What to see
Bahrain has a history that goes back 5,000 years, and if you are looking to get a sense of the island’s importance in terms of trade and culture, then you don’t need to look that far. The Bahrain National Museum is the best repository for all of the country’s visual history. Although not all that spectacular, Bahrain’s ancient burial mounds are a testament to the fact that Bahrain was once one of the world’s biggest graveyards. It was thought that Bahrain was once the centre of the ancient Dilmun civilisation, and the Saar Digs, Barbar Temple and Duraz Temple are the remnants of Bahrain Island’s ancient past. Al Khamis Mosque is thought to date back to 692 and is one of the oldest mosques in the world, while Bahrain Fort and Arad Fort are remnants of Portuguese and Omani invaders, respectively. Those looking for Bahrain’s more recent history should head to Muharraq, to Siyadi House, once the home of a wealthy Bahraini pearl merchant, and Sheikh Bin Isa Al House, which served as the main royal residence. Indeed, the Muharraq Heritage Zone is one of Bahrain’s best preserved ancient neighbourhoods and is a great place to wander, its alleyways the perfect place in which to hide from the heat.
Bahrain might be an island but, although the sea has historically been integral to the Bahraini way of life, bad planning, a huge amount of reclamation work and a craggy coastline have all conspired to make any visit to Bahrain habitually land-based. Which is a shame, because one of the best things about Bahrain is the fact that it is surrounded by a frequently stunning waterscape. There are one or two beaches worth checking out, and a huge array of water sports and water parks that can take you out into the Arabian Gulf. The Coral Beach Club (17 312 700) has practically the only easy access beach around, though there are stretches of sand at the Novotel Al Dana (17 298 008) and the Ritz-Carlton (17 580 000), the latter of which is almost impossible to get into if you are not staying and don’t have an elusive membership.
Those looking for water sports should try out the Bahrain Yacht Club (17 700 677) for sailing, the Ritz-Carlton (17 580 000) for fairly pricey island hopping trips, Scuba Master (39 692 266) for pearl diving, and Skate Shack (17 697 176) for kite surfing. Those looking for a couple of days on the coast should head to the bird-filled Hawar Islands, and check out the Tulip Inn Hawar Beach (17 532 272). Although Bahrain might not sound like the best place in the Gulf for beach parties, Al Dar Islands’ periodic Full Moon Parties (17 704 600) are the best in the region. If you want to splash around on land, check out Wahooo Water Park (17 584 444) which, on the roof of City Centre Mall, is the country’s newest, and the Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park (17 845 100) was one of Bahrain’s first water parks and is an oasis amid the heat of the sun.
For such a small island, the art scene here is nothing if not impressive. With a wealth of local talent, and a selection of art galleries that are among the most active organisations on the island, you could spend at least a day traversing what’s on offer. Bin Matar House (17 322 549) is part of the Muharraq Heritage Zone and is a recently refurbished heritage building near the airport. Showcasing a number of internationally renowned artists as well as local talent, the gallery has a permanent exhibition on the pearl heritage of the country. Al Riwaq Art Space (17 717 441) is a not-for-profit crusader for local artists and hums with the buzz of creativity. Located in Block 338 in Adliya’s restaurant district, this is a great place to grab lunch after a gallery visit. Albareh Art Gallery (17 717 707) is one of the country’s leading exhibition spaces, and showcases a variety of leading regional artists. La Fontaine (17 230 123) has to be seen to be believed. A former residence in the heart of Manama, this is a spa, restaurant and gallery combined and is an oasis of calm in the chaos of the city centre. Elham (www.elhambahrain.net) is the country’s leading arts group and holds monthly art meets with exhibitions, poetry readings and slide shows giving a space and time to fledgling artists and writers. The Elham Festival in May is one of the leading creative festivals in the country.
One thing that Bahrain does best is spas. From cheap and cheerful foot massage clinics on Exhibition Road to the occasional back alley Thai massage joint in Juffair, you can be rubbed, cracked, pummeled and prodded to your heart’s desire. For indulgent treatments try Ritz-Carlton (17 586 808), for hydrotherapy head to the second biggest spa in the world at the Banyan Tree Al Areen (17 845 000), those looking for women’s only health and beauty, head to Dessange (17 713 999), and for complimentary medicine, head to Bahrain Wellness Resort (17 795 961). If meditation is your thing, then book into a session at the Bahrain Meditation Centre (17 712 545), while people looking for more unusual energy work and Reiki ought to call Lisa Kennedy (36 813 408). If you are in need of a health tonic you can find one on every street corner in the Manama Souq in the form of juice bars. Just make sure you ask for no sugar. For the Western style wheat grass shots and power smoothies, head to Watermelon (17 581 785) in Al A’ali Mall. The best gym in Bahrain is Fitness First (13 322 200).
Ask an expert
Ali al Saeed, writer
‘I think a visit to Isa Town would be interesting. It’s a fascinating place, and I say that having lived all my life in that area. Souq Almaqasees (weekend flea market) is where people from all corners of the island converge to buy and sell random things. You can find literally anything you might be looking for - scraps, clothes, pets, food, old magazines, books, broken equipment (I once found a very rare lens for my father’s 30-year-old camera!) - it’s gritty and real. Unlike any other market place in Bahrain. It’s a unique experience.’
What to eat
Bahrain might not have as many restaurants as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it is certainly in the running as a dining destination, with a number of exciting openings in the past couple of years and some historic haunts setting the culinary bar high.
You can’t come to the Middle East and not have at least a few goes at eating the local cuisine. Although there is some variety across the region, the staples of hummus, tabouleh salad and mixed grill tend to be all pervasive across the Arab world. For traditional and reasonably priced Arabic fare, head to Al Abraaj (numerous restaurants around town, Budaiya Highway 17 595 656). For healthy Persian cuisine, pop into Isfahani on Exhibition Road (17 290 027). Carla’s (17 697 687) in Cypress Gardens on Budaiya Highway is a favourite with the Lebanese and western expats, while Layali Turkiye (17 295 270) is next to Coral Beach Club and overlooks the sea. One of the best dirt cheap options is Maselee (17 210 647), in the Manama Souq down the alley beside the Gulf Pearl Hotel.
The Gulf region’s biggest outside influence has undoubtedly been from the Sub-Continent, and Bahrain has its fair share of Indian-inspired cuisine. Lanterns (17 590 591) on the Budaiya Highway is considered one of the best, and is roughly as pricey as Nirvana (17 580 000) in the Ritz-Carlton. Those looking for cheaper options should head to Zabara Avenue in Gudabiya, which is the centre of the Indian community in the country. Here you can find the buffet restaurant Takatak (17 254 848) next to Awal Cinema which shows Bollywood blockbusters. Across the road is the vegetarian joint Sangeetha (17 272 768) which serves great thalis, and boasts an amazing selection of Indian sweets. For a more Pakistani taste, head to Tabakh (17 276 386), behind Awal Cinema, which serves some Pakistani specials.
It is certainly not the healthiest option in Bahrain, and has been proven to be worse for you than smoking. That said, shisha is an integral part of modern Arabic life, and if you do smoke then this is a great way to insert yourself into the local culture. La Maison du Cafe (17 593 376) is one of the biggest and oldest, while Coco’s (17 716 512) has a young and friendly clientele. On Monday nights, Casa Blu (17 710 424) has a ladies nights during which women can smoke for free.
Like all countries in the Middle East, Bahrain has its fair share of rotisseries, selling a range of kebab meat. The best place to head is Adliya’s Shawarma Alley, between Century Restaurant and Alfa Motors, where around a dozen shawarma sellers compete for business.
‘If you haven’t been to a Friday brunch, you haven’t lived’ so that saying goes, and the notorious extravagance of Bahrain’s Friday brunches is not to be missed. Most hotels host one, with the Ritz-Carlton (17 586 499), Crowne Plaza (17 17 531 122), Movenpick (17 460 000), Banyan Tree (17 17 845 000) and Diplomat Radisson (17 531 666) being the most revered. For something a little different, try Ric’s Kountry Kitchen (17 725 550) for all American fare cheap as chips brunch, or Bambu (17 714 424) for an ‘unlimited’ Chinese menu.
For a country that was once administered by the British, afternoon tea is relatively scare. On Bahrain Island, the Ritz-Carlton (17 580 000) hosts one of the best for BD12 a throw, while in Muharraq, The House of Coffee (36 629 968) does a reasonable and superb version for just BD4 each.
Ask an expert
Majid Jassim, executive chef, Mercure Grand Hotel, Seef
‘Go to the Muharraq Souq, the oldest traditional market in Bahrain. Here you can find everything from A to Z. Best of all you can find the traditional Bahraini sweets, like halva and sweet samoosas. There are loads of sweet shops here, but Hussain Mohammed Showaiter Sweets (17 345 551) is one of the best.’
Where to shop
Sure, there are identikit malls across the world, and none in Bahrain are about to blow you away. But in a country that experiences heat so severe that you can’t go outside during summer, the Manama malls have become a haven of air conditioning for anyone who doesn’t like being fried. The newest and best is City Centre Mall (17 584 444), which is home to most of the high street European brands in the country. There is also the country’s biggest multiplex here. Seef Mall (17 582 888) is number two when it comes to the high street fashion, while Moda Mall (17 540 330) is for all of those with money to burn and a wardrobe fit for a fashionista. Bahrain Mall (17 558 101) is good only for Geant, which sells a great selection of organic foods, while Country Mall (17 17 592 250) has the occasional great shop in which is a dreary shopping space. Dana Mall (17 558 500) has one of the best cinemas in town; Al A’ali Mall ( 17 581 000) has it’s very own souq section.
You can’t say you have shopped in an Arabic city until you have visited the souq, and although the Manama Souq has nothing on those in, say, Damascus or Marrakech, finding an interesting souvenir is never too difficult in this labyrinth of tiny shops selling everything from tobacco to perfume. For a detailed look at the best of the souq, see p36.
Although Bahrain imports the vast majority of its produce, there are still a few things that are distinctly Bahraini:
It is not for nothing that Bahrain is known as the Pearl of the Gulf: it is here that one of the world’s largest pearl diving operations was based for thousands of years. The Japanese invention of cultured pearls killed most of the industry off, though it remains one of the few places in the world in which you can buy natural pearls. Head to the Gold City (17 210 404) and its numerous jewellers.
Dates were once a staple in a land in which very little grew, and tradition persists. Bateel Dates (17 580 845) in Al A’ali Shopping Complex (which actually sells dates from Saudi Arabia, which is only a stone’s throw away after all) have some of the best.
Before imported meat, fish was the main source of protein and, going on what’s in the fish section of the Central Market (just off the Pearl Roundabout), there’s still plenty to be caught in the water around Bahrain. Hammour is the favoured fish of the region, but there is great king fish, sheri, prawns and even shark.
It might come a surprise that Bahrain grows anything at all, but from the farms in Sitra come all of the country’s fresh greens, while a whole host of things are imported from nearby Saudi Arabia. Half the price of the supermarkets and a whole lot fresher, Central Market is where any chef or health guru worth their salt would head first and foremost. Just make sure you come with a pick-up truck as everything is for sale in bulk.
Ask an expert
Banan Yaquby, CEO, Yaquby Stores
‘Some of the best places to shop in Bahrain are Trousseau (39 926 627) in Hamla. I love the Lady Primrose range, and pampering products! I also love their bath-ware. Artikel (17 795 070) at Jawad Dome, they have a very cute range of home and kitchen accessories. The Camera Shop (17 582 250) is a great place to explore new gadgets and cameras. Another place I enjoy going to is Jewel House (17 540 330) at the old section of Moda Mall. I just love seeing their new jewellery designs; after all diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Flamant (17 584 444) at City Centre Mall, I love their furniture. I am also a big fan of the flower arrangements at SIA (17 584 444) in City Centre Mall. They have beautiful mirrors and home accessories. Leaves (17 599 055) in Budaiya is a great place for wedding presents and chocolate. Every once in a while I go to Riffa to pass by different shops like Dar Al Anmar (17 490 909), and Yashmek (17 760 655), to see their new collections of Arabic dresses (Jalabiyas). And finally Junaid (17 582 888) for Arabic perfumes . They have many branches all over Bahrain, I go to the one in Seef Mall mostly.’