Did someone say Jeddah?
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Looking to really get off the beaten track before moving on to your next career? Then you may want to consider Jeddah. While the ancient Saudi Arabian city has numerous hotels and well-developed infrastructure (it’s the gateway for Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca), few tourists have made the trek: Saudi Arabia only started offering tourism visas in 2019.
With leisure travel so new, researching and planning a trip to Jeddah can be difficult – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Jeddah offers a wonderful combination of a beautiful coastline, ancient history and very welcoming people, with English widely spoken. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 initiative has also made tourism a priority, resulting in many legal changes that have made the country friendlier to visitors – and also improved the lives of Saudi women, although civil rights still remain a concern.
While non-Muslims cannot go to Mecca, Jeddah is also a great jumping-off point for visiting Hegra, a massive archeological site built by the same Nabatean civilization that created Petra in nearby Jordan. And as Hegra only opened to visitors in 2020, it’s seen just a tiny fraction of the busloads of visitors that daily descend upon Petra.
Ready to take the trip of a lifetime to Jeddah? Here’s some good things to know:
- Use your legal background to understand the regulations that could impact your stay. For example, unmarried foreign guests of the opposite sex are now allowed to share hotel rooms. Meanwhile, women visitors no longer need to cover their hair or wear full-length abayas, but must still keep shoulders and knees covered. Wearing religious symbols or clothing with “obscene” language or images is still prohibited.
- Dress appropriately. We found that for women, wearing a modest, long-sleeved shirt and jeans with no hair scarf seemed acceptable, although the vast majority of Saudi women continue to cover their hair and wear abayas. Long-sleeved shirts were also the norm for men, and T-shirts with writing should definitely be avoided.
- Visit the Al Tayebat Musem: This enormous, rambling museum is in a scenic building that incorporates local Hijazi architecture styles. It showcases a dizzying array of artifacts, crafts, paintings and anthropology exhibits for not just Saudi Arabia but the entire Middle Eastern region. History buffs could easily spend a full day here.
- Drive the Corniche. This wide avenue borders the Red Sea and a lovely oceanview park. Racing fans also know that the Corniche is transformed into a Formula 1 circuit track during the Saudia Arabia Grand Prix each year. The Corniche is a great place to stay as well, with global chains like Hilton, Radisson and Sheraton all having outposts there. You may pay over $800/night (and more during the Grand Prix) to stay at the Waldorf, but hotels are otherwise reasonable, with many good options available from $150-300/night, and under $100 further inland.
- Stroll the old town: Al Balad is Jeddah’s historic center and also the home of many food stalls and traditional restaurants. Work up an appetite while taking in the architecture – and the delicious smells coming from charcoal grills. Avoid the temptation to feed any of the cute stray cats roaming around!
- Shop until you drop. With alcohol prohibited throughout Saudi Arabia – even at tourist hotels, for now – shopping is a popular alternative for evening outings. Jeddah has numerous large malls that include many restaurants, coffee shops, arcades and amusement parks, and are often open until 10PM or later. The Red Sea Mall is one of the largest and doesn’t close until 2AM.
- Just Uber it: Uber is widely used in Jeddah and is the easiest way to get around. Waits are short and prices are reasonable: A trip from the airport to a downtown hotel should cost under $30. As usual, don’t forget to tip!
- Make time to see Hegra: Although it will require an additional flight to Al-Ula and an overnight stay, Hegra is definitely worth a visit. Its monuments are breathtaking, and you’ll undoubtedly be the first person you know to take them in. Make sure to plan for your excursion from the very beginning, as flights often only leave and return around weekends. Packages including air, hotel and guide can be booked through Saudia Airlines.
- Enjoy the journey: Few direct flights are available from the US to Jeddah, but a stopover tour could be a pleasant way to break up a longer journey. Emirates offers stopover options for Dubai, or fly Qatar Airways for a chance to explore Doha. Economy-class flights can get as low as $800 when booked far in advance for slower seasons, but are more typically in the $1300-$1800 range.