The Kingdom of Bahrain is a Middle Eastern archipelago in the Persian Gulf, tucked into a pocket of the sea flanked by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It’s an oasis of social liberalism – or at least Western-friendly moderation – among the Muslim countries of the region. It’s popular with travelers for its authentic “Arabness” but without the strict application of Islamic law upon its non-Muslim minority. Although it has a heavily petroleum-based economy, its more relaxed culture has also made it a social and shopping mecca (so to speak), which has helped it develop a fairly cosmopolitan middle class not found in neighboring countries with just a rich elite and subsistence-level masses.
Things To See
The Qala’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) is located off the northern shore and is a five to ten minute drive away from Manama city, in Karbabad. It is restored and in good condition although it lacks furniture, signage, or exhibits. Admission is free and open daily 8am-6pm.
Next door to the fort is a museum, completed in February 2008, which contains many artifacts ranging from the ancient Dilmun periods through the Islamic era, many of which were found at the fort and additional ruins next door. The museum is a large rectangular and white building with absolutely no signs to indicate that it is a museum. The hours are 8AM-8PM Tues-Sun; admission is 2 dinar.
Bahrain has three other small forts. Abu Mahir Fort is located in Muharraq and is also known as Muharraq Fort. It was built on the foundations of much old fort and was positioned to protect the western approaches.
Also on Muharraq is Arad Fort. Dating from the 16th century, this fort was built by the Arabs – before being captured by the Portuguese in 1559. It was then recaptured by the Omanis in 1635. It has been restored and now hosts cultural events. Open Sun-Wed 7am-2pm, Thurs & Sat 9am-6pm.
The Sheikh Salman bin Ahmad Al Fateh Fort is located in Riffa, overlooking the Hunanaiya Valley in the centre of the island. Open Sun-Wed 8am-2pm, Thur & Sat 9am-6pm, Fri 3pm-6pm.
Museums. Bahrain has a number of musueums – Al Oraifi Museum in Muharraq (Dilmun era artifacts), Beit al Quran in Hoora (rare collection of Islamic manuscripts), Bahrain National Museum on the Al Fateh Corniche, Manama, Currency Museum in the Diplomatic Area (Bahraini coinage) and the Oil Museum in Sakhir (history of the local oil industry). For example, this museum exhibits how to get oil in Bahrain and so on.
Beaches. The year-round warm climate means that the water is very warm, even in wintertime, when cooler temperatures may occur. The water is known for being very calm and clear.
Tree of Life. Although trees grow in Bahrain, this one is special because of its location in the middle of the desert amidst the oil wells and other infrastructure of the petroleum industry. You need a car to reach the tree, as it is far from the main roads and not on any public transportation route.
To reach the tree, take the Zallaq Highway heading east, which becomes the Al-Muaskar Highway. You will eventually see a sign for the Tree of Life indicating a right turn. (Although the sign seems to point you to turn onto a dirt road which actually goes nowhere, do not do so, instead wait until the next intersection which is several metres ahead). There are no signs as you travel down this road, but pay attention to a scrap metal yard on your right. Before you reach a hill which warns you of a steep 10% incline, take a right. As you continue straight down this road (including roundabouts), you will begin to see Tree of Life signs again. The signs will lead you down a road which will then be devoid of these signs, but you will eventually see the tree in the distance on the right (it is large and wide, not to be mistaken for other smaller trees along the way). You turn onto a dirt path at Gas Well #371. You can drive up to just outside of the tree, but make sure you stay on the vehicle-worn path, as turning off of it is likely to get your car stuck in the softer sand.
Although it seems like a chore to reach, the Tree of Life is worth the visit for the oddity of it. The tree is covered in graffiti, although this is not visible until you get up close. Try to make your arrival near sunset for a picturesque view of the tree and the surrounding desert.
[Update 2011] There is also a (new ?) much higher quality road. As of early 2014, construction is underway for a concrete wall and path around the tree. There is some basic background information within the completed sections of the wall.
Bahrain also has a set of remarkable prehistoric burial grounds. These extensive sites, often densely covered by burial mounds, can be found at A’ali (the biggest prehistoric cemetery in the world), Al Hajar, Buri, Hamad Town, Jannusan, Sa’ar, Shakhoora and Tylos.
There are a number of famous houses which can also be visited. Al Jasra House is located in Al Jasra village and was built by the late Amir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1933. It is an excellent example of Bahraini architecture. Bin Matar House is located on Muharraq island. It was constructed in 1905 by a successful pearl merchant, Salman bin Hussein Matar. It was subsequently used as a majlis. Several famous houses in Muharraq are being included in a recently approved UNESCO world heritage site, the Pearling Trail. The trail appears to be under construction at this point, and no official maps are readily available.
There are several malls in Bahrain that offer international and luxury labels shops and boutiques, supermarkets and so forth, as well as food courts, contemporary and traditional cafes, play areas and arcades, cinemas (3D & 2D) and even an in-door water park. I recommend Bahrain city centre and seef mall. You can Moda mall for luxurious brands and restaurants.
A visit to the local souq (sook) is a must. There you can negotiate the price on simple cloths, Bahrain’s famous gold, and many other gifts. The souq is also home to many excellent tailors. If you’re there for long enough (say a week) then you can take a favorite clothing item in and they will “clone” it precisely in any material you select from the huge range available.
Bahrain has an impressive dining scene, with numerous restaurants to choose from. The main dining area is Adliya. In Adliya, you can take your pick among numerous cafes, with Coco’s (very well priced and delicious food) and Lilou’s among the most famous. Mirai is an incredible Japanese Fusion restaurant perfect for a special occasion. If the weather is cold from December-February other events are held in Adliya like food festival and Block 338.
Restaurants in Bahrain run the gamut for cheap stalls offering local food to fancy restaurants in fancy hotels. The most famous local fast food is Jasmi’s (Must try). American fast food franchises such as Burger King and McDonald’s are available. Western (mostly American) style-foods and franchises can be found around the malls and in the city centre, offering food for upper mid-range prices. Common fast food like KFC, McDonald’s, Papa johns, Dairy queen, etc. can be found in the streets in every city and town. Beside to other local shawarma, Flafel, Burgers that have its special taste. Some restaurants are located in not in Manama but in other places. Café Italia is an Italian food restaurant in Adliya. Prices of dishes are reasonable, so there are many repeat customers. Lanna Thai is a Thai food restaurant in Budaiya. Fried rice is especially delicious. There are also a Japanese food restaurant called Kei in Diplomat Area.
Under Bahraini law, any sign of having consumed alcohol may be taken as prima facie evidence of driving under the influence, which can lead to imprisonment and/or fines of up to BD 1,000.