The city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest metropolis, was once the capital of the historic Hejaz Province. Excavations in the old city of Jeddah suggest it was founded as a fishing hamlet more than 2,500 years ago by a Yemeni tribe. However, the city first achieved prominence in 647AD when it became an entry port for Muslims performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Over the centuries the city’s strategic Red Sea location caused it to become an integral trading hub for the region. By the 19th century goods such as mother-of-pearl, tortoise shells and frankincense were exported from Jeddah, and the city grew at an incredible pace. Bordered by the Red Sea on the west, and the Al Sarawat Mountains on the east, the city was forced to expand along the coast, and its sprawling boundaries now encompass 30 kilometres of Red Sea coastline.
Today Jeddah falls within the new Province of Makkah and is the designated port city for the capital of the Province, Mecca. The most cosmopolitan of Saudi Arabian cities – due in part to a millennia of welcoming millions of pilgrims from all over the world – Jeddah is also the most ethnically diverse and enjoys an eclectic and arguably more liberal culture.
Jeddah’s lengthy history and cosmopolitan vibe ensure it is one of Saudi Arabia’s most attractive and entertaining cities.
Most visitors make a beeline for Jeddah Corniche, the largest in the country and home to numerous beaches, resorts and hotels. In addition to the marine-rich Red Sea waters, you’ll find a seaside avenue of sculptures created by famous artists. Many expats flock here to enjoy spectacular scuba diving where 40-metre visibility is not uncommon and the colourful corals are virtually untouched.
In the centre of Jeddah is Tahlia Street, an important shopping area which contains many upscale department stores and boutiques. Jeddah is renowned for its shopping, and the city is also home to the vast Mall of Arabia, Hera’a Mall, Red Sea Mall and Star’s Avenue.
Finally, investigate the city’s heritage at the old town, or Al-Balad. Situated on the southern side of central Jeddah, the old town is a warren of ancient buildings. At the heart of the old town is a narrow street lined with three, four or even five-storey houses built from coral. The houses’ crooked, crumbling walls and carved wooden balconies have not all stood the test of time but still make for a remarkable sight. Nearby is Nassif House, the ancient dwelling of one of Jeddah’s main trading families and now a de facto museum, and Souq Al-Alawi, a covered market thronging with every nationality.
Jeddah has many restaurants offering almost every cuisine imaginable, making eating out an essential part of the city's culture.
As in other Saudi cities, the Nejdi dish of Kabsa is popular. This basmati rice dish comprises meat; chicken tends to be the preferred choice in Jeddah, and a pungent mixture of spices and vegetables. Jeddah’s Yemeni roots can be witnessed by the city’s love of Mandi, a typically Yemeni lunch dish, while Hejazi cuisine is also popular and includes dishes such as Madhbi (chicken grilled on stone) and Magliya (a version of falafel). Other Jeddah favourites include grilled meat shawarma, koftas and kebabs.
Visitors can choose from a variety of Arabic cuisines, including Lebanese and Syrian. Jeddah’s mix of nationalities also ensures that most international food chains can easily be found, offering hundreds of fast food options, midrange cafes and restaurants. Fine dining abounds and visitors can choose from upscale Italian, French and other European restaurants. Visitors please note: Saudis like to eat much later than their Western counterparts.
Nightlife in Jeddah revolves around dining out, shopping, meandering along the Corniche or chatting over a Shisha in a coffee shop. To the north of the city are a string of beach resorts which also feature a number of entertainment options.
Many visitors arrive with the intention of making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the two sacred cities of Islam which are just a few hours inland from Jeddah. Non-Muslims are prohibited from visiting these Holy sites and therefore most business visitors to Jeddah remain on the Red Sea coast, enjoying the sand, sea and scenery.