Capital of culture

Saudi Arabia’s cultural scene is evolving and nowhere is this more apparent than in its capital where, bubbling away below the surface, a thriving arts scene is beginning to take hold. Riyadh is home to some of the kingdom’s best galleries and a wealth of heritage sites that are testimony to its rich and beguiling history, making the city a must-visit destination for any culture vulture. Whether you’re seeking contemporary art, or traditional markets and museums, get your fix with our shortlist of sights.

Naila Art Gallery

Having exhibited the work of pivotal regional artists, such as the Egyptian painter Farouk Hosny and the postmodern Syrian expressionist, Ahmad Moualla, whose dramatic, larger-than-life canvases blur the lines between reality and fantasy, Naila has firmly established itself as a gallery of real pedigree within Riyadh’s fledgling, but growing art scene.

The gallery has worked with world-class cultural institutes, including the British Council, the Goethe Institute and Institut Du Monde, and its current artists include the Qatif-born Ghada AlHassan, whose paintings and sculptures are inspired by history and collective memory, plus the Dutch artist, Caroline Havers, now a resident of Riyadh. The centre has a changing and active exhibition programme, with a line-up of events including workshops and art talks.

Souq Al Jimal

Some of the elderly Bedouin selling their livestock here won’t believe you when you tell them, yours is a world without camels. So central is the role of the dromedary to their daily existence.

Camels have always been important to Saudi culture. Wandering around, admiring these majestic ‘ships of the desert’ in one of the kingdom’s largest camel markets is like taking a step back in time. Bedouin hawkers that still reside in goat-hair tents in the surrounding deserts will urge you to examine the teeth and coats of their statuesque animals, as they barter over prices.

Al Dawasir Mosque

This is among the city’s most beautifully restored traditional mud and wood mosques, nestled in the historic district of Diriyah. A quaint sand-coloured monument built in a traditional Najd-style, Al Dawasir Mosque features pointed archways and thick pillars in the main hall, which boasts a ceiling of dark palm trunks. Visitors can climb the small stairs leading up to the roof garden, beside which is the mosque’s square minaret. From atop here, the view over the dense green forest of date palms offers a brief glimmer of an ancient Saudi society that is no more.

Thumairi Gate

Featured on the 1922 map of Riyadh in convert and explorer, Harry St John Philby’s book, The Heart of Arabia, this atmospheric mud and clay gate, sitting at the eastern edge of Old Riyadh, offers a glimpse of what the tiny little settlement of Riyadh might once have looked like, before the Saudis struck black gold.

Mono Gallery

A stark and stylish facade greets you at this small gallery in Riyadh’s Nojoud Center. Opened in 2018, and draped across three exhibition spaces, Mono Gallery is committed to promoting the efforts of contemporary artists across the Kingdom and region.

Recent names to be exhibited in the Mono include the Iraqi sculpturer Muatasim Al Kubaisy, whose famous bronze creations use the Arabian horse as a metaphor for the wider Arab world, and the popular Makkah-born artist, Yousef Ahmed Jaha, who produces abstract images using oil on canvas.

But this is not a gallery just about exhibiting exciting contemporary art: founder Momen al Moslimani also regularly hosts symposiums, talks and seminars at the venue.