An archipelago of 33 islands, Bahrain, which means ‘two seas’, has a growing tourist audience. Best visited during the cooler months, this nation will spoil you for choice with its endless list of indoor and outdoor activities.
Bahrain has a highly tolerant culture that offers residents and tourists complete freedom. Moreover, what sets it apart from most Gulf countries is that it strikes the perfect balance between modern and traditional living. Here are some of the reasons why you need to plan a visit soon.
Bahrain is known for its variety of pearls. The nation’s economy thrived on its pearling industry until the 1930s (when Japanese cultured pearls entered the market). Though few divers remain today, the Bahrain Pearling Trail, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, protects this local legacy. You can follow this 3.5 km trail consisting of 17 traditional buildings around the city of Muharraq, as well as three offshore oyster beds, parts of the seashore and the Bu Maher fort. If you’re the adventurous type, a licensed diving company will whisk you off to the middle of the sea for a pearl dive where you get to keep what you find.
Enjoy a dazzling experience shopping for gold at Manama Souq. Dotting one of the alleys in the market are a number of gold vendors selling the purest and best quality 22- and 24-carat gold as opposed to the 18-carat that’s common in the West. You can choose from a wide range of contemporary and traditionally designed diamond- and pearl-studded gold jewellery. Simply buy the ready-to-wear pieces or go for a custom-made gold pendant of your name in Arabic to take back home as a souvenir.
No trip is complete until you stuff your face with local delicacies. Bahrain has many great restaurants offering something for every taste bud. Feast on an all-day traditional Bahraini breakfast consisting of khubz (oven-baked flatbread), falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties), balaleet (sweet vermicelli and eggs), keema (minced meat) and more or dig into the delicious bokhari (grilled chicken with rice) served at Mohammed Noor; tucked away in Hoora, it’s one of the most sublime mandi experiences you’ll ever have). Don’t forget to bite into Bahrain’s popular street food, shawarma – a value-for-money meat sandwich. A few of the small sandwich shops even serve camel burgers – be brave!
Halwa is a sweet gelatinous confection garnished with roasted cashews and almonds. Popular with the locals, other Arabs, expats and tourists alike, Bahrain’s Halwa Showaiter gets its name from the local Showaiter family that has been whipping up this sweet delight for over 150 years. Made in golden, green and red colours, halwa is best washed down with flavourful gahwa (a lightly spiced Arabic coffee). You can even buy boxes of this sweet treat to take back home for loved ones. Take a tour of the factory, located right opposite the shop, in Muharraq for a heavenly halwa experience.
This country has some breathtaking architecture, like the Bahrain National Theatre that is designed to look like a mother of pearl jewellery box, and the many towers in and around the Bahrain Financial Harbour, including the infamous skyscraper that has integrated wind turbines into its design. While these give Bahrain’s skyline its unique and spectacular look, the historical and Islamic architecture in the Kingdom is something else. There are plenty of gems, from the old and refurbished traditional houses in Muharraq to the awe inspiring mosques and majestic forts scattered across the islands. Qal’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Bahrainis are some of the most down to earth, helpful and social people you’ll ever meet. Hospitality is deeply ingrained in their culture. Don’t be surprised if you’re in a lift or restaurant and a local walks in and greets you with a ‘Salaam’ (more formally ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’). Just reply with ‘Wa-Alaikum-Salaam’ and voilà! You will have made a friend right there. A visit to the traditional souqs, farmers’ market in Budaiya or even the malls is a great opportunity to interact with the locals. Unlike other Gulf countries, Bahrain’s population comprises an equal number of locals and expats, which adds to its charm.
Bahrain is the cradle of one of the Middle East’s oldest civilisations, the Dilmun civilisation. Boasting a 6000-year history, it is also speculated to be the place where Gilgamesh is thought to have travelled to seek mortality (the Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian poem and said to be one of the earliest known works of literature). The Bahrain National Museum even displays a tableau depicting a scene from the Epic. The museum also exhibits historical artefacts ranging from seals and coins to ancient burial mounds. The burial mounds in A’ali are also worth a visit, as are the Barbar Temple and Tree of Life.
The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in Sakhir features five FIA certified track layouts, more than anywhere else in the world. This allows it to host a range of motor racing events, including the Formula One Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, the FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Bahrain, races in the GP2 Series and the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup. So far, the BIC has hosted nine Grand Prix. Book a tour of the track and, while you’re at it, don’t miss the first corner named after the legend, Michael Schumacher. If you’re the adventurous one, have your own racing experience with Bahrain International Karting Circuit’s Arrive and Drive sessions for kids and adults on separate tracks.
Bahrain’s art, music, and cultural scenes have grown in leaps and bounds, making it a great destination for culture vultures. You could head to the many art galleries in Bahrain to witness some great art by local and expat artists. These artsy spaces also have cafes serving some delicious snacks, which is a great way to unwind while you soak in the Bahraini ethos. The Bahrain National Theatre has hosted several artists from all over the world, including the renowned Russian Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets, legendary composer Yanni and famous British Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar.