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Bahrain Travel Guide

In the span of a long weekend, you might skim the surface of the enchanting splendors Bahrain has to offer. Of course, if you’ve got the luxury of time, you could drift longer through its mesmerizing maze of history, culture, and natural wonders. Picture this: cruising through ancient landmarks, lazing around on pristine white beaches with the sun kissing your skin, and hunting for those genuine keepsakes that’ll later tell stories of this place. Go bird and wildlife watching in the untouched expanses of the national park or strap yourself in the hot seat of a Formula 1 car. If you’re lucky, you might even get the wind in your hair and a taste of adrenaline in your mouth. Bahrain, indeed, lives up to its reputation as a true pearl of the Middle East. Bahrain is no stranger to pearls. The best of the best are plucked from the ocean’s depths here, not born in sterile labs. Oysters, ensconced in the wild, rugged coastlines of Bahrain, hide these precious gems, harvested by skilled hands following age-old traditions.

Smaller than the Maldives and Singapore, Bahrain holds its own as the third smallest nation in Asia. An archipelago of nearly 80 islands, both naturally formed and man-made, it spans across a patchwork of landscapes, more than 80% of which is the main Bahrain Island. Its intricate administrative skeleton consists of four governorates – the Capital, Muharraq, where the pulse of international travel beats, and the North and South. If you’re hunting for the heavyweights of Bahrain’s allure, they’re tucked away mostly within the bounds of the Capital and Muharraq.

Manama: Amidst Forts, Pearls, and Powerhouses

At the heart of the Gulf States, Manama glistens like a jewel, not only in terms of its shimmering pearls but also its financial prowess. It plays host to an array of international banking giants and houses the energetic hub of the Bahrain Bourse. About one-fifth of Bahrain’s GDP thrives in the finance sector here in Manama. However, like its fellow Gulf neighbours, Manama’s true wealth lies beneath its sands. A bounty of gas reserves, complemented with a dash of shale oil, churns out a hefty 40% of the country’s income.

But there’s more than just oil and finance to Manama. This city is also a maritime powerhouse, a bustling hub for the repair and docking of colossal ocean liners. With five major ports strewn across its shoreline, it’s a haven for all things nautical. The Mina Salman port, in particular, is a favourite stop for cruise liners offering their passengers a taste of Manama’s magic. But, the cherry on top, Manama still cherishes the tradition of dhow-building. These wooden sailboats, once workhorses of the Indian and East African coastlines, still find favour among locals and visitors alike, especially in the UAE and Qatar.

Manama is famous for building dhow coasters, which generally are wooden boats with sails used for transport and fishing purposes
Manama is famous for building dhow coasters, which generally are wooden boats with sails used for transport and fishing purposes

Manama City Center: A Modern Oasis

Exploring Manama’s modern heart is a piece of cake, whether by car, public transit, or the old-fashioned way – on foot. Unlike many of its counterparts on the Arabian Peninsula, Manama boasts an extensive network of buses and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.

To the city’s north, where the bays and marinas lay their claim, skyscrapers tower amidst man-made islands. These islands are packed with luxury housing, offering views that are nothing short of breathtaking. However, it’s the World Trade Center building that steals the show. Two 240-metre towers, bound together by three bridges sporting wind turbines, form an iconic silhouette on Manama’s skyline.

This majestic structure isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s the world’s first skyscraper to incorporate wind power into its design. The sail-like towers cleverly harness air currents, directing them towards the turbines. The result? An annual production of 1.1-1.3 gigawatt-hours of electricity. Enough juice to power 300 high-rise buildings or 17 industrial plants. And, it’s right here in Manama, where tradition and innovation dance in a seamless tango.

The World Trade Centre building consists of two 240-metre towers connected to each other by three bridges on which three wind turbines are installed
The World Trade Centre building consists of two 240-metre towers connected to each other by three bridges on which three wind turbines are installed

Just a stone’s throw away from the iconic World Trade Centre, another landmark comes into view, the Bahrain Financial Harbour. This area isn’t merely a collection of buildings, it’s a pulsating powerhouse of economic activity, the lifeblood of the city.

At the heart of this district stand two identical titans of glass and steel, each soaring high with 53 floors. They’re not just office buildings, they’re the nerve centres where business and ambition converge, each decision made within their walls echoing across the global economy.

Close by, you’ll find the Bahrain Stock Exchange building, the bustling trading floor. The thrum of activity here never ceases, day or night.

Then, standing tall amidst this nerve-wracking hubbub are three residential skyscrapers, the Harbour Heights Towers. Luxury living meets high finance, where the buzz of the city never dies down. From your balcony, you’ll have a ringside view of the thriving heart of the Middle East’s financial nerve centre. And at night, when the city lights flicker like countless stars, you’ll realize Manama’s magic is something quite different, quite real.

The central sites of the financial harbour are two identical 53-storey office buildings, the Bahrain Stock Exchange building and the three residential skyscrapers of Harbour Heights

The central sites of the financial harbour are two identical 53-storey office buildings, the Bahrain Stock Exchange building and the three residential skyscrapers of Harbour Heights
The central sites of the financial harbour are two identical 53-storey office buildings, the Bahrain Stock Exchange building and the three residential skyscrapers of Harbour Heights

Just a quick jaunt from the bustling promenade of the financial centre, you’ll find two impressive man-made islands: the Reef and Bahrain Bay Islands. These aren’t just piles of sand and rock jutting out of the sea – they’re veritable communities on the water, brimming with sleek hotels and chic residential apartments.

From here, the skyline of Manama presents itself like an artist’s masterpiece. The city’s skyscrapers, beautifully illuminated in the Bahraini sun or twinkling under the moonlit night, make for a panorama that’ll have you reaching for your camera.

Getting to these islands isn’t just about the destination, it’s about the journey too. The King Faisal Promenade, a picturesque walkway, stretches out like an inviting path. Lined with blooming flora and the soothing sounds of the sea, it’s the perfect backdrop for a leisurely stroll or an energizing jog.

Not far from the financial centre's promenade are two bulk islands, the Reef and the Bahrain Bay Islands. The islands offer panoramic views of the skyscrapers
Not far from the financial centre’s promenade are two bulk islands, the Reef and the Bahrain Bay Islands. The islands offer panoramic views of the skyscrapers

Bab al-Bahrain: Historic Heart and Vibrant Marketplace

In Manama, past and present exist in a sublime symphony. Just a short 500-metre stroll from the towering majesty of the World Trade Centre, you’ll find yourself stepping back in time, navigating the twisting labyrinth of the city’s old district. Narrow, winding streets, punctuated by quaint two to three-storey houses, evoke a sense of a bygone era.

The pulsating heart of this time capsule is the vibrant Bab al-Bahrain Market. Here, the thrum of traditional commerce, the intoxicating scent of spices, and the inviting warmth of local hospitality transport you to another era. This marketplace isn’t just a spot to grab a few souvenirs. It’s a treasure trove of Bahrain’s culture and craft.

Sure, you can find your typical mementos – magnets and trinkets galore. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll uncover the true gems of Bahraini craftsmanship: beautiful pottery pieces, intricately woven straw baskets and mats, exquisitely carved figurines, and furniture hewn from the finest local woods. These aren’t mere items for sale, they’re stories, pieces of Bahrain’s heart and soul lovingly crafted by its people.

The grand arch that marks the entrance to this bustling bazaar stands as a testament to the past. Erected in the mid-20th century during Bahrain’s time as a British protectorate, it’s a portal to another time, a link between the modern cityscape and the ancient charm that still echoes through the streets of Bab al-Bahrain.

Once you step away from the skyscrapers of the World Trade Centre, you enter the authentic old district, the centre of attraction of which is the Bab al-Bahrain market. Photo: Zairon / Wikimedia.org
Once you step away from the skyscrapers of the World Trade Centre, you enter the authentic old district, the centre of attraction of which is the Bab al-Bahrain market. Photo: Zairon / Wikimedia.org

Juxtaposed against the hustle and bustle of the Bab al-Bahrain Market, you’ll find a glittering array of jewellery shops. Each one brimming with eager sellers, who, with a mix of charm and tenacity, will try to coax you into their sparkling sanctuaries. But the allure isn’t just the gold gleaming from every corner, it’s the legendary pearls of Bahrain that truly captivate.

Pearls and Bahrain have a long, intertwined history. Before the discovery of shale oil transformed its economy, Bahrain was renowned for its pearls – these lustrous gems were once its primary export. History tells us that even the ancient state of Dilmun, from which modern Bahrain evolved, had a fascination with pearls.

Unlike the rest of the world, where cultured pearls are the norm, Bahrain prides itself on its natural pearls. Cultured pearls, grown by introducing a nucleus into an oyster to stimulate pearl production, are shunned here. In fact, Bahrain has laws strictly prohibiting the sale of these cultured pearls, all in a bid to safeguard its local pearl traders.

Natural pearls are a luxury, and they come at a price. They’re typically set in gold, sometimes accompanied by diamonds, but never silver. They may not have the uniform shape of their cultured counterparts. They might be imperfect, often not even spherical, but therein lies their charm. These odd shapes and sizes, the organic idiosyncrasies of each gem, add to their allure and their value. Even the smallest of these natural pearls, measuring just 5-7 millimetres in diameter, can cost you 110-140.

As you walk through the city centre, you’ll notice a certain sameness to the offerings in each shop. To prepare yourself for this golden adventure, take some time to visit the websites of local manufacturers like Kari Pearls or Jawaherbh. It’s here, amidst the gold and pearls, that you’ll find yet another piece of Bahrain’s rich cultural mosaic.

Bahrain: A Brief Dance through History

The story of Bahrain stretches back millennia, its roots embedded in the ancient civilization of Dilmun, a bustling maritime trade centre from the 3rd millennium BC. It’s whispered that even the Phoenicians, legendary seafarers, originated here. From the 6th to 3rd centuries BC, the region fell under the rule of the Achaemenid Persians, the island known then as Tilos. Throughout these early years, Bahrain thrived on trade and the delicate art of pearl diving.

The cultural mosaic of the island evolved over centuries, with Christian Arabs, Zoroastrian Persians, and Jews making it their home until the 7th century. The sands of time then saw Bahrain swallowed by the burgeoning Islamic world, coming under the domain of the Uyunid dynasty.

From there, the region was tossed among various states and empires, Arab, Persian, Bedouin, each leaving an indelible mark on its history. The Bedouin Jabrid dynasty was the last of these owners before the Portuguese landed in the 16th century, briefly seizing control only to be ousted by the Persians, aided by the British.

In the grand chess game of geopolitics, the British then used cunning diplomacy to lay claim to Bahrain in the early 19th century, establishing a protectorate that effectively made it a piece of the British Empire, keeping company with what are now Oman, UAE, Yemen, and Kuwait.

However, the winds of independence began to blow in the 20th century. In 1971, Bahrain shrugged off the mantel of British rule, standing proudly as an independent nation. Today, the country is a melting pot of cultures with over 70% of the population being Shiite Muslims. But Islam in the country is not very strict and tourists usually do not feel its influence. It’s a testament to Bahrain’s storied past and its ability to balance tradition with modernity.

Bahrain officially gained independence in 1971. Today more than 70% of the country's population are Shia Muslims. Photo: Ajmal Shams / Unsplash.com
Bahrain officially gained independence in 1971. Today more than 70% of the country’s population are Shia Muslims. Photo: Ajmal Shams / Unsplash.com

Al-Fatih Mosque: A Beacon of Faith and Innovation

An emblem of modern Islamic architecture, the Al-Fatih Mosque is a sight to behold. Completed in 1988, this relatively young place of worship was the first in Bahrain to open its doors to tourists, extending a welcoming hand to those curious about the local culture and faith. The centrepiece of the Al-Fatih Mosque is its awe-inspiring dome, a marvel of architectural innovation. Crafted from fibreglass and weighing over 60 tonnes, it’s the largest dome of its kind in the world. Beyond its spiritual role, the mosque is a place of congregation, capable of accommodating over 7000 worshippers, their prayers and hopes echoing beneath its massive dome. But the mosque isn’t just a symbol of faith; it’s also a symbol of knowledge and learning. Adjacent to the mosque, you’ll find the National Library, a veritable trove of knowledge that forms a symbiotic complex with the mosque. It’s a powerful statement about Bahrain’s dedication to both faith and education, reflecting the intricate tapestry of its history, culture, and progress.

Al-Fatih Mosque was the first religious institution in Bahrain to be opened to tourists. Photo: 1965937 / Pixabay.com
Al-Fatih Mosque was the first religious institution in Bahrain to be opened to tourists. Photo: 1965937 / Pixabay.com

Museums: Echoes of Bahrain’s Past and Faith

Tucked away in the diplomatic district, amidst the embassies and consulates, you’ll stumble upon the Quran Museum. Designed to echo the grandeur of a mosque, it’s a unique cultural gem dedicated solely to the holy Quran. It’s a hushed sanctuary for ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 7th century. With ten halls of sacred texts, it’s a testament to the profound impact of the Quran on Bahrain’s history, culture, and people.

Externally, the Quran Museum looks like a mosque and is hardly the only museum in the world entirely dedicated to the Quran
Externally, the Quran Museum looks like a mosque and is hardly the only museum in the world entirely dedicated to the Quran

A stone’s throw away, the National Museum of Bahrain awaits, ready to take you on a 7000-year journey through the region’s history. Its exhibits reach back to the ancient states of Dilmun and Tilos, weaving a tale of change and endurance through the eras of Portuguese and Persian rule, and into the vibrant tapestry of modern Bahrain.

Here, in the quiet coolness of the museum, you’ll find dedicated spaces to the art of calligraphy and the beauty of the Arabic language. Whether you’re a history aficionado, a culture vulture, or a curious traveller, these museums offer a tantalizing glimpse into Bahrain’s rich and fascinating past.

The National Museum of Bahrain tells the history of the region of more than 7000 years - from ancient states to modern times
The National Museum of Bahrain tells the history of the region of more than 7000 years – from ancient states to modern times. Photo: Zairon / Wikimedia.org

The Surrounding Tapestry

Al Khamis Mosque

Just 5 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Manama, you’ll find the Al Khamis Mosque. Arguably the oldest mosque in Bahrain, the origins of this hallowed ground date back to the 7th century, lending it an aura of ancient spirituality and profound reverence.

The mosque is a testament to time, its sturdy walls having witnessed countless sunrises and sunsets over centuries. While parts of the original structure lie in ruins, whispers of the past are still palpable. The heart of the mosque, a prayer hall boasting a flat roof and wooden columns, hails from the 14th century and has stood the test of time.

With its two minarets standing like silent sentinels, the Al Khamis Mosque is an essential stop for any history-lover or spiritual seeker. It’s tucked away in the town of Khamis, a half-hour journey from Manama by the A1 bus. Make the trip, and you’ll find yourself stepping back in time, enveloped by the serene ambience and deep history of this remarkable place.

Al Khamis Mosque is the oldest mosque in Bahrain. The first buildings on the site date back to around the 7th century
Al Khamis Mosque is the oldest mosque in Bahrain. The first buildings on the site date back to around the 7th century

Dilmun Burial Mounds: Echoes of Antiquity

Travel 15 kilometres from Manama, and you’ll find yourself standing on hallowed ground – The Dilmun burial mounds. This UNESCO World Heritage Site harks back to a time between 2200-1750s BC and offers a poignant testament to the sophisticated Dilmun civilization. These mounds, these silent sentinels of history, reveal a society that practised common funerary customs across all its people. The grandest mound, a regal testament standing 15 metres high and stretching 45 metres in diameter, likely served as the final resting place for the ancient kingdom’s royal bloodline.

At first glance, these mounds may simply appear as unassuming hills. There’s no grand entrance or cavernous chambers awaiting within. Yet, their simplicity belies the deep cultural significance they hold. I’d recommend you swing by the Bahrain National Museum before your visit. There, you can immerse yourself in the Dilmun history, enriching your understanding of the profound weight these mounds carry. After that, standing atop these mounds, you’ll feel a connection spanning millennia, a silent dialogue with a forgotten age.

A complex of burial mounds from the period of the Dilmun state around 2200-1750s BC is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A complex of burial mounds from the period of the Dilmun state around 2200-1750s BC is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Melanie Münzner / Wikimedia.org

Al Janabiya Camel Farm: A Date with the Ships of the Desert

15 kilometres away from Manama, you’ll discover a peculiar sight that’s as charming as it is unexpected – Al Janabiya Camel Farm, one of the world’s largest of its kind, housing an impressive 500 of these majestic ‘ships of the desert, some of which are the esteemed property of the royal family. Here, life slows down to the unhurried pace of its long-lashed inhabitants. It’s not just a farm, but a testament to the love and care these intriguing animals receive. They are not mere beasts of burden, but cherished residents whose population is meticulously cared for and maintained.

Visitors are offered a chance to encounter these captivating creatures up close. Feed them, study their stoic expressions, and marvel at their ability to survive in the most unforgiving terrains. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even taste the intensely rich and sweet camel milk, a staple in the Bedouin diet. And the best part? The entry is absolutely free.

Just catch the X3 bus from Manama to Budaiya, then hop on number 14. Just be prepared for a ride that’s as memorable as the destination itself.

Al-Janabiya Camel Farm is one of the largest camel farms in the world: the camel population there numbers about 500 individuals, some of which belong to the royal family
Al-Janabiya Camel Farm is one of the largest camel farms in the world: the camel population there numbers about 500 individuals, some of which belong to the royal family. Photo: maxos_dim / Pixabay.com

Al-Arin Reserve: An Oasis of Wilderness

30 kilometres from Manama, you’ll find yourself in a whole different world. Welcome to the Al-Arin Reserve, a veritable oasis nestled in the western expanses of Bahrain. The reserve is ingeniously split into two sections – a domain for us mere humans to tread, and a sanctuary where nature’s denizens roam free.

Here, it’s like stepping into a live documentary, one that’s refreshingly devoid of a TV screen. Instead, you’ll witness gazelles gracefully prancing, springboks bounding with gusto, and the stately Chapman’s zebras showing off their distinctive coats. Spot the Nubian ibexes with their iconic curved horns, and if you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of the elusive Arabian oryx, a species pushed to the brink of extinction by relentless hunting. Just grab the U2 bus from Manama and embark on this memorable journey. Remember, you’re not just visiting a nature reserve, but a sanctuary that reminds us of our responsibility towards these incredible species.

Al Arin Reserve is divided into two parts - an area accessible to tourists and a protected area where wild animals such as gazelles, oryx, Chapman's zebras and others live
Al Arin Reserve is divided into two parts – an area accessible to tourists and a protected area where wild animals such as gazelles, oryx, Chapman’s zebras and others live. Photo: Al-Arin Reserve

Formula 1: A Mirage in the Sakhir Desert

Travel 30 kilometres out of Manama, and you’ll find yourself in the arid beauty of the Sakhir Desert. Here, rising out of the sandy landscapes like an F1 fan’s hallucination is the Bahrain International Circuit, the country’s pulsating heart of motor racing since 2004.

Back then, it was the first Grand Prix to burn rubber in the Middle East, marking a bold new chapter in the sport’s history. Even today, the racetrack buzzes with excitement long after the Grand Prix caravan has moved on. When it’s not playing host to the world’s fastest drivers, it offers petrolheads the chance to feel the thrill of the tarmac themselves. Take a joyride in a Renault Clio race model for a mere 121 dinars (296.70 euros). Craving more horsepower under the hood? The SR1 or SR3 racing models are yours for 133 dinars (326.13 euros). If you’re not quite ready to strap in behind the wheel, take the passenger seat and let a pro show you how it’s done. There are plenty of formats and models to suit all adrenaline levels, and you can get the full rundown at www.bahraingp.com.

And when the engines roar back to life for the championship? You’ll want to be there, feeling the desert heat on your skin and the roar of the engines in your chest. Get your tickets from the official F1 site and prepare for an exhilarating display of speed and skill, all set against the backdrop of Bahrain’s rugged desert beauty.

Bahrain has hosted one of the rounds of the Formula 1 World Championship since 2004. The autodrome is located in the Sakhir Desert near Al-Arin Park
Bahrain has hosted one of the rounds of the Formula 1 World Championship since 2004. The autodrome is located in the Sakhir Desert near Al-Arin Park. Photo: Emily Faulk / Wikimedia.org

Tree of Life

Venture 40 kilometres from Manama, and you will find yourself gazing at the enigma that is the Tree of Life (or Shajarat al-Hayat in Arabic). This solitary tree, standing tall amidst the harsh, barren expanse of the Sakhir Desert, is a testament to nature’s tenacity and resilience.

Remarkably, this lone tree has flourished here for 400 years, defying the harsh desert conditions that include scorching summers, blistering sun, fierce sandstorms, and minimal rainfall. No water reservoirs are found in the vicinity and regular watering is not an option, yet the tree persists, continuing to grow and bear fruit.

Scientists have puzzled over this marvel, proposing theories that range from a deeply developed root system accessing underground water to various mystical explanations. It’s no surprise that this solitary survivor has inspired mythical comparisons. Many cultures – from ancient Greek and Hindu to Celtic and Germanic – feature magical trees in their lore. The Tree of Life also holds biblical significance, being planted at the centre of the Garden of Eden according to the Book of Genesis, bearing fruit that bestowed eternal life.

Reaching this remarkable testament to resilience does require private transportation, as public options are limited. However, the journey is well worth it for the sight of this symbol of life thriving in the midst of the desert, a beacon of survival against all odds.

The Tree of Life (Shajarat al-Hayat) grows in the middle of the desert and has been bearing fruit for 400 years
The Tree of Life (Shajarat al-Hayat) grows in the middle of the desert and has been bearing fruit for 400 years. Photo: Alawadhi3000 / Wikimedia.org

Bahrain Forts

Architecturally, forts are perhaps the most interesting attraction in Bahrain. Let’s highlight three of the most famous from three different eras.

Arad Fort, situated on Muharraq Island, is a stone’s throw away from Manama and stands as the oldest of the three surviving forts in Bahrain. It was constructed towards the end of the 15th century by the Omanis following their invasion of the Bahraini archipelago.

This fortification serves as a testament to traditional Arab fort architecture. The square structure, measuring approximately 30 metres on each side and flanked by four towers, was strategically built to safeguard the vital passages between the two islands.

While there is no exhibition housed within the fort, visitors are allowed to explore and climb the ancient walls, offering a tactile connection to the country’s past. A visit to Arad Fort promises a captivating glimpse into Bahrain’s history, all for an entry fee of around one dinar (2.45 euros).

Fort Arad was built in the late 15th century by Omanis who invaded the Bahraini archipelago
Fort Arad was built in the late 15th century by Omanis who invaded the Bahraini archipelago

Qal’at al-Bahrain. It is an ageing beauty that’s managed to stay relevant through the years. Sitting along the Persian Gulf coast, close to the pulse of Manama’s business district of Seef, it is a snapshot of history, a well-kept secret hiding in plain sight. Imagine a 16th-century Portuguese fortress, still standing tall, a stubborn relic of a past era. Constructed atop a mound, it is a living library of civilizations long gone, with imprints of Sumerians, Persians, and even the ancient Greeks quietly resting beneath it. UNESCO certainly saw its worth, listing it as a World Heritage Site. Its towers and walls are inviting, begging to be explored, and it doesn’t cost a dime to walk through its history.

Qalat al-Bahrain Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The towers and walls are also open to the public, entry inside is free
Qalat al-Bahrain Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The towers and walls are also open to the public, entry inside is free

Riffa’a Fort. Raised in the 19th century as a home for the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty, it’s a brainchild of Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed. While her peers chose to hug the coastline, Riffa’a stood her ground in Bahrain’s heartland, serving as a stalwart protector of the island’s centre. Now, she’s a time capsule doubling as a local history museum, offering a bird’s eye view of the undulating hills and sweeping desert valleys from its sturdy walls. It’s a testament to Bahrain’s historical lineage, a living echo of a time gone by. 

Somewhere in the heart of Bahrain, away from the salty kiss of the coast, sits the formidable Riffa’a Fort. Forget the age-old forts nestled by the sea, Riffa’a is the new kid on the block, born in the 19th century as the brainchild of Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed. This majestic fort wasn’t just a defensive stronghold; it was home to the powerful Al Khalifa dynasty. It’s even affectionately named after the Sheikh sometimes, bearing the weight of his legacy like a badge of honour.

Riffa Fort, unlike the other two mentioned above, does not stand on the coast as it served as a defence for the central part of the island of Bahrain
Riffa Fort, unlike the other two mentioned above, does not stand on the coast as it served as a defence for the central part of the island of Bahrain

Beaches

Bahrain’s shoreline, etched with sandy beaches, offers an irresistible call to those seeking relaxation and escape. While its allure is already widespread among Gulf tourists, the rest of the world is just beginning to uncover this serene haven. To savour the best of Bahrain’s coastal elegance, one doesn’t need to look further than the luxurious retreats like Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton, Jumeirah Royal Saray, and The Grove Resort. Lining the northern coast of Manama in the Sif and Financial Harbour areas, the first three serve as an oasis of opulence, while The Grove Resort offers an idyllic escapade not far from the rhythm of the airport on Muharraq Island.

A day at any Bahraini beach, whether it’s a public patch of sand or the exclusive enclaves of high-end resorts, is like stepping into a well-curated tableau of comfort. Sunbeds for lounging, umbrellas for shade, showers for a refreshing splash, and changing cabins for privacy are all part of the package. The gentle shallow waters near the shore make for a perfect play area for kids, but don’t forget to rinse off the salt from the hyper-salty Persian Gulf after your swim.

While there’s no rigid rule book dictating your beach attire on public beaches, a dash of cultural respect in the form of more modest swimwear won’t go amiss. On the paid and hotel beaches, you’re free to sport your favourite swim gear and bask in the warm Bahraini sun. So, pack your sunscreen, grab that novel you’ve been meaning to finish, and surrender to the siren call of Bahrain’s beaches.

Bahrain also serves up its share of prime seaside real estate for public enjoyment:

Marassi Beach, a mere 15-kilometre jaunt from Manama’s centre, holds court in the northern reaches of the Muharraq Island’s embankment. It’s one of those fantastic paid beaches that offer more than just a patch of sand and a view. It teems with life and offers an array of amenities, from cafes and restaurants to sports grounds. A small toll – three dinars (7.36 euros) on weekdays and five (12.26 euros) on weekends – grants you access to this popular hub of activity.

Marassi Beach is one of the most popular chargeable beaches with developed infrastructure, cafes, restaurants, sports grounds
Marassi Beach is one of the most popular chargeable beaches with developed infrastructure, cafes, restaurants, sports grounds. Photo: Milaluna / Pixabay.com

Solymar Beach, another paid gem 17 kilometres away from Marassi, prides itself on being a destination for the luxurious at heart. This is where you swap your beach towel for a table at an upscale cafe or restaurant, or perhaps even a club. All it takes is a ten dinar ticket (24.52 euros).

If you prefer to keep your beach escapades budget-friendly and serene, make your way to Budaiya, an 18-kilometre drive from Manama.. Nestled near the King Fahd Bridge, this public beach offers a tranquil retreat. In its vicinity, you’ll also find Abu Subh, another slice of public coastline.

Budaiya is a public beach in the north in a quiet neighbourhood near King Fahd Bridge
Budaiya is a public beach in the north in a quiet neighbourhood near King Fahd Bridge

For the more adventurous, Bahrain’s western coast cradles Al Jazayer or Zallaq, a good 40 kilometres from the urban hum of Manama. It’s a local favourite and for good reason. Alongside sun, sand and sea, they offer an adrenaline rush. Ever wanted to ride the waves on a surfboard or plunge beneath the water’s surface with scuba diving gear? Here’s your chance, and if you’re a beginner, fret not. Instructors are on hand to teach you the ropes.

Venture 50 kilometres from Manama, to the southern tip of Bahrain Island, and you’ll stumble upon Durrat Al Bahrain. This impressive man-made archipelago isn’t just a set of stunning islands. It’s an all-in-one vacation spot for tourists, equipped with golf courses and marinas.

And then, there’s Al Dar Island. This isn’t your usual beach getaway; it’s a little piece of isolation, nestled near the eastern coast. You won’t encounter throngs of tourists here. What you’ll find instead is an escape from the world. A boat ride is your ticket to this refuge. With prices ranging between six to eight dinars (14.71–19.62 euros), not only do you secure a boat trip, but also entrance to the beach. All journeys to this island retreat begin at a pier nestled in the Sitra neighbourhood. It’s a different kind of Bahrain, one that’s waiting to be discovered.

Food

Like a fine tapestry of vibrant colours and textures, Bahrain’s cuisine tells a story of its history and global connections, weaving together threads of Arabic and Indian traditions. Here, old world flavours meet the new, and each meal becomes a conversation with the past.

Let’s begin with Tikka (tikka), a nod to the subcontinent, this chicken kebab is seasoned with an intricate marinade that sings with flavours. 

Next up, we have Machbus (machbus), a dish that is reminiscent of an Arabic rice pilaf, paired with chicken or fish and laced with exotic spices, often even sweetened with dates.

Maqbus (machbus) is an Arabic pilaf-like dish made of rice with chicken or fish, as well as spices and often dates
Maqbus (machbus) is an Arabic pilaf-like dish made of rice with chicken or fish, as well as spices and often dates. Photo: Miansari66 / Wikimedia.org

For breakfast, don’t miss the Harisa (harees), a homely dish of boiled wheat and chicken that comfortingly bridges the gap between porridge and stew. 

Sambusa – a delight borrowed from Indian streets, these golden-brown pockets of joy come stuffed with either vegetables or meat.

Now, if you’re craving something sweet and rather exotic for breakfast, Balaleet is your answer. This odd but delicious ensemble pairs sweet fried vermicelli seasoned with sugar and spices with a savoury egg pancake.

In the mood for more sweet and savoury combinations? Try the Muhammar, a sweet rice dish served with spices. 

For a complete feast, there’s Maqluba, an Arabic one-pot meal with layers of meat, rice, potatoes and vegetables, that’s cooked and then flipped over for serving, so that the meat ends up on top.

A cauldron with maqluba is turned over after cooking so that the meat is on top
A cauldron with maqluba is turned over after cooking so that the meat is on top. Photo: Ramadan9044 / Wikimedia.org

End your meal on a sweet note with Zulbia, crispy doughnuts that will melt in your mouth. And wash it all down with a cup of Gahwa, the Arabic black coffee. Brewed in a turkish pot with sugar and often a hint of cardamom, it’s the perfect end to any meal.

For an authentic culinary experience, head over to Al Waha or Bay View in one of the luxury hotels. But if you’re looking for something more humble yet delicious, Naseef in Manama and Lanterns in Budaiya come highly recommended. 

National cuisine can be found in the restaurants at luxury hotels - Al Waha and Bay View
National cuisine can be found in the restaurants at luxury hotels – Al Waha and Bay View. Photo: Bay View

To partake in a traditional Bahraini breakfast, Haji’s Cafe is the place to be. And when hunger strikes as you explore the streets of Bahrain, you’ll find succulent shawarma, juicy kebabs, and crunchy falafel at every corner. And don’t forget, the country is also sprinkled with Indian restaurants for when you’re missing the flavours of the subcontinent.

The souvenirs

Immerse yourself in the glittering world of Bahrain’s pearls and gold when seeking souvenirs. This island is famous for its pearls, lending an unmatched elegance to the jewellery made here. Stroll through the labyrinthine streets of Manama’s old city, where gold and gem-encrusted treasures twinkle from every corner.

Bahrain is also rich in crafts that capture its heritage and charm. Consider pottery, boasting traditional paintings, as an exquisite token to remember your journey. Then there are the straw baskets, available in a rainbow of colours, sizes, and styles. Each one is a testament to the skilled hands that weaved it. And don’t forget about the carpets – whether you prefer the handcrafted pieces or the more budget-friendly factory-made options, they all carry the distinct aura of Bahraini craftsmanship.

Delve into the fragrant world of Bahraini perfumery that spins magic with oriental spices and essential oils. Look for local brands such as Asgharali, which can be found in Manama airport’s duty-free, offering a chance to carry the scent of your travels back home.

As for edible mementos, there’s nothing like the allure of the oriental sweets, their sugary allure promising a burst of flavours. Or perhaps consider dates, a staple in Bahraini culture, and an array of spices such as cardamom, saffron (be prepared, the real deal comes with a price tag), cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric. 

A good souvenir from Bahrain is spices, mainly cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric
A good souvenir from Bahrain is spices, mainly cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric. Photo: Denise Krebs / Flickr.com

Overnight accommodation

Here’s the deal about bedding down in Bahrain. As a nation ramping up its touristic endeavours, you won’t lack for a place to lay your head. Whatever your budget, Bahrain’s got you covered.

For those with a taste for the extravagant, you’ve got your pick of the litter. Let’s just drop some names here, like the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, where 400-600 euros will get you a night in a double room.

But if you’re someone who prefers to splurge on experiences rather than silk sheets and minibars, there are plenty of middle-of-the-road options, too. Big names like Crowne Plaza and InterContinental offer a slightly more reasonable rate in the ballpark of 150-200 euros a night. You still get comfort, just minus the frills.

And for the backpackers, the budget travellers, the ones who just need a place to crash after a long day of exploring? There are accommodations to be found in Bahrain for as low as 30 euros a night. No, you won’t find your typical thrifty hostels peppered around the country, but there’s an affordable roof for everyone.

In Bahrain you can easily find a hotel for $30, but there are no cheap hostels in the country
In Bahrain you can easily find a hotel for $30, but there are no cheap hostels in the country. Photo: maxos_dim / Pixabay.com

Money

When it comes to cash in Bahrain, it’s all about the Bahraini dinar, where a single dinar will break down into 1000 fils. While these dinars might be the star of the show, bank cards aren’t out of place here. In fact, places that don’t accept cards are more the exception than the rule. If you’re a UnionPay cardholder, you’re golden – practically all ATMs and payment terminals will welcome you with open arms.

But let me tell you, having a little cash in hand isn’t the worst idea, especially if you’re planning to check out the local market scene or those off-the-beaten-path pop-up shops. Ten dinars should do the trick (24.52 euros).

Now, here’s a fun fact: The Bahraini dinar isn’t just any old currency, it’s the second most valuable in the world, just trailing behind the Kuwaiti dinar. One of these is worth around 3,24 USD.

So, if you’re travelling with a wad of foreign cash looking to exchange, here’s a tip – go for dollars over euros. The American greenbacks usually score you a better deal. Just one of those little nuances of the local currency game.

Transport

Roll off the plane in Bahrain and right into the driver’s seat, no hassle, no fuss. International car rental powerhouses Europcar, Avis, and Sixt are ready to set you up with a nimble Renault Symbol starting from a paltry ten dinars (24.52 euros) a day. It’s the open road for you, my friend. Bahrain’s terrain is forgiving, a gentle sweep of flat archipelago that’ll leave you cruising rather than grappling with gear changes. And let’s not forget the fuel – a sweet 0.2 dinars (0.49 euros) for a litre of 95-grade petrol, or an even sweeter 0.16 dinars (0.39 euros) for diesel.

But perhaps you’d rather take the bus, mingle with the locals and soak up Bahrain in all its unvarnished, day-to-day glory. The network is robust, and with the exception of the fabled Tree of Life, the city’s main attractions are all within reach. Take a stroll over to Manama’s bus station, and the folks there will arm you with all the info on routes, schedules, and the works.

The real pro-tip? Grab a local Go Card. For just 700 fils (1.72 euros) a day, you get the run of the city, unlimited rides wherever and whenever. Break even at about three journeys and anything beyond is just a bonus. The cards can be snagged right at the bus station ticket offices. And here’s the icing on the cake – all buses in Bahrain offer stable Wi-Fi. This isn’t just travel, it’s smart travel. It’s the Bourdain way.

All the main sights can be visited by buses, the network of which is very well developed in Bahrain
All the main sights can be visited by buses, the network of which is very well developed in Bahrain. Photo: bahrainairport.bh

Visa

As of 2023, Bahrain’s visa policy still plays a welcoming tune, its arms open wide for a surprising variety of global wanderers.

If you’re packing a passport from any of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations – talking about Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – then you’re in luck. Your golden ticket, also known as a visa-free entry, awaits you. This entitles you to a generous 90-day sojourn in the island kingdom. But Bahrain isn’t stingy with their hospitality. A host of other countries, some of which might surprise you, are on Bahrain’s ‘welcome’ list. Citizens from the European Union, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, among others, can breeze in on the gust of a visa on arrival. For these lucky souls, the kingdom’s doors are open for a nifty stay of 14 to 30 days, plenty of time for some serious sightseeing, deal-making, or pearl-diving.

But remember, in this ever-evolving world of ours, policies can be as changeable as the desert wind. Always check in with your nearest Bahraini embassy or the official Bahraini government website for the freshest intel on their visa policies before you start packing those bags. Because nothing puts a damper on a holiday quite like an unexpected date with immigration officials.

Here’s how you kick-start your Bahrain adventure

Turkey, UAE, Oman. If your journey begins in Turkey, the UAE, or Oman, you’re looking at flights with layovers in places like Istanbul (Pegasus, Turkish Airlines), Dubai (Emirates, FlyDubai), or Muscat (Oman Air). Istanbul will set you back by 70-120 euros, while Dubai and Oman will be a bit steeper – 300-700 euros. You might also want to consider a flight via Abu Dhabi. Wizz Air operates this route and you might snag a deal for just a few dollars.

Saudi Arabia. There are sometimes inexpensive flights to Saudi Arabia, so you can combine travelling to the two countries. From there, you have the luxury of hopping onto the King Fahd Bridge – a spectacular complex of bridges and causeways that spans 25 kilometres. Built in tandem by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, this marvel of modern engineering – completed in 1986 – stands on over 500 concrete piers. Your journey will take you across five bridges, revealing the shallow waters of the bay, making for a sight to behold. Don’t forget to stop at the Middle Island or Passport Island – an artificial landmass housing customs and immigration offices, a mosque, gardens, and restaurants. The whole ride from Manama to Saudi Dammam takes about an hour, shaving off the full day it once did by ferry.

On touching down at Manama airport, grab a seat on buses A1, A2, 10, or 11 – they’ll whisk you straight to the heart of the city.

When to go

Timing is everything. If you’re keen on venturing to Bahrain, plan your escapade between October and April. That’s when the weather decides to play nice, lending you a comfortably cool backdrop to your explorations.

Make no mistake, summer in Bahrain is a scorcher. June through September, the mercury teeters around the 45 degrees Celsius mark. Unless you’re a heat-seeking missile or a sun-baked aficionado, it’s best to avoid these months. However, a summer visit does mean fewer tourists elbowing you at every turn.

The comfortable time to visit Bahrain is from October to April, it is very hot in summer
The comfortable time to visit Bahrain is from October to April, summer in Bahrain is a scorcher.
Text and photo: Alexander Stezhkin
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