Got my third booster for COVID-19 yesterday! And what better way to revel in my potential side effects of the booster than a 12 hour red-eye flight from NYC to Abu Dhabi to Riyadh?
The days of loopholes and hurdles to obtain a business or transit visa for Saudi Arabia (or trying to get invited to a wedding… or even an “archaeological dig”) have long been over: Since September 27, 2019 it has been possible for citizens of Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, China and the whole of the Schengen Zone to get a tourist visa, let alone an e-visa within minutes. All I had to do was apply on Saudi Arabia’s E-Visa website and get access to the country (excluding Mecca) for 90 days!
Then all you need is (from left to right in the photo) your proof of:
- Negative PCR test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of your departure flight
- E-Visa after applying through their online portal
- Arrival Registration after submitting proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19
- Saudi Arabian travel and health insurance that automatically comes with your e-visa application
With flights I picked the aforementioned 9:05pm Etihad EY100 Flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi (AUH), with a 1 hour layover for Riyadh (RUH) afterwards. The perk of this itinerary was also getting to come early to check out the new AMEX Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4 of JFK:
There’s an Equinox studio inside for compression stocking therapy, massages, physical therapy, yoga studio and a small gym, as well as a speakeasy bar downstairs:
After an uneventful 12 hour flight from JFK, transiting through Abu Dhabi to the gate for Riyadh took about 20 minutes:
At 8:30pm I arrived an hour later into Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia which also has limited flights from Europe and Hong Kong.
They also now have their very own dedicated “tourist visa” line, something you’d never expected to see 2 years before.
This is the first time in the country’s history where tourism is officially allowed and we are those very people at that doorstep!
They take your photo and fingerprints here, and don’t even ask you any questions.
Without them even batting me a look, I was in and out with an oddly handwritten and stamped visa within 15 minutes.
Crossing customs was also a breeze and I was out in the airport ready for my pickup:
We then drove 30 minutes into the city for our centrally located hotel
We immediately hit the sack at 11pm, waking up the next morning at 7:30am for breakfast and finally meeting our local guide and head of Haya Tours, Salwa. She’s one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to not only drive her own car (women were legally allowed to drive in the country only 3 years ago), but also owns and runs her own tour company!
We began our day at Al Masmak in the city center: a clay and mud brick fort in the Riyadh city center and one of the most iconic part of Saudi Arabia.
Its location took centerstage for the restoration of the House of Saud.
Then we headed to Dheera Souq.
Located in the old part of the city, this market has a plethora of little shops arranged in rows along narrow streets selling carpets, gold, silver, souvenirs, antiques, traditional clothes, accessories and even furniture. Most of the shop owners here speak English and welcome good hagglers. They seemed a bit … closed when we arrived.
Right by the souq on your way back to the fort is Deera Square, aka Alsafat Square/Justice Square…
…which is also known for this:
With nothing else open nearby, Salwa insisted that we stop here for saffron coffee and dates with tahini dip. To be honest, that’s a winning combo.
We next visited the Grand Mosque. Not only the largest active place of worship in Riyadh, it is one of the largest mosques in Saudi Arabia and seats up to 17,000 worshippers.
Before lunch we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. First opened in 1999, the design of this museum was inspired by the form and colors of the sand dunes of the “Red Sands” located outside Riyadh and includes a unification hall which shows the establishment of modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud after he captured Riyadh. A handwritten Quran is also in display.
We then visited the Kingdom Center Tower and its observation deck
At 99 stories and 302 meters tall, it is Saudi Arabia’s 5th tallest tower and you can go to the very top of the “bottle opener” at the 99th floor for the walk across its Skybridge:
You can view the rest of Riyadh from both directions:
And below the Kingdom Tower is one of Saudi’s most popular malls, one of countless in this country.
I find it ironic while the USA is axing Victoria’s Secret shops by the hundreds, you can still find them here in Saudi Arabia:
Leaving the mall and Kingdom Tower, we then enjoyed a long awaited traditional Saudi bedouin local lunch at Najd Village:
After a long day around Riyadh, we strolled a bit at sunset before a hearty dinner of smoked BBQ baby back and short ribs at Salwa’s son’s joint 7Rib.
Tomorrow we get up early for a 6am drive to the Edge of the World!
- At time of posting in Riyadh, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear