Traveller Lowdown - Manama, Bahrain

Few people realise when they land in Bahrain that they have actually touched down in the country’s capital, Manama, a city so influenced by the Portuguese and Persians that it’s overflowing with historic and cultural must-see sites. DILRAZ KUNNUMMAL gives us her insider guide to the bustling Gulf metropolis, which is as renowned throughout the region for its vibrant nightlife scene as it is for its Middle Eastern authenticity.

Island of pearls, land of smiles and home to the ancient enigmatic Dilmun civilisation, the tiny kingdom of Bahrain has many monikers. Located in the Persian Gulf, over the years the country has become an increasingly popular destination for seasoned travellers, not least due to its unique mix of culture, tradition and modernity, married with natural vistas and architectural marvels, populated by wonderfully warm and welcoming people. Moreover, like Oman, Bahrain has managed to retain much of its traditional character, charm and values.

Although the smallest GCC country, the archipelago of 33 islands (of which just two are populated – Manama and Muharraq) has plenty to offer anyone who lands on its shores – from sites seeped in history to natural wonders, and fine dining to blissful beach resorts. While Muharraq is the soul of the country’s ancient pearl trading industry, Hawar Island (a 45-minute boat ride from Manama) is where sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand. Bahrain is nothing if not a country of pleasurable extremes.

Bahrain’s historical significance dates back many millennia, to a time when it was known as Dilmun, a Semitic-speaking country, mentioned throughout the history of Mesopotamia from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. Regarded as one of the oldest civilisations in the Middle East, Dilmun was also one of the most prosperous. Such historical influences continue to be evident in modern day Bahrain.

Recent years have seen the country’s capital, Manama, bloom into a veritable Middle Eastern paradise for residents and visitors alike. Sprawling malls, hospitality gems and entertainment venues enhance the city’s understated regional trendsetting reputation. Notably, in 2004 Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to host Formula One’s swirl of supercars. The high-profile event has been staged yearly ever since, with the exception of 2011, when, due to the Arab Spring, the country was engulfed in protest and the race had to be cancelled.

Located barely 15 minutes from the country’s main airport, for many, Manama, Bahrain’s capital, never really sleeps. Late night eateries and bustling coffee shops vie with a seemingly 24-hour nightlife scene to keep the city’s tourists, entrepreneurs, high-flying execs, Gulf residents and holidaying celebs entertained. From the beginning of the weekend, the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway (which links Bahrain to the wealthy but strictly proscriptive neighbouring Saudi Arabia to the south) is jammed with cars and SUVs, as Arabs from other Gulf states pour into Bahrain to enjoy its relative freedoms.

In Manama there’s a myriad of options to set up base camp. From five-star hotels in the heart of the city to relaxed beach resorts on its outskirts, the capital of Bahrain provides a wide range of lodging options to rest one’s head, sufficient to satisfy the needs of every type of traveller, from those on a budget to the world’s most demanding.

Situated on its own private island accessed by causeway, yacht or water-taxi, the soaring contemporary architectural statement made by Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay – Manama’s most luxurious hospitality address – positively exudes opulence and dominates the city’s skyline. Boasting unparalleled facilities, each of the 273 guest rooms and suites at this deluxe urban resort, features unobstructed vistas across the crystalline waters via oversized windows. Incorporating numerous unique design elements and filled with countless original artworks of varying styles, unsurprisingly the hotel has become something of a national landmark and hospitality status symbol within the country.

Four Seasons also offers an array of culinary options, including two restaurants by Michelin-starred celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, not least critically acclaimed CUT, a sleek, modern American steakhouse serving the widest and best cuts of meat available. Meanwhile Puck’s Moroccan-inspired bar on the hotel’s 50th floor, Blue Moon Lounge, offers a rich space for guests to relax and enjoy spectacular sunsets and the twinkling lights above the bay until the early hours. www.fourseasons.com/bahrain

Hotel Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa, located on Bahrain’s west coast and perched on the pristine beaches of Zallaq overlooking the Arabian Gulf, is as worthwhile visiting for the property’s sumptuous spa as it is for its superb Tapas Restaurant & Bar, which is just one of the many food and beverage outlets scattered around this sprawling 262-room resort, which skilfully blends French art de vivre with traditional Bahraini styles.

After an afternoon of sublime pampering at the only thalassotherapy complex in the GCC, which offers a vast range of seawater-based treatments, adjourn to the tapas bar for sundowners, inimitable sea views, delicate bites and some live entertainment. Sipping a glass of Pinot here, perhaps accompanied by a little shisha while watching the sun gently setting, is the perfect prelude to a night out in the Bahraini capital. www.sofitel.com/bahrain

In the Seef district of the Manama, the country’s grand hospitality dame, Ritz-Carlton, is immensely popular with Europeans, expats and holidaymakers, a good number of whom can be seen every weekend relaxing within the boundaries of its extensive grounds. In a country whose natural coastline is regularly extended via massive land reclamation projects, Manama’s Ritz-Carlton offers some of the best private beaches (albeit artificial) in the Bahraini capital, complete with its own marina.

For those looking to splash some serious holiday cash, the Ritz-Carlton’s three-bedroom villas offer unsurpassed beachfront accommodation, each with its own private swimming pool, waited on 24/7 by a bevy of professional butlers. If you can draw yourself away from the hotel’s white sands, the Frida Kahlo inspired décor at the hotel’s excellent Mexican restaurant, Cantina Kahlo, is as memorable as its cuisine, whilst the blended three rum Tiki Puka Puka cocktails at Trader Vic’s are somewhat moreish. Late at night after a hearty meal, the hotel’s Burlington Club is the perfect locale to lounge with a Cuban cigar and fine French cognac. www.ritzcarlton.com

Dating back at least 5,000 years to the Dilmun civilisation, the country’s forts are its most important excavated sites. Hence, picking one of them is an ideal place to start a day of sightseeing. Bahrain Fort, also known as Qal’at al-Bahrain and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located in the far north of the main island, 20 minutes-drive from central Manama.

Built in the 16th century by the Portuguese, during the 81-year period when Portugal occupied Bahrain from 1521 until 1602 (when it was pushed out by Persia), the site is also believed to have been the central hub of the Dilmun era and was first inhabited around 2300BC. Understandably the area is much loved by archaeologists, since excavations have revealed a great deal of information about times long gone. www.culture.gov.bh/en

Many of the country’s most important archaeological finds are contained within the capital’s beautiful Bahrain National Museum, which houses extensive collections ranging from traditional handicrafts and cultural artefacts, to political documents and early currency, all carefully arranged within nine well-curated halls. The museum provides a truly wonderful tour through Bahrain and its history and traditions. Must-sees are the hundreds of years-old pearls found at the Dilmun Civilization Historic Site, as well as the Dilmun Seals. www.culture.gov.bh/en

History shows that pearl diving was happening in Bahrain more than five millennia ago. Today more than 400mile² of oyster beds still flourish in the country’s warm and shallow waters. Whilst Bahrain’s pearl industry may have taken a tumble with the emergence of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1920s, locals still pearl fish for fun. Offering a somewhat unusual aquatic experience, visitors can also dive for pearls (equipped with the appropriate scuba gear, of course) and are allowed to keep whatever they find. www.intothebluebh.com

Bahrain has one of the largest necropolis in the world. The A’ali Burial Mounds date back to the Dilmun (3200 BC-330 BC), the Umm an-Nar Culture and later eras, and was the final resting place for people of all ages and tiers of society. Recent studies have shown that the estimated 350,000 ancient grave mounds on the site are likely to have been solely produced by the local population over a number of thousands of years.

While in A’ali, make time to participate in a local village pottery workshop, all of which use traditional mud kilns. After all, there’s nothing better than making your own souvenir to take home! Back in Manama central, EZ Art Pottery creative studio offers a drop-in pottery making class in spacious and well-equipped surroundings www.ezartpottery.com. Meanwhile, to witness some traditional Bahraini arts and crafts, visit the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre. A traditional house set in the midst of beautiful lush gardens, here a number of artisans showcase their work with textiles, woods and date palm leaves, the latter used to weave baskets and other small items. www.btea.bh/aljasra-handcrafts

A veritable testament to the power of nature, Sharajat-al-Hayat (or Tree of Life) definitely warrants a visit, especially to watch the sunset. Located in the middle of the desert, somehow this Prosopis cineraria tree has survived for more than 400 years in a brutally harsh climate with no obvious source of water. Legend has it that cults once made sacrifices and practiced other rituals around the tree, whilst others say that it is the “tree of life” mentioned in the Bible.

For an artistic fix, Bahrain hosts many cultural events throughout the year. These take place all around Manama at different locations, including open-air stages, the National Theatre, the Cultural Hall and at a variety of historic, traditional buildings which have been lovingly restored during recent years. The Spring of Culture, The Summer Festival and the Music Festival are just a few worthwhile annual events organised by the Authority of Culture and Antiquities. www.culture.gov.bh/en

For high-end luxury shopping at its best, head to Moda Mall at Bahrain World Trade Centre, where countless international designers have stores, including Armani, Gucci and Hermès www.modabahrain.com. Other international and local designer wear can be found in malls such as City Center, Seef Mall and AlAli Mall.

If you are looking to support local Bahraini designers, Noon by Noor www.noonbynoor.com and Azza Fine Jewellery www.azzaalhujairi.com are two of the most talented. The bustling alleyways of Manama Souq, in the warren of streets behind Bab Al Bahrain, is the place to go for nuts, spices, shisha bottles and a plethora of other Bahraini essentials. Don’t miss the Gold Souq, Kingdom of Perfumes and the Spice Souq.

One of the country’s landmarks is Al-Fateh Mosque, one of the largest in the world and open to non-Muslims. Built in the 1990s, the huge domed building also hosts the National Library. Named after the founder of Bahrain, the mosque is open from 9am to 4pm and tours are conducted in a number of languages including English.

Finally, to the Kingdom’s vibrant and hugely popular nightlife scene. Manama’s numerous clubs and bars, with their diverse and eclectic mix of DJs and music genres, allow visitors the opportunity to genuinely let their hair down. Ibrida at Ramee Grand Hotel in Seef district www.facebook.com/Ibridabahrain and KLUB360º at Elite Crystal Hotel are two nightclubs where the city’s who’s who often hang out www.klub360.com. But if it’s just a just a cocktail and dinner you’re after, Txoko sky lounge on the 36th floor of Domain Hotel is popular and always busy with a lively crowd www.thedomainhotels.com

There may be a mere 295 square miles of Bahrain in total, but the country and its energetic hub pack a lot of vacation punches. With world-class sporting events, festivals and cultural happenings, to historical sites, entertainment venues and Michelin-starred restaurants – not to mention a world of shopping – Manama offers something for literally everyone in one outgoing, pint-sized short break-friendly capital.