You could spend a week exploring Saudi Arabia’s vibrant and modern capital city, but since AlUla’s wondrous heritage sites are your ultimate destination, a handful of its highlights should make the top of your list before you head north-west.
Beyond the gleaming skyscrapers, world-class shopping centres and a flourishing international dining scene, Riyadh is an excellent place to discover Saudi Arabia’s cultural roots. Start your day with an overview at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, where eight galleries lead visitors from prehistoric times to the present. Look for artefacts ranging from a mastodon skeleton to hints of the ancient kingdoms you’ll soon see in AlUla — the Dadanites and the Nabataeans — to the advent of Islam and celebrations of the Bedouin culture.
Nearby, Al Murabba Palace is the former home and court of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Completed in 1938 in the Najdi architectural style, the palace is home to several hectares of manicured gardens, a central courtyard, personal items belonging to the king, photographs of his life and multimedia displays.
Next, head to the city’s old quarter to tour the Al Masmak Fortress. Built in 1865 and captured by King Abdul Aziz in 1902, the massive clay and mud-brick fortress protected the city and served as an ammunition warehouse. Today it’s filled with historic artefacts, artwork and exhibits dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s recent history.
Just outside the fortress, stroll the bustling narrow walkways of Souq Al Zal for a few souvenirs. You’ll find local crafts, traditional jewellery and clothing, woven rugs and tapestries, spices, incense, Arabian coffee pots, handmade sandals and much more at the city’s largest and oldest market.
On your way out of Riyadh, stop at Ad Diriyah in the Wadi Hanifa, where behind soaring mud-brick walls, there are remnants of a desert city that was the country’s capital starting in 1745. Inside the maze of streets sits a former palace (now the Diriyah Museum), geometrically patterned walls and demonstrations of traditional crafts such as weaving and calligraphy. Its main quarter, At-Turaif district, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.