As the capital city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has long been a place of finance and government—home to 7.5 million residents, 4,000 mosques, and more than 100 foreign embassies, banks, and companies. By some accounts, it was “a stuffy administrative capital in the Najd desert” (a not uncommon complaint about capital cities). Yet following the introduction of Vision 2030, launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, the move to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and introduce more spending in tourism and entertainment has made for a much different Riyadh.
E-visas to Saudi Arabia became easily available in 2019 and Saudi Seasons—months-long sports, music, and culture festivals—launched across 11 cities and regions in the kingdom. The latest Riyadh Season, which ran October 2022 into January 2023, featured MDLBeast mega-concerts that drew global talent like Steve Aoki, David Guetta, and Jason Derulo, along with attractions like Filipino Week, circus and stage performances, even WWE. Suddenly, Riyadh was a leisure-travel destination—a vibrant cultural and culinary center where men and women mingle in public, which until a few years ago wasn’t allowed.
Travelers who arrive in Riyadh—be it for work, play, or en route to Jeddah, AlUla, or other neighboring destinations—will find much to keep them busy over three days. Here’s my recent itinerary via Dubai:
Read before you go: tips and etiquette for visiting Saudi Arabia
Where to stay in Riyadh
I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn, a very reasonably priced hotel (from $106/night) a 15-minute walk to King Abdullah Financial District, or KAFD, and about a 10-minute drive to Al Olaya, Riyadh’s commercial core. The guest rooms were large, clean, and airy, and its in-house restaurant, Together and Co., had a beautiful outdoor patio and breakfast of local dishes. It’s definitely a business traveler’s hotel (there’s an indoor pool, but no spa) for good value.
For a more luxurious, centrally located stay, try the Four Seasons in Al Olaya. It’s set within Kingdom Centre, an iconic 99-story skyscraper, with several luxury shopping centers nearby (along with cheap eats). The hotel’s all-day dining restaurant Elements serves elevated Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes—or you could dine on Kingdom Centre’s Sky Bridge, nearly 1,000 feet above the city.
Rich with history, the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh was originally built as a royal palace and a site to host visiting dignitaries. Since 2011, Ritz-Carlton has managed it as a 492-room, 52-acre, extremely palatial hotel. Even if you don’t stay overnight, you might visit for the artwork alone—simply look up at the lobby ceiling’s sky-themed frescoes and down at the mosaic tile work.
Where to eat in Riyadh
While places like Mama Noura and Shawarma House are reliably fantastic for—you guessed it—shawarma, Najd Village is the place to visit. The restaurant has an immense menu of dishes from across Nadj, the central fertile highland region of Saudi Arabia, such as jareesh, an iconic wheat porridge recently named the country’s national dish, and kabsa, a traditional Arabic chicken and rice dish. Go with a group and order the Village Sofra, a “sampler platter” of sorts that will give you an overarching snapshot into Saudi cuisine with more than 10 unique dishes served in hand-painted enamel bowls. Linger awhile on the floor mats and pillows and take in the historic relics decorating Najd Village throughout.
Besides Nadj Village, check out U Walk, an outdoor dining and shopping complex about a 15-minute walk from KAFD. Khaneen serves home-style Kuwaiti food and popular dishes like machboos, a saffron rice dish served with spiced meats, and murabyan, rice topped with tomato gravy and sautéed shrimp.
For coffee, Elixir Bunn Coffee Roasters has some of the best specialty coffee around. It has four different locations, so chances are you’ll be able to find one near you. Try its “coffee of the day”—the meticulously sourced organic beans are roasted in-house, and the attention to detail is such that even simple pour-overs are standouts.
Looking for a gift? Bateel, a gourmet date brand, has some of the best dates I’ve ever tried, along with luxurious date spreads and syrups, also known as dhibs.
Things to do in Riyadh
For those looking to better understand Saudi Arabia’s history, Masmak Fortress is a must visit. It was from this clay and mud-brick fort, built in the late 1800s, that Abdulaziz Al Saud conquered and forged the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here you can experience ancient military watchtowers, courtyards, labyrinths, and an elaborately designed mosque.
Another historically significant and visually fascinating space is Murabba Palace, the former residence and court of King Abdulaziz. Constructed in traditional Najdean-style architecture with a central courtyard and geometric patterns and structures built from local stones and bricks, it’s a great spot for families and solo travelers alike to wander.
One final stop on my architecture tour: the Al Rajhi Grand Mosque, the biggest mosque in Riyadh, fit for 20,500 worshippers. It’s only open to those of the Islamic faith, but it impresses as it glows orange at night. As I was about to head back to the airport, I ended up chatting with some miswak vendors in front of the mosque and through them I ended up meeting Saud, an active member of the faith community who enthusiastically told me about their religion and customs.
These types of historic sites are starkly different from KAFD with its impressive high-rises and LEED-certified mixed-use spaces. I loved KAFD’s “Rooftop Nights,” or Friday dinner clubs that bring in notable chefs and pop-up concepts (think Arab pitmasters and Balkan nights). I was there for an event run by Ugly Noodles, a well-known Hong Kong street food pop-up, and a welcome hint of Asian culture in the Middle East.
Getting to Riyadh
Emirates has multiple daily flights between Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport and Dubai International Airport. From Doha or Jeddah, take Saudia (formerly Saudi Arabia Airlines). It’s a relative hop between cities—about two hours—and prices start around $100 on low-cost Saudi carriers like Flynas. To enter, you will need a preapproved visa. I was able to get mine approved within 24 hours and paid around $150.