Date Visited: February 2019
Bahrain is unlike any other country in the Gulf region. A bastion of liberal hedonism, home to an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix and a thriving art and foodie scene, Bahrain is full of surprises.
Officially known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, the country is ruled by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa who has been the monarch since 1999. The Kingdom has a rich and complex history and was the centre of the Dilmun civilisation, one of the World’s greatest which at one stage controlled all trade routes through the Gulf. Reminders of this glorious empire can still be seen today.
I spent a week in the Kingdom which allowed me to explore the many hidden treasures of the capital, Manama, and the surrounding countryside. Unlike its neighbours, Bahrain has not embarked on a spree of monument building. The country is very low-key and will appeal to travellers who seek an unpretentious, yet confident, modern country.
Bahrain’s historic role as a regional trading centre has meant that, over the centuries, this small island nation has not only been exposed to outside influences but its people have developed an outward looking nature. This characteristic was further strengthened by education reforms started at the beginning of the 20th Century which spurred the development of the Kingdom’s middle class and thus gave the country a very different class structure to its neighbours.
As a result, and despite it being an Islamic nation, Bahrain today is the most liberal country in the Gulf. While its neighbours have placed strict bans on alcohol, beer flows freely in Bahrain and, like thirsty camels who have stumbled upon a dessert oasis, Arab tourists (mostly from Saudi Arabia) flock to Bahrain for a weekend of boozing (and more) in one of the many hotel bars. Wednesday is the eve of the Saudi weekend when thousands of Saudi Arabians cross the causeway to Bahrain to escape strict laws at home.
With a deluge of free-spending Arab tourists pouring into town to party, you can be sure alcohol is not the only vice on the menu. Prostitution in Bahrain is illegal, but a blind eye is turned, and the country has gained a reputation in the Middle East as a major destination for sex tourism. While not on public display, all girls work inside bars, hidden away inside the various hotels with certain bars ‘specialising’ in different nationalities – Russian, Thai, Filipino, Chinese and Ethiopian.
This liberal tolerance is not easily accepted by all and has become very divisive with Bahrain’s majority Shia population opposing alcohol and prostitution on religious grounds. Bills banning such activities have been passed by Shia parliament members in the lower house, but these are then overturned by the more liberal Sunni–ruled upper house.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is the third smallest country in Asia, after the Maldives and Singapore. An island nation (featured in my World Islands quiz), Bahrain is located in the Arabian Gulf to the north of Qatar and east of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected to by the 25-kilometre (16 mile) King Fahd Causeway.
Due to its strategic location, Bahrain has always served as an important trading centre, with a history which dates back at least to the fourth millennium BC when the Dilmun civilisation flourished. One of the sightseeing highlights is the beautifully restored Bahrain fort which was constructed near the entrance of Manama harbour to protect vital trading activities.
In 2019, Bahrain’s population was 1,632,616 which is comprised of approximately 46% Bahrainis and 54% (non-national) ‘guest workers’. The largest expatriate community in Bahrain is Indians, numbering about 290,000.
The Indian ex-pats run many businesses in Bahrain, including numerous, reasonably priced tailoring shops inside Manana Souk. During my stay I had two excellent shirts tailored for me by the competent team at Washington Tailors (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) who can be found inside the main entrance of the Souk at 429 Manama road.
The currency of Bahrain is the Bahraini Dinar (BD), which is divided into 1000 Fils. Bank notes are issued by the Central Bank of Bahrain in denominations of BD 1⁄2, 1, 5 ,10 and 20.
The Dinar is pegged to the US Dollar at a rate of 0.376 Dinar = 1 USD. One Bahraini dinar is valued at US$2.65, making it one of the World’s strongest currencies, along with the Kuwaiti Dinar.
Saudi Riyals in Bahrain
The Bahraini Dinar is worth approximately 10 Saudi Arabian Riyals. This rate was made official in 2001 and, due to the high number of Saudi visitors to the country, Saudi Riyals are accepted in Bahrain at any point of sale.
The Saudi Riyal freely circulates in Bahrain and often you’ll receive them as part of your change. Since the Saudi Riyal is worth one tenth of the Bahraini Dinar, you should always carefully check any change handed to you. In the dark of night, the notes can look very similar and there’s nothing worse than later realising someone has handed you 5 Saudi Riyals instead of 5 Bahraini Dinars!
Due to the strength of the currency, costs at first glance seem reasonable but, once converted, can be surprisingly expensive (e.g. something that costs BD10 is actually US$26.50).
The best way to maximise your time on this small island nation is with a rental car, and with daily rates as low as BD10 for a compact car, hiring your own wheels can be far more economical than taking taxis. A number of car rental agencies, who are very keen to undercut each other on price, line Shabab Ave which is next to the huge American Naval base.
Hotel rooms can be surprisingly cheap due to the fact that so many new hotels have been built in recent years. Supply currently outstrips demand and, apart from the Saudi weekend period, many hotels have low occupancy rates. I stayed at the brand-new, deluxe Arch hotel for less than US$60 per night (see the ‘Accommodation‘ section below).
Typical daily travel budgets:
- Budget: BD40 (USD$106)
- Mid-Range: BD40-120 (USD$106 – US$318)
- Top-End: BD120+ (USD$318+)
- Coca Cola (0.33 litre bottle): BD0.22 (US$0.58)
- Water (0.33 litre bottle): BD0.13 (US$0.34)
- Cappuccino: BD1.75 (US$4.65)
- Bus Ticket within Manana: BD0.30 (US$0.80)
- Car hire (compact car per day): BD10+ (US$26.50)
- Litre of fuel: BD0.18 (US$0.48)
- Meal (inexpensive restaurant): BD2.50 (US$6.63)
- Meal for 2 (mid-range restaurant): BD15 (US$40)
- Big Mac Meal at McDonald’s: BD1.80 (US$4.77)
- Room in a budget hotel (Quarters Youth Hostel)_: BD12 (US$32)
- Room in a mid-range hotel (Arch Hotel): BD22 (US$60)
- Room in a top-end hotel: BD120+ (US$318+)
The national flag of Bahrain features a white band on the ‘hoist’ side and a larger red band on the ‘fly’ right, with a serrated line of five triangles, which represent the five pillars of Islam, dividing the two. The Bahrain flag is very similar in design and colour to the flag of Qatar.
There are enough sights in Bahrain to keep an inquisitive visitor busy for about a week.
Bahrain National Museum
The Bahrain National Museum is the country’s most popular attraction, with slick displays accompanied by signage in English and Arabic. Located on the waterfront east of downtown Manama, the museum provides an excellent insight into the Dilmun civilisation and includes a cross-section of a reconstructed burial mound.
My favourite display at the museum is the enormous, 1200 m2, aerial view of the Kingdom which covers the entire ground floor.
Once you’ve learnt all there is to know about Bahrain’s history and culture, the excellent Darseen Cafe is the perfect venue for a little respite (refer to the ‘Eating Out‘ section below for more details).
Bahrain National Theatre
Sitting alongside the National Museum, the National Theatre of Bahrain was designed by the French firm, Architecture-Studio, and was inaugurated in 2012 with a performance by the Spanish opera star Plácido Domingo.
Bab Al Bahrain
Bab Al Bahrain translates as the ‘Gateway to Bahrain‘, a fitting name for a handsome twin-arched gate that stands at the entrance to the capital. It’s true to say that in Bahrain, all roads lead to Bab Al Bahrain, a place where you’ll taxis, buses, Tourist information, a Postal museum and the sprawling Manana Souk.
The gateway was built by Sir Charles Belgrave, British adviser to the Emir and completed in 1949. Originally located on the waterfront, land reclamation has since pushed the shoreline several kilometres north.
The Bab Al Bahrain Information Centre is the main tourist information office for Manama. Operated by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities the centre is light on content but offers interesting cultural displays.
Located at Bab Al Bahrain, the Bahrain Postal Museum displays stamps from Bahrain as well as stamps from around the world. The museum was established by Bahrain Post and features historical items related to postal services.
A complete collection of Bahraini stamps forms a large part of the display and include the first stamp issued in the name of Bahrain, which was released in 1953 and featured a portrait of the late Emir, His Highness Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Prior to 1953, stamps of British India, which were overprinted with ‘BAHRAIN’ were used for postage.
The atmospheric Manama Souq is a warren of narrow streets and alleyways sprawling southwards from Bab Al Bahrain. Whether you’re looking to buy a souvenir of Bahrain, electronics, spices or colourful lanterns, you’ll find plenty of shops selling wares from around the region and beyond. The souk is also home to many tailor shops which offer custom-made shirts and suits at reasonable prices.
When it’s time to take a break from the shopping, the excellent Bab Al Bahrain Mall offers some of the best cafes in town (see the ‘Eating Out‘ section for more details).
Al Fatih Mosque
The Al Fatih mosque is Bahrain’s grand mosque, built in honour of the founder of modern Bahrain, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Muhammad Bin Khalifa, who was known as ‘Al Fatih’ (the conqueror).
Located in the Juffair neighbourhood, the mosque was built at a cost of US$20 million and is one of the largest mosques in the world, having the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time.
In a region where mosques are often closed to visitors, the Al Fatih mosque is very welcoming, offering free, informative tours throughout the day by multi-lingual guides. The mosque is one of the premier tourist attractions in Bahrain and is open to visitors from 9 am to 4 pm daily, except on Friday.
Bahrain Fort & Museum
Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, Bahrain Fort (also known as Qal’at al-Bahrain) sits atop a 12 m (39 ft) deep tell (an artificial mound created by centuries of urban rebuilding) from which antiquities dating back as far as 2300 BC have been recovered.
One of the highlights of Bahrain, the fort is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is believed to have been the capital of the ancient Dilmun Empire.
Located on the waterfront, next to the fort, the informative Qala’at Al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) Site Museum displays relics recovered from the site which span five different historical periods.
World Trade Centre
Every city in the Gulf has its one iconic building and in Bahrain, it’s the 240 m, 50-floor, World Trade Towers (WTC). The tower uniquely integrates three large wind turbines into its design which, together with numerous energy reducing and recovery systems, make this one very sustainable building.
A’Ali Royal Burial Mounds
The Dilmun civilisation flourished in Bahrain from the 3rd century BC and, during its zenith, controlled all Persian Gulf trading routes. Today, there are more than 100,000 Dilmun-era burial mounds scattered across Bahrain. The most magnificent of these are the 17 royal mounds which can be found in the southern suburb of A’Ali, a modern, bustling town which was an important place in antiquity.
The mounds were constructed almost 4000 years ago, with the most impressive being royal mound 8 which has been excavated to reveal five separate chambers.
Formula 1 Bahrain
Held at the end of March each year, the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix is certainly the biggest annual event in the Kingdom. The race is held on the purpose built Bahrain International Circuit which is located on the southern outskirts of Manana.
Various events are held at the track throughput the year, providing visitors with an opportunity to gain access to the track.
Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve
The Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve is located next to the Bahrain International Circuit. Ideal if you have children, I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit what is a mostly uninspiring zoo. The park is home to a total of 80 species of birds and 45 species of mammals, including the majestic Arabian Oryx.
Arad Fort, locally also known as Qal’at Arad, lies in the town of the same name on the Muharraq island in Bahrain. Originally built during the late 15th or early 16th century at a strategic location between two islands, the fort today is overshadowed by the large Seef Mall.
Tree of Life
Located 40 km south of Manama, on a hill in a barren area of the Arabian Desert, the Tree of Life has long been shrouded in mystery. How old was the tree? How did it survive in an arid environment which was otherwise devoid of trees?
This lone, green specimen stands 9.75 metres (32 feet) high and is a Prosopis Cineraria (a type of Acacia tree) which draws 65,000 visitors every year. Historically, the tree stood in an isolated location but today is surrounded by makeshift campgrounds and the oil and gas installations. A walkway marked by 19 carved silhouettes of other famous trees around the globe circumnavigates the Tree of Life.
As for the mysteries? Analysis of the root system has shown that the roots descend to a depth of 50 metres which could allow the tree to tap into the water table. As for its age, Dendrochronology sampling (removal of a core sample to allow the counting of tree rings) has shown the tree was planted around 1583.
I stayed at the very new, and highly recommended, Arch Hotel which is part of the Best Western chain and is located among a forest of new towers in the Juffair neighbourhood. With standard rooms from US$60, the Arch features three different bars, one of which is a sports bar with typical American fare.
While downtown Manama is home to many established hotels, the nearby Juffair neighbourhood is home to a slew of new high-rise hotels, restaurants and apartment blocks. Juffair is built on a massive land reclamation scheme which has extended Bahrain’s coastline by two kilometres to the east. While new high-rise towers are being built at a frenetic pace, there are still large tracts of vacant land which make Juffair a very dusty neighbourhood on windy days.
Bahrain offers an excellent selection of restaurants, which specialise in local and international cuisine. The streets surrounding Manama Souk are home to a range of local ‘cheap eats’ where a kebab meal will cost you just a few dinars.
If you’re looking for something more international, The Avenues Mall, which is located on Bahrain Bay, is home to a number of international chains such as New York’s Dean & Deluca, IHOP, Le Pain Quotidien, PF Chang’s, TGI Fridays, The Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack and more.
Bahrain has many fine cafes, with some of the finest located inside the popular Bab Al Bahrain Mall at Manama Souk. ‘Saffron by Jena‘ offers a contemporary twist on traditional Bahraini cuisine and are known for their delicious breakfast menu which is very popular with locals and visitors. If you cannot make it to the souk, they also have a branch on Muharraq island.
Next door to Saffron is Naseef Cafe which is famous for its homemade mango ice-cream. Like neighbouring Saffron, Naseef offers traditional Bahraini food with a modern twist. Apart from their famous ice-cream, the breakfast menu is very popular with locals and their coffee is divine.
Need a break from absorbing 4,000 years of Bahrain’s rich history? Located inside the Bahrain National Museum, the Darseen café offers wonderful sea views, an eclectic, fusion menu, featuring international and local cuisine and some of the best coffee in town. It’s the perfect respite while expanding your mind.
Unlike anywhere else in the region, Bahrain has a very lively bar scene with many bars hidden away inside the myriad hotels. Most bars are frequented by Saudi tourists who flood into Bahrain on the weekend to engage in activities that are strictly forbidden at home.
Bahrain provides visa-free access to passport holders from four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Prior to the commencement of the Diplomatic Boycott of Qatar by Bahrain in 2017, Qatari citizens also enjoyed visa-free access but now must apply for an eVisa in advance and are restricted to a 14 day stay.
Currently, 116 nationalities may obtain a visa on arrival at Bahrain International Airport or online for stays of up to one month. The current visa fee is BD 29 (USD$77). All details regarding the eVisa process can be viewed on this Bahrain Government website.
Note: Due to the ongoing Diplomatic Boycott of Qatar by Bahrain, there are no direct connections between the two countries. If you wish to travel between the two neighbours, you will need to transit via either Oman or Kuwait, the two countries who have chosen to remain neutral.
All flights into Bahrain arrive at Bahrain International Airport (IATA: BAH), which is located on the island of Muharraq, 7 km (4.3 mi) northeast of Manama. The airport serves as the hub for the national carrier Gulf Air who connect Bahrain with 50 destinations in 28 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe.
Compared to the other, glitzy, modern, brand-new, mega hubs which have been built recently throughout the region, Bahrain International Airport is small, old and tired and has a distinctly provincial feel. Last renovated in the mid-nineties, the airport has just 17 gates with many arriving passengers forced to deplane onto buses on the large apron area.
The following airlines provide scheduled services to/ from Bahrain:
- Air Arabia – flies to/ from Sharjah
- Air India – flies to/ from Delhi
- Air India Express – flies to/ from Kannur, Kochi, Kozhikode, Mangalore
- AtlasGlobal – flies to/ from Istanbul, Trabzon
- British Airways – flies to/ from Dammam, London–Heathrow
- Cathay Pacific – flies to/ from Dubai–International, Hong Kong
- EgyptAir – flies to/ from Cairo
- Emirates – flies to/ from Dubai–International
- Etihad Airways – flies to/ from Abu Dhabi
- Ethiopian Airlines – flies to/ from Addis Ababa
- flydubai – flies to/ from Dubai–International
- Gulf Air – flies to/ from Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa, Alexandria–Borg El Arab, Amman–Queen Alia, Athens, Baghdad, Baku, Bengaluru, Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Beirut, Cairo, Casablanca, Chennai, Colombo, Dammam, Dhaka, Delhi, Dubai–International, Faisalabad, Frankfurt, Gassim, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jeddah, Karachi, Khartoum, Kochi, Kozhikode, Kuwait, Lahore, Larnaca, London–Heathrow, Manila, Medina, Moscow–Domodedovo, Multan, Mumbai, Muscat, Najaf, Paris–Charles de Gaulle, Peshawar, Riyadh, Sharm El Sheikh, Sialkot, Tbilisi, Thiruvananthapuram
Seasonal: Malaga, Salalah
- Iraqi Airways – flies to/ from Baghdad, Najaf
- Jazeera Airways – flies to/ from Kuwait
- KLM – flies to/ from Amsterdam, Kuwait
- Kuwait Airways – flies to/ from Kuwait
- Lufthansa – flies to/ from Frankfurt
- Oman Air – flies to/ from Muscat
- Pegasus Airlines – flies to/ from Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen
- SalamAir – flies to/ from Muscat
- Saudia – flies to/ from Jeddah, Riyadh
- SriLankan Airlines – flies to/ from Colombo
- Syrian Air – flies to/ from Damascus
- Turkish Airlines – flies to/ from Istanbul
Taxis connect the airport to downtown Manama for BD5-8 with an additional BD2 airport charge. Bahrain Bus operates four routes (A1, A2, 10 and 11) between the airport and downtown Manama with tickets costing 300 fils.
The only land border is with Saudi Arabia, across the King Fahd Causeway. Obtaining a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia is currently next to impossible but hopefully that will soon change (click here to read more on the proposed new Saudi tourist eVisa). In the meantime, the crossing is used by Saudi tourists who stream into Bahrain each weekend to indulge in activities which are strictly forbidden at home.
Cruise ships call at Bahrain’s Mina Sulman port on a regular basis between October and April of each year. Click here to view the current schedule.
Taxis can be easily hailed on the streets in Bahrain and are a comfortable way to get around the city with official taxis easily recognised by their white bodies and orange roofs. Unlike neighbouring Gulf states, most drivers in Bahrain are native Bahrainis and not guest workers.
All taxis are metered and are an easy and cheap way to get around town with a flag fall of BD1.5 and BD0.25 per kilometre thereafter.
The distance from the northern tip to the southern tip of Bahrain is just 50 km, via a well-paved highway with a total driving time of 50 minutes. This is not a big island and with a rental car you can fully explore every nook and cranny in a couple of days. While distances are short, public transport outside of the greater-Manama urban area is almost non-existent, making a rental car essential if you wish to fully explore the island.
While there are several car rental agents at the International Airport, the best deals are to be found from the numerous agents which line the busy Shabab Avenue, which is located alongside the US Naval base. The main clientele for these agents is US Military personnel on shore leave.
With an average taxi fare in Manama costing BD5, a compact car costing BD8 per day and a litre of fuel costing BD0.18 (US$0.48), the decision to rent a car is a no-brainer! I hired a compact car for BD10 per day through the wonderfully helpful Layla at Tooranco Rent-a-Car (Tel: 66366522) whose office is located at Building 465, Shabab Ave, Block 340, Juffair.
It’s worth noting that the local driving style is very aggressive and obnoxious. In just one day, I saw two, three-car pile-ups. The most obnoxious drivers are the many Saudi motorists who drive like there’s no tomorrow.
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Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
I hope you enjoy reading my content.