Written by Petra Roesner, PHD
Never in my previous life would I have thought to visit this small island alongside the Eastern coast of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - it just happened that my husband was stationed there and we decided to visit him. So myself and sons set out to fly there. Although I was traveling by myself with two children, immigration at Manama International Airport was really easy to navigate and the officers were super friendly welcoming us.
The capital of Bahrain is Manama, where really old meets really new, traditional buildings and mosques alongside a splendid modern skyline. Bahrain also has a number of old forts, notably the Arad Fort, the Qal’at al Bahrain Fort and the Riffa Fort, which are “left over” from when Portugal was in charge there a few hundred years ago!
Getting around in Manama can be challenging, traffic can get very bad and the drivers there can be a bit wild, and it is not unheard of or unseen that some drivers will use what passes at a side walk at time to get “ahead” of the line at red lines or to simply pass cars in line to make that right-turn just a minute or so faster. If you decide to drive over there, caution needs to be exercised. If you don’t have access to a car or decide not to rent one, tThere are lots of taxis, which will take you anywhere for a cheap fare. Walking can be challenging as well, especially in areas of town where there are simply no sidewalks, so one should always look out or listen for approaching cars, and watch out for construction of building all over the place as well. Taking about “odd” things one finds when walking in Manama: they are filling up the island with sand, from the ocean, so many parking areas are not paved yet, but the great news is, you can find sea shells in the middle of a growing city!
The souk in Manama is small, when compared to souks in Tunis or Cairo, but they have a variety of nice shops there to buy souvenirs, scarfs, and rugs. If you have a desire to have your next outfit tailor-made, the souk is the place to go, and it is cheaper than buying an off-the-shelf one in the US or Europe. The souk also has cute little places that sell spices, and it is a great place to just sit down in one of the little coffee/tea shops to enjoy a hot cup of something and watch people passing by while indulging in some of the great pastries they sell as well.
Manama has many mosques, most notably the Al Fateh Grand Mosque across from the Royal Palace in center town. The ladies and gentlemen who work there are more than happy to give tours, one just needs to stick the head in the door to feel welcomed. Men are expected to have their arms and legs covered, women will be given a hijab and head dress to wear. If you are not comfortable with wearing a headdress worn by many, I would recommend always having a little scarf in the purse just in case the situation arises that one should be worn.
Food and drink: one word, awesome Middle Eastern cuisine from all kinds of countries in the region. And the food is cheap, and the portions tend to be huge, one meal is enough to share. There are also a lot of shawarma places alongside busy streets, most notably the road leading the Royal Palace, generally referred to as Sharwama Alley among the ex-pats who life there. Another great thing to try is some of the fruit juices in any of the restaurants, they juice them right in front of you and are awesome and refreshing! And yes, there are those lovely honey-drenched pastries again …
Alcohol is available in Bahrain, in hotels and specialized stores. Talking about hotels, most of the bigger ones (the “K-Hotel, The Moevenpick etc.) all offer brunch on Fridays, where for a set price you can indulge for pretty much the whole day in eating and drinking if you desire!
The people in Bahrain are very friendly and very welcome towards visitors, and we have not experienced any problems whatsoever there. However, as Bahrain at the time of our visit was still going through their version of the Arab Spring, we tended to avoid certain areas after dark, which during daytime however were fine to be in.
Other sights too see: the causeway bridge which connects Bahrain with Saudi Arabia, the Tree of Life, the Formula 1 Racetrack, the First Well, the Bahrain National Museum, the Ahmed Alfateh Islamic Center and Grand Mosque, and the Royal Camel Farm. There are also plenty of opportunities to dive and snorkel in the Gulf of Bahrain and the Persian Gulf.