24hrs in Riyadh
So reading my pre-Riyadh post, I have smiled at myself and am so glad that I did this trip.
My preconceptions about this Capital were exactly what the majority of my friends and family thought: Dangerous; not for Westerners; intimidating and “why would you go there?”
In reality; my 24hrs or so in Riyadh were actually pretty awesome. I can only write this as a tourist, but if you have the opportunity, then it’s definitely worth the visit, especially as Saudi Arabia remains Top 5 on various “The Hardest Destinations to Visit in the World” lists.
As my time came closer to departing for Riyadh, I realised my research was lacking so I managed to get in touch with a few colleagues working and living in Riyadh. This became the key to my successful trip as their advice was first-hand and similar. And – to put the cherry on the cake – one of them very kindly offered to be my Hostess!
So, after a toss-up between booking The Four Seasons, the Al Faisaliyah Hotel (both due to their location and containing a site each which I hoped to visit); or The Ritz-Carlton; I chose The Ritz.
I won’t go into too much detail about the Hotel but the word “opulent” explains it best for me. The staff were 5-star and the location is ideal as it’s only just a bit out of town which feels “calmer” than what my other city-centre options did. My room was perfect and you can never go wrong with freebie Ritzy slippers and Asprey toiletries!
So my top 2 tips for The Ritz in Riyadh would be:-
Definitely try a syphon coffee at the Chorisia lounge – Or an Afternoon Tea, as you know that is what The Ritz is famous for; and in this setting, it’s even more of a treat.
Have a look at the Courtyard and ask one of the Staff to explain the history of the Olive Tree to you.
Some other important tips for a single, non-Muslim woman travelling to Riyadh is that I didn’t have to wear my hijab (headscarf) when I went out and I made sure that I topped up with “Careem” credit and phone data. Careem was super-efficient in arriving; but 2 out of the 4 journeys, I had to direct the drivers myself (hence the need for data). But most importantly, I always felt safe and rated the drivers accordingly.
I met my Hostess at Kingdom Centre Mall, with her sister and nephew, so I instantly felt at ease. I have never spent time with Arabic ladies, so it was refreshing being able to socialize on a like-minded, friendly level. I had as many questions for them as they had for me and one comment in particular that stuck was; “People in Riyadh are open minded but the laws are strict somewhat”. This only became more clear as they joked about how they have to cover up, aren’t able to drive and even about me ordering a “virgin” mojito. We spoke about arranged marriages, separations, love, work, history, family, travel, food…. It was like catching up with old friends.
So back to the sites I visited which I’ve numbered from my least to most favourite:-
5) Kingdom Mall seemed to be good for shopping, but I would miss out on the Sky Bridge. It took a while to get up, SAR60 each, and it’s not equipped with great AC so we were pretty hot in our abayas. The views are good but there were too many people and not much else to see or do once you have a few snaps.
4) The National Museum of Riyadh. While I was the only person there at the time, I’d definitely recommended this as has some great artefacts and history – and for only SAR10.
3) Masmak Fort. This was one of my top spots, but be wary of the opening times for women, families, men only etc. In our case, we had to wait until Asr afternoon prayer was done before being allowed to enter. The history here is amazing and has a great little shop to buy curios and entry was free.
2) I met my Hostess for lunch at a traditional restaurant called “Al Majlis Al Khaleeji”. It is set out with different rooms in the theme of each Middle Eastern country. We sat in “Oman”. You sit comfortably on the carpeted floor with cushions to lean on and the food is served on the floor, over a plastic sheet. We honestly ordered enough chicken and rice for a group of 5 hungry men but it was so tasty and a great experience.
1) Al Faisaliyah Tower / Viewing deck. In comparison to the Kingdom Tower; this Tower seems quiet and almost feels like a secret spot. Definitely the highlight of my trip. We booked dinner in the Globe Restaurant which meant we didn’t have to pay for the viewing deck (also SAR60 each). And the views from here are incredible! It is also open-air so it was super windy but added to the experience and we got some amazing pictures overlooking the Kingdom Tower (iconic Riyadh building). Dinner was delicious and we were even able to take our abayas off (possibly because it is very dimly lit inside).
So to round off; I left Riyadh with such a sense of gratitude. The hospitality I received was selfless, generous and welcoming. The respect I have for the Arabic culture has definitely grown, so much so that my desire to learn the language has become more important than it was before.