With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated women all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife. Having said that, the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expatriates, not a few of which have full-size English pubs serving up home-brew beer and wine on Wednesday nights.
Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are strictly a male domain, and in some cities like Riyadh establishments that offer shisha are banished to the outskirts of town.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom's malls. These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples "mingling".
As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it's strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na'ana).
Riyadh looks like any other cosmopolitan city with its neon lights and skyscraper skyline, but nightlife here goes as far as your neighbourhood coffee shop or a visit to your favourite restaurant. There are no bars or nightclubs as the consumption or possession of alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. The dress code dictates that women regardless of nationality have to wear the abaya, and men must wear long sleeves. This is a strict rule, and the religious police insist that no part of a woman is uncovered, not even the head. This pertains to all public places including markets and shopping centres. Photography is also prohibited unless you obtain a special permit.
Despite the seemingly limited social activities, a stay in Riyadh is a unique experience. It provides an insight into an ancient Arabic land that has held on to its traditions while continuously evolving both economically and industrially.
The Globe, suspended 240 metres above Riyadh in the giant glass ball of the Al-Faisaliah building, is the hippest café-restaurant and probably the single best splurge in town. So dimly lit at night that the waiters fade into the shadows, you can settle back in a plush leather seat, order a bottle of (non-alcoholic) bubbly, puff on a Cohiba and watch the lights of the city twinkle below. Reservations required, but they'll make one for you at the lobby if there's space.
Scoler Express is one of half a dozen cafés in the alley between Al-Faisaliah and the Khozama Hotel that's not an obvious chain outlet. The menu has a good range of drinks hot, cold, caffeinated and juicy, including espressos made with fancy Tonino Lamborghini gear, and the outdoor seating is cooled down with a nifty water spraying system.
There are several cultural activities that are a treat to watch. A favourite of the locals is the Annual King's Cup Camel Race where thousands of young boys race camels. There are also weekly races in the city. To get a glimpse of Arabian architecture, visit Al Musmak Castle, seized by Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia in the course of battle. If you plan to explore the city by foot, walk over to the Al-Thumairi Gate. Once one of many ancient gates, it has now been restored and is a great example of Arabic architecture. Kids may enjoy visiting Al-Thumama Entertainment Village, and Rawabi Fifa, which are both amusement parks with rides and more. Another interesting option is a visit to the nearby town of Janadriyah, where a cultural festival is held annually in which arts and handicrafts, traditional music, folk dances, poetry readings and camel races are all showcased. The town is located a few kilometres outside Riyadh and makes for an ideal day trip.
There are a number of recreational parks in the city. The Al-Khaima Recreational Park is especially beautiful in spring. Riyadh has over a dozen parks scattered throughout the city. Unfortunately, only families are allowed inside. Camping is another popular trend, but beware of extreme temperature drops at night.