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Did You Know?

Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf where oil was discovered. The first well was dug in 1932; by contrast the first major oil strike in Saudi Arabia – now the world’s largest crude producer – came only in 1938.
Home arrow Visitor's Guide arrow Magical island in the sun
Magical island in the sun
By Kirstin Kabasci   »   Ahlan wa sahlan and welcome to Bahrain! I am your guide, and over the course of this feature, I will tell you all there is to know about this little island country I have grown to love. Stay with me and I promise, you will fall in love with it too.
If you’re wondering what that opening phrase meant, well, wonder no more. Ahlan wa sahlan is a warm and often-used Arabic greeting; it roughly translates as “Hello and welcome”.

That this phrase is used to greet even strangers speaks volumes about the Bahrainis, who are genuinely welcoming to visitors and go out of their way to make them comfortable.

Bahrain is a truly unique holiday destination. A week’s stay is ideal, but if you choose to linger longer, you certainly won’t get bored because there is so much to explore and do.

The great thing is that apart from the sights, Bahrain has so much to delight visitors, no matter what their tastes – from history, heritage and handicrafts to shopping, sports, dining out, nightlife or simply relaxing on the beach.

Bahrain is one of the few Arab countries that makes it so easy and uncomplicated to visit. You don’t need to put much thought into packing, there are plenty of flights, and once here, it is easy to find accommodation and to get around.

You could combine your Bahrain holiday with a visit to other countries, either in the region or further afield in Asia. Many airlines use Bahrain for a stopover, so why not get out of the plane and enjoy a nice little holiday here? Most airlines do not charge extra if you break your journey anyway.

Tourists from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several Western European countries can obtain a visa at Bahrain airport itself (or at King Fahad Causeway if you are driving in from Saudi Arabia). British passport holders born in the UK and Gulf nationals do not even need an entry visa.
Tourist visas are BD5 ($13.25) for 14 days, business visas cost BD10 ($26.50) for 72 hours or BD15 ($40) for seven days. Business visas must be applied for in advance from the nearest Bahrain embassy.

Once in Bahrain, you can extend your visa by visiting the General Directorate of Immigration and Passports in Manama.

You do not need any special vaccinations for travelling to Bahrain, unless you are flying in directly from a country infected by yellow fever.

While on the subject of health, I must add that Bahrain’s eating houses, even the smallest and cheapest cafés, maintain good hygiene. The chances of you falling victim to diarrhoea through poorly-handled food is very low. So do not hesitate to buy from any of hundreds of small cafeterias and restaurants. I personally love to have fresh fruit juice at many of these tiny places; papaya, pomegranate and kiwi are my favourites. Or you can try an Indian vegetable korma with coconut sauce for just 500 fils ($1.30).

The ideal time to visit Bahrain is from late September to April, when average temperatures range from a pleasant 17C to 30C. It can dip to about 10C on occasion during the winter, but for the most part it is ideal holiday weather.

The rest of the year can get stiflingly hot, often topping 35C. Having said that, Bahrain is one of the world’s most comfortable hot destinations. Everything is air-conditioned: hotels, public buildings, offices, shops, homes, cars, even taxis. And if you visit in the summer, many hotels offer big discounts on their rooms.

Summer visitors should plan their day so that they are not outdoors around midday, when the sun is at its hottest. If you want to take a walk, lie at the beach or indulge in some sport, do it in the morning or early evening. Summer afternoons are best spent enjoying a siesta, which should leave you fresh for a night out on the town.

One personal suggestion for planning the time of your visit to Bahrain: If possible, try and make it during the yearly Heritage Festival held in late March/early April. Every year this mega event has a unique theme, such as traditional music, Arabic horses and pearl diving. The stage for this event is the National Museum in Manama, where a traditional ancient Bahraini village is reconstructed with period houses and suqs (markets).

For 10 days each afternoon you can come and watch craftsmen demonstrating their skills, women cooking traditional dishes, Arab musicians giving performances, wooden dhows (boats) cruising the bay next to the museum, falconers strolling around with their precious birds, children enjoying pony rides and much more. I love to come here, sit down to listen to the music, buy a coloured incense burner or traditional dress, taste some kaboos (Arabic bread) hot from the clay oven, drink a tamarind juice and watch the dhow builders, weavers or blacksmiths do their magic.

There is a vibrancy about the heritage festival and you can experience at first hand the friendliness and hospitality that Bahrainis are known for. This is not a feast initiated only as a show for tourists, this festival is an expression of the deep Bahraini national pride. Don’t forget to take your camera, this is an excellent opportunity to get some great photos.

Travelling in Bahrain is very easy and comfortable. Nearly everybody speaks good English, so you
can always ask for directions if you need to.

I found it very easy to get around with a rented car. Rates start at BD60 ($159) a week. You will quickly get to know the important streets and the signposting is excellent so it is difficult to get lost.

All signs are in English and Arabic. It is easy to find parking which is free except in Manama’s downtown core. There you can use one of the several paid parking lots which cost just 200 fils (50 cents) for an hour.

Bahrain’s residents, for the most part are prudent, respectful drivers. There was none of the chaos and close combat that I experienced on the roads in many other Arab countries. On the contrary, I love driving through Manama with the air conditioning on low cool and the radio playing a great collection of rock oldies.

At night, the whole island is so brightly illuminated that it is easy to forget to turn on your car lights. On the broad and rarely overcrowded highways it’s also easy to forget about the speed limits but you’d better respect them because tickets are quite expensive (BD25, or $66).

If you prefer not to rent a car, you can still get around quite easily – there are dozens of orange-white or orange–black taxis trawling the streets in search of passengers, honking hopefully at every pedestrian. All taxis are metered and the prices are reasonable, especially compared to Germany where fares are nearly four times higher. Most taxi journeys in Bahrain will set you back by just BD1 ($2.65).

If you are hesitant about exploring the island by yourself, you should consider booking excursions or sightseeing tours run by local tour operators. All travel guides speak English, some even French or German.

I believe Bahrain is one of the safest destinations in the world. I was never afraid that a pickpocket would steal my money or camera, not even when the suq was crowded. There is a greater risk of you forgetting your purse someplace than it being stolen. It’s the same with a car; you can park it without the fear that you will come back and find the hubcaps missing.

I especially like the fact that as a woman, it is safe to walk around on my own, even at night. I felt more secure in Bahrain than I did at home in the middle of a big German city.

As a visitor, the nice thing about Bahrain is that you just need a single base from where you can travel everywhere. Just about any place you need to visit is either in Manama or a short drive away. And imagine this: no matter where you are on the island, you can get to the sea in 45 minutes or less.

Where you should stay in Bahrain is a matter of budget and personal choice. There are more than 100 hotels on the island, ranging from five star to cheap (but good) hostel accommodation. Luxury is given new meaning by the Ritz Carlton Bahrain Hotel and Spa (tel. 17580000), which stands on an artificial lagoon west of Manama. The hotel has its own exquisite private beach, where pure white sand and palm trees combine with the turquoise blue sea to convince you that you’re in paradise. If you’re the sporty type, you might want to try sailing, jetskiing, surfing or parasailing. The Ritz also has its own spa, but sorry guys, this one’s only for us ladies.

There are many other deluxe hotels, some part of international chains. Most top hotels are located in or near Manama. Expect to pay about $100 a night for a double room in the peak winter season.

There are two beachfront properties in Bahrain apart from The Ritz. Al Bandar Hotel & Resort (tel. 17701201) is located on the island of Sitra, not far from Manama. You can stay in one of 80 big chalets, all of which face the sea, and some even have a private pool. You might also want to go next door to the Bahrain Yacht Club (tel. 17760677) and take a boat trip to watch the dolphins. I enjoy this tremendously.

The third beachfront hotel is Hawar Resort (tel. 17849111), which is off the beaten track on the main island of the Hawar archipelago south of Bahrain. Here you can really relax – there is not even a hint of city bustle. Hawar is a nature reserve and there are no dwellings here apart from the resort complex. It takes about an hour by speedboat to reach Hawar from the mainland.

Once on the island, you can take a tour to see some reem gazelles and adax antelopes who run around free. Then you could have lunch, splash around in the pool or the sea. There are plenty of outdoor sports options or you can just lie back and relax. If you do not wish to stay overnight, there are boats going back in the afternoon so you can even plan for just a day trip.  For information and reservations, call the Hawar Reservations and Departure Office on 17290377.

If your hotel budget is rather more limited, you will find plenty of hotels ranging in price from mid-range to cheap. There is an excellent choice of three-star hotels which are good value for the standard and service they offer. Rates for double rooms range from BD25-BD32 ($66-$93) in the peak season. Many of these hotels are centrally located in Manama; a real “nest” seems to be the area between Exhibition Avenue and King Faisal Highway.

Away from the hotels, you could stay in one of the guestrooms of the Gulf College of Hospitality and Tourism (tel. 3200191) in the district of Busaiteen. Here the prices are even lower than in the cheap hotels, especially if you stay a long time. Or you could rent a furnished apartment. Elite (tel. 17740760) has several locations you could choose from.  

Bahrain offers a surprising selection of restaurants. Really, no other place that I have visited has had so many good, comfortable restaurants. Many of them are licensed to serve alcohol.
It is amazing that staying on this small Bahrain island you can go on a world culinary tour. Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Indian, Lebanese, French, Italian, English, Mexican, American … you name it and you can have it.

Here’s my personal list of favourite restaurants, and I recommend you try as many as you can:

In the deluxe range –  Mezzaluna (international cuisine, tel. 742999), Cico’s (Italian, Adliya, tel. 713710), Versailles (French, Regency Inter-Continental, tel. 17227777), Al Sawani (Arabic, next to the National Museum, tel. 17290797), Nirvana (Indian, The Ritz, 580000), Trader Vic’s (south sea, The Ritz, tel. 17580000), Fish Market (seafood, Sheza Tower, tel. 17533336 and Al-Bandar Resort, tel. 17701201).

In the mid-range – Krumz (international, Adliya, tel. 17712767), Jim’s (Irish, seafood, Adliya, tel. 17710654), Titus Arch (Italian, Adliya, tel. 17716747) and Casa Mexicana (Mexican, Adliya, tel. 17715521).

Among the inexpensive restaurants, I would recommend Al Abraaj (international, Seef Mall, tel. 17582266, and Al A’ali Shopping Complex, tel. 17580707), Paradise (international, Government Avenue, tel. 17535306), Hungry Fisherman (seafood, Adliya, tel. 17715373), Up A Tree Cuppa Tea (Thai, Adliya, tel. 17714424) and Schlotzsky’s Deli (sandwiches, Adliya, tel. 17717797).

Many restaurants, even the deluxe ones, offer all-you-can-eat buffet lunches which are excellent value at between BD3 and BD5 ($8-13). The Friday weekend brunch buffets are especially popular with Bahrain residents.

My personal favourite is something that costs 250 fils (60 cents) or less. It’s called shawarma and is a sandwich made of round flat bread in which thin cut grilled meat (beef or chicken) and salad are wrapped. This great-tasting and quite filling snack is available at hundreds of restaurants or cafés.

If you wish to relax in a coffee shop and just watch the world go by, Manama is the right place for you. Especially in the Adliya district you will find many charming cafés where you can just pop in and spend some time over a coffee or snack. Some of the nicer ones are Coco’s (tel. 17716512), La Ventana (tel. 17716771), Leo’s (tel. 177158681), Up A Tree Cuppa Tea (tel. 17714424) or the Veranda Gallery (tel. 17715868), which is a unique café and art gallery in one.

Better yet, get a taste of the traditional at one of the hundreds of Arabic coffee shops, where you can sit down to smoke a hubble-bubble (waterpipe) and play dominoes or backgammon. If you order the hubble-bubble, you have a choice of tobacco flavours – apple, apricot, strawberry, melon, banana, cherry or peppermint. The sweet aroma of the hubble-bubble is so distinctive you will learn to recognise it whenever you are passing a coffee shop.

Most of the Arabic coffee shops are open air. Some of the nicer ones include the Al Mishal Popular Café (between Gosi Mall and Mishal Hotel, tel. 17292156), the Al Bowara (behind Semiramis Hotel, tel. 17292282), the Layali Zaman (at the Marina Corniche, tel. 17293097) and the Al Sherra (also near the sea, but at King Faisal Corniche, tel. 17226311).

If you are a night owl, you will be right at home in Bahrain. It’s hard to count all the bars, pubs, nightclubs and discos in Manama which are all licensed to serve alcoholic drinks. Many bars and nightclubs have their own resident bands, usually from the Philippines. While most of these groups are excellent, the music is often cranked up so loud that it is difficult to hold a conversation.

I prefer the Irish pubs like Fiddlers Green (Diplomat Hotel, tel. 17531666), JJ Murphy’s (Al Bustan Hotel, tel. 17713911) and the Magwire’s (Mansouri Mansions Hotel, tel. 17716999). But you could also go Latino in the Savage Garden (Mishal Hotel, tel. 17292927), get a taste of the South Seas in Trader Vic’s (The Ritz, tel. 17580000) or rock and roll at The Warbler (Baisan International Hotel, tel. 17290600), Barnaby Joe’s (Al Bustan, tel. 17713911), Hunters Lodge or Tabasco Charlie’s (both in Adhari Hotel, tel. 17224242) and also in the Hard Rock Café on Exhibition Road (tel. 17291569).

Your Bahrain nightlife experience will not be complete without visiting an Arabic nightclub. There are several of these in Manama offering live entertainment with music and belly dancing. You can order a waterpipe to set the scene and partake of an Arabic buffet dinner. With prices starting at BD15 ($40), this may sound a little expensive, but on the other hand it is an original and unique experience. I recommend Sheherazade (Gulf Gate Hotel, tel. 17210210), Ali Baba (Windsor Tower Hotel, tel. 17207000), Al Fanar (Diplomat Hotel, tel. 17531666) and Atlantis (Ramada Hotel, tel. 17742000).

Some sports? How about ice skating? Hard to believe, but yes, there is an ice rink at the Funland Centre (tel. 17292313) at Manama’s Marina Corniche. Or you can go golfing at the championship-standard Riffa Golf Club course (tel. 17750777). You could also play on sand at the Awali Golf Club (tel. 17756710), where the greens are brown.

The best addresses for watersports in Manama are The Ritz (tel. 17580000), the Marina Club (tel. 17291527), the Bahrain Yacht Club on the island of Sitra (tel. 17760677) and the Bahrain Sailing Club (tel. 17310252, 17830435). Fishing trips to catch hamour, grouper or barricuda are organised by several local tour operators.

My special tip is to go and watch a horse race. Arabian horses are poetry in motion. Races are held every Friday in the winter months, call 17440330 for schedules and timings.

What holiday is complete without a shopping trip? In Bahrain, you can do your shopping in modern malls or in traditional suqs. From local souvenirs and gold jewellery to French haute couture, you’ll find it all here.

Take your time and stroll through the narrow alleyways of the suqs of Manama or Muharraq. There is a lot to explore here: Check out which of 1001 perfumes you like most. Try on a traditional outfit and see if it suits you. Be dazzled by the thousands of bracelets, necklaces and rings in the gold suq. Spice up your life by picking up pepper, cardamom, sesame, garlic, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, thyme, dried limes and more. Taste some halwa, a very delicious sweet, or try the traditional Arabic coffee which is seasoned with cardamom.

Manama’s modern malls offer a different kind of shopping experience. Several major malls, including Seef Mall,  Al A’ali Shopping Complex, Geant and Bahrain Mall are located in the district of Seef.
If you’re searching for a typical and original Bahraini souvenir, you should pay a visit to the traditional handicraft centres in Manama (tel. 17254688) and Al Jasra (tel. 17611999). Here you will find, for example, Bahraini dolls, woven carpets, calligraphic writings, small dhow models, palm leaf baskets, pottery, embroidery and much more. You can also watch the artisans at work. If you want something custom-made, you can usually just ask.

Bahrain is a good choice for a family holiday. Even if you are travelling with small children, you will find it easy to get around and there is plenty to keep the kids happy. Hotels are equipped with children’s beds and often do not charge extra for lodging. Most restaurants have high chairs, in some kids eat free. In the supermarkets and shopping malls you will find everything you need, even many brands you are used to buying back home.

As far as activities go, there are many fun places to take the children – for example, Kids Kingdom (tel. 17227476), Funland Centre (tel. 17292313), Dolphin Park (tel. 17290900), Rally Centre (tel. 17612992) or Kids World (tel. 17611614). Or visit some of the many parks, all of which have a playground, or take them for a ride on a pony or camel at the Marina Corniche.

I must honestly say that I have fallen in love with this small country that is so full of surprises. It is so cosmopolitan and liberal-minded, and people are friendly, quiet and respectful. I like the fact that I am not viewed as if I am different, as happens in many other destinations. There are many foreigners enjoying a good life in Bahrain, and they are living together with the Bahrainis, not as a separated part of society.

There is no dress code here as there is in more conservative Islamic countries. Women are free to wear what they want, though of course they should heed local sensibilities and avoid wearing revealing outfits. Here nobody will find it strange or non-conformist if a young woman walks around on her own, not escorted or protected by an obligate husband.

I am happy to report that unlike in other countries, not once was I subjected to catcalls from bored young males, nor did I come across a single outstretched hand begging me for a pen or money.

Bahrain truly is a charming and amazing place, one that I know I will be visiting many more times.
Hopefully you too will have a memorable holiday here. Ahlan wa sahlan to you, my friend. Enjoy your time on this small island of big surprises!


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