|Suq stalls and shopping malls
By Fiona Stulcbauer » When it comes to land size, Bahrain may be small, but that’s certainly not a term you can use to describe its shopping scene, which is – BIG!
There exists a certain freedom in Bahrain, which attracts especially female shoppers from other Gulf states but other expatriates as well. This, coupled with a steady stream of international business visitors, tourists and, increasingly, motor sports fans, means the malls and suqs are invariably packed with shoppers.
Whether you are a visitor or a new resident, you do need to know where to find the best shopping at the right price. And over the course of the next few pages, that’s exactly what I’ll help you to do.
The proximity of the main shopping malls and areas means you can get done in a few hours what might otherwise have taken days… assuming you can choose from all there is to offer. For modern-style shopping, there are four main malls – each individual in terms of design and atmosphere. Al A’ali Shopping Complex and Seef Mall are located in Seef district, while Bahrain Mall and Dana Mall are in the adjacent Sanabis area.
There are other popular malls, smaller only in comparison to the big four complexes, which offer an excellent variety of goods. These include the Yateem Centre (which has the advantage of being in the heart of Manama suq), Marina Mall, Lulu Mall (great for fabrics), Gosi Centre (lots of telecommunications products here) and Bahrain Commercial Complex, better known to residents as Sheraton Complex for its proximity to the international hotel.
Thankfully, all the shopping malls are air-conditioned and are equipped with splendid food courts so you can enjoy a meal during a break in shopping.
There’s more to shopping in Bahrain than just the malls, however, and your experience would not be complete without a visit to the suqs, or traditional markets. The biggest and most popular of these is the Manama suq, right in the heart of the city behind Bab Al Bahrain. Other recommended markets to visit include the Muharraq suq, the Iranian Suq in Isa Town (second hand goods, bric-a-brac and an interesting bird market), the Adliya carpet merchants, and the craft centres in Manama where you can be sure to pick up authentic Bahraini souvenirs.
For early risers, the Central Market and the Fish Market, both close to the city centre, provide a fascinating insight into local trading and produce, much of which you will rarely see outside the Gulf region. Remember the markets and suqs are not air-conditioned and they close for lunch for several hours before reopening in the late afternoon.
The suburbs are well served by Riffa Mall (featuring Mothercare), Al Alawi Complex in Nwaidrat (featuring BhS) and Isa Town Mall.
Many malls feature a food retailer as an anchor or leading store, including Jawad Dome in Barbar (home to Jawad supermarket), lifestyle store Artikel (food court), the Najibi Centre near Saar roundabout (Al Osra supermarket, a café, plus McDonald’s) and the Al Jazira Centre in Mahooz (Starbucks).
Audiovisual, photographic and electronic goods are the specialty of Ashrafs showroom on Palace Avenue in Hoora, while computer buffs should head for the Apple Centre on Exhibitions Road, also in Hoora, or Mazin Computers located at the corniche end of Lulu Avenue, city centre.
It is also true to say that Bahrain boasts a multitude of unique, individual retail outlets, too numerous to mention, scattered around the suburbs of Manama and beyond. There are handmade chocolates to sample, designer boutiques, local art galleries, antique stores, and artefact sellers galore. There is never an excuse to return home empty handed, even for the least dedicated shopper.
So, if you’re ready, let’s get started. I’ve planned a two-day shopping tour, so better put on those walking shoes, grab a hat and sunglasses, and let’s head for the malls!
Al A’ali Shopping Complex
The first of a kind to open its doors to the shoppers of Bahrain in November 1996, Al A’ali Shopping Complex offers chic, sophisticated shopping for people with style. The centrepiece is a domed courtyard with superb natural lighting where suq-style market stalls offer a variety of locally produced goods from pickles to perfumes. Corridors lead off, like the spokes in a wheel, to a total of 120, high quality, interesting stores.
In addition to its international areas, the mall has created two ‘suqs’. Tawaweesh resembles an old Bahraini street with its wooden carved windows and balconies. It is home to the Al Bindaira Café where you can select from a delicious snack style menu and sample a real local tradition, the shisha or ‘hubble-bubble’ pipe. Opposite, Bateel Dates offers exquisite, regionally-grown dates enhanced with nut or fruit fillings, yummy date jam and handmade chocolates for sweet-toothed customers. Sarraya, the other suq, only adds to the atmosphere.
The mall’s food court has a distinctly ethnic flavour, and the children’s play area, Mariam’s Village, is close by. Also located in the mall are the Official Grand Prix Merchandise store and the offices of British Airways and Emirates Airlines. Department store Jashanmal’s offers a superb selection including books, cosmetics, diningware and other household goods. A major coup is the imminent arrival of The One, a market leader in home furnishings and accessories. The two-level store is set to revolutionise the home furnishings sector in Bahrain with its inventive design concepts.
Right next-door, Seef Mall is the place to shop until you drop. It boasts 225 retail stores of various international brands, covering 21 categories of shopping from designer jewellery and clothing to value for money fashion and accessories. Add to that 40 restaurants, cafés and food stalls and you can see you are really spoiled for choice. Seef Mall has something for everyone – from the dedicated shopper to those who just want to relax and enjoy a coffee.
The gap between consumer groups has been well and truly bridged with a clever combination of high end and affordable but quality stores. The anchor stores are Marks and Spencers, Debenhams, BhS, Zaina and Toys R Us. Also key in attracting customers are fashion stores Mango and Zara, perfumers Al Hawaj, and the two Seef Cineplexes, with 16 screens in total, offering a wide range of movies to suit all tastes.
The mall is home to an enormously popular and well-equipped children’s play area, Magic Island, where children of all ages will find entertainment to suit. The huge soft play structure towers over the other attractions and children can lose themselves in sheer enjoyment amongst its labyrinth of passages. Take on the GT Virtual Challenge, a virtual motor racing experience next time you visit to get a taste of the thriving motor racing spirit in Bahrain.
The mall’s design ensures that, in spite of its size, you are never too far away from refreshment as its two food courts are located at opposite ends of the mall and cafés and restaurants are interspersed en route. Look out for a new wing, to be built soon, which will feature stores not yet represented on the island.
The profile of Bahrain Mall is unmistakable, designed in the form of a traditional, Arabic fortress. The interior is equally dramatic – no matter which entrance you use, your first impression is a symphony of water and fire, with soothing waterfalls and constantly burning torches atop magnificent columns. A tented ceiling and palm trees complete the symbolic oasis.
It is a family mall, catering for all ages and requirements offering food, clothing, hobbies and entertainment. Geant, the French anchor store, is a huge hypermarket selling everything a household could ever need from DVD players to denims to dairy products with value for money as a key concept running throughout the store and indeed the mall. There are over 100 retail outlets and 30 kiosks and stalls offering perfumes, gift items, sweets and food… not forgetting the 17-outlet food court which has a traditional Arabic style café.
Foton World, the children’s play area, is equipped with a mini rollercoaster and other kid-friendly activities. Watch out if you visit during a school outing or party only because the enthusiasm of the kids will bowl you over. The post office counter on the ground floor offers shoppers the convenience of mailing postcards and letters.
A stone’s throw away, Dana Mall, the newest of the big malls, has an elegant exterior made from Jordanian stone which blends in perfectly with the desert landscape. The interior is a combination of exquisite stained glass ceilings and high domes.
Dana offers a diverse shopping experience evidenced by the wide variety of fashion and other retail outlets – 75 are already open and new ones are launching almost every week with a potential total of 135 stores.
Giant hypermarket is the anchor store where, aside from the vast selection of household, clothing and grocery items, you can visit the dried goods section and select from fresh regional dates, sweet Arabic pastries, herbs, spices, dried fruits and nuts. The mall offers many services including car hire, shoe repairs, key cutting, optical, photograph developing, and hairdressing among others.
The main evening attraction is the 12-screen, state of the art, cinema complex, where you can take in a movie after dining at the mall’s 20-outlet food court or one of its nine other casual dining outlets and cafés. Chakazoolu, the children’s playground, has something for all ages including a hot air balloon ride, a jungle train ride and, for the fearless, the only indoor high-speed rollercoaster in the Gulf. In the Chakabarber, kids can have a haircut and, to top it all off, enjoy face painting followed by a photograph at the Chakazoolu store.
Phase Two of the project includes construction of a 40-storey, twin tower, comprising a deluxe hotel and residence.
Rug Shopping in Adliya
To round off a perfect day’s shopping, head for the suburb of Adliya, in particular Osama Bin Zaid Avenue, where you can stroll along the pavement soaking in the sights of rugs from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. Venture into any of the shops and they will gladly unveil mountains of rugs with a dazzling variety of patterns and colours.
You will find out about the origin of the rugs, whether they are made of silk, wool or a combination of both, hear tales about the people who make them, discover the meaning of the different designs and be informed of the number of knots per square centimetre, a good indicator of quality.
You will find it hard to resist as the selection of rugs is unlikely to be surpassed elsewhere. Of course, bartering, usually over refreshments, is a must. As a reward for your exertions, Adliya’s fine selection of cafés and restaurants beckons, a relaxing way to end your first day of shopping.
Day two promises to be equally exciting and a great place to kick-off is the Marina Mall, where they offer affordable, good value shopping under the Mothercare Group umbrella whose stores comprise Shoe Mart, Sarah’s Secret (shhh…lingerie!), Studio 1 (young and trendy), Home Centre, Lifestyle (everything a woman could want) and Bossini clothing. Several stores have recently undergone extensive refurbishment.
It’s a real ‘one stop’ shopping mall where you can find everything from newborn and toddler clothing, toys, nursery products, home furnishings, gift ideas, trendy teens and adult clothing and footwear, lingerie and more. Independent stores are also represented such as Ninewest and G2000, making a total of 15 stores. Hungry shoppers are more than well served with outlets like Costas Coffee, Ocean Café and the Jungle Food Court with six food retailers who also offer a fantastic weekend lunch buffet.
The kids will have great fun at the Magic Island play zone.
Bahrain Commercial Complex
This jewel in the centre of the city, adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel (guests can walk in from the rear entrance), is a well-established, spacious, elite shopping centre. It is a magnet for discerning shoppers from Bahrain and beyond.
Designer stores include the newly opened Escada and world famous jewellers, Tiffany’s. Local based jewellers include the Jewel House and Asia, both producing eye-catching, dazzling pieces for the top end of the market. Exclusive household adornments, antiques, fine locals arts and crafts, well-known perfumes (local and international) are represented. In total, there are 120 well-appointed stores and several food outlets.
Look out for the model of the new Bahrain World Trade Centre, now under construction next to the existing centre. This 50-storey high tower, also containing an extension to the existing shopping mall, will offer more quality shopping and fine dining outlets. The Sheraton Hotel will also undergo an extensive facelift to provide catering and conference facilities along with leisure and fine dining amenities and will form an integral part of this new development. Keep your eyes peeled!
Venturing further afield, hail a taxi to the Bahrain Craft Centre on Isa Al Kabeer Rd, in the Salmaniya area. Here you can watch traditional items being created, including paper (using date palm leaves), stained glass windows and calligraphic prints.
Apart from the workshops, there is a bright, airy, central gallery and showroom where you can purchase all of the items made on the premises as well as other locally made goods such as the bold, geometric-patterned wool rugs from the looms of the Ad-Diraz Weavers.
To gain further insight into local crafts, visit the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre, in the beautiful village of Al Jasra, near the King Fahad Causeway (heading to Saudi Arabia). This tranquil craft centre hosts a variety of workshops where you can watch pottery-throwing, basket making, weaving and model dhow (local boat) making. On the first floor, there are several local artists at work in their studios – painting on silk or making unusual models – both with a strong, local theme.
Back in the city centre, the Yateem Centre is located just near the entrance to the Manama suq, and is best accessed from Bab Al Bahrain. It is the perfect place to kick off a visit to the suq where you can do some traditional Bahrain shopping in the comfort of an air-conditioned environment.
Critically, especially in the heat of summer, an underground car park is available to all (parking, never mind underground parking, is hard to find in the city centre). There really is something for everybody in this friendly mall, which is a meeting place for the local community and whose customers include a cross section of residents and tourists.
To match the bazaar like atmosphere, traders are often willing to bargain. You will find the 75 stores are small and highly individual. They can respond quickly to demands in the local market and introduce new stock to suit current trends, so you may find items here that are only just being introduced elsewhere.
Visitors might especially like the shops selling souvenirs as well as stores like Amjad, which combines the eastern and western worlds selling jelabayas alongside European fashions and accessories. There’s also the unusual Watch Centre, which sells second-hand, designer watches. A newly opened clothing store targeting the younger end of the market is the well-known Filipino brand Bench.
In keeping with the intimate nature of this centre, there is a brand-new three outlet food court located on the first floor. This will no doubt prove to be as popular with shoppers as the Talk of the Town café on the ground floor, which is a traditional coffee shop serving Arabic, Turkish and Italian style coffee.
Finally, it’s time for the most traditional of shopping experiences, the Manama Suq. Evening is probably the best time to visit as the atmosphere is somehow more romantic and it is so much cooler (remember, the suq shuts down during the afternoon hours when the sun is at its fiercest).
You can wander for hours along narrow streets, ducking into small alleyways where you come across yet more interesting stalls selling everything from fresh spices to exquisite Bahraini pearls (unlike the cultured pearls available elsewhere, these are natural gems and still regarded as the finest in the world).
It’s not simply shopping, but an enriching cultural and social experience. Don’t forget to bargain for those special souvenirs. You will be drawn into interesting conversations, asked to sit down to partake of a cool, refreshing drink or perhaps sip a cup of coffee accompanied by sweet dates.
There are two main gold shopping centres as well as many, individual, attractive street-front gold jewellers. The Gold Suq, located on Shaikh Abdulla Avenue, is a two-storey, custom-built complex with a host of jewellers, many of them local. Prepare to be dazzled as 22-carat gold, normally used in Middle Eastern jewellery, has a sparkle that the seven or 10-carat offerings in the West simply cannot match. Gold City, located between Al Khalifa and Government Avenues, is another suq within the suq, offering a dazzling array of jewellery – again with a strong, Middle Eastern flavour.
There are more mundane items on sale as the suq is very much a local market, where day-to-day purchases are still made. And you can bet that the latest gimmicks will be on show, whether it be the latest kid’s toy or a winning team’s football strip. You can even kit yourself out with a full Arabic costume (men, ladies and children). No offence will be taken and what a great souvenir to take home for all those fancy dress parties.
As you meander along, the traders, each vying for your attention, will gently summon you but there is no hard sell, if you say no, it is accepted gracefully. When you do decide to take a closer look at their wares, be prepared – bartering is de rigueur. You have to try it for yourself but remember, the only rule is that the first price will definitely not be the last.
Major improvements are in store to enhance the suq while retaining its traditional atmosphere including the creation of ‘mini suqs’ such as an Indian bazaar and a renovated gold suq. Improved parking, provision of shade and air-conditioned rest areas will all make suq shopping more convenient and comfortable.
After all that activity, your taxi eagerly awaits you at the rank, conveniently located at Bab Al Bahrain, to whisk you back home.
Bahrain Duty Free
Well our two-day expedition has ended, but there is one final shopping destination you must explore before you fly home, and that’s right at the airport.
Bahrain Duty Free offers a wide range of luxury goods as well as ideal, last minute souvenirs – just in case you didn’t have enough time beforehand! Interestingly, you can also purchase duty free on arrival in Bahrain from the duty free shop located immediately behind immigration.
The duty free has an extremely convenient online pre-ordering service for purchase both on arrival and departure, provided you place your order 48 hours in advance (you can cancel up to 12 hours prior to collection). You need to register initially by visiting www.bdutyfree.com.
Bahrain Duty Free has won a host of awards, most recently for Best Marketing Campaign as judged by their peers in the travel and duty-free retailers industry. The highly successful and popular ‘Race 2 Win’ campaign ran during 2004, the year of the inaugural Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix. The promotion featured a virtual grand prix racetrack, three race cars and a host of promotional activities by major sponsors. It’s due to be repeated in 2005, so look out for details of this and other interesting promotions.
When the shopping malls and suqs are but a distant memory, when the sand has all but blown away, you can still hang on to your souvenirs and be grateful that you brought your own little piece of Bahrain back home. Happy shopping!
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