Looking out the window as you approach by plane you will see that the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, with its striking, soaring towers and busy tangle of streets and highways, is every inch a modern metropolis.
Once you’re on the ground and winding your way through the traffic-filled streets, you’ll find it’s a bustling place both night and day - not surprising given it’s the Kingdom’s chief political, financial and commercial hub.
Between its importance as a business centre and its role as home turf for most foreign embassies (including the Canadian and American embassies), everywhere you go you’ll see a mix of nationalities. In fact, Riyadh’s population—upwards of 7 million if you include the city’s outlying regions—is roughly 35% international.
That mix is also reflected in the city’s restaurant culture —with a lengthy list of well-reviewed options that includes noodle houses, Brazilian barbecues, steak houses, French cafes, Chinese restaurants and, of course, authentic Middle Eastern eateries.
The old and new co-exist everywhere in Riyadh. The glittering towers of the city are entirely surrounded by desert. Shopping malls built by world-famous architects attract shoppers while other more curious individuals visit traditional souqs (markets). A brand-new museum houses models and exhibits of the region’s ancient and not-so-ancient history.
The city is affectionately called the “desert pearl” by many, although the literal translation of the name Riyadh is derived from the Arabic word for garden.
Dress and Culture
Despite the international presence, Riyadh is a conservative city. Generally, Saudi women wear the abaya, a long black cloak, and cover their hair and face when in public. Western women wear the abaya and don’t usually have to cover their hair. Typically, Saudi men wear the thobe and ghutrah in public.
Arabic is the official language, but everywhere you go you will also hear people speaking English. In fact, English is the main language in business, including in the hospitals, and it’s a compulsory second language in schools. The majority of expatriates, no matter where they come from, also speak at least some English.
Sports and Recreation
For those with energy to burn, there’s no shortage of options in Riyadh. There are organized hiking and camping expeditions, sandboarding, tennis, swimming and golfing. Joining a team to play soccer, road hockey, rugby or cricket also has the built-in benefit of a helping to develop a social network.
There are plenty of modern shopping malls as well as traditional markets (souqs) where you’ll find everything from carpets to antique brass coffee pots. Brush up on your negotiating skills—it’s a sport in most souqs.
The stunning and distinctive Kingdom Tower has a hold-onto-your-hat elevator ride that will whisk you, at 180km/h (or 112 mph), to the 99th floor Sky Bridge for unbeatable city views. It also houses a large shopping mall, which features a women-only floor.
Within the 44 floors of the The Al-Faisaliah Tower, you’ll find four high-end restaurants, one luxury hotel, a shopping mall and a remarkable city view from the structure’s enormous glass globe.
There’s also the National Museum, known as one of the finest in the Middle East. It houses eight galleries, depicting—through paintings, re-creations, films and more—the area’s art, history and culture. Just outside of Riyadh is the city of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family. You can wander through the original city’s historic mud-brick ruins (including palaces, watch towers and a bath house).
Since it’s located in the desert, and not particularly close to any other cities, you’ll almost certainly be flying into Riyadh. It’s served by King Khaled International Airport. Riyadh is approximately 1,061 km (660 miles) from Jeddah, on the west coast, and about 447 km (278 miles) from Dhahran, on the east coast.
Located in the heart of the desert, Riyadh is, as you might expect, hot and dry most of the year, though it can be quite cool overnight in the winter. See today's forecast
Working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
People are often surprised about just how much fun one can have as an expat in Saudi Arabia. A Canadian RRT talks about some of the things she does in her spare time. more
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