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Bahrain : The complete guide for visitors and expatriates - Bahrain's must-see attractions
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Bahrain's must-see attractions

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Bab Al Bahrain

The throbbing heart of the island. You’ll quickly discover that life in Bahrain somehow revolves around this landmark. “Bab Al Bahrain” quite literally means “gateway to Bahrain.” When it was originally designed by Sir Charles Belgrave in 1945, it housed the government offices of the time and overlooked the sea as the dock was just where the taxi rank is.

The sea was long ago reclaimed. Government Avenue, which runs alongside Bab Al Bahrain, was built on reclaimed land and essentially ran along the coastline. The bab itself was refurbished in 1986 to incorporate Islamic architectural features. The ground floor now houses a handicraft shop; hours: 8am-noon and 4.30pm-6pm, closed Fridays.

Bab Al Bahrain also serves as the entrance to the suq (bazaar).

 

Saar digs

Unearthing the past. The earliest recorded references to Bahrain date to the third millennium BC when it was known as Dilmun. An entire 100-by-150-metre village from that era has been excavated, unearthing stunning chapters in the island’s long history.

The digs at Saar have proved the existence of a very organised lifestyle with well-ordered roads, houses with courtyards and a central marketplace.

For anyone even faintly interested in ancient civilisations, the site of the dig will be a hugely fascinating experience.

 

Burial mounds

Death in ancient times. Bahrain has what is believed to be the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world. There were some 170,000 burial mounds dating to between 3000 BC and 600 AD. Road and house construction has probably brought the burial-mound number down to 10,000-20,000.

Each mound contained a stone-built chamber which formed a grave for a person buried in the foetal position along with various elements presumably believed to be needed in the next world. Few of the mounds are intact today, many having been looted in the past or destroyed over the years. The best preserved of the mounds, including tall mounds referred to as royal burial mounds, can be seen at A’ali village.

 

Tree of Life

A desert mystery. Far into the desert stands a broad, shady, mature mesquite tree in solitary splendour. The lone tree in a sea of sand almost seems like a mirage. To this day, the tree’s source of water remains a mystery. Some believe it gets its nourishment from an underground spring but that doesn’t explain the complete lack of vegetation in the vicinity. Local lore dates the tree in millenniums but botanists say it may be several hundred years old.

 

Hawar Island

45 minutes by boat, but a world away. Hawar Island is just a 45-minute speedboat ride from al Dur pier on the main island to Hawar marina – quite simply, a world away. You’ll be greeted by pristine beaches, cool, blue waters and rarely seen birds. Hawar Resort (tel 1729 0377), the sole but classy hotel on the island, offers excellent sports and recreation facilities. Spending only a day at the resort is guaranteed to recharge your batteries. The hotel offers you a conducted tour of the isle.

 

Al Areen Park

Wild world. Located 20 kilometres south of Manama, this 16-square-kilometre wildlife sanctuary contains rare and endangered species whose natural habitat is the Arabian peninsula. Inhabitants of Al Areen Wildlife Park include the Arabian oryx, which is virtually extinct in the wild; the Persian gazelle, springbok and impala. A bus tour of the reserve and a film show on the park are highly recommended. For more information, call 1783 6116.

 

Bird watching

Ecotourism packages. No fewer than 300 species of birds have been recorded in Bahrain including the rare sooty falcon as well as the world’s largest socotra cormorant breeding colony. Ecotours specialist Al Reem (1771 0868) has travel packages for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts that you might want to check out.

 

 

 

 

National Museum

Take a fascinating journey back in time. Situated on the intersection of the Shaikh Hamad Manama-Muharraq causeway and King Faisal Highway, Bahrain National Museum isn’t quite walking distance from Bab Al Bahrain but is just minimum fare if you take a taxi.

Built in 1988, the $34 million complex offers a comprehensive view of Bahrain through the ages. Arguably the most interesting of the exhibits in nine halls is a reconstructed ancient burial mound dating to around 2800 BC. The mound was actually plucked from the desert and reassembled in the museum.

Other fascinating exhibits depict life in the Dilmun era, 19th- and 20th-century pearl-diving scenes as well as community life. The museum is a virtual treasurehouse of history, and trust us when we say that even a day is too short to take in everything on display. All in all, this is one visit you’ll be telling friends about for a long, long time.

For more information, call 1729 8777.

 

Beit Al Quran

Museum devoted to Islamic Holy Book. Beit al Quran (quite literally, House of the Quran) is a unique museum, dedicated solely to the Holy Book and works of art inspired by it. The museum itself has distinctively Islamic architecture. Don’t miss peeking into the modest mosque and looking at the beautiful rotunda.

Many copies of the Quran you’ll see are works of art themselves including an illuminated 12th-century Persian masterpiece or a gold-lettered, eight-sided 16th-century edition.

Some miniature copies of the Quran fit into the palm of the hand and Quranic verses have even been inscribed on a grain of rice.

Call 1729 0404 for more information.

 

Al Oraifi Museum

 

Brush up on art of the Dilmun era. Leading artist Rashid Al Oraifi’s museum is devoted to the art and artefacts of the Dilmun era. Over 100 works of art, including sculptures, from the period are on display. One of the major attractions is his own paintings of the era for which he uses a special technique to give them a period effect.

The building itself lies on a reinforced concrete frame that in turn rests on sea stones, traditionally used in Bahrain.

Decorative gypsum designs cover the walls and window frames, and a central courtyard paved with locally made bricks and enhanced with bronze sculptures adds to the sense of openness of the overall design. For more information, call 1733 5616.

 

The Oil Museum

Well, that’s a first! Where else in the world would you find a museum dedicated to oil? Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf where oil was struck, in 1932, and the museum allows you to trace the discovery of what’s become the region’s best-known export.

Exhibits at the museum include drilling equipment, photographs and a working model of an oil rig. Nearby is the famous – and aptly named – Oil Well No. 1, now almost a museum piece itself.

 

Bahrain Fort

Seven layers of history. Historically, this is one of Bahrain’s most important sites. The fort itself was built in the 14th century by the Portuguese but excavations at the site reveal six other distinct eras of the place, dating back to the Dilmun era, or around 3000 BC during which time it may have been the island’s capital.

 

Arad Fort

Impressive by day or night. This 15th-century fort, built in Arabic style, was occupied by the Portuguese for nearly a century. Close to the airport, the structure is illuminated at night. By day, visitors like to amble over its expansive esplanade and climb the steps to the observation towers.

 

Riffa Fort

Splendid view across the valley. Built in 1812, the fort offers a splendid view across Hunanaiya valley. Until 1869, the site was the seat of government and a strategic location in its day. It is believed the fort was built on the ruins of a castle dating back to 1698.

 

Grand Mosque

Holiest of the holy. Set against the backdrop of the sea, Al Fateh Grand Mosque offers a striking picture. With its architecture reflecting several Middle East styles, crowned by the world’s largest fibreglass dome and blessed with a tranquillity reserved for the holiest of holy places, the mosque, which accommodates over 7,000 worshippers, truly lives up to its name. Though non-Muslim visitors are welcome, it’s important that you dress modestly, cover your head and take off your shoes before entering. For more information and timings, call 1772 7773.

 

Khamis Mosque

One from history. One of the oldest mosques in the Arab world, Al Khamis mosque is believed to have been built in AD 692 and restored in the 11th century. The Kufic inscriptions on its walls and the ancient arches make the mosque popular with photographers, historians and religious leaders alike. In the 1960s, it ceased to be used for worship. The style of the characteristic minaret was duplicated at Beit Al Quran.

 

Barbar Temple

Religious clues from the distant past. Three temples, built one over the other, provide vital clues to religious rites in the Dilmun era. If the site of the Bahrain Fort was the civil capital of ancient Dilmun, Barbar may have been the spiritual centre. All three temples, constructed during the third and second millenniums BC, were dedicated to Enki, the god of wisdom and living waters. Legend has it that he lived in a subterranean palace covered in silver and lapis lazuli, near a freshwater lake.

 

 

Old Muharraq

Where time stands still. Bahrain’s current and former capitals, Manama and Muharraq, are joined by causeways but the two cities could hardly be more different. While Manama’s skyline boasts the silhouette of a 21st-century city, Muharraq still retains an old-world feel and charm.

The winding lanes, wooden-shuttered homes, sculpted doors, stained-glass windows, ancient windtowers and the aroma of essences and spices all contribute to the feeling of time standing still.

Stroll Muharraq’s old suq, visit the stalls and stop for a tea in a tiny shop. Several shops sell traditional sweets including the popular halwa.

 

Windtowers

Pre-electricity air coolers. You may notice odd towers in old quarters in Manama and Muharraq. Called windtowers, they’re the traditional method of air-conditioning before the days of electricity.

The towers rise five or six metres above the house, are open on all four sides and are designed to catch the slightest wind and channel it down into the rooms, giving a cooling effect, even in the torrid days of summer.


Al Jasra House

Birthplace of a former ruler. Built in 1907, using local materials, this was the birthplace, in 1933, of the late Amir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. One of the most fascinating rooms is one where dates used to be piled in palm-woven baskets and left to ripen. The weight would make the dates at the bottom gradually surrender their nectar which would then be piped into jars and used for cooking. For timings and other information, call 1761 1454.

 

Shaikh Isa House

Glimpse into 19th century royal life. Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, the King’s great-great-grandfather, was sovereign from 1869 to 1932, the longest reign of a Bahrain ruler. His home in Muharraq provides a glimpse of royal life in the 19th century with period architecture and wall carvings. It’s also one of the best places to feel the amazing effects of the windtower. For timings and other information, call 1733 4945.

 

Siyadi House

An ancient gem. A short stroll from Shaikh Isa’s house in Muharraq is the Siyadi house which belonged to a pearl merchant in the 19th century. Today, only a small part of the immense residence exists. Climb the steps to the top floor where a salon and antechamber have remarkable ceiling and wall designs, also using mirrors to splendid effect.

 

Abdulla Al Zayed House

A dramatic transformation. The home of late Abdulla Al Zayed, publisher of the country’s first daily newspaper and a leading intellectual, had fallen into extreme disrepair before it came to the attention of Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa. Shaikha Mai decided to buy and renovate the house, staying close to the original design including the arched doorway, painted ceiling and old-style stained-glass windows. The house is open to the public. Call 1732 4117 for directions.

 

Ali Reza House

A garden from Wonderland. Built in the early 20th century, the Ali Reza house in the Al Awadiya precinct of Manama is a remarkable example of the homes that existed in this neighbourhood with wide roads and large entrances. After the two-storey home was largely abandoned as a family residence, it became a school and later a restaurant for many years. A Texas oilman restored the house with its monumental functioning windtower in the early 1990s to its Arabian style.

Ten years later, a French designer remodelled the entire house, giving it a fantastic garden resembling something out of Alice in Wonderland. In addition, the edifice now houses a contemporary art museum, a women’s spa and a French restaurant: La Fontaine. The charming Fatima Ali Reza, granddaughter of the original homeowner, welcomes visitors. For more information, call 1723 0123.

 

Shaikh Ebrahim House

Inspired by the past. This is a new building with a traditional façade in the heart of old Muharraq. It was built on a plot of land that was originally part of the house and forum of Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, an intellectual and man of letters, in the early 20th century. The design incorporates a large Islamic arch, mashrabiya (traditional windows) and gypsum panels with Arabic calligraphy. A variety of lectures, poetry recitals and cultural evenings are held there, and the house is also open to visitors and researchers during the day. Call 1732 2549 for directions.

 

Al Orrayed House

Poet’s corner. This house was once the abode of noted Bahraini poet and intellectual Ebrahim Al Orrayed, who lived here for about 30 years. Located in Manama, off Old Palace Road near the Hoora School for Girls, the house was built in the 1940s in the colonial style. The house was bought by Kuwaiti poet and author Shaikha So’ad Al Sabah, who has penned a book about Al Orrayed. It is one of several heritage homes renovated by Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, and was opened to the public last year.

Part of the house is a museum with pictures, the poetry and personal papers and items of the poet, which have been kindly donated by his son, Dr. Abdul Jalil Al Arrayed. There is also a library and facilities for meetings and poetry readings for adults and children. Call 17280556 for directions.

 

Faris House

Museum for a musician. This small house, off Shaikh Hamad Avenue and close to the suq, once belonged to the famous Bahraini oud player and songwriter, Mohamed bin Faris. It was recently converted into a museum in honour of the late musician. It houses a collection of his old records, musical instruments and documents. Bin Faris was famous for his contribution to Al Sout, a form of urban Bahraini folk music. Call 17322549 for directions.

 

Kurar House

Former craft centre. This recently renovated house was once a small scale production centre for unique local embroidery as well as handicrafts by women artisans before it fell into disrepair. Call 17322549 for directions.

 

Heritage Festival

Best of craft on show. If you are in Bahrain at the time of the annual Heritage Festival (usually in March or April), put the fete on your must-visit list. The event, of seven to ten days, offers the opportunity to see some of Bahrain’s finest crafts people at work: basket and textile weavers and potters among others. You’ll be able to hear traditional Bahraini music, see old-time children’s games and costumes of yesteryear. Call Bahrain National Museum (1729 8777) for festival dates.

 

Dhow building yards

Traditional methods still live on. Dhows are still built today in much the same manner as they used to be generations ago. It’s an education to watch the craftsmen in Muharraq curve the teakwood hulls and hammer the planks together into beautiful seacraft with nothing more than mental notes of plans handed down via word of mouth. Dhows are still very much used for fishing or to transport goods. These traditional boats are also popular as venues for parties held at sea.

 

A’ali pottery

Feats of clay. It is impossible not to be fascinated watching the artisans at work in A’ali which is the heart of Bahrain’s pottery industry. The potters still fire their pieces using ancient kilns and traditional methods handed down generation after generation. Many of the pieces resemble those found in ancient Dilmun digs.

 

Bani Jamra

Weaving magic. Pay a visit to the village of Bani Jamra (near Budaiya Avenue), where weavers produce works of art on their manually operated looms. The looms need excellent co-ordination with nearly 2,600 threads extended for about 30 metres.

 

Basket weavers

Exquisite creations make great gifts. The village of Karbabad, located near Bahrain Fort, is famed for its basketweavers who use split palm fronds to make some exquisite utility and decorative items. You can pick up wall hangings, floor mats and a variety of baskets that’ll make great souvenirs or gifts for back home.

 

The Craft Centre

Perfect place to purchase souvenirs. The Craft Centre in Manama, run entirely by Bahraini women, is a favourite with visitors, and it’s easy to see why. It has some of the most exquisite creations you’ll find, ranging from jewellery, iron, wood and paper products to embroidered and crocheted goods as well as highly artistic Arabic calligraphy and stained glass. You might be able to visit some of the workshops; a particularly good one is seeing how paper is produced from palm fronds. The centre (tel 1725 4688) is the perfect place for buying genuine souvenirs from Bahrain.

 

 

Al Jasra Handicraft Centre

One-stop crafts. Al Jasra Handicraft Centre (tel 1761 1900) houses a number of traditional crafts. Set up by the Tourism Directorate, each room at the centre puts different crafts in the spotlight including palm weaving, pottery and woodwork. Items can be purchased at the gift shop at the centre.

 

 

Manama Suq

Shopping excitement. The Manama Suq, located just beyond Bab al Bahrain, is the perfect first stop for shopping. Shops, ranging from tiny open-air stalls to leading department stores, are packed with everything from clothing to electronics, tobacco to incense and antiques to gold.

The bazaar, with its labyrinthine lanes and alleys is best explored on foot so, if you’re driving, remember to leave your car at one of the car parks near the suq. If you lose your way, just ask, "Wain Bab al Bahrain?" (“Where’s Bab al Bahrain?”), and you’ll be pointed in the right direction.

 

Natural pearls

Jewels from the sea. Oil may have brought newfound prosperity to the region, but it was pearls that a long time ago made Bahrain the richest country in the world on a per-capita basis. From time immemorial, the island has been known as a world-class pearling centre. Unlike the cultured variety sold around the world, Bahrain’s pearls are natural which accounts for their slightly irregular shapes. A string of perfectly shaped, round natural pearls can take years to put together which explains their premium value.

Pearls can vary in colour, from cream or white to ochre or even green. Tiny black pearls can be found, too, but usually aren’t put on sale.

The combination of gold and pearls is truly stunning and one which you should consider if jewellery is on your shopping list. Look for them in the Gold Suq.

 

Spice shops

Experience the flavour. The secret of Arabic cuisine, with its heavenly taste and aromas, is in the spices that go into the meal. If you’re adventurous enough to try your hand with a Bahrain recipe, visit one of the spice shops in Manama Suq. You’ll find yourself greeted with mounds of colourful, fragrant spices of every possible variety. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re not sure what to buy. Vendors are always more than happy to help.

 

Persian rugs

Magical carpets are a great buy. You’ll find some of the world’s most beautiful carpets in Bahrain. Carpet shops, many of them located in Manama and Adliya, carry exquisite Persian rugs as well as almost equally gorgeous – and less expensive – carpets from Turkey, Afghanistan and China. You’ll be able to find a large, handwoven carpet as a centrepiece to your living room or a small one that may even become a wall tapestry.

Unlike machine made carpets, which do not wear well and decline in value, hand-woven Persian rugs actually age wonderfully and appreciate in price. If you are unsure how to judge a rug, ask the store owner – they are more than happy to explain what to look for, usually over a cup of gahwa (Arabic coffee).

 

Flea market

Where the deals are always hot. The suq al haraj (flea market) in Isa Town is a popular haunt for antique collectors and bargain hunters. Items range from the old and unusual oddity to the easily available – but cheap. Remember: not all old items are antiques. If unsure of the value, consult a local friend.



F1 Grand Prix Circuit

Feed your need for speed. Even if you’re not a motor-race fan, you’ll be caught up in the thrill and excitement of the planet’s biggest race event: Formula One. Bahrain has become part of the annual F1 programme, with tens of thousands of visitors descending on Bahrain each year at race time. Besides the Grand Prix itself at Bahrain International Circuit, dozens of other events are held, from exhibitions and banquets to shows and glittering receptions.

 

Sakhir Race Course

Watch Arabian track stars in action. Arabian horses are among the world’s most prized breeds, and a day at the Sakhir race course explains why they’re so highly rated. Horses gallop off every Friday from October to March and usually attract 3,000-5,000 fans. Call 1744 0330 for race schedules and timings.

 

Pearl diving

Take the plunge, find a pearl. Bahrain’s shallow waters and warm climate make it perfect for recreational diving. A number of clubs cater for both experienced and novice divers. Aqua Hobbies (1729 3231) and Aquatique (1727 1780) both have courses to promote pearl diving. In addition to searching for pearls, you also get a chance to see up to 30 types of coral and more than 200 species of fish.

 

Dolphins

Now here’s a school all kids will love. Dolphin spotting is a fun trip for the whole family with Bahrain Yacht Club taking enthusiastic passengers out for a ride three times daily: 10am, noon and 2pm. The area of the sea where the boat goes is usually where schools of dolphins play and seem to be quite accustomed to people visiting their territory.

The mammals leap into the air with their characteristic smiles greeting their visitors. Of course, seeing dolphins can’t be guaranteed but most times, they do their acrobatic act. During high winds and inclement weather, the boat runs may be cancelled so booking is a must (1770 0677).

 

Arabic cafés

Pass the shisha. Bahrain’s inner lanes are dotted with coffee houses where locals like to unwind after a day’s work. It’s an opportunity for friends to meet, play dominoes, sip endless cups of coffee or simply sit on rustic wooden benches and puff on the hubbly-bubbly which is locally referred to as shisha. Shops usually have a variety of tobaccos to choose from.

 

Camel farm

Humpbacks at home. If your only contact with camels has been at a zoo or on television, you’ll enjoy a visit to the camel farm in Janabiya. Get your camera ready as a hundred or so camels race in for the evening feed after grazing all day. Or pose with them if you wish. They’re usually very friendly.

 

King Fahad Causeway

Bridging an international gap. The 25-km-long King Fahad Causeway, built at a cost of $1 billion, links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and is one of the world’s longest bridges between two countries. The completion of construction in 1986 ended the 25,000-year separation of the two nations as geologists say Bahrain was once part of the mainland. Most visitors need a visa to actually enter Saudi Arabia but don’t let that stop you from driving to the midpoint on the causeway, and enjoying the glorious view across both countries from the restaurant tower.

 

Shaikh Isa Causeway

Connecting two worlds. Distinguished by its two large ‘sails’, the Shaikh Isa bin Salman Causeway, built in 1998, is the primary bridge between bustling Manama and old-world Muharraq. The causeway reflects both the beauty of modern local architecture and the advanced nature of Bahrain’s network of roads, highways and bridges that makes travelling around the country so quick and convenient.

 

Sunsets in Bahrain

Sit back, relax, enjoy. There’s something extraordinarily beautiful about sunsets in Bahrain. No two evenings seem exactly the same, and even the setting where you choose to enjoy watching the sun go down can make a difference. Some of the nicest vantage points are at Muharraq, across the waters from Manama; and on any of the beaches like Jarada or Southern Beach.