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Bahrain offers a wide range of items embodying its true essence including authentic pearls, exotic Persian rugs, local spices, fresh dates and far more. Culture Trip scours the island’s souqs, flea markets and malls to bring you this list of must-haves and where you can buy them.
Authentic Persian rugs are a great way to spruce up a boring interior in seconds. You can shop for one in Manama souq: when you enter the Bal-al Bahrain archway, there’s a line of renovated shops. Ali Baba Cave Antiques is one of them and sells a unique collection of authentic rugs and other souvenirs like colourful mosaic lamps, wooden chests, and more. The owner is a friendly young Bahraini – you can ask him how authentic rugs are made, the number of knots per square meter, the symmetry in design etc. and he will be more than happy to tell you all about it. Bradran Persian Store near Gold City in Manama souq also sells the real deal. Established in 1935, they also keep rugs dating back to the 16th century that are not for sale. They have another branch in Al A’ali Mall. There are rug and souvenir shops in the KFC lane and ‘shawarma alley’ in Adliya too. Beware of factory manufactured knock-offs.
Bakhoor is basically sweet smelling incense extracted from the wood chips of fragrant trees. Its use is deeply ingrained in Arab culture. Bahrainis burn bakhoor for special occasions like weddings and sacred occasions like Eid, as well as everyday fragrances. Asghar Ali and Syed Junaid Alam are popular names when it comes to bakhoor. Their outlets are scattered across the island and they have shops in malls too. They also stock a wide range of Arabic perfumes that usually have strong fragrances and come packaged in the most immaculately designed bottles.
The abaya, a the loose-fitting garment worn by Arab women, is on sale at a number of stores in souqs and malls across the island. If you’re not looking for something too traditional, try looking up ‘Mobayas’ by Bahrain-based creative entrepreneur, Mobeena Inam, which offers a range of bespoke abayas with a modern spin on them. Ella Impressions is an artistic range of merchandise including scarves, bags, shoes and bow ties, bearing the eye-catching abstract art of Bahrain-based artist, Ella Prakash. Annada store, at Seef Mall, is owned by a Bahraini sister-duo and their merchandise including scarves, jewellery, stationery and men’s and women’s clothing bears the art of a number of Bahraini artists. You might also visit the many art galleries scattered across the island, as some of them sell merchandise.
This humble fruit is a Bahraini cuisine staple. Bahrainis eat them for breakfast as they’re said to have alkalising properties that gently prepare the digestive tract for the rest of the day. During Ramadan, the locals also break their fast with dates and water. There is also a special drink made from date juice that’s served during Ramadan to aid digestion. If you’re looking to buy fresh dates, visit the Farmers’ Market, a haven for local organic produce. The Bahraini farmers are really friendly and will even offer you a good bargain. Preserved dates are available at organised retail stores as well as at the souqs. Bateel, located in City Centre Bahrain, is a popular name and sells dates coated in artisan chocolate, as well as with almonds and orange and lemon rind.
Bahrain’s gold is said to be of the most premium quality. Gold City in Manama souq, a building full of gold shops, as well as independent shops dotting the by lanes of the souq, sell 21- and 24-carat gold. You can choose from a wide range of modern and traditionally designed gold jewellery. Most shops sell Arabic and Indian designs, but you’ll also find contemporary designs that go with Western outfits. Buy the ready-to-wear pieces or simply go for a custom-made gold pendant of your name in Arabic to take home as a souvenir. The ready-to-wear pieces come studded in diamonds, pearls and precious and semi-precious stones.
Bahrain is renowned for its lustrous pearls that come in different shapes considering they’re authentic. 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 island still has a small market offering an exotic collection like no other. Most of the gold shops Manama Souq have pearl-studded gold jewellery on sale. But remember to purchase from licensed shops only. When it comes to pearl jewellery, popular names are Mannai Jewellery, Mattar Jewelers, Al Mahmood Pearls at Moda Mall and Al A’ali Mall and Al Fardan Jewellery at Moda Mall, in that order. If gold and pearls aren’t your cup of tea, Bahrain is home to many silver boutiques. Rusty little shops along the streets of Manama sell some of the finest collections of ancient Bedouin trinkets.
Bahraini pottery with its intricate designs is famous all over the world. The craft is a part of the local culture and dates back to the fourth millennium BC. If you head to the traditional village of A’ali, you’ll meet many artisans who still make a living out of creating and painting pots. You can learn all about the ancient traditions of pot-making that they follow to date and even get a hands-on under the tutelage of a real craftsman. There are a number of beautifully crafted exhibits right from pots of all sizes and pitchers through to money-banks and lamps that you can buy as a souvenir.
Bahrainis are hands down one of the biggest consumers of a variety of nuts and dried fruits right from almonds, cashews and pistachios through to raisins, figs and apricots. They even use them in their food; they garnish their desserts and rice dishes with nuts and raisins. You can head to the Muharraq or Manama souqs where a number of shops sell these alongside other confectionery. Lulu Hypermarket branches scattered across the island also sell these and other things like dried and candied ginger, pineapple, mango and more. All these are a little on the expensive side but sold by the kilo so you can buy only how much you want. You’re also allowed to taste. If you’re into seeds like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds etc. you can get them, by the kilo from the souqs or packaged at retail outlets.
It’s a great idea to buy spices that are not available in your own country. Though most organised retail stores sell packaged spices, scouring the traditional souqs for local vendors selling these treasures by the kilo is a unique experience that must not be passed by. Bzaar, a Bahraini curry powder, and saffron are other noteworthy spices that are available. If you’re tired of walking around, stop by for a refreshing lunch at Haji Gahwa, tucked away in Manama souq. It’s a quaint little family-run restaurant serving traditional Bahraini dishes. Their Arabic-style wooden benches and a wall adorned with laminated black and white photos of yesteryear Bahrain will offer just the perfect ambience to your culture-packed adventure.
Bahrainis have quite the sweet tooth and a number of confectioneries across the island sell a range of local sweetmeats, including khanfroosh, rehash, baklava, luqaimat, halwa and more. The halwa sold at the Showaiter shops in Muharraq is stuff of legend as this is a family business that’s been around for over 150 years now. They have their factory in Muharraq souq and you can ask for a tour to see how the gelatinous confectionery is made from scratch. The Showaiter shops, like most others, allow you to taste their range of sweets before you buy. While you’re in Muharraq souq, head to Saffron by Jena, a restaurant serving what is a modern spin on traditional Bahraini food. The rustic interior offers a great ambience and even if you choose to dine al fresco, dining against a backdrop of Muharraq’s traditional houses is simply amazing.
Also known as Iranian market or Isa Town souq, this flea market tucked away in Isa Town has a wide variety of items right from clothes, electronics and perfumes through to potted plants and kitchen appliances. But what you want to visit this market for are its antiques. The best part is you can haggle all you want. There are cafes where you can stop for breakfast and Bahraini snacks. Souq Al Haraj, not unlike other souqs in Bahrain, is a photographer’s paradise. It’s a pleasure to watch Bahrainis sitting at tables in the cafes and playing traditional games. It’s a weekend market, usually set up on Friday and Saturday so, we recommend you start early as it gets really crowded. If you plan to drive, be aware that parking may be a bit of an issue.
Set up by the Tourism Directorate, this handicrafts museum is the ideal place to learn about Bahrain’s indigenous art forms such as pottery, basket weaving, cloth weaving, wood work etc. You can buy exquisitely woven baskets, mats and wall hangings made from palm fronds, as well as woven tapestry and stained glass mosaics. While you’re there, make a trip to Beit Al Jasra (Jasra House). This traditional-style house built in 1907 is the birthplace of the former and much loved king of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. When the royal family moved to Riffa in the 1930s, the building fell into disrepair, but was restored in 1986 using original building materials such as coral stones and palm leaf trunks.