Historically a melting pot for pilgrims and traders, Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s key commercial centre and the gateway to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It’s also brimming with sights, beaches, natural wonders and all manner of cultural delights to sample, from food to museums to theme parks. Jeddah is the jewel of the Red Sea.
Unsurprisingly for a city that neighbours the two most sacred cities in Islam, the religion plays a huge role in Jeddah’s culture. There are several wonderful mosques you can visit, such as the Khadija Baghlaf Mosque and the Hassan Enany Mosque, but the Floating Mosque trumps them both for its surroundings. Jutting out into the Red Sea, the environment is fittingly serene and offers wonderful views of the sunset.
For an insight into Arabian history, Al Tayebat International City is hard to beat. This private collection is relatively small but extremely well curated – a triumph in quality over quantity. It’s open to all on Saturdays but other days require booking ahead for groups of 5 and over. Then head to the city’s best art gallery – Darat Safeya Binzagr. As the name might suggest, it houses a huge number of works from acclaimed Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr, however, this beautiful mansion-style building also exhibits other Arabic artists as well as many historic artifacts.
People and Traditions
Saudis are religious, but in a city like Jeddah it’s quite a stretch to call them traditional. Islam plays an important role in people’s daily lives, yet people don’t like to dwell on the past. After all, many of the people you’ll meet in this strikingly modern city are likely to be recent descendents of nomadic families and traditions. The people are tolerant but expect visitors to be respectful of their culture. Women should wear a headscarf and lewd behaviour can land you in a lot of trouble. Religious holidays are an interesting time to visit, with many feasts and celebrations going on around the city.
Unlike many cities in the region, Jeddah retains a warm climate even through winter, with remarkably consistent temperatures year-round. Lows rarely dip beneath 20ºC, with highs reaching about 30ºC from December to February and regularly exceeding 40ºC from May to September. Rainfall is scarce, but it’s worth preparing for the possibility of dust storms.
Shopaholics will want to check out the lively modern shopping centres Red Sea Mall and the Mall of Arabia. Leading international brands are well represented at both and you’ll have a hard time trying to pick the better food court of the two. If the hustle and bustle of the traditional marketplace is more to your liking, then head to the Souk Al Alawi in the historic Balad district or the busy Gabel Street Souk. The city’s Fish Market, just west of the Corniche, is also a sight to behold even if you don’t plan on buying anything. It’s stocked with all sorts of local marine-life, from squid to hammerhead sharks! It’s worth noting, however, that there’s a strict no-photos policy.
One of Jeddah’s most unique sights is its coral houses. Built from blocks of coral harvested from the Red Sea, Naseef House is by far the best maintained. It’s a great place to discover how the city’s most powerful merchants once lived. From Jeddah Corniche you can even go snorkeling around the Red Sea’s coral reef, looking out for marine-life and even the odd shipwreck. The Corniche is a scenic promenade that runs along the city’s beach. Locals and tourists alike relish the respite from the urban centre. It’s home to the Fakieh Aquarium and to its south you’ll see King’s Fountain – the tallest fountain in the world.
The Corniche is also home to two of Saudi Arabia’s best theme parks – Atallah Happy Land Park and Al Shallal Theme Park. There’s also the atmospheric Jungle Land, where the astonishing attention to detail creates an atmosphere closer to being in a movie than visiting a theme park with the family.