VISITING BAHRAIN: WHAT TO SEE, EAT AND READ
Visiting Bahrain may not be on every traveler's radar, but the unpretentious, friendly and multicultural country with fascinating history and an exciting food scene makes it worth putting it atop your travel itinerary.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small Arab country of 1.64 million people off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and consists of the larger Bahrain Island and 30 other, smaller islands. The capital Manama is home to 600,000 people and immigrants take up almost 50% of the population.
Bahrain is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. As far back as 3,000 BC the Dilmun civilization was a trade center between Arabia and India. The country has been under Persian, Greek, Portuguese, and British rule. Independent since 1971, Bahrain is today a wealthy oil-rich nation with a strong financial and tourism sector. It is truly a melting pot of different cultures and a place of peaceful religious coexistence.
Here are some tips and inspiration for visiting Bahrain and it's capital, Manama, including places to see, dishes to try and books to read.
Bahraini currency is the dinar and the current rate is 1 BHD to 2.65 USD. If you are visiting Bahrain from Saudi Arabia and have some Saudi riyals, then there is no need to take any cash out since riyals are accepted everywhere.
WHAT TO WEAR WHEN VISITING BAHRAIN
While the local, Bahraini women wear abayas and men thobes, foreign women can wear pants, jeans, skirts and dresses, t-shirts, etc as long as their shoulders and knees are covered. There is no need to cover the hair. However, if you are visiting a mosque, you may need an abaya and a scarf. Abayas and scarves are available for visitors at the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. For men, short sleeves and long pants are fine in Bahrain.
GETTING AROUND IN BAHRAIN
If you are visiting Bahrain as a tourist it is our recommendation to hire a driver. A hotel concierge can arrange that and the cost is around 15 dinar an hour. There are plenty of taxis around the city but not as much at the various tourist sites.
Taxis are available at the airport as you get out of the main terminal. Bahrain taxis are either white or orange. The 15-minute ride to Manama is 6 BHD ($16). You can pay by credit card or in cash in Bahraini dinars or Saudi riyals. Bahrain Airport is old and in serious need of a face lift. This includes the business lounges. The good thing is, the airport is small and efficient.
WHERE TO STAY IN MANAMA
The Four Seasons Bahrain Bay is the newest addition to the luxury hotel scene in Manama and is recommended by Savvy & Fine. The ultra-modern hotel is only 15-minutes from the airport and located in the city center across from the Avenues Mall and the embassy district. A water taxi takes guests across the bay to the mall.
The hotel's interior with its high ceilings, black Carrara marble and lacquered wood-panelling, opulent chandeliers and fresh flowers are designed to resemble a 1930s Art Deco ocean liner. The lobby features real olive trees and huge floor to ceiling windows. Guests can enjoy live piano there every afternoon. The hotel rooms and suites have sweeping sea and city views, and are enhanced by a bespoke collection of Bahraini art, Hermès bedspreads and Murano glass chandeliers.
The hotel boasts two restaurants by the renowned Wolfgang Puck and both have cozy bars attached to them. There is also the Bahrain Bay Kitchen where the Four Seasons sumptuous breakfast is served.
The amenities include a luxurious spa, an outdoor infinity pool, a well-equipped gym, and a small hair salon. Everyone from the front desk to the concierge to housekeeping provides impeccable service with meticulous attention to detail.
WHAT TO SEE IN MANAMA
Bahrain's top attraction is the Portuguese-built Bahrain Fort that once served as the capital of the ancient civilization of Dilmun, and is one of Bahrain’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the top of this ancient fort, behind the harbor and the palm groves, visitors can enjoy the view of the city skyline with its sparkling skyscrapers. Make sure to get an audio guide to enjoy the full experience.
Bahrain National Museum is a great place to get an introduction to the kingdom from archeological displays to a reproduction of a souq to some local art displays.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque is the largest building in the country and can hold up to 7,000 worshippers. Even though it is very modest compared to the mosques in the other gulf cities (especially the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque), its marble imported from Italy, teak from India, and glass from Austria is worth seeing. Guides give 30-minute tours explaining the interior as well as the religious etiquette.
Muharraq Island, Bahrain's other UNESCO World Heritage site, features narrow lanes and Islamic architecture with its intricately carved wooden doors. Even though the area is a little shabby and lacks ambience in most places, there are some gems that are worth visiting. The Sheikh Isa bin Ali house, built around 1800, has been restored and is turned into a museum. It's a former royal residence and an impressive example of Gulf architecture, but unfortunately visitors can only enjoy the bare walls, courtyards and carved wood doors. Siyadi house is another beautiful example of local architecture and was built for the pearl merchant Abdullah bin Isa Siyadi. It is currently under renovation and can only be admired from the outside.
WHAT AND WERE TO EAT IN BAHRAIN
When visiting Bahrain, tasting the local cuisine is a must. One of the most famous Bahraini dishes is machboos, grilled meat or fish served with rice flavored with various spices. It is similar to the Saudi kabsa and Indian biryani. Another rice dish is muhammar, a sweet rice dish seasoned with spices and date molasses, usually eaten with fried or grilled fish. Balaleet is a slightly sweet noodle dish flavored with cardamon and saffron and topped with a savory egg omelette.
For dessert try some halwa Bahraini, which is a corn flour dish mixed with nuts, spices and rosewater, or rangeena made with dates, flour, walnuts and spices.
The strong and sweet Karak Tea is a popular drink and is made with evaporated milk and spices such as cardamom and saffron.
Breakfast is big in Bahrain and the best place to enjoy it is the family-operated Haji's Café 1950 in one of the alleys of Manama souk. They make their own khubooz, a Persian flat bread very popular in Bahrain. The menu is only in Arabic but the servers speak some English. Truly a hidden gem, the café has a great authentic ambience where you can eat with the locals and enjoy flavorful food.
Saffron by Jena is another local favorite and has been named the best restaurant in town by Time Out Bahrain for years. It is a more trendy place to enjoy some traditional Bahraini dishes. They have three branches but the original one is in a traditional Bahraini house in Muharraq. An interesting feature here is the glass floor under which a traditional date press lies preserved.
ALCOHOL IN BAHRAIN
Alcohol is available in hotels only, for non-muslims, and the prices are high. The bars at the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay serve innovative cocktails, around $30, a bottle of champagne is several hundred dollars.
WHAT TO READ: BAHRAINI AUTHORS
Jummah by Sarah A. Al Hafei
A tribute to the author's grandmother, this is a novel about a woman, Khadeeja, who entered into an arranged marriage at the age of twelve, had nine children and whose husband left her when she was pregnant with the ninth. Enduring various tragedies in her life, she managed to pull through, have a positive spirit and survive to have numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband, who left her for a better life, returns after many years , filled with regret and in a wheelchair. Though Khadeeja was hurt and angry she opens her arms for him with love and forgiveness, watching him die in her arms. The story moves briskly, covering an entire lifetime in 191 pages.
The author was born in Bahrain, educated in the United states, and lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed
The book explores the emptiness of modern existence through the eyes of several characters who are hoping to turn their lives around and escape the mundane being. The author has vivid imagination but the writing and editing is lacking in this book.
The author was born and lives in Bahrain. QuixotiQ is his debut novel that earned him the 2005 Bahrain Outstanding Book of the Year Award. He has also published collections of essays and short stories. His short story, The Red Hand, is available for free in Apple's iBookstore.