Jeddah’s unofficial motto is Jeddah ghair, or ‘Jeddah’s different’. No Saudi city has been more open to outside influences over the years than this ancient port, whether traders, international artists or Makkah-bound pilgrims. Today, Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s buzzing cosmopolitan hub, home to gleaming hotels and big-ticket events like the Red Sea International Film Festival. The city’s heart is still intact in Al Balad, the magical historical quarter that has undergone a renaissance in recent years. And the Red Sea is still central to it all — for trade, for diving among pristine reefs, and fishing for the seafood Jeddah is known for. The city where Eve was laid to rest is a beguiling mix. It remains gloriously different.
Jeddah’s UNESCO-listed historical center is one of the kingdom’s most evocative quarters, with narrow alleyways between ancient coral-stone merchant’s houses leading to spice-scented souqs and glowing traditional bakeries. Many buildings have been sensitively restored in recent years, including the grand 106-room Nasseef House, where Abdulaziz Ibn Saud stayed in 1925, before becoming king of a unified Saudi Arabia. Empty spaces have become quirky cafes or art galleries and mangour woodwork workshops, as a district built in the seventh century looks to the future.
Jeddah’s 4.2km corniche has been transformed into a place of piers, swimming bays, restaurants and lushly landscaped walking and cycle paths. Iconic sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore and Joan Miro, which first arrived in the city in the 1970s, are dotted along the waterfront. For many, coming here is about watching the sun set over the Red Sea, then seeing the launch of the 300-meter King Fahd’s Fountain, the world’s tallest, with its great jet of water lit until midnight and visible across the city.
Jeddah has a rich 2,500-year history of fishing tribes, early Arabian trade and, later, pilgrims. Tayebat City tells this story, and that of the wider Arabian peninsula. Built in traditional Hijazi style, with roshan window screens and ornate minarets, the vast complex is set over four floors and 18 wings, with more than 60,000 items on display. Explore ancient coins and manuscripts, traditional Saudi costumes and a recreation of the Kaaba, the sacred black cube at the center of Makkah’s Grand Mosque.
Where to stay: Hotels are plentiful in Jeddah. Try the grand, marbled Ritz-Carlton on the corniche, one of Saudi Arabia’s best hotels; the waterfront Sheraton with its palm-shaded pool area; the business-friendly Mövenpick Hotel; or the modern Hijazi-style Radisson Blu.
Where to eat: Drop into Toki for refined Chinese; opulent Mataam Al Sharq for Lebanese food with sea views; Al Safina for vast themed buffets; Aromi for smart modern Italian; and the bustling Central Fish Market for the freshest fish, served simply and deliciously.
Learn more: Palm Lands offer day tours including Al Balad and the corniche; Bondai provides corniche and art tours; and Go Zahid’s trips to the city include Red Sea snorkeling, the Floating Mosque and Al Tayebat City.
The northeastern city of Tabuk has long been a resting point for Jordanian and Egyptian pilgrims, with a rich Bedouin culture that can be felt in the bustling Souq Twaheen, which still supplies patterned rugs and goat-hair tent covers for modern nomads.
The coastal city of Wajh is famed for its unspoilt beaches to the north and south, and its Hijazi-style old town, which is like an uninhabited equivalent of Jeddah’s famous Al Balad.
The port of Yanbu, just a few hours’ drive west of Medina, is really two distinct cities: the new city to the south, with its oil refineries and plants, and the old town to the north, an ancient spice route staging post where T.E. Lawrence lived.
Just reaching Taif is a thrill. From the hollow of Makkah, a beautiful serpentine road winds up through the mountains to the plateau where Taif sits, passing fruit markets, rose farms and deep valleys.
A journey to Al Baha is a journey to a different Saudi Arabia. In a Kingdom that’s often characterized by ochre desert, this high-altitude city is a place of ancient towers, lush forests and winding valleys.
At 3,000-meters, perched on the side of Saudi Arabia’s highest mountain, the juniper-covered village of Al Soudah blends historic charm with outdoor appeal.
The southern endpoint of the Red Sea coast, Abha is the culturally rich capital of the Asir region, and a great base for exploring this mountainous part of the Kingdom.