RIYADH (Reuters Life!) - Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh is a growing city of over four million, combining the flair of a financial center with a traditional desert lifestyle as it is home to one of the biggest Arab camel markets.
The desert city is a showcase of the kingdom’s struggle to balance modernization while preserving its conservative Muslim traditions. Many elegant shopping malls and restaurants have sprung up but cinemas, bars and even water pipes are banned -- and don’t even think about getting an alcoholic drink in Riyadh.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a two-day visit. The weekend in Saudi Arabia is on Thursday and Friday. Shops close during prayer times, and on Friday only open after five in the afternoon.
With sights scattered around we recommend renting a car -- a cheap alternative to taxis with a car costing as little as $20 a day. Plenty of rental firms are located in the central Olaya street. Most historical sights have road signs in English.
10 a.m. - Start your exploration with a visit to the National Museum and the few remains of the old city. The museum showcases the history of the Arabian Peninsula and the kingdom’s history -- all displays are in English.
It’s open every day but best to call the tourist hotline (01 402 9500) as the museum has special family visiting times during which single men may be banned from entry.
The National Museum is in the old city where you will still find some old mud houses or remains of the city wall from the pre-oil era when Riyadh was just a small dusty town.
Next door is the Murabba Palace (Qasr al-Murabba) built by state founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud where you can see the first royal Rolls Royce.
Afterwards take a taxi to nearby Masmak Fort which Ibn Saud captured in 1902.
If you want to walk, you’ll find an interesting place on your way on the left after the second traffic light -- a cemetery in line with the austere Saudi version of Sunni Islam shunning any veneration of tombs. It’s just a rough field with unmarked stones of various sizes in total disorder.
3 p.m. - It’s lunch time
Take a taxi to the landmark Faisaliah Tower and go to the food court upstairs where you will find plenty of inexpensive restaurants and cafes. You’ll get a feel for Saudi social life -- the place is a main meeting point for teenagers who are strictly segregated by gender in different sections.
5 p.m. - How about a visit to the camel market? Take a taxi or drive toward Dammam where you’ll find hundreds of camels kept in stables in a desert field outside the city where they are also auctioned off.
The market is loud and not a place for the faint-hearted. After the auctions, herders use canes to drive the camels into pick-up trucks for shipping.
9 a.m - 6 p.m. - The call to prayer will be ringing out across the city at prayer times and most malls are closed until after 5 p.m., so it’s a good opportunity to visit nearby Dir‘iyah and see the ancestral home of the al Saud family.
A quiet oasis just outside Riyadh, the village with its palm trees, traditional mud houses and historic guard towers is a welcome change from the bustling capital and gives you an idea how desert life was in the pre-oil era.
The government is currently refurbishing the old settlement which was the first capital of the ruling family, but you can see many old houses outside the construction site.
Parts of the old village wall have already been restored next to the visitor’s center showing pictures and maps.
To get there follow the airport road where you will see brown signs guiding you to Dir‘iyah, a mere 25-minute drive.
8 p.m. - It’s dinner time!
Why not try one of the fancy restaurants in Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower? The city’s tallest building is home to the empire of Saudi royal and billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
The best choice is Spazio 77 (www.spazio77.com) which offers excellent Italian cuisine and spectacular views from the 77th floor. A bit less glamorous is The Grill at the Four Seasons (01 211 5000) which is also located in the Kingdom Tower. Great steaks and burgers.
Shishas, or water pipes, are not allowed in Riyadh due to religious opposition but if you fancy smoking one after dinner to cap off your stay, drive up from Kingdom Tower to the airport road and then follow signs to Dammam.
After some 8-10 km you will find on the left side of the road a cluster of brightly illuminated cubicle shisha cafes. Sit back and contemplate your visit with a puff or two of flavoured tobacco.
Editing by Paul Casciato