There are a few places in the world which are generally not considered as travel destinations and rarely among them are the ones which do not even issue a tourist visa!
I got an opportunity to visit such a place, one which I always feared, for its almost negligible women rights and the famous religious police.
I after my experience will address it as the rich and beautiful desert city of Riyadh.
I, being a solo female traveler, was made to jot down a long list of do not's before the commencement of my trip, although I was relieved to find out that I wasn't required to follow them in totality apart from mandatory wearing an Abaya at all times (with or without the headgear). Abaya was a new thing for me and honestly it was like wearing a shrug, it was an experience I do not regret.
Saudi Arabia exhibits grandeur and my trip also started with luxury- at the "Ritz Carlton". Planned to be a palace for the king, however it was later converted to a Hotel. The architecture of the hotel is impressive and the exquisite service offered by the hotel made me feel like a princess. It is one of the few hotels in the country that offers a dedicated gym and spa for women.
The country belongs to the wealthy who have basked in the riches of the vast oil wells and hence their work life has always been easy. The Arab offices close at 4 in the evening; and I was left with so much free time that I decided to explore Riyadh. It isn't a tourist destination, but it presented me with abundant opportunities to experience a new culture and lifestyle.
For me one of the most memorable moments during my stay was to attend the East Arabia Robe Exhibition held at my hotel. Wallah! What a sight it was, the prettiest women dressed immaculately in designer wears, strolling across like in a Paris Fashion Week show!. It reminded me of the souk scene in the movie Sex & the City 2. An yes, it was minus the Abaya.
The exhibition was managed only by women and it gave a glimpse of the "working women" in Saudi Arabia. Some of these travel across the world for exhibitions and to fulfil their passion to work.
Food: The food in the country is influenced by Persia, Lebanon and Turkey as with all of Middle Eastern Food. I went in mixed groups to the restaurants since that allowed us entry from family entrances.
Some of my favorite places to eat were:
Karam Beirut: One of the best Lebanese's food that I have ever had and surprisingly it offered a lot of mouth-watering options for vegetarians !!
MUST Try - "Stuffed Vine Leaves" , " Makdous" , Beiruti hummus, bizri & Sojok.
For the desert, have the Knefe, karabij and off course the baklava !
You can enjoy it with a nice champagne!! (Don't get excited, it is non alcoholic) or a hot turkish coffee to allow the food to settle in.
Sultan's Steak House : a non-vegetarians heaven; you will get the best of everything here!
It is in the most "forward" areas of the city , adjacent to a mall and the food is yummylicious ! Do try out their BEEF FILLET MIGNON, Sultan's spaghetti , dry cut specials and their burgers.
Definitely do keep some tummy space for desserts, else you may regret it later.
Cafe Bateel: One of the few places for the vegetarians to cheer ???? Cafe Bateel wherein "Bateel" means the very best was indeed a good partner for the days I was in Riyadh. There are great options in & pastas and obviously the much needed coffee with their date twists are awesome !"
Sweets of Arabia: A perfect souvenir for someone with a sweet tooth. You will find almost the most authentic of sweets KSA has to offer and more!
Shopping: Under the layers of abaya, are the chic and elegant fashionistas of the world. Loaded will finest of the brands & their latest collections ! So if you are in Riyadh , do SHOP !
Tip: Plan the visit post 4 PM as most of the malls are open till 12 in the night. The shops shut down in between for 30 minutes intervals during the prayer time, however you can still eat / drink a coffee during this time if ordered before the prayer starts ! To know the prayer time, just download an app and it will keep you updated as the times change every day.Sight Seeing :
Sky Bridge : Shop till your heart's desire in the mall below 'Kingdom Center" and then climb upto the 100th Floor to enjoy the beautiful view of the city from one of the tallest view -points - the SKY Bridge.
National Museum : A peek into the arab & Muslim culture and history. It is an interesting take on many things about the culture of Saudi Arabia. Do confirm the timings before visiting the museum.
Masmak Citadel: In line with National Museum it adds to your knowledge about KSA. Again do ensure the timings, entrances & places as a women you can & cannot visit!
Edge of the world - A place a bit far off from the city , you would need to plan this one well and in advance. It's around 1-2 hours trek but you definitely will enjoy this !
For most of the sight -seeing I would say go in mixed groups or ensure it is at the right time.
A trip to Saudi if planned and executed a bit cautiously can help you enjoy insights to a very private and preserved Arabian culture which you will enjoy.
and last ... Don't forget to buy the Dates ????