Boulevard World, the entertainment zone at the heart of city wide festival Riyadh Season, has returned bigger and better.
Like previous years, culture is at the core of Boulevard World’s sprawling site, with more than a dozen pavilions dedicated to different countries and regions – similar to Dubai’s Global Village. Spanning 1.2 km in length last year, this year’s capacity has been increased by 40 per cent, organisers said. It is now connected to Boulevard City, dedicated to live entertainment and fine dining, via a three-minute cable car ride.
Open daily throughout the winter, with no closing date currently confirmed, Boulevard World encourages visitors to “travel the world” and sample the cultures and traditions of some of the most storied destinations.
Bear in mind such a journey takes time and requires a pair of good walking shoes.
My tour of Boulevard World spanned five hours and nearly 9km, which is an hour and kilometre more than my visit last year for the event's inaugural season.
Here is what you can find at each of the countries exhibited in Boulevard World.
The biggest and most lavish of the three new national pavilions, Egypt gains its inspiration from its ancient past.
Accessible from the main entry, the space is bathed in gold light and features a recreation of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx.
In addition to a number of cenotaphs, the pavilion resembles a convincing movie set for a period drama.
Staff wearing pharaonic-inspired clothing mull about and tucked away behind the modern versions of ancient splendours is a heaving market selling clothing made from Egyptian wool and tea sets emblazoned with the faces of some of the country’s greatest singers such as Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kulthum.
2. Al Sham
Named after the Arabic term for the Levant, Al Sham brings together the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, as well as Turkey.
The section is a vibrant open-air market with a lot to see, taste and smell.
Make sure to stop in the Palestine area and sample and purchase some of the zaatar and olive oil sourced directly from the West Bank.
Different cheeses – from the soft and creamy Baladi to the harder and salty jibne baida – can be found in the Syria and Lebanon areas.
Saffron lovers should also head to the Turkish retailers who sell the spice separately or infused in tea bags and sugar cubes.
In the Thai section, which is located next door to Japan, you'll find a stage featuring traditional musical displays, as well as market stalls selling fabrics and massage centres.
The section stands out for its open-air food market selling culinary staples such as tom yum soup and Thai green curry.
A familiar section for those who visited last year is the France zone, one of the first major sites when entering the venue.
After sampling the tropical vibes of the Lost Mountains exhibit at the main gates, you are ushered on to the streets of Paris, complete with a replica of the Arc de Triomphe.
The streets are lined with cafes, patisseries and shops selling the best of Gallic fashion and design.
A concave-shaped Imax-size screen is also on hand projecting a digital image of the Eiffel Tower covered with flowers in bloom.
5. The US
The sounds of summery French accordions make way for the gritty rock sounds of Las Vegas.
The party city’s Area 15 entertainment venue makes a pop-up appearance at Boulevard World.
From virtual reality games and neon-lit art installations to indoor golf and billiards, the space is cool, loud and kinetic.
Less than 50 metres on and you are transported to Hollywood with fake palm trees, film posters and restaurants selling all-American classics such as burgers and hot dogs.
Stroll down a miniature version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and you will find yourself in Spain.
Flamenco music is provided by a troupe performing in a courtyard inspired by Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.
The country’s cuisine is highlighted with a cafe cooking up paella for Dh50 a plate, and serving alcohol-free sangria.
The Mayan civilisation is highlighted in Mexico with a replica of Kukulkan, a pyramid-shaped archaeological site.
In addition to live music by a folk ensemble, there is a stand displaying the refined straw-weaving technique used to create Mexican sombreros.
Go through the children’s friendly Fun Zone – with its clowns and carousels and the self-explanatory Slime Village – and you are hit with the aroma of earthy spices and the twanging sounds of the sitar.
The alley becomes narrower, lined by vendors selling samosa and masala chai, before you come face to face with a replica of the Taj Mahal.
On the other side is a live stage with a traditional music ensemble playing regular shows.
And tucked away in alleyways are shops selling spices and fabrics.
Off-season, the site will host the Hindu Holi celebration in March, so expect this zone to be a hub of colour and celebration.
With Boulevard World's majestic man-made lakes and rivers, it is only right the Italian zone is inspired by Venice.
Boats ferry you for a romantic cruise in Italy and village courtyards are home to theatrical and folk music performances.
Of course, you can't go to Italy without trying the food.
In addition to well-made espressos, be sure to try the pizza fritta, which is basically a fried margarita pizza slice.
A footbridge links a serene Italian piazza to a bustling Moroccan medina.
According to my Moroccan travel companion, the medina’s architecture – with its horseshoe arches, arabesque motifs and wooden surfaces – resembles the markets of Fes.
Vendors sell everything from local fabrics and colourful leather sandals to the North African country’s signature green tea and argan oil.
All that commerce – bargaining is allowed – is sound tracked by thumping percussion and religious chants of folk troupes performing near by.
Instead of conjuring up the majesty of the Acropolis in Athens, Boulevard World takes the unexpected route with Santorini being the inspiration for the Greek zone.
The blue-domed and white-walled buildings synonymous with the picturesque island dot the site among various sculptures.
Folk dances are performed daily in a mini Greek amphitheatre.
Culinary options are mostly dessert dishes with the baklava being a favourite with visitors.
You can experience the adrenalin and sensory overload of Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing at a replica of the famous intersection.
The detail is impressive, with the pedestrian crossing (with buggies rather than larger vehicles on the car-free site) flanked by flashing neon-lit buildings.
Stroll further into the action and you will find various ticketed anime exhibitions, Japanese restaurants and a giant model of the popular 1970s anime character UFO Robo Grendizer peering rather menacingly over the crowds.
If your visit follows a circular route, you will end your Boulevard World experience in China.
The site has many of the country’s architectural motifs, such as red curved roofs, and features an outdoor market specialising mostly in arts and crafts.
A food court is located within, with a menu of noodles, spring rolls and dumplings.
Boulevard World's biggest ride is also here. Named Dragon's Fury, the ticketed hair-raising spectacle has you strapped to your seat while twisting and turning at an eye-watering height.
Boulevard World is open daily from 4pm to 12pm. Tickets start from 29 Saudi riyals ($8) from webook.com