Why now is a great time to visit Jeddah's Historic District

From taking advantage of a visa-free stopover to immersing yourself in the historic local culture, here’s why you should be adding Jeddah to your travel wishlist…

Just a six-hour direct flight from London and yet a world away, Jeddah’s UNESCO-listed historic district of Al Balad transports travellers to another era. This is no ‘living museum,’ but a restored and revived maze of centuries-old mansions, historic souks, and mosques mingled with family run brick-oven bakeries, artist workshops, and traditional coffee shops. A place where staircases were made wide enough for camels to climb, with history carved into every coral stone. Go now to explore architecture not seen since Mecca...

Enjoy a visa-free stopover

Saudia has daily direct flights to Jeddah from London Gatwick and Heathrow. If you’re travelling to or from another destination, they offer a free 96-hour transit/stopover visa and a complimentary one-night stay in a hotel when you book with them.

Because Al Balad is compact – it spreads for just over a square kilometre – it’s the ideal place for a short visit. However, if you’re like 29-year-old traveller Florian Bruck from Germany – who reported: “I thought I’d only visit once on a stopover, but next time I’ll definitely stay for longer” – you’ll want to extend your stay with the e-visa application that’s straightforward and fast. Taking your time will provide better insight into the sense of community that knits Jeddawis together and gives travellers a chance to participate in a host of workshops run throughout the year.

“I thought I’d only visit Jeddah on a stopover, but next time I’ll definitely stay for longer.”
Florian Bruck, visitor from Germany

Immerse yourself in living history

A little over 3,000 years ago, Jeddah was a modest fishing town fringed by coral reefs. But when Caliph Uthman bin Affan visited in 624AD and declared it the main entry point to Makkah (Mecca) the town transformed into a major hub for traders transporting silk, spice, coffee, and incense. With their wealth, these merchants built mansions adorned with ornated latticed balconies. Little has changed – and locals are proud of that. Where the labyrinthine streets converge, locals have revived the art of sitting in squares to chat and drink tea. And the historic souks still hum with the sound of locals bartering. Stop a Jeddawi in the street and most will share memories of visiting grandparents who had shops here or why they still come here themselves to purchase spices.

Of the museums in the historic quarter, you’d do best to start with Beit Al Nassif. The grandest mansion of them all, this 140-year-old building served as a temporary home of King Abdul Aziz in the 1920s and has now been converted into a museum. Currently undergoing restoration, its ground floor features glass cases with unique treasures, including tombstones from the Tomb of Eve and one of two ebony pillars from Sri Lankan ships found when excavating the nearby 10th-century Uthman Ibn Affan mosque. Currently it’s only open on weekends from 5–10pm, but expect it to reopen more frequently in 2024. Also worth seeking out, is Beit Salloum, an 1880 four-floor mansion whose vintage belongings have been preserved to create something of a time capsule.

Travellers are also awaiting the opening of the Red Sea Museum inside the 100-year-old Bab Al Bunt – once among the first points of entry into the city – that will display rare manuscripts, photographs, and artwork capturing the old days.

But it’s not just historic homes. New is being blended with old around the UNESCO-listed centre to ensure the district retains its life force. Be sure to wander around Lagoon Park, a greenspace fringing Lake Arbaeen, the comma of water north of the historic district, which is dotted with sculptures, including a Henry Moore, and popular for picnics. Here you’ll also see the new waterfront cultural centre under development, which is expected to house five cinemas (which will also host the Red Sea Film Festival in December 2024) and a teamLab experience, as popularised in Tokyo.

See its historic architecture being restored


During the 1970s oil boom, many Saudis moved out of ageing Al Balad in favour of modern complexes, leaving the old town neglected. On average, two buildings per year were collapsing or being lost to fire, so in 2018 the Ministry of Culture appointed the independent Jeddah Historic District Program to oversee the area’s restoration. “Architects call the coral stone ‘biscuit’ because it crumbles so easily,” says guide, Abir Abusulayman.

Built from coral stone from the Red Sea and featuring rawasheen (windows) decorated with intricate latticework designs that slot together without a single drop of glue, the repair of these historic homes requires specialist craftsmen. To that end, the Jeddah Historic District Program collaborates with the Royal Institute of Traditional Arts, which has branches across Saudi Arabia, occupies a house in the heart of Al-Balad, and runs one- and two-year apprenticeships that teach students techniques, such as woodwork, natural dyeing, and painting, so the next generation have the skills to restore the houses.

Some of the most prominent examples of classic Hejazi architecture are Beit Al Nassif (mentioned above), Rebat Alkhonji, a 200-year-old home that once provided shelter for elderly or unmarried women, and the elaborate balconies of Sharbatly House, which now serves as a cultural centre. Near to Sharbatly is Bab Makkah, the restored old city gate and, just in front of it, the sunken remains of the original city wall.

To walk here is to explore an active archaeological site. Each excavation uncovers centuries of human habitation. Inside the UNESCO-listed Al-Shafei mosque, famed for its 850-year-old minaret, the imam often agrees to peel back the carpet in the mihrab – the semi-circle indicating the direction of Mecca –so visitors can glimpse the original street level three metres below. And recently, a 1,400-year-old military cistern was uncovered off a main market street. The story continues to unfold…

“Architects call the coral stone 'biscuit' because it crumbles so easily.”
Abir Abusulayman, local guide

Meet its engaging locals

Al Balad is pedestrianised – save for the electric golf carts used by the restoration teams and guides – which, consequently, is great for meeting people while wandering around. The streets are quiet during the mercury-melting midday temperatures, but from around 5pm, shop fronts are raised, filling the lanes with locals shopping or enjoying the old-world patina of the district. Many will stop you and ask to take a selfie, or group photo.

Look out for characters such as Hussein Al-Abdali, who has run a stall in the Qabil gold district since the 1960s selling miswak – toothbrushes made from the arak tree. They grow in two varieties: spicy and mild – though both make the tongue tingle. Stroll through the Bab Makkah souk and find rows of honey sellers to try a teaspoon of their prized honey from Yemen and sign up for a guided tour with the likes of Abir Abusulayman – Saudi Arabia’s first female tour guide. For travellers concerned about supporting a country with a women’s rights record that has been called into question, she provides a good counterpoint of information and insight. “A decade ago, being a tour guide wasn’t a job for ladies, but when the Saudi Vision 2030 was announced, things changed,” she said. It’s by meeting everyday people and listening to their stories that you understand and appreciate a Saudi beyond the headlines. “Saudi has been closed for a long time and not everyone is sure if they should visit, but hospitality is part of our culture – you have to come and see the reality,” said Abir.

“Saudi Arabia has been closed for a long time and not everyone is sure if they should visit, but hospitality is part of our culture – you have to come and see the reality.”.”
Abir Abusulayman, local guide

Witness the revival of heritage arts and crafts

Esteemed Saudi artist Hisham Binjabi describes Al Balad as “a mini Montmartre”. Its alleyways are abuzz with artist studios, including his own: the Jeddah Academy of Fine Arts which he set up to represent and support the work of 20 up-and-coming artists (more than half of them women). It’s a big change from the 1980s to the 2000s, when films and all drawings depicting humans were deemed hiram (forbidden). Today, Jeddah’s arts and crafts scene is making a major comeback. Leading it are the likes of Ahmed Angawi, founder of Zawiya 97 – a collective that offers spaces inside a series of Al Balad homes to artisans producing contemporary products using traditional techniques. “We live in a very important time for defining our [Saudi Arabia’s] identity as we reopen to the world. I want to take what’s good from the past and adapt it to now,” said Angawi. To foster talent, they host free lectures open to both locals and travellers every Thursday.

The support has spawned a new generation of independent entrepreneurs, such as Reem Abdulghani who has developed her own 3D embroidery technique and launched her own clothing label. Her designs are infused with feminine energy and use colours such as fuchsia and yellow instead of the ubiquitous black and beige to offer women more creative expression.

The Zawiya programme also allowed 29-year-old Hassan Mohammed to open ‘Aromat,’ his woodturning workshop selling artisanal hand-crafted bowls, vases, and candlesticks. “There are very few wood turners left now – it’s rare in the world, not just Jeddah. I had to teach myself because there were no teachers,” he said. “It started in 2015 when I wanted to make a set of chess and to do so I had to learn how to turn wood – and in doing so I discovered its great history and realised there was a Al-Kheratah (‘Woodturner Lane’), so I wanted to be in this historic area where it all started.”

We live in a very important time for defining our [Saudi Arabia’s] identity as we reopen to the world. I want to take what’s good from the past and adapt it to now.”
Ahmed Angawi, Zawiya 97 founder

Try food that are generations-old favourites

Hospitality is a cornerstone of Saudi culture, and it all begins with coffee. Made with low-caffeine green beans and flavoured with cardamon, cloves, or saffron, its unique heritage has earned it UNESCO protection. Poured in high long streams from the dallah (coffee pot), it’s taboo to add milk or sugar. Instead, sweetness is added by nibbling on dates while you sip. Each coffee shop brews it a little bit differently, so the charm is to hop from shop to shop to seek out your favourite. We recommend starting with Diyab Café – Al Balad’s oldest coffee shop – whose owner, Waleed Diyab, has created his own unique blend of soul-warming almond coffee, which is particularly popular at Islamic New Year.

Another famous beverage is sobia, a fermented crushed-ice drink flavoured with barley, cardamon and cinnamon. The best place to try it is Sobia Klay, once visited by boxer Mohammed Ali 50 years ago. It comes in two colours – red and white – though the taste is the same and is the drink served during Ramadan.

Bread is a staple and one of the oldest bakeries in the city can be found at Furn Al-Sa’eedi Lane. It fires up its brick ovens every day at 2am to bake fresh shraik (sesame bagel), samoli (mini baguette) and hab (pitta bread) among others. Soon it will also add an upstairs café serving ‘grandma recipes,’ such as rice with chickpeas.

Finally, Jeddah is a port city and that means fish – very fresh fish. A must-not-miss is the beloved seafood restaurant, Al Basali, run by Nabeel Hamad Hasan. His uncle started it as a stall in 1949, serving pilgrims. The spice mix used to coat the fish is a family secret developed by his grandmother – like Coca-Cola, only two people in the world know the combination.

Their house specialty is najel (leopard coral grouper) served with sayadieh (rice cooked in fish stock) and sides of tamarind sauce, chilli, and tahini. As the locals say: ladhidh! (delicious!).

Feeling inspired?

For more information and to plan your own heritage adventure to Jeddah, head to the official Jeddah Historic District website.