The lifestyle in Riyadh doesn't incorporate as many of the leisure-based activities most Western expats are used to. The Saudi capital is primarily a business destination, and its social scene is dampened by the country's strict adherence to Islamic social codes.
To mitigate this, Saudi Arabia seems to have turned to shopping, and Riyadh woos its residents with monstrous malls and sprawling souks.
Shopping in Riyadh
Buying the latest fashions from high-end international boutiques and sifting through the city's indoor and outdoor markets (souks) for local items such as Persian rugs, leather goods, handbags and local jewellery is a staple pastime for expat residents in Riyadh who have little scope to indulge in other ways. Souq al-Zal is the oldest and largest of these and overflows with brassware, carpets, clothing, jewellery, sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.
Expats will find almost anything their heart desires at one of the local malls, with the most popular being Al Nakheel, Riyadh Gallery and Kingdom Centre Tower.
Eating out in Riyadh
There’s no shortage of restaurants in Riyadh, and food prices are generally reasonable. The city hosts a large selection of Middle Eastern fare and a growing international cuisine scene. But one side effect of being an Islamic country is that Saudi Arabia has different dining establishments for different demographics. ‘Singles only’ venues are exclusively for men, while ‘family sections’ are for married couples and groups of women.
Family sections are partitioned to protect women, and in traditional restaurants each table is completely closed off from the others, allowing women to remove their headscarves. Some have table buzzers, so diners can contact their server.
Restaurants in Riyadh also don’t serve pork or alcohol – ‘cocktails’ are in fact juice mixes and ‘Saudi Champagne’ is like sangria with carbonated water or lemonade but without wine.
Wherever they eat, expats should use their discretion, follow the cues of other diners and go with what seems appropriate for the establishment.
Tahlia Street is known for its fine dining and affordable eateries alike, with even American chain restaurants appearing on either side of the avenue. For expats who want a five-star experience, many of Riyadh’s hotels have excellent options and some have done away with gender-segregated sections.
Sports and outdoor activities in Riyadh
Sports enthusiasts can catch an Al-Nassr FC football game and marvel at world-class Cristiano Ronaldo's skills at the King Fahd International Stadium or one of the local sports bars.
Petrol heads will also have the opportunity to travel a little further out of Riyadh's centre to enjoy the Diriyah Formula E World Championship, where the world's best electric car racers congregate to outrace one another.
Those looking for a breath of fresh air may enjoy a stroll through King Abdullah Park or Prince Faisal Bin Bandar Park. Temperatures in Riyadh limit the time that one can spend exercising outdoors. That said, many compounds come equipped with gyms and swimming pools, which are great for fitness enthusiasts.