5 Best Hangout Spots in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Ever been to a country that has no movie theaters, clubs, or bars? This is Saudi Arabia!  With about 9 out of 10 workers in this country being expats, we must creatively find ways to have fun. If you happen to make it to the capital city of Riyadh, here’s some tips to make this city feel a little more like home…

1) Hike w/ the Hash

Most major cities around the world have Hash House Harriers (HHH), a group of hikers that get together and explore the local terrain. What makes Hashing in Saudi so special, is the differing landscapes of the desert.  With the permission of authorities, it gives foreigners-only the opportunity to mingle freely, sans abaya (black cloak women wear), and build valuable contacts to make life in Riyadh much easier.  The best part is stumbling across unique finds, like desert diamonds, hieroglyphics, or desert roses.  To seal the memory, end your hike next to a campfire, feet in sand, watching the sunset.

*Locations: Changes weekly.
*Price: 10 SAR/week.

2) Hamam at Direm Beauty Center

Basically, during Hamam, an old lady gives you the best bath of your life! You can find everyone from soon-to-be Saudi brides to curious expats getting this treatment done. It can be compared to the body scrubs of Turkey or the jjimjilbangs of South Korea. The entire treatment is done in a wet sauna, where the woman slathers you with mixtures of soap, oil, and mud.  After she removes a layer of your DNA, you may find that you are a shade and a pound lighter. It’s an interesting experience that has you walking away with skin so soft and clean, as if you were just born yesterday.

*Location: Take Exit 5 at China Mart/Carrefour. Make a U-Turn. Then get onto the service road (be careful not to enter the highway on the right). Direm International Instititute de Beaute is a white building on the right.
*Price: 130 SAR

3) Eat at Najd Village

If you want to experience what ancient Saudi Arabia was like, you must visit this restaurant! When you first walk in, the stone walls encase you like an old fortress. Simple rarities here, like the rich color patterns found in the painted doors, gold Arabic antiques, and plush green grass, are a joy to see.  Every group is  given a private eating room with wrap-around floor seating. The meal is started off with the traditional Saudi dates and tea. And then you are served huge dishes that meant to be shared. Here’s one of your few chances to try camel!.. Don’t forget your camera. This restaurant is a unique experience that you may want to capture.

*Directions: On the corner of King Abdullah Rd and Abo Baker Rd. Across from Prince Sultan University
*Prices: range from 10 – 135 SAR

4) “Visit another country” at the Diplomatic Quarters

Similar to compounds, but on a grander scale, the Diplomatic Quarters is an expat’s road to freedom. These mini international neighborhoods are neutral grounds, where foreigners can do various activities that may not be available on the outside. Often, different embassies will throw a festival for any given holiday, have outdoor movie showings, or BBQ’s. For runners who are confined to the “dreadmill”, the greenery of trails is a dreamland.

This picture is from the blog – Shards of China, by Nicholas Kellingley. If you enjoyed it you can find more material here at http://shardsofchina.wordpress.com and you can also follow him on Twitter – @ShardsofChina

5) Shop and Eat at Al Faisaliya Tower

If you’re looking for a fancy night out on the town, you must pay a visit to The Globe restaurant at the top of Al Faisaliya Tower.  Here you can taste a variety of European meals, High Tea, and deserts, at a table that overlooks all of Riyadh. If this doesn’t fit your tastes, step over to Il Terrazo restaurant, an all-you-can eat Brazilian barbeque. This open-air, but misted, restaurant plays music (which is absent in most public places) and is a mixed gender zone. Once the sun sets, step out onto the observation deck for a 360 degree view of the city, with the desert in the background. Then walk off the food, in the expansive mall below.

*Directions: Major landmark on King Fahd Rd and Olaya St.
*Prices: 100 – 200 SAR for The Globe
200 SAR for Il Terrazo

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I’ve got a feeling we’re not in the U.S. anymore.

Yesterday, I finally got a chance to go window-shopping at a huge mall, here in Saudi. I almost felt at home, seeing all the familiar name brand retailers and restaurants. Notice, that I said “almost”.. The little reminders, that I’m not in the U.S., was constant. Not bad, but just gets you thinking “where in the world, am I?”

      1. So, I step into the first shop. One that I know well; Nike! I was quite surprised to see workout-wear for women, being that this city doesn’t seem to encourage female gyms. They are here, but in much smaller numbers than the males-only gyms, of course. I read that womens gyms were in abundance back in 2009 (Black, 2009). But due to the protest of the conservative crowd, who felt that these facilities take women away from their homes/husbands/children, many were shut down.Although, there were clothes..none of the fitness stores in this mall had equipment geared towards women. Now, this mall is massive! Why did I not find even one Yoga mat, dumbbell, or a real running shoe?
      2. As I go into the next store (“Express”), I’m humming “Con los ojos cerrados”… then I suddenly stop.. look up.. and realize there is no music playing. “Am I going crazy? Music does normally play in American stores, right??” I walk over to the next store, and same thing. No music! I talk to someone the next day about this, and she tells me so matter-of-factly that music is haram (sinful) according to Islamic Shari’ah. I know it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s SO odd going into a totally silent store, wanting to say something to your shopping buddy, but feeling that you need to whisper because your English is going to draw attention. My blond friend already stands out enough!
      3. I walk into a store with some really cute going-out wear. Where in the world, are these abaya-clad women going to wear these outfits?? Now, maybe I’m simply naïve to this other life of Arabian women.. but short skirts, tanks, tight and sheer? These are the same women who wear skirts to their ankles and loose shirts to their elbows, to class… and the abaya in public.
      4. ALL of these stores were ran by men, even MAC and Victoria Secrets.. These are the same men who are not to see a woman “uncovered”, except for his wife and family members. I must also say that Victoria Secrets had absolutely no lingerie.. Apparently men are not banned from selling female underwear .. So, where are they getting them from is my next question. The only females that I have seen working so far, in this country, were the foreigners.. and a few Saudis in salons/spas. But according to the Buchanan’s article, women will soon be allowed to work in this industry (Buchanan, 2012).
      5. In these retail stores, I almost never saw a dressing room.. This is a shop-happy culture. With so much money and free time, what else are the women to do? A dressing room would get a lot of use in this country. But, instead there’s a pretty relaxed return policy.

Little differences, but enough of them to make an interesting experience..

Black, I. (2009). Saudi Women Face Gyms Ban. The Gaurdian.Retrieved on March 13th, 2012 from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/26/saudi-women-sports-ban>

Buchanan, E. (2012). Women Only to Work in Saudi Arabia Lingerie Shops. BBC News. Retrieved on March 13, 2012 from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16412202 >