A Travellerspoint blog

Riyadh

City exploration


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Bacha drives us to the fort this morning, where we meet up with Ali, our guide here in Riyadh. He has very kindly brought along a wheelchair for my use, although I actually find it more of a nuisance than a help a lot of the time.

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First, we make our way down an avenue full of various shops while Ali explains the history and culture behind the wearing of the dishdasha, the long white robe the men wear (mostly for the heat and to avoid sunburn), and the keffiyeh. This headscarf is again also traditionally used as protection from sunburn (including the neck), but also dust and sand.

Along this road is also a large souvenir shop, and Ali asks if we would like to go in and take a look. After decades of travel, we have run out of space for souvenirs, and as we are most definitely not shoppers, we kindly decline.

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Masmak Fort
This fort is not very old as forts go, dating back some 150 years. It does, however, hold a very special place in the history of Saudi Arabia, as it was here, in 1902, that King Abdulaziz captured the fortress and took control of Riyadh after having lived in exile in Kuwait. From here he conquered and united the different kingdoms and provinces that make up the Saudi nation as we know it today.

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Ali points out the remains of Abdulaziz's spearhead and shows us the door to the fortress, so large that camels can enter, with its smaller door inside to help keep the enemies out.

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The inner courtyard does not have a roof, but because of its high walls, and holes for ventilation allowing the wind to pass through, it keeps the sun out and is surprisingly cool, even in the middle of the day, as now.

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The fort has been turned into a museum, but the upper floors are off-limits.

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An image showing the reenactment of Abdulaziz's battle

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Detailed work on a window shutter

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Decoration within the fortress.

Close to the fort is the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, as is the case of most mosques in KSA.

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Najd Village Restaurant
As well as being on most tourist itineraries, Najd Village is also popular with locals. It is an authentic Arabian restaurant offering traditional cuisine from the Najd region of the country. We are the only western diners there, and see many curious locals exploring the building and taking photos.

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Most Arabic restaurants will offer little seating areas, known as majils, which are enclosed by waist level high walls, and scattered with cushions around the wall for you to sit on while eating, with the low walls acting as backrests. The food is usually served on a mat in the middle of the area, with everyone helping themselves from the same bowls, using their hands to eat. Correction: using the right hand to eat with, as the left hand is considered dirty (this is the one used during 'absolutions'). As foreigners, we do get our own bowls, however.

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We also get chairs and a little table – they probably felt sorry for these two old and decrepit tourists!

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Nearly all restaurants in Saudi also provide family rooms – small cubicles shut off from the rest of the restaurant with a curtain. This is to allow ladies to remove their veils while eating in privacy, surrounded by their family only. You can see those rooms on the right of the photo below.

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As with so many restaurants here in Saudi Arabia, the menu is accessed via a QR code. While I like the idea in principle, the reality is that as foreigners, we cannot use the internet without wifi or incurring huge roaming charges. Ali does provide us with a hotspot via his phone, but in the end, he just orders us a selection of typical regional dishes to try.

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Samboasa – similar to a samosa, one lot is filled with cheese, the other with vegetables

Marqouq – Lamb and vegetable stew, cooked with thin brown sheets of dough

Qurssuan – Lamb chunks and vegetable stew, served with bread

Muqalqal – Boneless lamb cubes cooked in tomato sauce with green pepper and onion

Jareesh - Crushed whole wheat cooked in milk garnished with onion and lime

Laban – yogurt drink

The food is tasty and enjoyable, I particularly like the Muqalqal.

They even have lovely, modern, clean, western-style sit-down toilets, with a very decorative door!

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After being revitalised by a thoroughly enjoyable lunch, we continue our exploration of Riyadh. Unfortunately, Murabba Palace, and the National Museum are both closed, due to something called Riyadh Season, an annual entertainment and sports festival. I am not entirely sure why that necessitates the closure of historical sites, but who am I to question why.

We head for the financial district instead, which is jam-packed with exciting, sexy and innovative architecture, in various stages of completeness. The security guards in charge of the area are not keen on photographers, so I take pictures covertly from inside the car.

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I love the attractive intricacy, the unconventional approaches, the imaginative aesthetics, the delicious curves, and delightful shapes. It is all so much more pleasing to the eye than the straight lines often found in older big cities. I guess with Riyadh being such a young city, the planners and architects had a blank canvas and were not limited by existing grids, narrow streets, and outdated concepts.

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Kingdom Tower
This large, up-market complex houses the Four Seasons Hotel, and surprisingly, it is the only place we have seen any luxurious cars here in Riyadh, with a gorgeous bright yellow Mercedes sports car drawing David's attention. Our reason for being here, is the view from the 99th floor of the building affectionately known as the Bottle Opener, for obvious reasons. It's an impressive building, covered with 85,000 square metres of glass.

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What looks like metal on the outer walls of this building, is in fact glass

Ali suggests I use the wheelchair here, as that entitles me to free entry. I am all for that. The lift is extraordinarily fast, taking a mere 50 seconds to travel 77 floors – which works out to the equivalent of 180 km/hour. We watch in awe as the display inside the lifts jumps two and three floors at a time, unable to keep pace with the lift itself. Equally impressive, and quite surreal, is the fact that we cannot feel this upward motion while inside the lift. The first lift takes us to the 77th floor, where we see the highest mosque in the world.

From here we have to transfer to another lift to continue our journey to the sky bridge on the 99th floor. The sky bridge was added to circumvent building regulations restricting the height of occupied skyscrapers in the city, to become the tallest tower in Saudi at that time. The large opening allowed the building to rise higher than the height limit—30 occupied floors—mandated by local laws. Kingdom Tower is now merely the 4th highest building in Riyadh, let alone the country.

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DSLR cameras are not permitted onto the Sky Bridge, only photos taken with a mobile phone are allowed.

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Because so many of the attractions we were due to visit today are closed, we return to the hotel early. There is a Starbucks in the lobby of the hotel, and as I am rather partial to their Caramel Frappuccino, we order one each. No Frappuccino, only Americano Coffee. Oh well.

After a nice shower and rest, we are ready to get room service. Consulting the menu, David orders a burger, while I choose the Pad Thai, followed by ice cream. They have no Pad Thai and no ice cream. Two burgers it is then.

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Goodnight from Riyadh, and thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip to Saudi Arabia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:24 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged museum lunch asia starbucks skybridge burgers riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia aerial_view national_museum laban ksa grand_mosque room_servce gloria_inn masmak_fort dishdasha keffiyeh souvenir_shop king_abdulaziz imam_turki_bib_abdullah_grand_m najd najd_restaurant najd_village majils samboasa marqouq qurssuan muqailqal jareesh murabba_palace financial_district kingdom_tower kingdom_centre sky_bridge 99th_floor frappuccino

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