Date Visited: February 2019
Oil-rich Kuwait has dusted itself off following the invasion and subsequent occupation by Iraqi forces in August of 1990 and today exudes a quiet confident.
Unlike its brasher Gulf neighbours, Kuwait is far less commercialised. While it has ample funds, it has not invested them in a swag of big, showy mega-projects and has not fully opened its doors to tourism, which accounts for just 1.5% of GDP. A new Norman-Forster designed airport terminal and various new, architecturally experimental skyscrapers hint of the future direction of the country.
Once impossible to visit, unless you were on business, Kuwait has now eased visa requirements considerably, to encourage more visitors into the country with many able to obtain a visa on arrival (see the ‘Visa Requirement’ section below for details on the process).
Kuwait is an interesting destination, offering enough sights and shopping/ dining opportunities to keep the average visitor occupied for 5-6 days. To encourage more tourism, the country is currently investing some of its riches in tourism-related projects, with the renovation of the Kuwait National Museum nearing completion. Most of the sights, hotels and services are in Kuwait City, which is home to 98% of the population.
One notable aspect of Kuwait, which sets it apart from its neighbours, is the involvement of woman in society. Women in Kuwait are among the most emancipated in the Middle East. In 2014 and 2015, Kuwait was ranked first among Arab countries in the Global Gender Gap Report. In 2018, 60% of Kuwaiti women participated in the labour force, outnumbering men, while 12.7% of the members of parliament are woman.
Additionally, Kuwaiti woman are not required to cover their hair and some don’t. Woman are free to be entrepreneurs and run their own businesses and as such, you experience much more interaction with Kuwaiti woman than you do with woman in neighbouring countries. A refreshing change in the Middle East!
Located in the north-west corner of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait is one of the world’s smallest countries with a total area of 17,818 km². The country is bordered by Iraq to the north and west, Saudi Arabia to the South and the Arabian Gulf to the east. The country is generally low lying and comprised of flat, sandy desert with the highest point being 306 m (1,004 ft).
Beneath the desert sands lie huge reserves of oil and gas created millions of years ago by the Arabian sea. The Burgan Oil field, in the southeast of the country, has the distinction of being the largest sandstone oil reserve in the world with a surface area of about 1000 km2 and an estimated oil reserve of 66 to 75 billion barrels, plus 70 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas.
The unit of currency in Kuwait is the Dinar (KD) which is sub-divided into 1000 Fils, with bank notes issued in denominations of KD 20, 10, 5, 1, 0.500 and 0.250.
The dinar is pegged to an undisclosed weighted basket of international currencies and is the world’s highest-valued currency unit with a current exchange rate of 1 KD = US$3.29. Such an exchange rate can give the illusion that prices are cheap when in fact they are not. For example, a large Big Mac combo meal at McDonald’s costs 1.95 KD which is US$6.41.
The Kuwaiti dinar is issued by the Central Bank of Kuwait (CBK), whose headquarters are in the brand new, 238-m tall CBK Tower in downtown Kuwait City.
You can keep travel costs down by shopping at locals markets, although most produce in Kuwait is imported. For a country that boasts the world’s highest valued currency, travel costs in Kuwait are surprisingly affordable, but if you wish to have a ‘deluxe’ experience, there are plenty of upscale options. It’s no surprise that one of the most affordable items in oil-rich Kuwait is fuel which costs US$0.33 per litre – cheaper than a bottle of water!
Typical daily travel budgets:
- Budget: 45 KD (USD$148)
- Mid-Range: 45-150 KD (USD$148 – US$500)
- Top-End: 150+ KD (USD$500+)
- Coca Cola (0.33 litre bottle): 0.17 KD (US$0.56)
- Water (0.33 litre bottle): 0.15 KD (US$0.49)
- Cappuccino: 1.54 KD (US$5.06)
- Bus Ticket within Kuwait: 0.25 KD (US$0.82)
- Car hire (compact car per day): 9.00 KD (US$30)
- Litre of fuel: 0.10 KD (US$0.33)
- Meal (inexpensive restaurant): 2.00 KD (US$6.57)
- Meal for 2 (expensive restaurant): 12 KD (US$40)
- Big Mac Meal: 1.95 KD (US$6.41)
- Room in a budget hotel: 10 KD (US$33)
- Room in a mid-range hotel (Ibis Sharq Hotel): 26 KD (US$84)
- Room in a top-end hotel: 85+ KD (US$280+)
The flag of Kuwait is composed of three stripes in the traditional pan-Arab colours of green, white, and red with a black trapezoid featured on the hoist side. In a country that was invaded and occupied in recent times, it’s not surprising that the flag is flown proudly and everywhere.
Kuwait’s population is currently 4.6 million people, of which 1.4 million (30%) are Kuwaitis. The remaining 70% is comprised of ‘guest workers’ with 1.2 million being other Arabs and 1.8 million being from Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines). Despite a government policy to reduce the number of foreign workers, Kuwaitis remain a minority in their own country.
One of Kuwait’s most famous landmarks, the Kuwait Towers are situated on Arabian Gulf Street on a promontory to the east of the City centre. The towers were the sixth, and last, of a larger group of 34 water towers constructed throughout the country.
The tallest of the three towers, at 187 metres, carries two spheres. The lower sphere holds in its bottom half a water tank of 4,500 cubic metres while in the upper half there is a restaurant. The uppermost sphere, which is at a height of 123 metres holds a revolving observation area and a restaurant. This is the only tower open to visitors, with tickets costing 3 KD (USD$10) per person.
The second tower is 147 metres high and serves purely as a water tower, holding 1 million gallons of water while the third tower (which looks like a needle) houses equipment to illuminate the two larger towers.
Approximately 41,000 enamelled steel discs cover the three spheres in eight shades of blue, green and grey, recalling the tiled domes of historic mosques.
Located in the heart of the old town, Souq Al-Mubarakiya is the largest, and most popular market in town. Always abuzz with shoppers, you can spend hours in this market, strolling around and discovering bargains from every kind of shop imaginable. Whether you’re shopping for gold jewellery, a Persian carpet, traditional Arab perfumes, clothes or souvenirs, you’ll find it here.
The market is especially popular at mealtimes with lots of restaurants selling amazingly fresh Arabic cuisine.
Central Fish Market
Located on the waterfront between the Dhow harbour and Sharq Mall, the Central Fish Market is the main fish market in Kuwait City. Unlike many other fish markets around the world, which tend to be messy and smelly, the Kuwait market is not an assault on your senses. Housed in a modern, brightly lit, airy building, the market is kept spotlessly clean by a team of cleaners who are forever hosing and mopping the floor.
The walls of the market are lined with tiled mosaics featuring colourful marine life which adds to the pleasantness. Directly outside the market is the Dhow harbour where you can view the fishing boats which are responsible for providing the market with its fresh produce.
Alongside the fish market is the dhow harbour which is home to a large fleet of traditional wooden ‘Dhow‘ boats which are used for fishing and trading purposes. Prior to the discovery of oil, Kuwait was a major trading port with Dhows playing an important part in maritime trade.
Kuwait National Museum
Located near the Grand Mosque, the Kuwait National Museum (open: Monday to Saturday: 8.30 -12.30 am & 4.30 – 8.30 pm/ Friday: 4.30 – 8.30 pm) is currently undergoing a huge renovation which will transform it completely. The original museum was opened in 1957 in a former Royal palace.
Plundered and destroyed by the Iraqi regime during the gulf war, today – 90% of the collection has been returned and new buildings are nearing completion. The museum houses the Al-Sabah collection of Islamic art which is one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. Displays showcase aspects of Kuwaiti culture and everyday life both from the past and present.
Al Sadu House
Located on the waterfront, next to the National Museum, the beautifully restored Al Sadu house is home to the Al Sadu society. The patron of the society is Her Royal Highness and their aim, according to their website, is “preserving, documenting and promoting the rich and diverse textile heritage of the Kuwaiti Bedouin, from the nomadic weaving of the desert through to the urban weaving of the town.”
A museum (open: 8 am –1 pm / 4 – 8 pm) provides exhibits detailing the history of textile weaving in Kuwait and a gift shop sells products made by the members. There’s also an excellent cafe (open all day), Jumo Coffee Roasters, in the courtyard – which serves excellent coffee.
Al Seif Palace
Located on the waterfront, opposite the Grand mosque, the beautiful Al Seif Palace was built in 1896 by Sheikh Mubarak. Heavily destroyed during the Iraqi invasion, but now fully restored, the palace serves as a residence for the royal family, but they prefer to live at another palace – the nearby, and much larger, Bayan Palace. Al Seif Palace is used only on special occasions, making it one very large, vacant property.
The palace is best known for its iconic watch tower which is covered in blue tiles and sports a dazzling roof plated in pure gold. During the occupation, the clock was destroyed by a direct missile hit. The UK clock specialists, Smith of Derby Group were awarded the contract to replace the clock after the war had ended, being the only non-US company to be awarded a contract during the reconstruction of the country.
Standing in front of the palace and taking photos is not allowed but you can get a decent photo from the opposite side of the roundabout in front of the palace.
Located opposite Al Seif Palace, the Grand Mosque was completed in 1986 and is an example of several traditional Islamic styles using modern technology. The mosque hardly encourages visitors, with fairly restrictive opening hours being from 9:00 – 10:30 am and 5:00 – 7:00 pm on weekdays only.
National Assembly Building
Located on the waterfront a short walk from the Grand Mosque, the Kuwait National Assembly Building was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon (famous for designing the Sydney Opera House) in 1972 and completed in 1982. Home to the Kuwaiti parliament, the building is not open to visitors.
At 372-metres, Liberation Tower is the second-tallest structure in the country and stands as a symbol of Kuwaiti liberation. The tower dominates the Kuwait City skyline and, from the top, the view must be amazing, but unfortunately, it is closed to visitors. Such a shame!
Construction of the tower commenced in 1990 but was interrupted by the Iraqi invasion. After the occupation ended, construction continued with the tower opening in 1996. It’s ranked as one of the tallest telecommunications structures in the world.
What do Kuwaitis do to escape the blistering heat? Go shopping in an air-con mall of course! Kuwaiti’s love their malls and there are many impressive commercial centres in Kuwait city.
One such mall is Souq Sharq, which is located next to the Central Fish Market on the waterfront and offers a good variety of shops and one of the best cafes in town – Baker & Spice.
The largest mall in the country is The Avenues, and with over 1,000 stores and restaurants, there is plenty to keep you busy and away from the scorching sun.
Beneath the iconic Al Hamra tower, lies Al Hamra mall which specialises in high-end designer fashion but has a great affordable, supermarket, numerous cafes and restaurants plus a cinema.
During my stay in Kuwait, I stayed at the (highly recommended) Ibis Sharq Hotel which is located next door to the soaring Al Hamra tower. The tower complex includes the upscale Al Hamra mall where there are many dining options and fine cafes, all a short stroll from the hotel. Rates on Hotels.com are currently US$84 for a standard room which represents good value for this property. The breakfast buffet provides a good range of options which will set you up for a day of exploration.
Important: When checking into hotels in Kuwait, you are required to show your visa form which was issued at the airport.
Like its neighbours, Qatar and Bahrain, the restaurant scene in Kuwait is made much more interesting thanks to the 70% of the population which are the army of (poorly paid) guest workers. While you can enjoy expensive fine dining in glitzy, expensive restaurants, you can also walk next door to find an Indian or Egyptian-owned budget restaurant where the food is also excellent and very affordable, with a meal costing just 2.00 KD (US$6.57). The myriad malls offer all of the usual western chain restaurants.
Sure there are many restaurants around town, but I kept gravitating back to those which line the alleyways of Souq Al-Mubarakiya. The food at the highly popular Souq is prepared fresh in front of you with local flatbread (leavened and cooked in a Tandoor oven like Indian Naan bread) served piping hot. I’m still dreaming of the wonderfully creamy humus, the grilled meats and the amazing flatbread! Prices are very reasonable – there’s no ‘bill shock’ here but rather a pleasant surprise when you learn how little your meal cost.
The Souk is very busy with both shoppers and diners. At one restaurant I watched two chefs prepare hundreds of Kofte shish kebabs at the front of the house – a great way to entice diners. I can attest, the Kofte tasted divine!
There’s no shortage of good cafes in Kuwait City where a qualified Barista will make you an excellent coffee. Two that stand out as exceptional are:
Jumo Coffee Roasters – located in the shady courtyard of the beautifully restored Al Sadu House craft centre, next to the National Museum, is this artisanal coffee roasting company. While the centre has restricted opening hours, the cafe is open throughout the day, serving freshly roasted coffee, with a cafe latte costing 1.85 KD. The cafe is staffed by a team of friendly Baristas from different parts of Africa, and offers a menu of sandwiches, cakes and different drinks,
Baker & Spice at Souq Sharq – if you need a caffeine fix while shopping at Souk Sharq, the excellent cafe/ restaurant at Baker & Spice is an excellent choice. Part of a small UK chain, this stylish emporium of fine food serves fresh salads, sandwiches, pastries, cakes and so much more.
With a strict ban on alcohol, it’s not surprising that there is no bar scene in Kuwait. Locals looking to socialise frequent lounges (which are like bars without the alcohol) and cafes which serve coffee, tea, juices and Sheesha.
Kuwait provides visa-free access to passport holders from the five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Nationalities from 54 countries are entitled to receive a 3 month visa upon arrival at Kuwait International Airport. To check your requirements, you should consult the Visa Policy of Kuwait.
Visa Upon Arrival Process
The following steps describe how to apply for a Visa upon Arrival at Kuwait International Airport:
- If you’re one of the 54 nationalities which can apply for a Visa upon Arrival, you will first need to make your way to the ‘Counter for Visa Issuing‘ which is on the air side of Terminal 1.
- Directly inside the entrance, there’s a desk where you complete the Request for Tourist Entry Visa form.
- Next, you need to pay the 3 KD (US$10) application fee. This is done by inserting 3 KD cash into a vending machine (which doesn’t give change). The machine will dispense a 3 KD fiscal stamp.
Note: The application fee must be paid in KD cash. If you need cash, there’s an ATM available alongside the vending machine which thoughtfully dispenses 1 KD notes.
- Once you have purchased your fiscal stamp, you take a number and wait your turn to be called. When I arrived, I was the only one in the office so I was called immediately.
- Once you reach the counter, you hand over your passport, your 3 KD worth of stamps, your completed immigration form and your queue number.
- The immigration officer will then enter your details into the system and issue you with an A-4 size form which is your Entry visa.
- You will then have your passport stamped and you are free to enter Kuwait. The process took me about 10 minutes.
Note: It’s important you retain the Entry Visa form for the duration of your visit. Your hotel will ask for it and you will need to surrender it when leaving the country.
All flights into Kuwait arrive at Kuwait International Airport (KIA), which is 16 kilometres south of Kuwait City. The airport serves as the base for Kuwait Airlines and Jazeera Airlines both of which do not serve alcoholic beverages on their flights.
KIA has 5 terminals with the main terminals being Terminal 1 and 4, both of which will be eclipsed by the mega-Terminal 2 when its completed in 2022.
Terminal 1 & 4
Terminal 1 serves as the main terminal while the newest is Terminal 4, which was opened on the 8th of August 2018 and is used exclusively by Kuwait Airways.
The two terminals are 2 km apart and currently there is no shuttle bus (on the ‘land-side’) between them. If you do not have your own transport the only way to connect between the two is via airport taxi which will charge you 4 KD (US$13) for the 4 minute trip. If you are connecting on the ‘air-side’, there is a shuttle bus which departs from gate B10 at the Terminal 1.
I flew from Terminal 4 in February of 2019 and found it to be still a ‘work-in-progress’. There were just two small kiosk cafes selling drinks and snacks (the Costa Coffee kiosk is the best of the two), one duty free shop and nothing else. Construction hoardings were advertising the future arrival of one eatery.
The New Terminal 2
Not be be outdone by its neighbours, the government of Kuwait is busy building a new Norman Foster-designed terminal which will act as (another) hub for the region. Currently under construction, it’s due for completion in 2022. To view a video of Norman Foster introducing his design concept – click here.
The following airlines provide scheduled services to/ from Kuwait:
- Air Arabia – flies to/ from Sharjah
- Air Arabia Egypt – flies to/ from Alexandria, Assiut, Luxor, Sohag
- Air Cairo– flies to/ from Alexandria, Assiut, Sohag
- Air India – flies to/ from Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa
- Air India Express – flies to/ from Kochi, Kozhikode, Kannur, Mangalore
- Al Masria Universal Airlines – flies to/ from Cairo
- Armenia Air Company – flies to/ from Yerevan
- Atlas Global – flies to/ from Istanbul
- Azerbaijan Airlines – flies to/ from Baku
- Biman Bangladesh Airlines – flies to/ from Dhaka
- British Airways – flies to/ from London–Heathrow
- Cham Wings Airlines – flies to/ from Damascus, Latakia, Qamishli
- EgyptAir – flies to/ from Alexandria, Cairo
- EgyptAir Express – flies to/ from Sharm El Sheikh
- Emirates – flies to/ from Dubai–International
- Ethiopian Airlines – flies to/ from Addis Ababa
- Etihad Airways – flies to/ from Abu Dhabi
- flydubai – flies to/ from Dubai–International
- FlyBosnia – flies to/ from Sarajevo
- FlyEgypt – flies to/ from Alexandria, Assiut, Sohag
- Flynas – flies to/ from Jeddah, Medina, Riyadh, Taif
- Gulf Air – flies to/ from Bahrain
- IndiGo – flies to/ from Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kochi, Kannur
- Iran Air – flies to/ from Ahwaz, Isfahan, Lar, Mashhad, Shiraz, Tehran–Imam Khomeini
- Iran Aseman Airlines – flies to/ from Abadan, Ahwaz
- Iraqi Airways – flies to/ from Najaf
- Jazeera Airlines – flies to/ from Ahmedabad, Alexandria, Amman–Queen Alia, Assiut, Bahrain, Baku, Cairo, Delhi, Doha, Dubai–International, Hyderabad, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kochi, Lahore, Luxor, Mashhad, Mumbai, Najaf, Riyadh, Sohag, Tbilisi
- Jordan Aviation – flies to/ from Amman–Queen Alia
- KLM – flies to/ from Amsterdam, Bahrain
- Kuwait Airlines – flies to/ from Abu Dhabi, Ahmedabad, Amman-Queen Alia, Bahrain, Bengaluru, Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Beirut, Cairo, Chennai, Colombo, Dammam, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, Dubai–International, Frankfurt, Geneva, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kochi, Lahore, London–Heathrow, Manila, Mashhad, Medina, Milan–Malpensa, Mumbai, Munich, Muscat, New York–JFK, Paris–Charles de Gaulle, Riyadh, Rome-Fiumicino, Tehran–Imam Khomeini, Thiruvananthapuram
- Lufthansa – flies to/ from Dammam, Frankfurt
- Mahan Air – flies to/ from Mashhad
- Middle East Airlines – flies to/ from Beirut
- Nile Air – flies to/ from Alexandria, Cairo
- Oman Air – flies to/ from Muscat
- Onur Air – flies to/ from Istanbul
- Pegasus Airlines – flies to/ from Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen
- Qatar Airways – flies to/ from Doha
- Royal Jordanian – flies to/ from Amman–Queen Alia
- Salam Air – flies to/ from Muscat
- Saudia – flies to/ from Jeddah, Medina, Riyadh
- Syrian Air – flies to/ from Damascus, Latakia
- SriLankan Airlines – flies to/ from Colombo
- Turkish Airlines – flies to/ from Istanbul, Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen
It is illegal to import alcohol into Kuwait. Upon entering the country, your bags will be x-rayed by customs to ensure you are not carrying any alcohol.
Special Airport taxis provide transfers into Kuwait City, charging a fixed fare of 8 KD (US$26). The journey time is 20 to 30 minutes.
When returning to the airport, it’s much cheaper to take a regular city taxi which will charge just 5 KD. Regular city taxis are not allow to collect passengers from the terminal with police officers on duty to ensure this rule is respected.
Public buses operate from outside the arrivals hall at Terminal 1 and charge .2 KD to the city. You can view details on the routes available on the airport website.
Kuwait shares land borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Currently, the border with Iraq is closed while there are two crossings into Saudi Arabia, one on the coast (Highway 40) and one in the far west (Highway 70).
Kuwait has an extensive and modern network of highways, many of which are forever congested with traffic. The street naming (or numbering) system is truly baffling!
The Kuwait Public Transport Company (KPTC) operates a fleet of 400 buses which provide comprehensive coverage of Kuwait City. Tickets cost 250 fils for trips in the city. You can view their many different routes using the interactive route map on their website.
Citybus operate a fleet of modern buses throughout the city and to the airport with tickets starting at 200 fils. You can view their routes and fares on their slick website.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap, costing a few Dinars between any two points downtown. Most taxis are equipped with meters but the drivers (all ‘Guest workers’ from South Asia) rarely use them so its always best to negotiate the fare prior to departure. Fares are always reasonable and the drivers very courteous. The fare from downtown to the airport is 5 KD.
If you’re only visiting Kuwait City, you don’t need a rental car as taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. If you wish to explore beyond the city, its best to hire a rental car, although the local driving style could be best described as aggressive and chaotic, and all at high speed.
A compact car starts at around US$30 per day and fuel costs US$0.33 per litre. The following agencies are located outside the arrivals hall of Terminal 1
- Araba: +965 24738410 / 24738205
- Avis: +965 66327135
- Budget: +965 24347768 / 66286668
- Hertz: +965 24319326
- National: +965 24343139
- Sixt: +965 9892 1129
You might also be interested in reading other taste2travel articles from the region, such as my:
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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.