Tiny Kuwait may be one of the smallest Gulf States, but what it lacks in territory it makes up for in history, nature, and culture
For a place that has been at the heart of Arabia’s history, ancient and modern, the State of Kuwait remains a mystery for many. It may receive fewer visitors each year than its neighbours but for those willing to make the trip to the north west of the Arabian Gulf, there’s plenty to see, do, and learn. Nestled between the comparatively massive Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country’s 4.3 million population is overwhelmingly gathered in its vibrant capital, Kuwait City. While that may have cultural, culinary and retail options to delay the traveller for days, those willing to explore a little further will find nature reserves, bird-laden islands, and history to rival any destination across the region.
The Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre, more commonly called the Kuwait Opera House, still has that new-venue buzz, having only opened towards the end of 2016, when it immediately established itself as the nation’s leading cultural hub. Now in the middle of its winter programme, it hosts a mix of domestic and international artists, with performances contemporary and classical. Check the website for the latest listings.
Souks big time
It might not be quite as ancient as, say, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar but at 200 years old, Kuwait’s Souk Al Mubarakeya is one of the Gulf’s longest running markets. For locals, the souk is a practical, working place but for tourists it represents the chance to visit a fast disappearing element of Middle Eastern culture, to see the hustle and bustle, smell the incense, and perhaps haggle for a few curios along the way.
Like many of its neighbours, Kuwait has one of the largest mosques in the world. Open to visitors, the Grand Mosque offers tours to anyone looking to learn more about Islam or those who simply want to look closely at its staggering design
Like capital cities across the Gulf, Kuwait is growing fast, with futuristic buildings leaping skywards from the sand on a monthly basis, but for a flavour of the country’s bygone days, head to Sadu House. There you’ll be introduced to the fascinating history of the Bedouin, with a particular focus on crafts and Sadu weaving. The traditions evoked and explained are centuries old, but for some still an important cornerstone of life, too.
THE ART GALLERIES
As a wealthy OPEC nation, Kuwait has attracted more than its fair share of foreign art and artists. While they have plenty of wall space around Kuwait City, Gallery Tilal instead focuses its efforts on born-and-bred local talent. Photography and painting are the primary mediums here, but visiting exhibitions can take almost any form.
If you prefer your art a little more tactile, then the Boushahri Gallery has a big interest in sculpture and ceramics. Ordinarily you’ll find 10 different artists displaying here, on a rolling schedule throughout the year. When sculptor Jawad Boushahri founded this gallery in 1982, he originally intended to feature exclusively local artists, but in recent years his stable has become a lot more international.
Tareq Rajab Museum
A husband and wife team are behind the vast collection on display at the Tareq Rajab Museum. As many as 10,000 items will be exhibited at any one time, which may sound like a lot but only represents a third of the owners’ total. Among this impressive hoard you’ll find ceramics, calligraphy, glass, jewellery and metal work from across the Islamic world.
With so many people originally coming from elsewhere, it’s perhaps no surprise that Kuwait is home to some great international cuisine. It’s particularly strong with Indian food and arguably the best in town is the Crowne Plaza’s superlative Jamawar, which offers traditional and modern dishes from across mother India.
It’s not easy to find many restaurants serving purely authentic Kuwaiti food, but for a good selection alongside other Arabic favourites, Dar Hamad is a stand-out choice. An independent, away from any hotels, it’s a refined, high-end setting for modern Middle Eastern food. There are cheaper Arabic restaurants in town, but none quite so stylish.
Inside the beautifully appointed Jumeirah Messilah Beach Hotel & Spa you’ll find the brilliant seafood specialist Salt, one of the best restaurants in town.
It may not, on the surface, seem like the most thrilling subject, but the fate of Kuwait – and the entire Gulf region – would be markedly different if it weren’t for the discovery of oil. To that end, South Travels offers a Black Gold Era tour, chronicling the discovery of the world’s largest oil fields and Kuwait’s access to them. Included is a trip to the Kuwait Oil Display Museum a genuinely fascinating facility located 40km outside of Kuwait City.
Birds are the word
It may be a surprise to learn that despite its occasionally harsh desert environment, over 330 species of bird visit Kuwait throughout the year. The vast majority are migratory, but in the cooler months, they literally flock to the nation’s various islands. Local birder Abdul Rahman Al-Sirhan Alenezi offers tours across his country in the hopes of spotting the most interesting species.
It’s not located in the city centre, but Al Shaheed Park is the largest in the country, boasting botanical gardens, museums, lakes and running tracks. Well worth the short detour
Despite being just 20km offshore, Failaka Island is unlike anywhere else in the country. There are over 4,000 years of human history to be explored on day trips from Kuwait City, from Mesopotamian to Dilmun to Greek. There are plenty of ruins to see, but Failaka is also home to an amazing display of spring flora, and has positioned itself as Kuwait’s watersports hub.
WHERE TO STAY
Jumeirah Messilah Beach Hotel & Spa
The Jumeirah brand may have expanded from Dubai across the world in recent years, but it’s also done a good job of finding space throughout the Middle East. And this stunning beach hotel on the south coast offers a variety of accommodation options, an open-air swimming pool, access to Messilah’s shores, a tranquil Talise spa and seven restaurants and lounges.
JW Marriott Kuwait City Hotel
An ideal stay for the seasoned business traveller, this distinguished luxury hotel is set in the heart of Kuwait City’s commercial and financial district, only 15 minutes away from Kuwait International Airport. Its four restaurants are well-known eateries in the city and its Elite Health Club is a good place to unwind after a busy day.
Four Seasons Hotel Kuwait at Burj Alshaya
This property may have only opened a few month’s ago, but it has certainly upped the ante in terms of Kuwait’s luxury hotel scene. It’s a designer abode (art and sculpture adorn the walls and there’s a striking spiral staircase in the lobby) that includes a glorious spa and five restaurants and lounges overseen by renowned Italian Executive Chef Sebastiano Spriveri.