The lively streets of this nation’s capital are teeming with history, although a majority of it is recent. From beautifully restored palatial homes, to the bustling alleyways of Manama souk, Bahrain’s offerings are as varied as its expatriate population. The Kingdom’s multi-ethnic inhabitants have coloured the island with their numerous cultures, making a stroll through the streets an edifying experience. Along with flying in their families from various countries in the world, expatriates have also brought with them their cuisine and architecture, giving Bahrain’s winding streets cultural sparkles. Each nationality has something to offer, from sights to foods, and all are worth exploring.
Old Town Manama
History in Bahrain extends beyond the walls of the museums and into the sprawling maze of the streets of Old Town Manama, a dichotomy of old and new; a place jumping with the strange energies created by the eclectic fusion of the modern metropolis with historical architecture. Not to be missed.
The standard street address is not commonplace in Bahrain, so in order to find a location you’ll need to know where it is in relation to a specific building, such as a hotel or shopping centre, monument or main road. You are far more likely to get a positive response from taxi drivers if your requests are voiced in this manner.
October to April represent the best months to tour the city, as the summer heat can be overpowering. Even after sunset, the uncomfortable climate is unrelenting, and simply being outdoors on a summer night is akin to being wrapped in cling-film while walking through water. In fact, many taxi drivers choose to keep the plastic coverings on their seats, meaning your journey will leave you with a completely drenched back. See Getting Around (p76) for details on how best to navigate the city.
No matter how hot and sticky it gets, do remember that although Bahrain is nowhere near as conservative as next-door Saudi Arabia or many of its other Middle Eastern neighbours, it’s best to confine shorts, skirts and skimpy tops to the beach or tourist clubs. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims do not let anything pass through their lips during sunlight hours. Adhering to this custom by covering up and refraining from drinking, eating and smoking in public is compulsory.
Your explorations will probably start in the capital city of Manama, which literally means ‘Sleeping Place’. Don’t take the name at face value, though, since this is the heart of the nation, and its swarming energy reflects this. It’s considered to be one of the safest cities in the world, so visitors can feel secure while browsing through this compelling capital. Bab Al Bahrain (the gateway to Bahrain) was so-named as it historically stood on the shore of the island, a doorway to the city from the sea. Years of land reclamation has set Bab Al Bahrain inland, now in the shadow of the imposing new Financial Harbour currently under construction along the shore by King Faisal Highway. However, Bab Al Bahrain remains an unforgettable landmark, both for locals and tourists and is the entry into Old Town Manama, home of Bahrain’s meandering and colourful souks.
Bahrain National Museum
Set along the Bahraini Corniche, the Kingdom’s national museum is a source of pride for many locals, and for good reason. This well maintained and organised museum takes visitors through Bahrain’s history – starting from the beginning of time, through its colourful history to modern day Bahrain and its young artists. An impressive maze of photographs and displays on the ground floor explains the extraordinary work of the Danish archeologists who uncovered the remains of the Dilmun civilisation, the ancient traders who ruled the routes in the Arabian Gulf and settled in Bahrain. One of the extraordinary items on display is a tableau from the Epic Of Gilgamesh, where Dilmun (Bahrain) is described as a paradise. The museum is a definite must-visit.
On the intersection of the Muharraq Causeway and King Faisal Highway (17 298 777). Open Sat-Fri 8am-8pm. Cost 500 fils for adults, free for children under 13 years.
The Currency Museum
Home to many ancient coins and rare Islamic currency, this is a rare treat for the budding numatist. With eight display cabinets, these contain various examples of coins, starting from the Byzantine gold dinar and the Arabised Sassanite silver dirham in its daily transactions to the foreign metal coins that were in circulation in the Arabian Peninsula during 550 BC/1950 AD; to the 1993 BMA second issue of Bahraini dinars which included the BD20, BD10, BD5, BD1 and BD0.5 banknotes. The upper floor of the museum houses a library of books on Islamic and world currencies, and provides a number of valuable and rare books in both Arabic and English on Islamic coins.
Bahrain Monetary Agency building in the Diplomatic Area (17 547 777). Open Sat-Fri 8am-8pm. Cost 500 fils.
On the streets outside you’ll find a traditional fabric bazaar at the centre of the souk, where swathes of fabric in every colour and texture imaginable brush against your skin as you attempt to navigate the narrow streets. Inexpensive fabrics are abundant, and you can buy metres of the stuff for prices as cheap as chips. If it’s top quality yarn you’re after, you’ll be expected to pay a bit more. Whether it’s man-made fibres or the more natural stuff, you’ll find it here.
Off Sheikh Abdullah Road.
For all that glitters, head towards Bahrain Gold Souk. It’s choc full of jewellery shops dripping gold and silver from their windows, making the gold souk absolutely impossible to miss. So extensive is the collection of shiny jewellery, gold and precious stones within this vault, it feels like you are walking into a treasure trove – quite literally a dazzling experience. The souk may look intimidating, but service is friendly. Bahraini gold, unlike European gold, starts at 18 carat and goes up to 24 carat, and is sold by weight at the current market price. After the net price per gram and craftsmanship costs, the price is yours to haggle, so do haggle hard.
Sheikh Abdullah Road.
Only a few minutes walk from the Bab Al Bahrain building, these ancient courts have been turned into a museum which covers such subjects as pearl diving, fishing, falconry, modern art and weapons. The Heritage Centre also contains a large archive of historic photographs providing visitors with a greater insight into Bahrain’s past.
The Old Law Courts on Government Ave.
Manama Souk is an absolute must-see for any visitor to Bahrain, a veritable cacophony of sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures all displayed in gloriously haphazard excess along the narrow rabbit warren streets of Old Manama. There is truly something for everyone, from gold jewellery, exotic spices and perfumes to singing cuddly camels.
Muharraq, once the ancient capital of the island, is the place to come for your Bahraini sweets and Arabic coffee. Lose yourself in the meandering lanes lined with long-standing wind-towers, while soaking up the fresh coffee aromas and the friendly banter supplied by the locals. The souk is an area rather than an actual building, and the vast majority of the shops here are shabby and unlikely to tempt you to open your wallet, but it’s a place well worth visiting all the same. Old men beating and shaping bits of metal into pots, and second-hand stores selling items that are unlikely to be of any use to anyone, are commonplace. So are medicinal shops offering strange powders and potions that almost certainly have no benefit, but it’s a wonderful setting. The back streets of the area are like the old Middle East, before the malls and Armani set moved in.
Rashid Al Oraifi Museum
For art enthusiasts, the Rashid Al Oraifi Museum is dedicated to art and artefacts from the Dilmun era, and boasts over 100 sculptures and pieces of artwork from the period. Leading local artist Rashid Al Oraifi also displays his own pieces, and many of the prints and silverwork are available to purchase.
Airport Avenue (17 335 616). Open Sat-Thu 8am-12 midnight, 4pm-8pm; Fri 8am-12 noon.
Equally as colourful, but far more fragrant, is the aromatic array of spice shops, next to the fabric bazaar, where spices of every colour, scent and flavour are laid out to be sampled and bought. The whopping selection on offer may work you into a bit of a sweat as you attempt to navigate between the masalas, mustard seeds and majorams, but friendly vendors are on hand to help.
Off Sheikh Abdullah Road.