Known as the Bride of the Red Sea, the port city of Jeddah has long been regarded as Saudi Arabia’s cultural capital. Beyond majestic mosques and historic souks, Jeddah also has a burgeoning art scene and diverse foodie culture, ready to explore.
There’s an Arabic saying – Jeddah ghair, meaning “Jeddah is different” – that epitomises this coastal city’s unique character. Serving as the gateway to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, Jeddah has been heavily influenced by the influx of pilgrims it has received over the centuries; playing host to people from all over the world has made Jeddah one of Saudi Arabia’s most diverse and progressive cities. From strolling along the corniche and pristine beaches, to indulging in some retail therapy at age-old souks and discovering the city’s vibrant art scene, exploring Jeddah promises to be an adventure in history and culture.
One of Jeddah’s nicknames is the Bride of the Red Sea, because of the integral role that the sea – and particularly the sea port – has played in the city’s development. Today, Jeddah’s waterfront corniche is also among the most happening places in the city. At any given time of the day or evening, expect to find families and groups of friends promenading along this pristine 30km stretch of coast, which was renovated in 2017 and is home to an assortment of restaurants, parks, resorts and mosques. After concerts were legalised in the Kingdom in 2018, Jeddah’s corniche became one of the first places to host musical performances – look out for concerts and festivals happening here, such as the XJED entertainment event.
There are also a number of beaches worth checking out. Durrat Al-Arus, for instance, is the oldest private beach in Jeddah and still one of the most popular. Situated on an artificial island built in 1996, it also boasts its own theme park. For those looking for a more active beach day, Silver Sands has windsurfing, snorkelling and excellent swimming conditions.
Jeddah has more than two dozen malls, which serve as key social hubs – not least thanks to their air conditioning. Some of the most popular are Mall of Arabia, Red Sea Mall, Andalus and Boulevard.
Expect to find a wide range of international brands, including high-end names such as Gucci, Coach and Burberry, as well as mainstream options including H&M, Zara and Bershka. Dining options range from international chains such as the Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang’s and McDonald’s to local and regional brands, including Lebanese Zaatar w Zeit and Saudi burger joint Herfy’s.
Many city-wide festivals are also held at malls. Among the quirkiest of these, in 2013 Jeddah’s Chamber of Commerce ran a city-wide dinosaur festival, which saw to-scale replicas of dinosaurs being placed throughout the city’s malls, along with a host of other dinosaur-themed events.
Dating back to the seventh century, Al Balad is the oldest neighbourhood in Jeddah and served as the city centre for several hundred years. When Saudi Arabia began to develop economically after the discovery of oil in the 1970s and 1980s, most neighbourhoods in Jeddah began to develop rapidly. Al Balad, however, remained mostly unchanged. Consequently, the neighbourhood has become an important heritage and cultural hub. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to several open-air markets – a complete contrast to the shopping malls of modern-day Jeddah. It also houses historical landmarks including the Old Jeddah Wall, built to protect the old city, mosques and tower houses built in the late-19th century, all connected by narrow, winding alleyways.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to try the shawarma and falafel sold at the dozens of small eateries dotted around the narrow streets of Al Balad. Also note that most markets don’t open until late afternoon (around 4pm).
As in the rest of Saudi Arabia, you can’t walk more than a few streets in Jeddah without stumbling upon a mosque. Although Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, is just an hour’s drive away, there are several mosques in Jeddah that are worth a visit in their own right. Al Rahma mosque, for instance, on the Jeddah corniche, sits on stilts and appears to be floating over the sea. People of all faiths are welcome, but be mindful that it is considered disrespectful to wander through while prayers are ongoing.
Historic Jeddah was a walled city that, famously, had two main gates; one that opened into the sea and one that faced Mecca (a perfect metaphor for the role of the city as the gateway for religious pilgrims on their way to Mecca). Although the wall is long since gone, Mecca Gate still exists and today can be found at the start of the Jeddah-Mecca highway.
Jeddah has a vibrant art scene, with dozens of galleries working to both preserve historical art pieces from across the region and provide a platform for emerging Arab artists.
Athr Gallery and Art Jameel are two of the leading art spaces in the city, and regularly host exhibitions for local, regional and international artists and photographers. For those looking for something more old-school, Darat Safeya Binzagir is a must visit. Darat is a private museum that displays the work and collections of Safeya Binzagir, a prominent Saudi Arabian artist who has played a pivotal role in growing the city’s art scene. She held her first exhibition in the late 1960s – the first exhibition by a female artist in Saudi Arabia – but could not attend, as women were not allowed to visit art galleries at the time.
For a change of pace from Jeddah’s ultra-modern malls, take a stroll through one of the city’s many open-air markets, or souk. Al Balad’s souk is among the oldest and most popular, selling everything from traditional clothes and perfumes to jewellery and crockery. Another firm favourite, Gabel Street Souk dates back to the 1950s and sells clothes, jewellery, shoes, rare coffee beans, carpets and electronics.
A quick drive out of the city brings you to seemingly endless stretches of sand dunes. These can be explored independently, though it is advisable to only do so in a 4×4 during daylight hours, and not to venture too far. Alternatively, many tour packages are available, which often include extras, such as camel rides, buggy drives and dune bashing.
Dining out has always been at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s social scene – not least because for decades it was among the only acceptable forms of entertainment in the conservative country. Jeddah has one of the Kingdom’s most varied selections of restaurants by virtue of its diverse population, while seafood forms an important part of Jeddah’s local cuisine – a rarity in Saudi Arabia, where many cities are surrounded by desert.
Tahlia Street in midtown Jeddah is home to many medium- to high-end international dining options, including Italian treats at Piatto, French patisserie at Paul, Armenian cuisine at Lusin and Asian fusion at Wagamama. To experience what the city has to offer in terms of seafood, head closer to the corniche and pay a visit to Fish Time, Seagulls Catch, Al Salama and Sultana.
For something on-the-go, opt for a visit to one the hundreds of hole-in-the-wall shawarma and falafel shops that line practically every street as a solid bet for a filling snack.