A five-day Eid break is headed our way, but not everyone is keen on the idea of long-haul travel. And that’s understandable. Still looking to explore a new destination and satiate your wanderlust? One word: Bahrain.
Not only is it the only archipelago in the region, but it’s only a mere 70-minute flight away. And between its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, trendy eateries, old-school souks, cultural institutions, and endless island-hopping opportunities, it’s also seriously underrated – especially if a quick getaway is all you can manage.
By now, many of the major luxury hotel groups have landed in Bahrain – Sofitel, Four Seasons, and Ritz-Carlton included. But we’re slightly biased towards boutique hotels, preferring to stay at properties that have an entirely distinct personality of their own. Enter: The Merchant House, an ultra-contemporary property that boasts 46 beautifully appointed suites, a lush rooftop terrace, a library curated by The Ultimate Library of Oxford, and an eclectic collection of artworks by emerging and established artists. Another plus? Location, location, location. The Merchant House is ideally placed in the always-vibrant Bab Al Bahrain area.
Speaking of which: a stroll through Manama Souq is part retail therapy, part cultural experience, so skip the malls and head here instead. The main entrance is the historic Bab Al Bahrain, taking you back in time as you browse shops specialising in everything from jewellery and antiques to calligraphy, handpainted room dividers, embroidered poufs, perfumes, and more. It’s not just kitschy souvenirs, we promise. Oh, and keep an eye out for the art installation inspired by the traditional Bahraini necklace ‘martasha’ while you’re around. Strategically located at the entrance of Manama Souq, it is composed of 20,000 gold-plated coins that are attached to seven-metre strings suspended from the ceiling.
All that walking around will leave you famished, and no trip to Manama Souq is complete without pausing at Haji’s Cafe, where time has essentially stood still 1950. Sitting on those bright-blue benches surrounded by vintage photos and platters of delicious food in a narrow alley is such an unadulterated joy. Bahrain’s tolerance of all faiths is well-documented, so try to visit the Shri Krishna Temple, even if it’s tricky to find at first. Not only was it built in 1817 – making it a whopping 204 years old – but it has also recently been renovated and decorated in the traditional Mewar style of art that originates in Rajasthan.
Take a couple of moments to appreciate the colourful detailing before stepping into Manama Post Office. No ordinary post office, this museum houses an archive of photographs from the postal service since its inception, an extensive catalogue of stamps from Bahrain and all over the world, and a collection of vintage scales and franking machines. As for its claim to fame? It was designed by none other than interior designer Ammar Basheir.
Bahrain is an island beloved amongst foodies, and it’s easy to see why. A district by the name of Block 338 is where everything from Nikkei cuisine hotspot Clay and patisserie Café Lilou to Japanese restaurant Mirai and Mexican eatery Calexico reside. Elsewhere, rustic-chic Italian restaurant L’ORTO is still the hottest ticket in town, bringing a taste of the Tuscan countryside to Manama – after all, everything chef Susy Massetti touches turns to gold.
Another firm favourite is Fusions By Tala, a dynamic eatery where Bahraini chef Tala Bashmi – the poster child for culinary experimentation – captures the essence and flavours of local cuisine while transforming it into lighter, more elevated fare. But if an entirely unexpected experience is what you’re seeking, make a beeline for Japanese teahouse Chawan. Here, a Bahraini tea master by the name of Budoor Steele hosts traditional tea ceremonies, celebrates Japanese festivals such as Tanabata and Tsukimi, and serves intricately crafted nibbles like onigiri, mochi, and nerikiri.
The island’s art and culture scene is constantly evolving, but Muharraq is where it’s at if you’re pressed for time. You don’t have to go looking for its charm either – it’s there in spades, especially if you’re guilty of Golden Age thinking. And the best way to discover the neighbourhood? A walk down the Pearling Path, a 3.5km trail that snakes through its storied alleyways, rehabilitating this urban center of yesteryear while introducing contemporary infrastructure to match modern-day lifestyles. It’s especially suited to those interested in street photography, public art, street food, and coffee pitstops.
Most people don’t realise that Pearling Path includes 17 public squares that are dotted along the different neighbourhoods that the path crosses, with strategically placed lamp posts guiding visitors through the streets. For an optimum introduction to Bahrain’s pearling era, start at the Pearling Path Visitor and Experience Centre, which sits at the entrance of Qayssareyah Suq and hosts rotating exhibits on pearling history alongside a café and an auditorium. Alternatively, you can begin at the trail’s southern starting point, Bu Mahir Fort (from where boats used to set off for oyster beds) and its glass-walled visitor centre.
While you’re around, be sure to see the Vertical Garden up close – what it lacks in size, it makes up for in innovation. This living laboratory at the entrance of Muharraq is home to over 200 plant species, mostly from subtropical and desertic areas around the world and is the first of its kind in the region. Sheikh Isa Bin Ali House, one of the most impressive examples of Gulf Islamic architecture in Bahrain, is another interesting spot. Stroll around its multiple courtyards and walk up and down the various staircases to take in the carved wooden doors, ingenious wind towers, and perforated gypsum panels for insights into royal life circa 19th century.
There’s no shortage of ancient sites on the island, and one’s more intriguing than the last. The UNESCO-recognised burial mounds from the Dilmun era, for example, are a must-visit. Unique and mysterious, they continue to dominate the A’ali landscape due to their sheer number – there are over 11,000 of them and therefore impossible to miss. Prefer to time-travel within the comfort of a cultural landmark? Of the many exhibition halls at Bahrain National Museum, one focuses on the artifacts and history of the Dilmun civilisation, while another showcases its fascinating burial practices – it even features an actual burial mound that was transported from A’ali and reassembled onsite!
Meanwhile, as Bahrain residents turn to trendy rooftop bars for great views, we suggest Qal’at al- Bahrain (or Bahrain Fort as it is commonly known) instead. Walk around this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll encounter plenty of vantage points while breathing in the soothing ocean air. On your left, you’ll see the adjoining Karbabad Beach, which explains that aforementioned breeze. Straight ahead? An excavated coastal fortress dating back to the 3rd century AD, with the glistening city skyline rising above the horizon. The site is also surrounded by groves of palm trees, which you’ll notice on your right. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more exceptional example of human occupation that spans nearly 4,500 years.
Sun, Sea, Sand
You’d think an island would entail plenty of beach clubs to choose from, but alas, that is not the case. Luckily, boho-chic Solymar Beach brings dining, partying, swimming, sunbathing, and lounging in luxury to one highly Instagrammable venue. However, what makes Bahrain truly unique in this part of the world is that it’s composed of 70 natural and 33 artificial islands. Jaradah Island is arguably the most famous as it’s only visible during low tide. Another great option is Al Dar Island, despite its size.
For starters, it’s just a 10-minute boat ride from Sitra Fishing Port. If facilities are high on your agenda, this one’s for you – everything from palm leaf huts and chalets to fishing trips, dolphin-watching excursions, and water sports are on offer. There’s even a burger joint on the island in case you get peckish. For something a little more serene, think Nurana Islands. Whether you head here for a run, a horse ride, a swim, or killer views, it’s utter bliss.
The Great Escape
A journey deep into the lush green mangroves in Tubli Bay is one that every tourist should take. This one-of-a-kind eco tour feels like a true escape, taking you away from the commotion of the city centre and introducing you to the aquatic plants and diverse wildlife of this protected ecosystem. Birdwatchers are also bound to enjoy the boat ride due to the sheer variety of resident and migratory birds spotted throughout.
Mother Nature has blessed the island with so much more than the aforementioned mangroves, though. The height and density of the trees at Karzakan Forest is unexpected, to say the least, making it a popular place for impromptu photoshoots and early morning cycle rides. But if you’re going to make the time to visit only one natural wonder, it has to be the Tree of Life. For over 400 years now, this 32-foot mesquite tree has stood all by its lonesome in the barren desert with no water source in sight, making it an enigma to many – and a source of pride for Bahrain.