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Manama is the Kingdom’s largest city – its name translates to ‘place of rest’ or ‘place of dreams,’ and it is truly so; the Arab League under the UNESCO Cultural Capitals Programme officially designated it as the ‘Arab Capital of Culture’ for 2012. Whether you’re after breathtaking views or authentic Islamic architecture, the capital city has something for you.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque is an icon of Islamic architecture and culture. Located on the King Faisal highway in Juffair, a town in the capital city of Manama, it is one of the largest in the world and can accommodate over 7,000 worshipers at a time. Its walls are adorned with Kufic calligraphy and its fiberglass dome is the largest in the world. Book a tour anytime between 9am to 4pm but remember to wear modest clothing as a mark of respect for the culture. Tours are available in varied languages including English, French, Russian and Tagalog.
Commonly known as Manama Souq, Bab Al Bahrain, which means ‘gateway to Bahrain’, is the grand entrance to the island’s most multi-ethnic market space. Here you will find Arabian sweet shops sharing space with quaint little Nepalese cafes and South Indian vegetarian restaurants. Head to one of the souvenir shops for an exotic Arabian rug or a traditional lamp and other pretty little things. There are shops selling a range of Arabian spices like black lemon and local blends like sumac and za’atar, as well as fabrics from around the world including the Indian subcontinent and the Far East.
Bahrain’s gold is one of the best in the world. You will find a number of gold shops dotting the ‘temple lane’ in Manama souq, selling pure 22- and 24-carat gold. Additionally, there is a separate building named Gold City where you will find many shops under one roof. You can choose from a wide range of modern and traditionally designed diamond- and pearl-studded gold jewellery. 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.
Islam is said to have arrived in Bahrain in the 7th century. Beit Al Quran (House of Quran) in Hoora, which falls under Manama district, showcases a fascinating collection of manuscripts as well as a library of over 50,000 books written in Arabic, English, and French that centre mostly on Islam. In 2006, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque was made the site of the National Library – Ahmed Al Fateh Islamic Center. It has around 7,000 books including ones on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, Al Azhar journals which have been printed more than a hundred years ago, as well as numerous periodicals and magazines.
Bahrain is known for its wide range of seafood dishes right from rice specialties to stuffed pastries and grills. Each morning, the treasures of the sea are hauled into the Central Market in Manama, which has three main sections – fish, meat, and fruits and vegetables. If you make an early morning trip, you can find the fish hall bustling with local fishermen selling their catch. Typical of Bahraini locals, they are super friendly and will even be willing to share a chai karak (spiced milk tea) with you and give you a good bargain.
Located in the heart of Manama, close to the old souq, La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art is an architectural and artistic masterpiece. This one-of-a-kind historical monument in the Middle East belongs to the Alireza family. Capturing the essence of a European chateau while retaining the charm of authentic Gulf Islamic architecture, the centre has been restored by French artist Jean Marc Sinan and features art galleries, an open-air amphitheater, a fine dining restaurant, an exclusive spa and a dance studio. You can enjoy a romantic dinner by the fountain or even wind your way through its enclosed courtyards and tiny corridors.
Manama city has a number of art galleries that feature the works of talented Bahraini and expat artists. Tucked away in the quiet neighbourhood of Um Al Hassam is Arabesque gallery, a villa with a traditional door and branches of bougainvillea canopying the entrance. Albareh gallery in Adliya has a curated list of painters, sculptors, and photographers from the island. Newer galleries include Ella Art Gallery in Adliya and ARTDIVANO in Gudaibiya; artist Ella Prakash is Indian born and raised in Bahrain. She has a range of exquisite scarves and accessories with her art printed on them, which are available in Jashanmal stores at Al A’ali Shopping Complex. ARTDIVANO, meanwhile, showcases bespoke jewellery and fashion accessories in addition to fine art, sculptures, and ceramics.
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 near King Faisal highway in Manama displays a tableau depicting a scene from the Epic. The museum also exhibits historical artefacts including trading seals and ancient coins as well as burial mounds from the Dilmun era.
Al Shabab Avenue in Juffair, a town in Manama, is popularly known as ‘American Alley’ because it’s located near the United States Navy Base. Dotting the lane is a wide range of restaurants, cafes, and fast food joints. Whether you want to bite into a burger before you head to a nearby club to dance the night away or unwind at a café with a book, there’s something for everyone. Though it’s busy during the week too, weekends are more packed because of the many clubs and pubs in the area, all located within walking distance of each other.
Most of the luxury hotels in Bahrain including international brands like the Four Seasons and Sheraton to homegrown properties like The Domain are located in Manama. These hotels host some of the best brunches in town and their delicious spreads include all kinds of Arabian and international cuisines. You could relax by the pool and tuck into a BBQ platter or even take a dip if the weather gets too hot. There is a range of kids’ activities too and most hotels even have professionally managed kids’ clubs, meaning everyone in the family can enjoy the hotel experience.
Head to Al Fateh Corniche at sunset and you’ll find many people strolling and jogging; families relaxing on the grass and kids running around. Take a walk on the grass or simply admire the mesmerising sunset by the sea. There are coffee trucks and kiosks nearby, selling refreshments and, if it gets too hot, there is a bowling alley and an ice rink too. There are plans in the pipeline to give the corniche a major face-lift that will feature a new walkway, recreational space, playgrounds and more restaurants and cafes.
Mohammed Noor Al Bukhari in Hoora is a traditional Arabian restaurant and serves arguably the best rice dishes and grills on the island. It’s popular with locals and expats alike, and though it has more than one branch, the Exhibition Road outlet is the one that’s most visited – some say the taste and quality of the food at this branch is the best. It doesn’t have the most ideal ambience for family dining, but nonetheless is a great place to hang out with friends.
Manama Souq is home to the oldest Hindu temple in Bahrain. Close to the ‘temple lane’ is ‘Little India’, an area with colourful walls and buildings, gold shops where you can get your nose and ears pierced, shops selling fabrics by the roll and shops selling flowers, lamps, and other puja (Hindu prayer service) accessories. You can also find Bahrain’s oldest Catholic church in Manama city. The foundation of the Sacred Heart Church was laid in 1939 and today it serves over 140,000 parishioners across nationalities including British, American, French, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, as well as Arabs from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.