From its ancient architecture and pearling heritage to its luxurious private beaches and sleek shopping malls, this Gulf island draws you in with its wave of contrasts
Words: Habiba Azab
WWhile it may maintain a lower-key reputation than its Gulf neighbours, Bahrain has a lot to shout about – and therein lies the kingdom’s genuine charm. The destination is something of a two-sided coin, with a fascinating history (a number of significant Dilmun settlements have been unearthed there), and an impressive roster of modern art and cultural attractions standing alongside luxury hotels, shopping malls, and private beaches. Here’s how to craft an itinerary that takes in all the best bits…
Hear the ear-splitting roar of the engines as the world’s top drivers jostle for prime position on track and on the podium at this, the second stage of the 2018 Formula One World Championship season. Taking place from 6-8 April at Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir (a 40-minute drive south of Manama), this floodlit night race guarantees a carnival-like experience.
With its blend of works from Bahraini artists and international galleries, you can soak up the diversity at contemporary art fair ArtBAB, which is taking place from 15-18 March at International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Sanabis. Now in its third edition, the fair showcases a carefully curated selection of paintings, sculptures and photographs, and entry is free.
Pearls were once the source of the country’s riches, as divers scoured the seabed for oysters on weighted ropes, with nothing but a nose peg to control their breathing. The economy has long since diversified, but tourists can enjoy a modern pearl diving experience with one of the licensed diving companies setting sail from Ras Rayya at the northern tip of Muharraq Island. There are four diving sites to discover. Simply don your scuba gear and collect some oysters – you can keep any treasures inside.
You can’t visit the ‘Pearl of the Gulf’ without checking out Gold City, just off Government Avenue. Despite its name, this marketplace is actually a pearl-lover’s paradise that’s overflowing with precious gemstones of all shapes, sizes and colours. The quality of a pearl is determined by its luster, so if you can clearly see your reflection (just like looking into a mirror) then you’ve likely got the real deal.
Looking for a traditional Bahraini shopping experience? Manama Souq is an authentic marketplace home to a diverse selection of vendors. Stroll through the labyrinth-like alleyways and take the chance to interact with the local traders and barter for perfume and spices. If possible, arrange to go with a guide or a local who knows their way around, as it’s easy to lose your bearings.
A touch of luxury
City Centre Bahrain is the largest shopping mall in Manama. It has 340 shops, including a Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as a good selection of eateries and bags of entertainment, like kiddie favourite Wahooo! Waterpark.
Make the most of the camping season (which runs until the end of March) by heading out to the Sakhir Desert for stargazing and a meal by the bonfire
The combination of simple, traditional Bahraini home cooking, friendly staff and coveted location in the heart of the city, gives street-side café Haji Gahwa a homey, cosy feel. The twist? There’s no menu – it’s a random serving depending on what time of the day you visit (although the Biryanis are the mainstay). It’s just around the corner from Bahrain Islamic Bank.
Fill your tummy with ‘fluff’ at Freej Bin Rashdan. This unassuming café in Muharraq serves an array of dishes, from meaty grills to savoury rice dishes but most important of all is the signature fluffy khubz (bread), which is freshly prepared before your eyes.
Tucked away in the older side of Manama Souq is La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art, a 150-year-old building that has been carefully restored, featuring contemporary art galleries, an open-air amphitheatre, and an exquisite fine dining restaurant La Fontaine. It’s the place to go for a special occasion dinner – think piano performances and dining by candlelight – with dishes like grilled crayfish with saffron rice and pan-seared duck breast competing for attention.
Taste handmade Bahraini halva, as well as jelly-style sweets flavoured with rosewater, sesame, pistachios and other ingredients bought from the family-run Hussain Mohammed Showaiter Sweets on Hussain Shaikh Hamad Avenue
A national treasure
Wander through halls brimming with 6,000 years of history and devour the tales of a bygone era at Bahrain National Museum. Established in 1988, the museum keeps a diverse range of treasures, including artefacts uncovered at local archaeological sites that paint a picture of the ancient Dilmun civilization that flourished in the region for millennia, as well as a collection of works by a selection of Bahrain’s leading artists.
One of the largest mosques in the world, Al Fateh Grand Mosque was built in the 1990s and is embellished with intricate and stunning Kufic calligraphy. It’s also home to the National Library.
The mysterious tree
Believed by some to be the vestige of the Garden of Eden, the mystery of the Tree of Life – a majestic Prosopis cineraria tree situated on a remote hill in the desert around 2km from Jebel Dukhan – has been baffling the world for more than 400 years. Its untraceable water source is the enigma that bestowed its name and also what has led it to become known as a remarkable natural wonder.
Barter for antiques at Isa Town flea market (also known as Souk Al Haraj), which bursts to life on weekday mornings
A sacred journey
The Bahraini people pride themselves on their distinguished Islamic heritage. Immerse yourself in a spiritual journey at Beit Al Qur’an museum in the Diplomatic Area, which houses an impressive selection of rare Qur’anic manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, alongside an extensive library of books in Arabic, English, and French that centre mostly on Islam. For a novel touch, you can view inscriptions on a grain of rice. Art exhibitions are often held within the venue, too.
Head to Bahrain Central Bank and duck into the on-site Currency Museum to see a comprehensive collection of the currency used in Bahrain from the beginning of Islam until modern times. The collection is priceless and includes some very rare coins.
Bring the drama
Drawing inspiration from the tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights, The National Theatre of Bahrain is an architectural gem with its wood-covered interior. Set along the waterfront, the theatre has welcomed the likes of composer Yanni, opera star Placido Domingo and guests from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. It has also played host to the Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, which is credited with helping to put the destination on the global art map.
Soak up the sun at popular beach resort Al Dar Islands (a 10-minute boat ride from Sitra, Fisherman’s Port), which lures active types for its jet skiing, paddle boarding and scuba diving
WHERE TO STAY
Jumeirah Royal Saray
Enveloped by the Arabian Sea, this luxurious hotel, which opened in February, marks the first Jumeirah property in the kingdom. Situated on a private beach in Manama’s new Seef district, it has 167 guestrooms, including two royal suites, a variety of impressive restaurants and a health club and spa.
The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain
Also located in Seef, this white-sand beach resort has 11 dining venues including an authentic Mexican restaurant with vibrant décor inspired by Frida Kahlo, as well as a stellar spa.
Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay
Perched on a five-hectare private island in Manama, this architectural gem can be reached by boat or water taxi, as well as by car, and offers great views of the bay.
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Photos: With thanks to Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority