To wander Jeddah is to retrace the steps of traders and pilgrims, who for centuries thronged the streets of this thriving city, infusing it with a vibrancy and immediacy that still endures today. Known as ‘the Bride of the Red Sea’, Jeddah was welcoming visitors long before the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan made the town the official seaport for the holy city of Makkah in 647CE.
As the commercial heart of the kingdom, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jeddah’s inimitable blend of old and new makes it among the kingdom’s most magical places to explore – and the best way to see the sights is on foot. Here’s how to spend a day exploring the narrow streets and ancient heart of Saudi Arabia’s most enchanting historic town.
Start your walk at the eastern edge of the historic Al Balad (old town) near the majestic Makkah Gate. Today, this tasteful reconstruction is a reminder of what the medieval city’s ancient walls once looked like; during the month of Dhu’l Hijjah, a thousand talbiyyahs were chanted by white-clad pilgrims as they passed beneath its impressive triple arch, announcing their intention to perform the most important spiritual journey of all. Jeddah’s Al Balad is famous for its intricately designed houses, built using coral from the depths of the Red Sea and boasting colorful rawasheen balconies, known as mashrabiyyahs. Look up as you amble by to see some of the finest examples of coral architecture anywhere in the world.
Matbouli House Museum
Directly west of Bab Makkah, on the edge of the historic Souq Al Alawi, sits the privately owned Matbouli House Museum. A beautiful example of a traditional Hijazi merchant’s home, it’s now been tastefully converted into a museum.
Constructed from Red Sea coral and featuring stunning wood-latticed mashrabiyyahs at the front of the building, this is a place to take your time. Wander beneath its uneven ceilings, and up the winding stairwell into rooms carefully fitted out with antiquated local artefacts, where authentic glimpses of traditional Al Balad life await.
Souq Al Alawi
Close to the Matbouli House Museum is Jeddah’s ancient beating heart, the colourful Souq Al Alawi, which sprawls maze-like through the narrow alleyways, filling the surrounding neighbourhood with the waft of exotic spices and the noisy cries of street hawkers selling their wares.
The historic pilgrim market is Saudi Arabia’s largest bazaar and the best place in Jeddah to pick up everything from the finest Arabian dates to the tastiest local street food. Indulge in a Mutabaq (stuffed pancake) as you browse the stalls.
Rising tall and taking pride of place in the centre of the souk is this former royal residency, arguably the best-preserved traditional merchant’s house in Al Balad.
The ornate Naseef House was once home to none other than King Abdul Aziz, who pitched up here after his conquest of Jeddah in 1925. To accommodate the country’s founding father, the interior was adapted to include wide ramparts so that camel-mounted messengers could ride right up to the building’s impressive roof terrace, where the King liked to relax.
Now a museum and cultural centre, be sure to admire the medieval Portuguese cannons sitting near the entrance in the shade of a huge tree that was reportedly the only tree in all of Jeddah in the 1920s, when the Naseef House was known locally as the ‘house of the tree’.