A group of 33 islands in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain is ideally placed for a stopover when travelling between Europe and the Far East. The country combines traditional Arabic culture with the glitzy architecture and facilities of a modern oil state, and has the added benefit of being more relaxed and tolerant than other places in the region. From archaeological sites to fine dining to diving for pearls, there is plenty to see and do in Bahrain.
Manama, the Capital of Bahrain
Manama was named Capital of Arab Tourism for 2020. It is a cosmopolitan city, with statement architecture, bright lights and world-class hotels and restaurants. Cultural attractions include the Bahrain National Museum and La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art.
Shopping malls are a part of life here: not necessarily the soulless places you might find in other countries, but stylish streets packed with shops, cafés and restaurants. But venture beyond the malls and you can find traces of the old Bahrain, old streets and houses that seem to have escaped the relentless modernisation.
Al-Fateh Grand Mosque
The Al-Fateh Grand Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world, and can accommodate up to 7,000 worshippers at a time. It was built on reclaimed land in the 1980s, using the finest materials from around the world to create the opulent interior.
Visitors can take a free guided tour of the mosque (any day apart from Fridays or public holidays). When I visited my guide gave an interesting explanation of different aspects of Islam and of Muslim prayer. The muezzin had just called, and I was able to watch the prayers from the balcony.
Note that women are expected to cover their heads, shoulders and knees (abayahs are available if necessary), and men must wear long trousers. All visitors have to remove their shoes before entering the mosque.
Bab Al Bahrain Souk and Little India
The Bab Al Bahrain (the old Manama souk) has been redeveloped into a new shopping area. However, part of the old souk remains in the surrounding streets. Here you can get a taste of what Manama used to be like, with market stalls selling all manner of goods, from colourful rugs and fabrics to fragrant spices.
Close to the souk is Little India, home to some of the city’s long-established Indian community. Although the area is not extensive, it does feel authentically Indian, with lots of restaurants, and shops selling incense and floral garlands. Don’t miss the Krishna Temple, tucked away in a small street. Built 200 years ago, its central courtyard and vivid décor are typical of those you’d find anywhere in India.
On an island close to Manama, Muharraq is the country’s former capital. 5,000 years old and once a regional centre for the pearling industry, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about Muharraq and the Pearling Path.
Historic Sites in Bahrain
Bahrain has a very long history, dating back more than 5,000 years. There are many historic and archaeological sites around the island where you can explore the country’s past.
The Dilmun Civilisation in Bahrain
The Dilmun civilisation in Bahrain was contemporaneous with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. There are several archaeological sites where you can see the remains of Dilmun houses, temples and burial places. Read more about the Dilmun sites of Bahrain.
Al Khamis Mosque
The Al Khamis Mosque is the oldest mosque in Bahrain, and one of the oldest in the Arab world. It was built in the 11th century and reconstructed in the 14th and 15th centuries (the twin minarets were added at this time). Although it is now ruined, visitors can still explore the site. Entrance is free (closed on Mondays).
There is also a visitor centre, with displays of artefacts that have been found here. It has information about the mosque and some interesting historic photographs of the surrounding area, which hosted a very busy market until the 1960s.
Historic Forts of Bahrain
There are four historic forts to discover in Bahrain. Two of these are in Muharraq: the Arad Fort built by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the 19th century Bu Maher Fort. These would have been intended to guard the island of Muharraq and its pearling industry.
The Riffa Fort (Sheikh Salman bin Ahmed Fort) was built in 1812 as a private residence. But the best known is the spectacular Bahrain Fort, on the north coast.
If you only go to one historic site in Bahrain, it has to be Bahrain Fort. Quite apart from its size and beauty (it is particularly popular at sunset), it is unique in representing different periods of Bahraini history.
The site was the capital of the Dilmun people, with a town and a seaport. The site was subsequently occupied by the Babylonians and the Persians, and the remains of a 3rd century port are also visible.
The fort that you see today was built by the Portuguese as a military garrison in the mid-16th century. However the Portuguese were driven out of Bahrain in 1602 and the fort was gradually abandoned. The Fort Museum gives more information about its history (closed on Mondays).
Wildlife and Countryside
The northern part of the island is mostly built up, and the rest is largely scrubland and military zones. However there are opportunities for nature-watching and outdoor activities.
Walk along the seafront at Sitra Park (to the south of Manama) to watch the flamingos and other waterbirds. From here you can also take a boat trip into the mangrove swamp, to enjoy the peace and spot a few herons. There is a small botanic garden at Budaiya, with a farmers’ market on Saturdays. And the Royal Camel Farm houses the king’s 600 camels (the camels are tethered but otherwise enjoy a healthy outdoor life).
Horse riding is a popular activity, as are all manner of water sports. Scuba diving is a chance to spot marine life, and you can even have a go at diving for pearls. Dolphin watching trips are also available.
Practical Information for Visiting Bahrain
- The international airport is on Muharraq island, but most visitors will stay in hotels in Manama.
- There are lots of choices for food and drink. Read more about eating and drinking in Bahrain.
- Historic areas like the old town of Muharraq and the Manama souk are walkable, but elsewhere the country is not really designed for pedestrians. However distances are small and it is very easy to find an Uber or regular taxi service. Alternatively you may wish to hire a car for some or all of your visit.
- Organised tours are advertised on the Visit Bahrain website.
- Bahrain can get very hot in the summer, hence the popularity of air-conditioned malls. Even at other times of year you may wish to plan outdoor activities, including visits to historic sites, for the beginning or end of the day.