No Saudi city is as diverse as Jeddah, and this is amply reflected in its boundless cultural scene. Look, for example, at the iconic sculptures by the likes of Joan Miro and Henry Moore that speckle the Corniche waterfront, or at the challenging work of contemporary Saudi artists that show at the Athr Gallery. See also the Darat Safeya Binzagr gallery, the life’s work of the Jeddah artist Safeya Binzagr, who was the first Saudi woman to hold a solo exhibition back in 1968.
It is also a city of near-constant reinvention. In Al Balad, perhaps the Kingdom’s most evocative historical quarter, ancient coral stone houses are being restored, and new heritage-focused galleries, woodwork workshops and cafes are springing up in once-derelict buildings. While Al Balad’s labyrinthine Souq Al Alawi feels like a trip to the past, the box-like Gucci and Prada stores at the Boulevard shopping plaza to the north gleam like the future. This is Jeddah: a complex tapestry of history and culture, from the Hijaz region and far beyond, but always with an eye on tomorrow.
On a plaza in the heart of Al Balad, this beautiful 106-room coral stone mansion was built in 1881 for wealthy merchant Omar Nasseef Efendi, and in 1925 was the home of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who would become the first king of a unified Saudi Arabia. With its carved roshan windows, roof terrace chambers and wide stairwells on which camels used to ascend, it is now a captivating museum and a portal to the kingdom’s ancient past.
Get lost in the labyrinthine lanes of Jeddah’s Souq Al Alawi. Set within the walls of the old town, this is one of Saudi’s largest traditional markets and a hive of color, scents and sound. Wander the walkways to find stores and stalls laden with well-priced goods – spices,
incense, textiles and jewelry are just the tip of the iceberg – or to peruse carts brimming with delicious treats. The souq is especially enticing at sunset, when the call to prayer sings out through the lanes.
Jutting out into the Red Sea with its iconic pale blue dome, the white marble Al Rahma Mosque was built in 1985 and has become one of the city’s best-loved places of worship. White stilts suspend it above the lapping waves and at high tide, the mosque appears to float above the waters below. The circular interior is a beautiful tribute to traditional Islamic geometric design, with stained-glass windows and elaborate tile patterns. Praying here, before watching the sun set over the Red Sea has become a quintessential pilgrim ritual, but Jeddah’s floating mosque is a favored draw for tourists too.
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.