Many first-time travellers to Saudi Arabia may find themselves drawn towards the glistening capital city of Riyadh. Riyadh is a bustling megalopolis. With its shimmering skyscrapers, luxury villas and boutique shopping facilities, the glamorous capital feels like Saudi’s answer to Dubai. Here, consumerism and the ideology of leading a luxury lifestyle go hand in hand with being a resident. But what about those travellers that want to gain a more cultural experience when travelling in this mysterious nation? For those adventurers who wish to have an insight as to what Saudi Arabia was like before the influx of oil money and all of the glitz and glam, they can head to the country’s “second” city: Jeddah.
Where is Jeddah?
Located in the Western region of Saudi Arabia, Jeddah is a port city on the coast of the Red Sea. It has a population exceeding 4 million and is considered as Saudi Arabia’s commercial and trading hub.
Why Visit Jeddah?
Jeddah has been considered as a city of utmost religious and political importance for centuries. Due to the city’s proximity to Mecca, for years, pilgrims on their Hajj journey have passed through Jeddah, using it as an entry point for their special trip. This includes notable figures from the Quran. The fact that Jeddah is a coastal seaport means that it has been a bustling hubbub with traders sailing in and out of it shores with their exotic wares in hand, ever since Islam emerged in the 7th century.
The Best Things to do in Jeddah?
When arriving in Jeddah, we recommend strolling through the streets at a slow pace, taking in all of the sights, sounds and smells of local life. Though the city of Riyadh is occupied by the Saudi Royal family and that luxe life trickles down to the general public, in Jeddah, it is like you have hopped out of your car and been transported to the past.
Explore the Old City
The old city of Jeddah is like a neverending winding labyrinth of narrow passageways. Small streets lead you to hidden tea rooms and quaint stores selling traditional wares and tapestries. Old Jeddah is your Arabian nights fantasies realized. Best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, enjoy getting lost among the passageways and the serpentine souks. Don’t miss stopping by a tea room and shisha lounge for a true Saudi experience that will make you feel like a local. Like many Arabian countries, tea culture is huge in Saudi Arabia and the locals drink their spiced black tea with a cube of sugar and a slice of lemon for flavour. As you sip, you can people watch as scenes of traditional life go on around you. This is how Riyadh looked before oil money.
Practice Haggling at Souq Al Alawi
Every major Arabian city is centred around a souq and Jeddah is no different. In the heart of the old city, Souq Al Alawi demonstrates the very best of the ancient city. The markets here are considered as being the best in the country and for good reason – you can find virtually everything at Souq Al Alawi – from nuts, grains and spices, too expensive tapestries and fragrant oud in perfectly packaged picturesque little bottles.
Witness Important Business at the Jeddah Fish Market
The Jeddah fish market can certainly be an interesting sight to behold, particularly if you are not accustomed to travelling in the Middle East or Asia.
Over 50 species of weird and wonderful fish on display at the market here. You are sure to see some creations that you had never even heard of until now! The market is also used for commercial purposes so if you travel here relatively early in the morning (between the hours of 5 am to 9 am), you will catch one of the daily auctions where local vendors, restaurateurs and shop owners haggle to negotiate the best prices. The negotiations can get loud and animated so this is definitely worth a watch.
Marvel at the Beauty of Naseef House
The Naseef House is a historical structure that was once home to one of the most powerful families in Saudi Arabia. A visit here provides an insight as to what living conditions were like for the country’s elite. The house consists of 106 rooms all lavishly decorated, reflecting the tastes of owners who evidently preferred the finer things in life
Educate Yourself at the Al Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation
Because the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been somewhat isolated from foreign tourists (and the rest of the world in general) for many decades, it seems as though very little is known about the country’s unique culture and rich history. Learning about a country’s roots and understanding why things are as they are is an important part of travelling anywhere, but particularly when travelling to a country with a culture so different to that which we are used to as is the case with Saudi Arabia.
The Al Tayibat museum is definitely a must see while in Jeddah. The exhibitions on display here are extensive and varied, transporting you back in time to Saudi Arabia even before the 7th century and the introduction of Islam. While you are here, you can expect to see exhibits featuring exquisite Islamic manuscripts, pottery, traditional furnishings and interiors, artefacts uncovered in the area, and local dresses. The exhibitions run right up until recent decades to demonstrate how life in Jeddah (and wider Saudi Arabia) has grown and developed over time.
Visit Aladdin’s Cave (Khayyam Al Rabie Est)
Khayyam Al Rabie Est is a local store that is much adored and renowned by those living in Saudi Arabia because of its eccentricity. All year round, fairy lights illuminate the store giving a strange feeling of an eternal Christmas in the desert. The store sells hundreds upon hundreds of sweets, candies, and snacks, including over 50 varieties of dates. For the sweet-toothed traveller, discovering this place can feel like a paradise on Earth.
Check out Beit Al Balad
If the Al Tayibat museum has left you feeling informed and interested in the history of Saudi Arabia, then head over to Beit Al Balad for your final history lesson. This structure was the former British legation headquarters. Today, it houses photos and artefacts from throughout Jeddah’s history. No doubt you will find it fascinating to see images of how the city once looked, versus how it has transformed today.