The Kingdom of Bahrain is officially on the tourist map. One of the most liberal countries in the Persian Gulf, the Bahrain International Formula One race has helped boost annual tourist numbers to almost 10 million a year. As a place where Arabic culture is rich but Islamic law is more relaxed, Bahrain makes a great first place to visit in the Middle East.
Unlike neighbouring countries Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are home mainly to a rich elite and much poorer working class, Bahrain is one Middle-Eastern country that’s managed to develop a sophisticated middle class.
With tourism just as important an industry to the country as oil, the benefits for visitors are on full display. Bahrain is home to all manner of cosmopolitan comforts such as cafes, malls, restaurants and even bars – where they serve alcohol, not tea!
Manama is the country’s capital and also acts as Bahrain’s main tourist hub. Founded in the 1800s, the city showcases old but more increasingly new world Arabia, with the excellent National Museum and spectacular Bahrain World Trade Centre amongst its top attractions.
Though only home to around 150,000 people, Manama still proudly boasts one of the biggest mosques in the world. The Al-Fateh Mosque can house over 7,000 congregators at once and offers tours in most major international languages. Another site to put on your itinerary is the Qalat al Bahrain Fort, a World Heritage site with a history that dates back to around 2300 BC.
Other than Beirut, there are not many Middle-Eastern cities that you can call lively after dark, and though the same is true of Bahraini cities, Manama does like to move when the sun sets.
The most modern hotels are where you’ll find the most buzzing bars, with the Gulf Hotel and Manama Tower Hotel’s offerings the liveliest of the bunch. Once a nearby village, Juffair is now very much a part of Manama. Being home to a large concentration of expats makes Juffair another buzzing area for nightlife.
Outside Manama there is a smattering of sites worth leaving air-conditioned comfort for. Located in Riffa is the Riffa Fort. Built in 1812, the fort offers some great views over the Hunanaiya Valley.
If you don’t mind seeing something a little eerie, the town of A'ali in the central part of the main island is where you’ll find the biggest prehistoric cemetery in the world - the Dilmun Burial Mounds.
Consisting of 33 different islands, you might think the beach would entice sun-seekers to Bahrain but, truth be told, Bahrain doesn’t really have much of a beach culture. While scuba diving is popular, the best places for a swim are hotel pools.
Many beaches are privately owned but on the list of free beaches, the picks include kite surfing favourite, Amwaj, popular Jazayir and recently opened Jarad Fort.
Something Bahrain does have in abundance is mouth-watering food. Walk the alleyways of one of Bahrain’s many buzzing bazaars and the smell of shish-kebab is never much further than a deep breath away.
Perhaps not surprisingly Manama has the greatest variety of dining options, offering everything from cheap (not nasty) street eats to luxury diners located in plush hotels.
For a memorable modern meal, head to Zahle at the Gulf Hotel. If you're in the mood for Japanese, Maki Bahrain at the Bahrain World Trade Centre is many a locals’ favourite restaurant in Bahrain.
Much cheaper and arguably just as tasty are some of Bahrain’s ethnic eateries. Lip-smacking Iraqi food is on the menu at Baghdad Restaurant. Also on Exhibition Road, you can tell by the name how you’ll feel after dining at the Happy Yemen Restaurant.