Once a walled, mud-brick way station along desert trading routes, Riyadh (meaning 'garden') is the Kingdom's political, financial and administrative capital and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. It also has a very Saudi subtext: nowhere are the contradictions of modern Saudi Arabia more evident than in Riyadh. Seen from afar, soaring, sparkling, stunning modern towers rise above the desert and shiny 4WDs throng modern highways.
This park is one of Riyadh’s cleanest and best maintained. There are several green lawns that you can picnic on, wide pathways for jogging or cycling, a large play-area for kids, an auditorium for events and an artificial lake with an evening fountain show.
Get a tour of the world at this small but well-maintained spectacle that holds miniature replicas of world landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal, plus Saudi landmarks, including the two Holy Mosques. Popular with tourists as well as locals, the park is easy to navigate and can easily be covered in under two hours.
This state-of-the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Encased within modernist architecture, its two floors contain eight well-designed and informative galleries covering Arabian history, culture and art. The galleries beautifully display evocative rock carvings, engaging models and a full-scale reconstruction of a Nabataean tomb from Madain Saleh. Films (in English via headphones) shown on 180-degree screens complement the exhibits, as do virtual visits to sites and other excellent interactive displays.
The largest zoo in Saudi Arabia began in 1957 as a small-scale menagerie that housed animals gifted to members of the Al Saud ruling clan. Refurbished and opened to the public in 1987, its highlights include the houbara bustard, which is almost extinct in the wild in Saudi Arabia. Opening hours are complicated and vary with prayer times – ring ahead for details. Late afternoon is the best time to visit, when the weather is cooler. Kids can sit in the mini train rides designed for entertainment.
Designed by British architect Norman Foster and built in 2000 by the Bin Laden construction company, Al Faisaliah Tower was the first of the startling new structures to rise above Riyadh’s skyline. It’s most famous for its enormous glass globe (24m in diameter and made of 655 glass panels) near the summit. Its 44 floors contain a five-star deluxe hotel and four exclusive restaurants, offices, apartments, the Sky Shopping Mall and a fabulous viewing platform (Globe Experience). The needlepoint pinnacle (with a crescent on the tip) sits 267m above the ground. The tower is off Olaya St.
Riyadh’s landmark tower is a stunning piece of modern architecture – it’s particularly conspicuous at night, when the upper sweep is lit with constantly changing coloured lights. Rising 302m high, its most distinctive feature is the steel-and-glass 300-ton bridge connecting the two towers. High-speed lifts fly you (at 180km/h) to the 99th-floor Sky Bridge, from where the views are breathtaking (you’re allowed to take photos from up here).