OT Recommends 24 Hours in Jeddah

From ancient walkways to antique balconies, bedouin heritage to seaside mosques - a writer travels to the vibrant city of Jeddah and churns out a 24-hour guide to the city
Jeddah is a cultural hub that never fails to delight
Jeddah is a cultural hub that never fails to delight

Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Saudi, resembles a neatly stacked lego set from the sky. On ground, its bustling lanes and expansive waterfronts are evidence of the modernity the kingdom chases. It hasn&rsquot been long since Saudi allowed tourists to visit, and there are places where you see the city&rsquos rough edges. But as we swerved out of the airport parking onto the highway, I, for one, was enamoured by the silken smooth roads that I knew I would love in the coming days. 

Al Tayebat City Museum

In this bustling metropolis of contrasts, there is much to see, unlearn and learn about Saudi. Outside, it seems to be 100 degrees, with the sun&rsquos unabated torment, but tucked inside the ornate doors of Al Tayebat City Museum is the entire history of this land. Multiple floors hold in their pre-Islamic era objects, rare manuscripts and jewels that take my breath away. We walk in the arched galleries of the museum an entire floor is dedicated to Saudi Arabia&rsquos bedouin culture and history. From miniature replicas of Makkah and Medina, to wedding dresses of the tribes that walk the land, the museum appears to be a microcosm of the Arab world. As we leave, we make a pitstop at a beautiful mosque within the premises of the museum, and steal a moment of quiet before heading off to the cacophonous but historic heart of Jeddah - Al Balad.

Al Balad (Old Town)

There are tottering structures everywhere, with bright blue and green buildings speckled around in the undulated and narrow lanes of Al Balad. For centuries, Jeddah&rsquos old town catered to the Hajj pilgrims that used the city to reach Makkah. The Red Sea also made the city a focal point in the trade route, lending the city influence of many nations. Our guide, Abdullah Assiri, navigates the lane effortlessly, greeting everyone he crosses paths with I stop every minute for pictures, while getting distracted by the sheer number of cats on the streets. As a self-proclaimed cat person, Al Balad is a personal paradise.

&ldquoThe lanes here are narrow at the beginning and wider at the end. We believe that every house must be able to see the main street,&rdquo Abdullah tells us as we traverse one alley after another, stopping every few steps to inspect old houses. Included in the World Heritage list in 2014 as the Gate to Makkah, Al Balad is home to hundreds of historical buildings, which we are told, are made of coral stone blocks taken from the Red Sea, separated by wood and put together by limestone. Dating back to as far as 1,000 years, it started losing its residents to better lifestyles and creature comforts only a few decades ago. 

&ldquoBut not all is lost,&rdquo Abdullah says, as he points to a board that reads Jeddah Historical District

Reimagined as a cultural hub, there is a new side to this old town. As Saudi works towards diversifying its portfolio of offerings, restoring this rural district features high up on the priority list. The houses are being restored by the government and turned into an informative travel experience. We head to multiple quaint rooftop cafes, souqs that sell oud and haggle for the best khajoor (dates) . Each house, with its airy rawasheen (latticed windows that jut out of the house) and colourful facade is a walk down memory lane, into Old Jeddah.  

New Corniche

&ldquoThere is a running joke among locals in Jeddah,&rdquo Abdullah says with a smirk, as we make our way to the new corniche, &ldquothat if residents in Jeddah had to see the Red Sea, they had to go to Egypt, on the other side of the blue expanse.&rdquo This brings on a raucous laugh from our driver, an Egyptian himself. Corniche means waterfront, and in Jeddah, the coastline is stunning. There was a time when residents had bought land on the front, obstructing the view of the sea, but the crown prince has ensured that nothing can be built on the corniche anymore. It is one of the things that have endeared him to the people here, in addition to allowing women to drive, Abdullah tells us.

The view from the corniche is out of a postcard. In spite of the simmering heat, there is a silent breeze that caresses us as we pose in front of a gigantic Jeddah installation. There is much to see and do in Jeddah, if one plans their day out well. And situated every 500 metres is a mosque, each different and unique from the one we saw before. Make sure to visit the Al Rahma mosque, popularly called the Floating Mosque because of its marble elegance that floats above the water with the help of white stilts. Its aquamarine roof makes it a favourite amongst locals and tourists alike. After walking at the corniche for a while, we head out to experience the finest example of Hejazi architecture. 

Al Makkiyah House

A short drive takes us to the outskirts of Jeddah, where Dr Sami Angawi&rsquos house cuts a distinctive figure in a whitewashed suburban lane. Called the Al Makkiyah House, Angawi, a renowned architect and historian built this house in traditional Hejazi style, with stone and traditional woodwork that runs across the three-storied property, built around an ornate pool in the centre. I find my eyes run from one direction to another, unable to take in the sheer attention to detail there is in every corner. 

There is greenery everywhere. Creepers run from the ground floor right till the terrace and wooden balconies allow air and light to fill each room, yet separate them from the public areas. We are led through winding staircases to the terrace, where we sit, sipping on qahwa and baklava as we discuss Sami Angawi&rsquos al-mizan philosophy. 

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been generally a society that focuses only on its own traditions, working to save itself from external cultural influences, but Makkiyah House represents a harmonious example of tradition and modernity, with its focus on ancient architecture techniques supplemented by modern amenities. Jeddah&rsquos coastal cultural influence seeps into the house, where Turkish mosaics and Moroccan zillij find equal relevance. This is mizan, or balance, the core essence of Islamic tradition.  

A Saudi Food Coma

If there is one thing that competes with Jeddah&rsquos cultural smorgasbord, it is food. Walk into any restaurant, cafe or street, and the aroma of freshly ground beans and spices wafts through the air. We sat down for lunch at Tofareya to indulge in the multicultural Hejazi cuisine. A trendy restaurant that reminded me of a Moroccan cafe, it was Abdullah&rsquos pick of the day in order to accommodate our diverse palate needs. Over hummus and fatteh, we discussed our countries and customs, with sporadic breaks only to order more food Saudi food is to be blamed too, for a long lunch made us miss our connecting flight to AlUla, but everything is a blessing in disguise, right I walked away from Jeddah, in love with its culture, history, food, and ofcourse, cats, with plans to return for a longer rendezvous.

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