Things To Do While In Riyadh
In May of 2012, I was blessed with the opportunity to work in the capital city of the world’s major source of petroleum: Saudi Arabia. This desert kingdom is enormously wealthy because it has the biggest oil deposits in the world. Travelling on a business visa sponsored by my company, I stayed here for six months to work as a Graphic Artist Designer for a leading department store in Riyadh. Friday being the worship and rest day, is like Sunday to us in America; I normally spent that day to go sightseeing with my colleagues from work. There are so many contrasts -- cars sharing the road with the camels, apartment blocks towering above mud huts, nomads wandering the desert, and other interesting sights.
Kingdom Center Tower
Even the fierce heat of the scorching sun did not deter our desire to explore the 984-foot-high Kingdom Center Tower. It is one of the iconic landmarks of Riyadh and offers the possibility to access the top of the tower. The 99-story tower stands in the form of a flattened oval -- with the iconic “hole” that starts at the 70th floor, and the sky bridge that connects the two top parts giving the most spectacular view of the city. It takes 50 seconds for the main elevator to reach the 70th floor, while a second elevator efficiently covers the remaining 30 floors.
At the ground floor of the tower is a large shopping center where many of the shops are still open even after the prayer time. There is a famous restaurant at the 77th floor called The Spazio that offers an excellent variety of Arab cuisine but is very expensive. However, the mall delighted us with its reasonably priced first-class brand shops and numerous cafes. The third floor was off limits to us guys because it is the floor reserved for women only. You can ride the elevator all the way up to the 99th floor to admire the view of the entire city. It gets more breathtaking at night as the city lights sparkle from this vantage point. This marvelous piece of engineering is truly an important place to see!
The best way to understand the culture, religion and historical past of Saudi Arabia is to visit the broad and interesting National Museum. The interiors are carefully laid out, and it boasts beautiful sections covering Islamic culture -- especially the holy place called Mecca -- as well as other anthropological finds around the country. The three-hour guided tour of this large museum is extremely well done, and features informative explanations of the archaeological sites and items found in the rocky desert parts of Saudi Arabia. I liked the idea that every room showcases the chronological presentation of an era. It starts from the creation of the universe, the dawn of Saudi Islamic origins and so on up to the present day. I learned so many new things, mostly about political history and the origin of the country’s monarchy beginning with King Ibn Saud’s ascension to his throne in the 1950’s.
King Abdulaziz Historical Center
Just across from this museum stands the former residence of the King called the King Abdulaziz Historical Center. This adobe brick castle is now a fantastic and definitive museum in honor of the first King of Saudi Arabia. We learned additional information about the life and times of the first Arabian family to rule the country. Picture-taking is not allowed here like most of the other places we visited. Outside there is a lovely garden, some small cafes, and a play area with a nice fountain for kids.
Riyadh Equestrian Club
Horse racing is the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia, so spending a day at the racetracks of the Equestrian Club of Riyadh is definitely a must. My workmates and I had fun watching thoroughbred Arabian horses gallop to the finish line on the race course. The heart-pounding excitement of watching the race was so astounding! I was in awe every time one of the beautiful purebred Arabian horses -- known around the world for speed and endurance -- passed before me. There are private viewing areas especially reserved for the King who also enjoys a day out at the races. On the clean and well-maintained grounds we found a good restaurant where we enjoyed a terrific brunch and a glass of tea after watching an exciting race.
The Masmak Citadel is an ancient fortress that has withstood time and continues to give every visitor a good glimpse of history. It is located in the historic city center next to the Great Mosque, the Souk Dirah and the Gold Souk. A small museum shop and cafe can be found inside this free attraction. In the museum I saw an old collection of swords and guns. A visit should be pre-arranged or coordinated with the museum curator over the phone as they usually close during prayer time.
Al Faisaliyah Center and Granada Mall
One of the most chic shopping malls in Riyadh -- and one with interesting architecture -- is the Al Faisaliyah Center. This mall features a tower that boasts a restaurant built inside a kind of ball at the top. The view from there is simply the best as one can see across the city to the Kingdom Tower center and of course the other picturesque sights all over the capital city. Looking around I marveled at the magnificent Riyadh skyline. The mall inside has everything from food to clothing, jewelry and the latest gadgets in technology. It is a good choice for high-income shoppers.
The Granada Mall is undoubtedly one of the best malls in Riyadh as it offers a large food court, numerous clothing shops, brand-name gadgets and a large supermarket. There are more budget-friendly items here and most clothing is reasonably priced. It is also a good place to spend time for a change of scenery. It is clean, well maintained and secure -- and most of the computer items I checked out here were much cheaper than elsewhere. Fast food or fine dining can both be enjoyed at this elaborately decorated shopping mall.
Travelling the highway through rocky terrain with views of the desert, we reached the Wadi Hanifa to enjoy a good Friday picnic. Lots of foreign workers gather here for a relaxing afternoon -- enjoying a good BBQ, sharing pre-cooked packaged food, smoking argyle or the hookah (hubba bubba as we call it back home), and sipping a glass of tea or a strong cup of Arabic coffee. Some just sit around to kill time; some come to people-watch or walk along the pathways and enjoy the view of the nearby farms. The promised lake was very dry during the time I was there. This country occupies most of the huge barren desert land of the Arabian Peninsula, and it actually has no permanent rivers or lakes -- only valleys composed of rocks, sand and gravel. Wadi Hanifa is an unusual venture into bioremediation, as this area used to be a polluted dumping ground and is now restored to the point where dirty city runoff water enters at one end and with no human intervention is transformed into clean water that can be fished at the other end. However, even here it can be dry at times.
Located at the northwest part almost 14 kms away from the main capital is the Old Dir’aiyah. This former capital city is now filled with ruins of old walls and fortress -- all that remained after it was captured and destroyed by the Turks in 1819. The capital city was moved to the nearby city Riyadh. Until recently, no efforts were made to rebuild and rehabilitate this old city; it has received a little more attention since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
I came back home from my time in Riyadh with a new perspective on life. Living in Riyadh made me become more aware and respectful of another faith. Respecting another culture is what I kept in mind thru the six months I worked there, and I know for a fact that the strict form of Islam practiced by this country has been the major influence in the lives of its people and how they became so progressive. I am thankful for all the experience and knowledge I gained from working in Riyadh.