Bahrain is a fascinating knit of age-old tradition and modernity, this island nation draws you in with its wave of contrasts
Known as The Land of the Two Seas, the Kingdom of Bahrain is something of a double-sided coin. You’ll find all the trademarks of modern Arab opulence here – stylish mega malls and daringly-high skyscrapers – but beyond all that glitz and glamour, intriguing historic sites and a burgeoning culture scene speak loudly of the city’s proud heritage.
Long considered the epicentre of the Gulf’s pearling past, Bahrain has been the hub for the world’s richest oyster beds for centuries, an asset that shaped the island’s fortunes for millennia. It’s also home to one of the oldest civilisations in the Middle East, the Dilmun civilisation, where ancient burial mounds that date back to 3000 BCE can be found in A’ali village. Today the kingdom boasts its own Formula 1 Grand Prix, a thriving art scene and a globally diverse mosaic of fantastic cuisines. This multi-layered and multicultural destination is a hidden gem often overlooked by travellers but scratch the surface and you’ll find an all-encompassing adventure.
While it may maintain a lower-key reputation among its Gulf neighbours, Bahrain has its own share of heavyweight attractions and therein lies the kingdom’s genuine charm. Here’s how to craft an itinerary that takes in all the best bits…
Sink into luxury at these chic abodes
Perched on a five-hectare private island in the kingdom’s capital, Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay is an architectural gem that has a great view of the bay – you can opt to arrive by boat for a glamorous entrance. A short cab ride away, Jumeirah Royal Saray sits confidently on a private beach in Manama’s new Seef district, beautifully enclosed by the Arabian Sea. The hotel has 167 guestrooms, including two Royal Suites and a variety of impressive restaurants to choose from. Also located in Seef, The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain has its own private beach, lagoon and island as well as 11 dining venues, including an authentic Mexican restaurant with vibrant décor inspired by Frida Kahlo. Over on the western shores, Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa Hotel is home to the only sea water spa in the GCC – ideal for a detox session without the hardship. Exciting dining options and nightlife are also on menu, from local specialities to the sway of belly dancing.
Spice it up
Savour the true flavours of the city
Emmawash. This eclectic bistro first began as the dream of two childhood friends who wanted to bring the flavours of their homes to the restaurant scene. Today, it’s one of the most beloved eateries in the kingdom for its homely ambience. Tuck into Bahraini favourites such as balaleet – a traditional sweet and savoury dish – and beef tikka. For those who wish to end their meal on a sweet note, qayamat is the dish to plump for.
Chai Café. Chai, meaning tea in Arabic, has been a breakfast staple in Bahraini culture for years. And when you can get your sweet and milky karak Chai in an edible biscuit cup, visiting this cosy café in the morning is a no-brainer.
Saffron by Jena. Playing testament to the unique flavours of authentic Bahraini cuisine, this family-friendly restaurant combines the old with the new to bring you a contemporary twist on culinary traditions passed down the generations. You won’t find a menu, but a bunch of tasty, traditional dishes served in customary Bahraini fashion.
Down to a fine art
Discover the city’s artistic flair
La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art. Capturing the grand essence of a European château while maintaining the charm of authentic Gulf Islamic architecture, this 150-year-old creative hub blends the distinctive work of traditional artistry with innovative contemporary delights. With a yoga and Pilates studio, a fine-dining restaurant, an open-air amphitheatre and a spa within the complex, exploring here can easily be a day-long affair.
Arabesque Art Gallery. Widely recognised as the main outlet for antique Middle Eastern art, this long-standing gallery exhibits the oil and watercolour paintings of its owner, Wahab Al Koheji, as he depicts everyday life in Bahrain. An added bonus is its great selection of 19th century lithographs created by David Robert during his long tours of the region.
Al Al-Jasra Handicraft Centre. From brightly-coloured woven baskets, tapestry and mats to exquisitely painted stained glass mosaics and pottery, learn more about the city’s indigenous art forms as you watch local artisans perfect their crafts. Love what you see? Craftworks can be bought directly from their maker or from the on-site gift shop.
Shop ’til you drop
Bring home these cultural gems
Slip on your comfiest shoes and pound the cobblestone alleyways of a market that still evokes the ambience of ancient times, Manama Souq. Here, you’ll find quaint little souvenir shops that display local goodies, from exotic Persian rugs to spices and shisha pipes. But you can’t really visit the Pearl of the Gulf without checking out Gold City, a pearl-lover’s paradise overflowing with precious gemstones of all shapes, sizes and colours. A simple custom-made gold pendant of your name in Arabic is a must-take-home keepsake. Haggle your way until you reach Kingdom of Perfumes and watch the mesmerising way a perfumer can mix seemingly random oils to produce the very aroma you requested.
Enjoy an action-packed weekend
Pearl diving. For more than 2,000 years, Bahrain’s pearls have been prized as one of the most beautiful natural gems in the world. Dive into the warm azure waters of the Gulf and unravel Bahrain’s legacy while seeking underwater treasures. There are four diving sites to discover. Simply don your scuba gear and set sail from Ras Rayya to collect some oysters – you can keep any treasures inside.
Bahrain International Circuit. With its roaring engines and thrilling atmosphere, daredevils are in for a ride as they watch top drivers jostle for a prime position at this impressive motorsports venue, which hosts the annual Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix. Better yet, buckle up for an exciting drive around the karting track.
Arabian Horse Riding. Experience a true taste of Arabia as you ride a pure blood Arabian horse across the stunning landscape. Book your experience with Ghazwan Equestrian Centre and enjoy a picturesque sunset gallop along Karbabad Beach.
Jeremy Tutt shares insider tips and tricks on exploring the city
“Whether it’s pearl diving with Scubalife, making waves at Durrat Marina Yacht Club, or just lounging on the sand, the azure waters around the island are stunning and should be enjoyed. I particularly like the beaches at Jumeirah Royal Saray and The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, however there are a lot of other options, including the ART Rotana in Amwaj Islands as well as Coral Beach Clubat the Coral Bay Resort. A trip to Hawar Island is also a must-do for all nature lovers and wildlife adventurers. Alternatively, check out Adliya, the bohemian neighbourhood is the place to go for a gourmet meal. I love the Thai at Hash House and the curry at Lanterns is consistently good, whereas Re Asian Cuisine on the 48th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel offers spectacular views.”
Many moons ago
Take a stroll through history and discover the beauty of a bygone era
The cradle of one of the most ancient civilisations in the Middle East, the Dilmun civilisation, Bahrain is steeped in a 6000-year history. Explore the northern side of the kingdom and unravel the beauty of one of the world’s largest mosques, Al Fateh Mosque, as well as one of the first museums in the gulf, Bahrain National Museum. After you explore its diverse range of treasures, including artefacts uncovered at local archaeological sites, make UNESCO World Heritage Site Qal’at Al Bahrain your next stop. Believed to have been the capital of the ancient Dilmun Empire, soak up breath-taking views of the sparkling blue waters and the city skyline at one of the most prolific archaeological digs in the Arabian Gulf.
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