Gems at Every Turn: Discover Jeddah Al Balad with Sara Omar

Gems at Every Turn: Discover Jeddah Al Balad with Sara Omar

Al Balad’s heritage, houses, and crowded story-filled alleys are uncovered with explorer and traveller Sara Omar
05 April 24

Planning a tour in the heart of Jeddah’s Al Balad, but have no clue where to start or go? Jeddahwis undoubtedly know it best, especially those in the travel business, like Sara Omar. Raised in the port city, she is more than qualified to lead you through Al Balad’s historical maze-like alleys and point out the most significant heritage buildings, as well as the best bustling markets and restaurants. With her cheerful style and soft smile, she takes us on a tour, unravelling the increasingly popular area’s secrets. 

It is difficult to pass through Al Balad without stopping for a moment to marvel at every nook and cranny, in addition to all the buildings that seem to have their own stories to tell. Sara says since she was a child, she has noticed that everyone who visits historical Jeddah shapes their special stories with it. “Al Balad means inspiration, happiness, and joy,” she says. Despite constantly exploring the civilisations and cultures of the world, Sara always feels a special bond with Al Balad and refers to the place that holds many childhood memories as “home.”  

Architectural brilliance  

The blogger and co-founder of Elmakkan travel company begins her tour at Bab Jadid. It is one of historical Jeddah’s main gates, which in the past was surrounded by a wall to protect it from the Portuguese. According to Sara, the original gate was built during the 15th century, while the new gate has an attractive historical feature. 

When visitors enter through the new main gate, they face Jeddah’s old houses, which are between 150 and 400 years old, built from coral stones extracted from the sea. Solid architecture methods were adopted, mainly by separating the walls with wooden planks, which support and anchor for long periods of time. The houses are named after the families that owned them, which Sara describes as “wonderful,” because it enables visitors to get to know locals, plus it forms an idea of their living conditions, lives, and interests.

The house owned by the Al-Hazzazi family, which is the first on the left side upon entering the gate, is one of the largest there. Each house has its special architectural features and unique character, and while marvelling at the edifices, it is worth mentioning the creative rawasheen (originally derived from a Persian word). The main purpose of the wooden latticed coverings on balconies or bay windows was to support air flow and preserve the privacy of homes. They were also a symbol of luxury.

“Connected rawasheen columns, and having them lined up with each other from top to bottom, covering the building, usually indicate a luxurious lifestyle and a good economic situation, and vice versa,” says the Makkah-born guide. “If rawasheen are separated and the differences between them more evident, then living conditions were seen as average.” She believes the most beautiful thing about rawasheen, which were handmade according to homeowners’ needs, is that they are all different.  

Special seating areas  

A bit further on, visitors encounter the first elevated seating area (merkaz), which can accommodate nine to 10 people. “In the old days, the mayor, merchants, and shop owners would gather here to discuss matters regarding work, preparations, and repairs needed,” says Sara, who is also the co-founder of 88Destinations, a licensed tour operator and destination management organisation. Till this day, in the afternoon, residents or those who live around Al Balad meet here, have tea, and play dominoes, she adds. They still have their emotional connection to the area. These kinds of seating areas are available in each neighbourhood or square, and they still maintain the legacy of being the place where issues residents may have are dealt with.  

Standout buildings 

Ribat Al-Khunji is one of Al Balad’s finest examples of Islamic architecture. The area is home to 13 ribats, which Sara describes as residences with wide spacious rooms for women who have no support and are receiving help from residents. “There are two or three ribats that are still in service, welcoming some elderly women,” she says.  

Bait Al Rashaida is an artistic hub, and according to Sara, it is one of the most well-known houses in Al Balad. And then, moving along, there’s Quraish Palace Hotel. Built in 1956, the hotel, standing out from the rest of the city’s buildings, was the first of its kind in the country. Owned by Sheikh Abdullah Linjawi and designed by an Italian company, it is under renovation and set to reopen soon, perhaps as an archaeological landmark. 

Al Shafi'i Mosque 

Perhaps the most famous mosque in Al Balad, it has two buildings, the first featuring green roofs while the second is brown, separated by a palm tree. Sara shares: “It is one of the oldest mosques, and has been restored three times. However, the mosque’s minaret, which is 900 years old, has never been touched. Now, Al Shafi'i Mosque welcomes tourists and visitors for free tours, to introduce them to its characteristics, its archaeology, and Islamic values.” 

Authentic flavours, markets, and more 

While walking through Al Balad’s cobbled passageways, taking the occasional break is usually a necessity, and that’s the perfect time for a refreshing drink. One of the best spots for this is the famous Sobia Clay, which is the oldest cafe serving a thirst-quenching sobia, a cold, sweet drink made from barley and ingredients like raisins, cinnamon, and cardamom. “Aam (Uncle) Clay has passed away, God have mercy on him, and his son took over,” says Sara. “Sobia is still prepared according to Uncle Clay’s home style.”

After taking a right and then a left, the fabric market comes into sight. Its merchants used to bring in ornamented fabrics from India and Pakistan to suit shoppers' tastes. Sara has special memories here; she used to accompany her mother to choose fabrics for special occasion wear.  

The ardent traveller and TV host points out that the Ministry of Culture is developing and organising new places to preserve the city’s historical features, by stipulating the use of wood, panels, and design. Leaving the fabric market behind, the road intersects at Bait Jamjoom. To the right you’ll find the gold market, while the souq selling spices is to the left, where you can spot Al-Mimar Mosque. 

Spice market 

In this special market stands Aam Salem’s renowned shop. The aroma of cumin, cardamom, and fresh cinnamon can’t be missed while walking around. Uncle Salem is still at the helm, says Sara, adding: “He is famous for his allspice mix. My parents used to buy it, and tourists still do today.” 

Bait Nassif  

The historical Bait Nassif, known for its political and heritage significance and symbolising hospitality in Hijaz, is visited by tourists from all over the world. Royals have stayed here, including King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, who settled here for a few years. “It has been transformed into a museum, which includes several rooms, an office, and a sitting room. In one of the rooms, there is a large display of the entire area, which gives visitors a chance to learn about its archaeological landmarks,” says Sara.

Herbalists Lane 

In this vibrant, narrow street surrounded by plants, tourists can see the artisans working on handicrafts, get to know the workshops directly, and snap some shots. They can also buy handmade souvenirs, mostly made of wood, and traditional handmade accessories.   

The Ayamna Al Hilwa stall 

After leaving the spice market, head to Ayamna Al Hilwa. Sara advises: “One of the most delicious snacks you can get is the balila.” Made of boiled chickpeas, with added pickled cucumbers, beets, cumin, and vinegar, it is a popular must-try dish.  

Naji Al Harbi Kebab Restaurant 

As a dinner option, Sara recommends trying the famous kebabs at the Naji Al Harbi restaurant, which is known to be the oldest in the region preparing grilled wonders. 

Fish restaurants 

Al Balad is renowned for its delicious fish, with Najel being one of the top to try. Baeshen Fish, Sara’s favourite seafood restaurant, features the traditional floor seating in addition to the tasty platters. There’s also Al Nada Fish Market Restaurant, which is famous for serving fried fish, according to the expert guide.

When visiting historical Jeddah for the first time, you immediately realise that it is one of the ancient cities that has survived hardships and the test of time. While there’s steadfast technology and ongoing development, locals are safe in the knowledge its heritage is being safeguarded.