The ancient Kingdom of Bahrain, the land of Dilmun, is one of the world’s oldest merchant trading nations. Even in the 21st century, the islanders, justifiably proud of their rich heritage and traditions, still regard themselves to be part of a trading society. With tiny towns and villages dotted around the island still securely preserved, vibrant Bahrain boasts several fascinating spots, each with its own distinctive community to explore. Whether it’s a taste of local life you are after, or a wish to stock up on idiosyncratic knick-knacks and souvenirs, make sure your stay here sees you venturing away from Manama. The manageable size of the island makes it easy to navigate, so you’ve no excuse not to get your hands on that perfect palm basket or the most magical of Persian carpets.
Adventurous visitors may wish to hire a car and explore the island for themselves, as Bahrain’s highway system is straightforward and easily navigated. However, organised bus tours (17 211 025) are available and offer the advantage of having a tour guide.
At the Oil Museum you’ll get the dinkum oil on, erm, oil. Situated next to the still-producing first oil well in the Middle East, the museum has fascinating exhibits of old photographs, drilling equipment and a working model of an oilrig. It was inaugurated on June 2, 1992 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Bahrain; the first country in the Middle East to do so, despite the pessimistic pronouncement of a leading geologist that he would drink every drop of oil produced South of Basra.
Next to ‘Oil Well No.1’ near Jebel Dukhan.
First built in the 15th century, one of Bahrain’s ancient forts, which, historically is the most significant, Arad was extensively rebuilt in the 1800s during the Omani occupation of Bahrain and became the central hub of military operations at this time. Situated on the island of Muharraq, joined to the mainland by the Sheikh Isa bin Salman Causeway, the Arad Fort craft bazaars with children’s rides and traditional music are often held in the forecourt of the fort on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
Island of Muharraq (17 672 278).Open Sun-Wed 7am-2pm; Thu & Sat 9am-6pm; Fri 3pm-6pm. Cost Free.
Those potty about pottery should head to this area, where you can still observe potters turning their wheels and lovingly crafting impressive pots. This cottage industry is an inherent part of the island and has been passed down through many generations. The clay here is a unique blend of two types, ideal for creating their signature bread ovens, pots for plants, moneyboxes and water pipes. The village is easily identifiable by the expansive smoke given off by the kilns – ovens that are habitually located inside burial mounds. The Delmon Pottery and fine arts centre (17 642 539) is a great place to bring kids, as here they can make their own clay masterpiece to take home with them.
Originally the capital of Dilmun, this is one of the most important ancient civilisations of the region, containing the richest remains inventoried of this period, previously only known from written Sumerian references. The fort consists of a mound created over hundreds of years by different settlers to the area. The mound is 300x600m and forms the base of a 12m high Portuguese Fort. The fort, or qal’a, was used as a military base for Portuguese operations during their occupation of Bahrain in the 1500s. Authentically restored and very well maintained, it is worth visiting for both its impressive stonework and for the wonderful views over the city.
Karbahad village. Open At all times. Cost Free.
The Tree of Life
Highway between Riffa and Awali, 2km from Jebel Dukhan. The Tree of Life has stood alone in a barren lifeless desert for over 400 years. Not only has this acacia tree survived without a visible source of water, it has exceeded the life expectancy of its species by over 300 years. Described by Steve Martin as ‘a wonder of the world’ in the film LA Story, the manner in which it manages to survive will forever remain a mystery. Unfortunately, while the tree’s mysticism remains intact, respect for it has clearly waned, and it has been scarred with graffiti and is usually surrounded by litter.
In the desert off the Muaskar
Al-Areen Wildlife Park
This wildlife park is about 20km out of the city, and home to many species of gazelle and oryx that are extinct in the wild; it’s worth making the trip out here just to catch a glimpse of these elusive beasts.
South of Manama in the village of Zallaq (17 836 116). Open Sat-Thu 8am-5pm; Fri 2pm-5pm. Cost BD1 for adults, 500 fils for children under 15, and free for children under three.
The Grand Mosque
An impressive sight indeed, the Al Fateh Islamic Centre (Grand Mosque) has the sought-after distinction of being crowned with the world’s largest fibreglass dome. Exquisite architecture and Arabic design make it as breathtakingly beautiful inside as out. Capable of accommodating up to 7,000 worshippers, the island’s largest mosque also houses the Religious Institute for Islamic Affairs. Visitors should dress modestly, and are required to remove their shoes and cover their heads upon entering the mosque.
King Faisal Highway in Juffair. Open At all times, except during prayer time.
Jebel Al Dukhan
The romantically monikered ‘Mountain of Smoke’ is the highest point in Bahrain. The low lying hills of the Jebel are located at the most southern point of the island, and are a popular destination for overnight camping trips for those who want to make a day of it. Visitors to Jebel Al Dukhan should be warned, however, that once you have seen one sandy hill, you have pretty much seen them all. It may be best to fit this trip in at the same time as visiting Al-Areen Wildlife Park, Al Jazeer Beach or the Tree of Life, as they are all within easy vicinity.
The most southern point of the island.
Al Jazeer Beach
This is a popular spot for locals to unwind at the weekend. A pretty stretch of beach, it has great facilities, which include well maintained barbecue services and one of the most picturesque shisha cafés on the island. More European than any other beach in the Middle East, it’s not frowned upon to enjoy a cold beer or glass of wine with your barbie.
Near Al-Areen Wildlife Park.
The birthplace of HH the Amir Sheikh lsa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the village of Al Jasra is also home to the long-established Handicraft Centre. A pretty garden is at the epicentre of this attractively laid out establishment. The added bonus here is that you can peruse the goods on offer in the comfort of air-conditioning. Separated into small rooms, each contains craftsmen busying themselves with traditional arts and crafts including cloth and basket weaving, doll making, boat making and pottery. There is also a souvenir shop on site where you can pick up quirky artefacts.
Sitting in the shade of the trees, splitting lengths of palm into baskets and sofras (circular dining mats), you’ll find the weavers hard at work. If your chickens need a coup or your dates desire a basket, you’ll be spoilt for leafy plaited choices here. Often dyed with green or purple, these colourful pretty palm offerings form an intrinsic part of local handiwork.
Bani Jamra village
The villagers of this small north-western village are as famous for their weaving abilities as they are for being rigorously private. Looking down from a hill with houses clumped closely together, many of the families are related, and everyone knows each other by name. Bani Jamra cloth is celebrated for its detailed patterns with vibrant colours, but today the only residue of this once thriving craft is a small hut with a working display of weaving. There’s not an awful lot to see here, but if you come at the right time you’ll be able to witness threads imported from India and China being woven into abayas (cloaks) for women and brightly checked sarongs for men. It’s an intricate and protracted process, which involves spinning, stretching and starching, guaranteeing products of a much higher quality than those from the likes of your local high-street stores.
Once belonging to well known 19th century pearl merchant Ahmed bin Jassim Siyadi, this multi-story house is a prime example of localised architecture from that period. Work from the most gifted craftsmen of the time is illustrated through gypsum designs, geometric ornaments, ornate ceilings, stained-glass windows, carved screens and a large safe set into the wall of a small, upper reception room.
Beit Sheikh Isa
Formerly used by Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa as his residence and centre of government from 1869 to 1932, Beit Sheikh Isa is also located in Muharraq and is an excellent example of 19th century architecture and wall carvings.
Muharraq (17 334 945). Open Daily 8am-2pm. Cost 200 fils.
Home to the notorious Persian market, this is the place to come for carpets and second-hand bargains. Bahrain’s first new town, Isa Town was built in the 1970s to accommodate local families in new, serviced establishments, and is now a thriving community of schools, supermarkets and shopping malls.
Bahrain Yacht Club
Once the source of Bahrain’s social and economic prosperity; the sea is now the backdrop to a thriving social scene and home to many recreational activities worth dropping by for. The yacht club has seen a steady rise in the popularity of boating and watersports, currently boasting a membership of over 700 people, of which over 200 keep either their own yachts or powerboats at the club. Yachting and powerboating have become fashionable pastimes in Bahrain, allowing for the opportunity to enjoy a weekend outdoors and explore the islands less than 20km from the mainland. If you are interested in learning the ropes of sailing, the Bahrain Yacht Club offers a series of sailing classes open to both members and non-members from 11.30am-2.30pm and 3pm-5pm on Friday. Classes run over a six-week period, with each costing BD10. It’s a family- oriented powerboat and sailing club run ‘by the members for the members’. Its premises are located on the west coast of Bahrain, south of Sitra, and facilities include wet/dry moorings for around 130 to 200 privately owned boats, with Wayfarers, Toppers, and Lasers available for hire, and a resident expatriate sailing instructor on hand for lessons. There is cruiser racing twice monthly, and a well subscribed annual offshore fishing competition. Onshore there is a swimming pool and sheltered beach with a club house, which boasts of a very good coffee shop and restaurant.
Sitra (17 700 677).
Accessible through the main road of Saar, where signboards will guide you in the right direction. Nowadays the only archeological site found with burial grounds adjoining residential dwellings, this is also the most recent discovery of the Dilmun era. Consisting of residential dwellings inhabited by the Dilmunite people 4,000 years ago, the houses are partitioned into living rooms, kitchens and courtyards, with narrow streets leading to the houses. Other discoveries in this site include the Saar Temple and a unique type of tomb labelled ‘interconnected tombs’ that line the highway leading to King Fahad Causeway.
Al-Dar and Bird Islands
The most popular destinations for boaters, Al-Dar and Bird Islands lie about eight nautical miles off the east coast of the mainland. Although Al-Dar (or Fawklands Island as it is sometimes known) has bathroom and restaurant facilities for day-trippers, both are largely untouched and not inhabited, so visiting boaters tend to create their own entertainment, with barbecues, picnics and social gatherings.
For those experienced sailors wanting to venture out to sea, Hawar Island, south east of the mainland, is an eye-catching retreat with its own hotel resort and watersports equipment for hire. For those less nautically inclined, 45-minute boat trips to Hawar Island depart daily from Ad-Dur Jetty. Approaching the islands, the flat appearance of the main island obscures the fact that a line of broken cliffs faces much of the eastern shore and the island’s eastward protruding headlands. These characteristic cliffs are only found on Al Hajiyat, Wakur and Umm Hazwarah. The remaining islands are low and flat, some a little more than sand accumulations barely a metre above the sea.
Boats depart from Ad-Dur Jetty (17 290 377). Open Daily 10.30am, 2.30pm and 4.30pm.
The Marina Club (17 291 527) is another very popular destination. There is extensive wet and dry mooring, a boat hoist, servicing, painting and a repair yard. Some members’ boats are available to rent for fishing or diving trips, with a captain to navigate around difficult sand banks. The youngsters and those young at heart can have fun on jet skis, ski and tow, banana rides, rings or Hobie Cats for a nominal price.