Once a small walled city, Riyadh has developed into a dynamic metropolis over the years. The first major changes began during the oil boom of the 1950s, when older structures were demolished to make way for commercial development. Today, it is one of the fastest growing and most prosperous cities in the world.
The capital and largest city of the Kingdom, Riyadh is divided into 17 municipalities. Each contributes in its own way to the vibrant character of the city, which has experienced a fairly unique history and colorful past. In 1991, it was slightly damaged by Iraqi missile attacks during the Persian Gulf War but returned to normalcy soon after. The city has grown both culturally and commercially over the years. Along with the urban areas of Dhahran, Dammam, and Al-Khobar, Riyadh has become a focal point for both travel and trade. On the outskirts of the city lies the ancient town of AI-Dih'yah.
The most striking aspect of Riyadh is its architecture, which is a vibrant juxtaposition of the old and the new - contemporary high-rise towers shadow over buildings exuding old world charm. In addition to being the epicenter of power, the city is also a commercial hub. Numerous educational, financial, agricultural, cultural, technical and social organizations have set up base here.
The bustling Olaya District is the heart and soul of this city. This commercial and residential district offers accommodation, entertainment, dining and shopping options that will cater to the budget of a prince as well as a pauper. The Kingdom Centre and the Al Faisaliyah Center are the area's landmarks while the Sheraton , Howard Johnson Plaza , Al-Tamimi Shopping Centre and Haif Shopping Centre are also popular nearby destinations.
Numerous shops, lively markets, world-cuisine restaurants and huge malls keep both Salahuddin District and Street King Fahad packed with tourists. The many hotels in the area, which include the four-star Al Mutlaq Hotel offer convenient accommodation to those wishing to explore the city. Other attractions include the Fal Commercial, Recreational Center Mall and the Al-Shula Entertainment Centre .
The center of the city, Al-Bathaa, is also its oldest part. At its heart lies the beautiful 19th-century Masmak Castle , which is one of the city's major attractions. To the west lies the Riyadh Museum of History and Archeology .
The Qasr Al-Hukm or the Justice Palace is located in the district of the same name. It is here that the Governor meets citizens, listens to their grievances and learns about problems and issues affecting the region. Its architecture, like other buildings in the area, is a fine mixture of traditional and contemporary styles.
The Diplomatic Quarter or DQ as it is popularly known, is home to foreign embassies, international organizations as well as residences and malls. With lush gardens and numerous sports facilities, it is also one of the city's greenest areas. It is especially known for its fine architecture, and is considered a model for other Islamic cities around the world.
While the Al Khobar District is a preferred residential area for expatriates, the Al-Dira area is rich with commercial markets and traditional buildings, which include the famous Royal Palace and Al-Mue'qila building.
Social restrictions in Riyadh make meal times a very different affair from most other cities of the world. Meals are a bonding activity solely for men as women are not permitted to dine in public without a male accompaniment. While dining, women and men sit in separate rooms or in a partitioned family room separate from the public.
Riyadh is bordered by Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan in the north, the Gulf of Oman and Qatar in the east and by Yemen in the south; as a result, this capital city promises an array of Middle Eastern dishes. It also boasts of an extensive range of cuisines from around the globe. For just a few bucks you can get a tasty Saudi meal in almost any corner of the city, consisting of everything from mouth-watering Kabsa to Kultra. Most restaurants in the city have the trademark hookahs and shishas, traditional lamps and seating.
If only a quick bite is on the agenda, then roadside stalls serving rolls, shawarmas and falafel sandwiches will do the trick. Every nook and corner in Riyadh has at least one roadside vendor serving such Middle Eastern treats. All malls in the city also have at least one food court offering various kinds of foods - everything from sandwiches to shawarma. For an elegant meal in an upscale setting, look for restaurants housed in four and five-star hotels, which serve a plethora of gourmet dishes.
The famous Olaya District has several restaurants on every street. An extensive list of eateries, including Chinese, Mexican, French, Lebanese, American, and Indian are but a stone's throw away from each other. Looking to partake in a traditional Middle Eastern dinner? Then, Shaabiyah is the place. This eatery on Olaya Street features world-class traditional Lebanese and Saudi cuisine. If Arabic food is not tickling the taste buds, head to Biyano for delicious French food or to Aladdin for Indian cuisine. King Fahad Road houses some of the best hotels and restaurants in the city. Highly recommended are Ranwa for traditional Saudi food and Terrazo II in the Al-Faisaliah Hotel , which serves authentic Brazilian dishes. For a truly unforgettable experience, try Spazio 77 also located in the exclusive Al-Faisaliah Hotel at one of the highest altitudes in Riyadh. Don't forget to try the best Chinese restaurant in all of Riyadh, Al-Mada'yin , located in the Al-Rahbaniyah District or for a speedier meal, go to Mama Noura for Lebanese. There are also plenty of other fast food options such as Al-Fukhar .
The Al-Malaz district has a few dining options, including mouth-watering Egyptian and Thai specialties at Gad or Italian and American cuisine at the Eastern Flower .
Alcohol is forbidden in Riyadh by law, and as a result there are no bars in the city. The minutest of violations leads to prosecution and a strict punishment. Instead, people in Riyadh enjoy mocktails, fresh fruit juices along with the famous Arabic coffee.
With regard to social etiquette - it is advisable to follow the local custom. For example, refrain from over-tipping the waiters; a ten percent tip will suffice. Also, don't expect the waiters to be too generous about the time they spend at your table as they are often serving a mind-boggling number of tables simultaneously.
Despite the seemingly endless restrictions and rigid social practices prevalent in Riyadh, dining in one of its several restaurants can be an unforgettable experience.