Posted May 1, 2016
For the last part of our extensive trip across the Arabian Peninsula, Carrie and I traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We had spent the previous week and a half traversing the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, and two relaxing nights in historic Muscat, Oman. Saudi Arabia was by far the most adventurous of the three destinations and required an extensive process to get the travel visa. We spent four days, three nights in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s commercial capital. Our visit to the Kingdom was a trip of a lifetime and one we thoroughly enjoyed.
Saudi Arabia and Tourism
Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most well known and yet one of the least traveled to countries in the world, for leisure that is. The country plays host to millions of visitors each year, mainly for Islamic rites of hajj or umrah, so they are used to large numbers of travelers.
Nearly everyone, to some extent, has an impression of Saudi Arabia, from their oil, as the birthplace of Islam, or the fact it is the only country in the world in which forbids women from driving. For many, travel to Saudi Arabia, outside of hajj, umrah, or for work, remains elusive, and thus many never have the experience of traveling there. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not make travel for leisure easy and the process to get a visa, should you be able to, is extensive.
For the intrepid, adventurous, and those able to get a visa, Saudi Arabia offers a wide range of activities, from touring UNESCO World Heritage sites to exploring the 2,640 kilometers of coastline, and sifting through vast swathes of desert landscapes, such as the appropriately named, Empty Quarter. Travel for leisure occupies a small fraction of the economy and therefore makes impactful travel difficult, but not impossible. Should you make it, you will not only have most of the sites to explore entirely on your own, but you will have amazing stories to recount to your friends and family.
We caught an early morning Gulf Air flight from Dubai to Bahrain before continuing on to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. Before boarding the flight to Jeddah we had our visas checked to ensure they were valid. Roughly 30 minutes before landing the pilot announced that we were flying over the Kaaba in Mecca. Carrie put on her abaya, a long robe-like dress, which is required of all women in public once inside Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah’s airport, we discovered before traveling was ranked the second worst in the world in 2015, according to CNN. One of the biggest complaints leveled against it was the multi-hour wait in immigration, allegedly because of distracted or absent immigration officials. With that in mind, we aimed to be the first in line, hoping to improve our chances for a better experience.
Once in the arrivals terminal, we were ushered into a separate immigration area for first-time arrivals, along with two others. Unsure of what to expect we found ourselves at the front of the line and immediately called forward by the young kaffiyeh-wearing immigration official. He greeted us in English and we responded in Arabic. He smiled and proceeded to communicate with us in Arabic. After thumbing through our passports to locate the all-important and necessary visa he joked with his colleagues about Carrie’s multiple Pakistani visas, that prominently cover three full pages of her passport. After having our fingerprints recorded and our photographs taken he wished us well. All in all our experience lasted less than ten minutes.
Before officially entering the country we had to proceed through security. As we approached, the security official turned on the x-ray machine for our bags and gave us a warm welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We grabbed our bags and turned to each other in almost dis-believe that; first, we were actually in Saudi Arabia and second, how easy and friendly the arrival process had been.
Getting Around Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Driving was probably my least favorite part about traveling in Saudi Arabia. I wrote briefly in my Destination Guide to Oman about the driving conditions there. Nothing could have prepared me for the congestion and, often, the extreme level of dangerous driving, on top of the poor road conditions and traffic patterns, which were unpredictable. To get around Jeddah, we rented a dark brown Toyota Corolla from Budget, located conveniently inside the arrivals terminal. The Budget staff was exceptionally friendly, but the car was not very clean on the inside. In case you weren’t aware women are forbidden from driving so I had the distinct displeasure of driving everywhere in Jeddah.
The main highway that runs through central Jeddah was extremely congested seemingly all the time. Because there are few overpasses, traffic is forced to u-turn on a major artery in order to take a left turn or turn around. Conducting a u-turn was time-consuming and extremely difficult as traffic in the left lane would tend to back up quite a distance, and once you finally undertook the u-turn you emerged from the left lane with often a very short merge lane into traffic moving quickly and aggressively. It was no easy task for even the most experienced driver and caused me great consternation almost every time. Here is a glimpse into the conditions. At one point during the second day, I seriously considered abandoning the car and telling Budget where to find it. On the plus side, gas was famously inexpensive, and it cost us just a couple of dollars to fill the tank. Obtaining insurance is an absolute must, even if you have personal auto insurance.
Where to Eat in Jeddah
Intrigued by the idea of eating Yemeni food we ate at Bab al-Yemen on our first night in Jeddah. Yemeni food is unlike other Arab food as it comprises of stews and is served in small clay bowls. At the recommendation of our host we ordered four different main courses; vegetarian saltah (considered the national dish of Yemen), chicken muqalqal, beef ogda, and fahsa, accompanied with three enormous pieces Yemeni flatbread topped with zaatar and cheese. The food was unlike anything I had eaten before and was rich, spicy, and delicious. Two of the dishes came out still boiling! For dessert, we shared an enormous bowl of masoob, a sweet Yemeni rice-pudding with bananas, cheese, topped with honey.
Dining in Saudi Arabia is a little different from other places in that restaurants are often divided into a male only and family sections. The restaurant had family style seating, meaning each dining section was separated by dividers so that if you were accompanied by women who wore face veils they could remove them to eat in the privacy of their family.
A visit to Saudi Arabia would be unthinkable without exploring its very own culinary scene. Our friend insisted we go to Aseil as a farewell meal to our visit. As a custom at the beginning of our meal, they served us traditional Arabic coffee. Not one to pass up on an opportunity to eat something different we started with kebab miro - deep fried camel meat served with a bowl of tahina, that was like a meatball, but a lot drier. I had eaten camel in Morocco, but not ground like this.
We rounded off our amazing meal with two desserts, kunafa wa moze and date jubneea, both topped with pistachios. Kunafa, a dessert originally from Palestine was slightly different from what I had eaten many times before as it had a banana in it. The addition of the banana was noticeable and it made the dessert much sweeter. This was the first time I had tried date jubneea, a fried dough with a date, and really enjoyed it.
What to See and Do in Jeddah
As we waited for our friend to finish work one evening we decided to take a walk along Jeddah’s famous Corniche. This was our first exposure to life in Jeddah outside of the airport, and we were thrilled to see families and the youth out enjoying the lovely afternoon, some of whom were lounging in the shade smoking shisha and hanging out. We happened to be the only tourists out that afternoon.
Al-Balad, or old Jeddah, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, once served as the main gateway to Mecca. It was here that merchants made fortunes transporting goods and providing passage to pilgrims from around the world. Mercantile elites used their wealth to build houses made out of coral, some of which still stand today. The unique architecture and the much less frenetic pace make this part of Jeddah an essential and enjoyable visit.
Not far from Bab al-Jadid (New Gate) is a cemetery that reputably serves as the final resting place of Eve, of the famous first couple, Adam and Eve. We were unfortunately forbidden from entering the cemetery so weren’t able to see it for ourselves.
A short drive from the cemetery is Souq al-Alawi, one of the biggest markets in Saudi Arabia, where we parked the car and explored the area on foot, which was welcomed as it meant I could enjoy the scenery and not have to drive! The drive to old Jeddah had taken a toll on my nerves.
The most notable sites in old Jeddah are the Naseef House (built in 1872) and Sharbatly House. The Naseef House didn’t appear to be open and the Sharbatly House, where T. E. Lawrence (aka. Lawrence of Arabia) stayed in 1917, is closed to the public due to its deterioration, which is unfortunate. Jeddah is for the most part, not a walkable city, so this was a great chance to really explore the city in a way that driving around doesn’t allow. The historic coral houses, with their white walls and contrasting and intricate windows, were impressive. Old Jeddah was by far one of the highlights of the trip.
During our exploration, we happened to be the only tourists walking around taking photos and felt completely safe the whole time. In fact, I felt safer walking around than navigating Jeddah’s frightening highways.
Going to the beach is not something you would immediately associate with travel to Saudi Arabia. Our host thought our trip would not be complete without swimming in the Red Sea and decided to drive us to a private beach well north of Jeddah. I was thrilled that I would not have to drive! Visiting a public beach would not be the same as Carrie would have to wade into the water in her abaya.
The private beach was filled with internationals. The facility included suites, a restaurant, pool, beach with cover and lounge chairs, as well as an option to go diving. To enter wasn’t cheap (100 dhs each or about $27), but it was well worth it. Enjoying a warm day at the beach in Saudi Arabia in early December was a perfect way to end an amazing trip.
The duty-free section of the Jeddah airport is completely void of alcohol but was a great place to buy souvenirs for ourselves and others. Considering we had such a good time we bought lots of I heart KSA key chains and magnets, a coffee mug with famous sites around Jeddah, and a beautiful silver vase.
Our trip to Saudi Arabia would not have been possible without a good friend of ours who helped us secure our visas to visit him. We are grateful for his hospitality.
Interested in travel to Saudi Arabia or a neighboring country? Backpacking with the Bonds has the expertise and experience to plan such a trip. As always feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com
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All Photography by Albert Bond