Al-Balad, which literally translates to “The City”, is the historical area of Saudi-Arabia’s second largest city Jeddah. Founded in the 7th century, Balad historically served as the city center of Jeddah until the big oil boom when most families started moving out the area. Al Balad Historical District, which was just recently added into the UNESCO World Heritage sites list, is my absolute favorite part of Jeddah. I will never become bored of wandering in the narrow alleyways, discovering brightly colored Mashrabiat and rawashaan, the specs of color, the friendly people, the smells and sounds of Balad. Al Balad will literally tickle all your senses. Here are ten reasons why you should not miss a visit to this unique heritage site!For the best info on the history and background of different areas and buildings, it’s recommended to take a tour of Al Balad district with an experienced and knowledgable local guide. When mom and I last visited Jeddah, we were fortunate to have the awesome ‘Susie of Arabia’ who writes the blogs Susie’s Big Adventure and Jeddah Daily Photo, as our personal guide. Susie is, like myself, a self-proclaimed door addict, we share a love (or obsession?) with the colorful doors and windows of Balad. I think we spent a good three hours just looking at different kinds of doors (poor mom)! We walked around for the entire morning until early afternoon, Susie showing us around her favorite spots in Al Balad. Susie is an American woman married to a Saudi, she’s been living in Jeddah for almost the same period of time that I’ve been in Riyadh (soon 7 years! ). This is my mom posing with Susie:On to the Al Balad Top Ten!
1. Do some real life time traveling and discover the rich history of the Balad district. The two gates to the Old City, built in typical Ottoman style, are the Gate of Medinah (Bab al Madinah) and the larger more well preserved Mecca gate (Bab al Makkah). Beautiful, intricately designed old merchant houses can be found all over the area, the most famous being Al Naseef House (Beit al Nassef). This stunning building has been fully preserved and is now open to public as a museum. Another museum worth visiting is the Jeddah Municipality Museum. The very first school-now museum, in the entire Arabian peninsula is located in Al Balad (Madrasa Al Falah).
Al Shafei mosque which is also known as the “Ancient Mosque” dates back to 7th century AD. This mosque is undergoing a huge restoration project because over the decades it has ‘sunk’ into the ground which makes it look like it’s being swallowed by the earth. Sadly many if not most of the residential buildings have been neglected. If restoration and preservation projects are not urgently undertaken in the area, most likely this architectural gem will slowly perish. Some of the houses have suffered extra damage from the floods and entirely collapsed into the streets. What is most unfortunate is that government seems to be more focused on developing other areas of tourism and skyscrapers and other modern buildings are making their way into this historically unique and invaluable heritage site. Hopefully action will be taken before this treasure is lost forever.
2. Practice your photography skills. Whether its street photography, architecture, food, portraits or even macro, Balad offers something of interest for all photo enthusiasts. The best time to visit would be early weekday mornings. If hustle and bustle is what you’re looking for, a Friday afternoon will surely deliver just that.3. Meet the friendly and welcoming people. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation, you won’t regret it! Saudi families and lots of different nationalities still live in the old houses of Al Balad.4. Explore what the famous Balad souk Al- Alawi has to offer. Find shumagh, abaya and scarves in all colors imaginable, leather bags, shoes and sandals, jewelry made from coral. Oud, frankincense, Arabic perfumes, oils and incense burners to use them all in. Sample the dates, spices, Arabic coffee beans, fresh fruits and vegetables. Or how about some fresh hibiscus flower tea known locally as ‘Karkade’?5. Sample the food of Al Balad’s small food stalls. Delicious, cooked on the spot snacks and Arabic breads can be found at every corner. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Prices start from 1sr for a shawarma!6. Shop for authentic Saudi Souvenirs. If you’re not the tourist type that goes for plastic camels or burkha clad bopple-heads, Al Balad’s souk is the place for you. Some items of interest would be frankincense, which comes in several different forms and varieties and the ‘Saudi style” incense burners to use with it. There’s huge blocks and little cubes which can used like chewing gum, frankincense essential oils are famous for their healing properties and can be used both internally and externally. You can also find other Arabic perfumes and Oud here. Exotic spices and dates can be found in abundance as well as beautiful lanterns, colorful scarves, Saudi style leather sandals and much more.7. Marvel at the mosques. Some of the tiniest and dare I say cutest mosques you’ll ever encounter can be found in Balad’s narrow alleyways, nestled between houses, shops and walkways.8. Climb to the rooftop of Al Naseef house just before Maghreb prayer time to catch the sunset over Al Balad’s rooftops. the sound of the beautiful Athan (call of prayer) being called out from all over the city will overwhelm your senses. An experience you will never forget.9. Obsess over doors and windows. Balad is a dream come true for all kinds of architecture lovers but especially captivating for those of us who just can’t get enough of all kinds of doors! The historical area is famous for the bright colored window and door covers called Mashrabiya and Rawashaan. The window covers were designed to catch the breeze and cool the houses but at the same time to allow the womenfolk inside some privacy by blocking the views. 10. Relax and unwind at a Sheesha cafe. Stop by one of the small outdoor sheesha (also known as hookah)places or if the hubbly bubbly is not your cup of tea, try some Arabic coffee instead. (unfortunately these places are for men only..) More images in the gallery, click to open!