it is possible to see some historic mud-brick buildings, although in general these have been eschewed for use in favour of dwellings made from more modern material.

Al-Masmak Fortress, Riyadh (photo: Andy Conder)

Al-Masmak Fortress, Riyadh (photo: Andy Conder)


A complaint that most people share (except for one article published on Facebook) is about the traffic in Riyadh. Mecca-Khurais road, and King Fahd Road, would see traffic almost at a standstill for much of the working day, and the rest of the city would only ease up late at night (after 23:00) due to the amount of people that were out and about, travelling between home, shopping centre and restaurants.

And this was before work on the Riyadh Metro started. The major Metro works are only due to end in 2018, so be prepared for more diversions and congestion for many months to come, before the traffic finally gets more fluid.

No matter how fast your car can go, if the roads are at a standstill you will have to wait (photo: Andy Conder)

No matter how fast your car can go, if the roads are at a standstill you will have to wait (photo: Andy Conder)


Burj Al-Mamlakah - Kingdom Tower, Riyadh (photo: Andy Conder)

Burj Al-Mamlakah - Kingdom Tower, Riyadh (photo: Andy Conder)

Two major skyscrapers were constructed in the early 2000s: Burj Al-Mamlakah (Kingdom Tower) and Al-Faisaliyah (designed by Sir Norman Foster’s company). Since then there has been a slow but steady erection of other tall buildings, although the rate has increased recently. Whilst not yet approaching the architectural adventurism seen in Dubai, the buildings seem to be taking on more individualism, bringing more character into their design.

The vast majority of the buildings in Riyadh are unobtrusive, conservative structures, which seem to acknowledge the Wahhabist influence on the culture.

Living in Riyadh

Riyadh tends to be more conservative than many of the other cities in the Kingdom, and this should be borne in mind when venturing out to go shopping or to any of its thousands of restaurants.

The area where the more cosmopolitan Saudis think of as the centre of town is the area around Olaya Street, with its high-rise buildings, expensive stores, and legions of restaurants.

The best way to get to know the city is to drive round it. During the week, this can be a frustrating experience due to the driving etiquette of the millions of other road users, but Friday mornings see very little traffic on the roads, so this is the recommended time to explore, however no shops will be open, with the exception of a few supermarkets.

Walking around Riyadh is a difficult proposition due to the heat, the dust, the distance between places, the lack of pedestrian facilities, and the attitude of the motorists.

Our friends at The Blue Abaya have put together some excellent suggestions about things to do in Riyadh

For official news about Riyadh, click here

It is hot, dusty, and crowded, but in Riyadh it is possible to find the shops and boutiques that are anywhere else in the world. The facelift that it seems to be undergoing is a move away from the image that has been prominent over the last decades. The Riyadh Metro will make travelling around much easier, but for the moment, don’t underestimate the amount of time needed to get from place to place.

Al-Faisaliyah, in the background, is home to offices, hotels, restaurants and a high-end shopping mall, all in an air-conditioned environment (photo: Andy Conder)

Al-Faisaliyah, in the background, is home to offices, hotels, restaurants and a high-end shopping mall, all in an air-conditioned environment (photo: Andy Conder)

The shopping malls are a major focus of free time and social life in Riyadh. They are large, air-conditioned, contain food courts, and range from high-end boutiques to household stores. They are also a sanctuary for groups of women to meet up and spend some time, as there are restrictions on groups of men entering unaccompanied.

How to visit Riyadh City?

Amazing Tours
Your path to discover Saudi ArabiaMore...A pioneer in tourism rewarded for his excellenceAmazing Tours is a registered tour operator &[...]

The political and historical heart of Saudi Arabia (author: Andy Conder)

About the Author

Andy Conder has lived in Saudi Arabia for over six and a half years. During that time he has travelled to the north, south, east and west of the country, over the sand dunes and under the water.
“Whilst Riyadh is the place to be for work, it is only when people get out to the more provincial and desert areas that they will see Saudi Arabia in its true splendour. Most people who arrive for the first time have no idea of the variety of life in the kingdom.”
Having been involved with restaurants in London, and having reviewed establishments in Cape Town and Dubai, Andy is knowledgeable about what people want when they go out to eat, and he is happy to guide people through the confusing array of restaurants that are found in Saudi Arabia.