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From the moment I stepped off the plane in Manama, I was transfixed by Bahrain. I love the sensation of being jolted awake by a place that feels truly exotic, and that’s what my first taste of the Middle East did for me.

With just twenty-four hours, I’m in awe of just how much I took in. A lot of that is thanks to my hosts at the Intercontinental Bahrain, who set me up with both a driver and one of their lovely managers, Mohammed, to show me around the tiny island nation. The diminutive size of Bahrain also made our super charged sightseeing tour possible — nothing is too far from anything else. While I had mentioned a few highlights I was anxious to see, I mostly handed over the reigns to the local experts and allowed myself to be shuttled around in style.

Bahrain Cultural Centre

1. Bahrain National Museum

Lonely Planet listed the Bahrain National Museum as the country’s most popular tourist attraction, and I could quickly see why. The stark modern architecture of the exterior was the perfect contrast to the complex cultural and historical stories told within. While I spent about an hour here, I could have easily spent two or three.

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

As interesting as the ancient history sections were — Bahrain is brimming with important archaeological sites and is hypothesized by some to be the setting for the fabled Garden of Eden — I found the exhibits on contemporary Bahrain most intriguing. With a modest entry fee and so much insight into the local culture, it would be crazy to miss this museum.

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

Bahrain National Museum

2. Al Fateh Grand Mosque

Though I’ve traveled a fair bit in Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, the only mosques I’ve ever entered have been in Istanbul. So I was looking forward to visiting Bahrain’s Al Fateh Grand Mosque, the largest building in the country.

Mohammed informed me that I’d have to don an abaya and headscarf in order to enter the mosque, and true to his word, I was whisked away into a women only dressing room upon walking through the doors. There, a friendly girl around my age chatted to me about my travels while expertly wrapping my shawl into a fashionable headscarf. Like any visitors to the mosque, we were then handed off to a volunteer guide.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

I deeply appreciated the guide’s thorough explanation of the roots of Islam, and her patient answering of my endless questions. As we were about to enter the prayer room, I breathlessly asked why we were taking our shoes off — what was the history? The meaning? “To keep the carpets clean,” she replied dryly, tossing her slippers aside.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

This is another unmissable stop in Bahrain. Unlike some mosques that are visited like any other tourist attraction, Al Fateh is dedicated to education and I was touched by the hospitality I was shown here.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque Bahrain

3. Royal Camel Farm

You can’t go to the Middle East and not see camels. It’s a fact. Which is why I was so excited to visit Bahrain’s own Royal Camel Farm. I was also admittedly somewhat confused, because what even is a Royal Camel Farm actually. Details were thin, with even Mohammed a bit perplexed as to the purpose of the camels.

What we did know was the camels were owned by the royal family, they were not raced or worked in any way, and throwing unwanted materials was strictly prohibited by security.

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

I was content snapping away and squealing at every movement the camels made when I caught sight of Mohammed, who didn’t look so well. “I have never been outside for so long in August,” he explained, wiping sweat from his eyes. We had been out of the car for ten minutes. In his defense, the heat index was hovering around 100°F.

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

Royal Camel Farm Bahrain

4. Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve

Because you can never have too many camels in your life, we also stopped by the Al Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve. The sprawling reserve is home to indigenous Middle Eastern bird and mammal species, including our favorite humped horse (okay, know they’re not actually horses.) Due to the heat, we didn’t stay long, but I think it would be a lovely spot to explore on a more mild day. For short stopovers, you’ll probably give Al Areen a miss, as it’s located outside Manama in the Southwest of the island.

Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve Bahrain

Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve Bahrain

Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve Bahrain

Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve Bahrain

Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve Bahrain

5. Formula One Racetrack

Our visit didn’t coincide with one of the three days a week that official behind-the-scenes tours of the track are given (that’s Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, in case you were curious), but we charm the guards into letting us take a peek at Bahrain’s own Formula One Racetrack. While I’m not much into that scene, I did regale Mohammed with stories of my one time behind a race car wheel.

The racetrack is easily combined with a visit to neighboring Al Areen Wildlife Park.

The Bahrain International Circuit

The Bahrain International Circuit

The Bahrain International Circuit

The Bahrain International Circuit

6. Looking Out the Window

It’s the mark of a place that feels truly exotic when you can’t tear your eyes from a car window. Simple things like signs for turnoffs to Saudi Arabia, the familiar Subway logo unrecognizable in Arabic, and endless miles of desert stretched out in front of us all gave me a smile.

The time I spent in the car chatting to Mohammed about his experiences living and working around the Persian Gulf was one of the highlights of my day. I was fascinated especially by his stories of Saudi Arabia, which felt suddenly so close yet so ideologically far. Technically, it’s just across the King Fahd Causeway, where as my fellow blogger Raymond wrote, “you’ll catch the slightest scent of oil money and human rights violations wafting across the Gulf.”

A country where alcohol and cinemas are forbidden, women can’t drive, malls have separate opening hours for men and women, public spaces from post offices to restaurants are segregated by gender, and the only non-familial men that most women every meet is their driver? I was starting to understand why so many Saudis flock to Bahrain for weekend fun, leaving most of their rigid rules behind. As for the Saudi’s taste for splendor, Mohammed explained, “luxury is a band aid for the lack of rights.”

Welcome to Bahrain

Bahrain Airport McDonald's

As we approached one neighborhood en route back to Manama and the airport, Mohammed explained that the area was known for political protests. The words had barely left his mouth when a thick blanket of back smoke appeared, and soon we approached an intersection where tires where tires had been set aflame by indignant demonstrators. Rather than stop traffic, cars inched slowly around them; when it was our turn, we both snapped photos with our iPhones, and Mohammed laughed nervously. I just smiled. I really was seeing quite a bit in just twenty-three short hours.

Bahrain Tire Burning

. . . . . . .

I think what makes this brief stay so significant for me is that it has opened up an entirely new region of the world to my realm of possibilities. Previously, I think I was equal parts intimidated by and indifferent to travel in the Middle East. Yet in spite of the burning tires and the metal detectors at the entrance to my hotel, I felt incredibly safe and welcome, and intrigued to learn more about this culture so exotic to me. Leaving Bahrain, I started to daydream about traveling to countries that were never really on my radar before.

Back at the airport just a day after I’d touched down, I strained to hear my boarding call announcement over the amplified evening call to prayer. And as I made my way to my gate, I smiled again — I’d be back soon.

Bahrain Cultural Centre

. . . . . . .

Still holiday shopping? Don’t forget to check out my new Wanderland Wearable collection!

. . . . . . .

Many thanks to the Intercontinental Bahrain for their overwhelming hospitality. As usual, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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108 Comments...
  • It’s amazing that visiting Bahrain has made you want to explore more of the Middle East, you obviously got a lot out of your trip. What an interesting country, it looks beautiful in your photos!
    Grace | The Beauty of Everywhere recently posted..Kinsale: A Photo-Essay

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I guess all I needed was a little taste to pique my interest! Someday I will explore more…

  • Marie @ Marie Away
    December 11 2014

    What an incredible experience. Everything looks so bright and exotic! I think you really spent your time well. You’ve certainly given me some travel inspiration!
    Marie @ Marie Away recently posted..A Day in the Mountains: Chiaksan in South Korea

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I’m so glad to hear that Marie! It really did feel deliciously exotic. That’s what I loved so much about it…

  • becky hutner
    December 11 2014

    I love your admission that you were “equal parts intimidated by and indifferent to travel in the Middle East.” That’s probably how a lot of Westerners feel…

    One place I am DYIIIING to go is Socatra in Yemen. Bucket list item for sure!
    becky hutner recently posted..Fashion ‘Round the World: FALL ’14

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      WHOA! I had never even heard of Socatra. Gorgeous! So added to my bucket list. Thanks for the inspiration Becky!

  • Liz H
    December 11 2014

    Absolutely beautiful photos, Alex! You really crammed a lot into 23 hours. Love the headscarf selfie but am actually surprised cameras were allowed inside the mosque.

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I was too! I asked Mohammed somewhat timidly ahead of time and he assured me it was fine. When I arrived I asked again and was assured it was welcomed! I suppose it goes along with their goal of spreading knowledge about their religion…

  • Corinne
    December 11 2014

    Alex, I have wanted to go to Bahrain for some time, and I think a stopover is really the way to do it. Which airline were you flying? I love, love, love the camels…so cute!
    Corinne recently posted..Mochi, Mochi, Mochi

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      It was Gulf Air. They were great — would fly again!

  • Justine
    December 11 2014

    I think it’s amazingly cool that you were able to have this experience. And that you were opened up to traveling in a whole new part of the world is just awesome. I haven’t been to the Middle East myself, but I’m endlessly fascinated by it. And I think now that I’m living in a Muslim country I’m even more interested in exploring the Middle East. I had my first taste of Islam while traveling in Malaysia earlier this year. I visited the National Mosque there where, like you in Bahrain, I was required to be covered head to toe. The whole experience was just incredibly interesting and I seriously fell in love with Islamic architecture during that trip. I’m so glad to hear that you had such a great 24 hours in Bahrain and if/when you do travel to the Middle East again I would so love to read about it!! Oh, and your camel photos are so great 🙂
    Justine recently posted..10 Otherworldly Places to Visit in Indonesia

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I’m sorry to say I never visited the National Mosque in Malaysia. I’m sure I will be back again someday though… I’ll be sure to hit it up next time!

  • Miriam of Adventurous Miriam
    December 11 2014

    I can’t believe how much you got out of your time in Bahrain! And I absolutely love your camel photos, haha. Brilliant!
    Miriam of Adventurous Miriam recently posted..Free things to do in Singapore

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Thanks Miriam 🙂 They made my trip!

  • Colleen Brynn
    December 11 2014

    I had a similar jolting experience when I got to Qatar. SO different. Loved that… after traveling a lot, it takes a big change to really give a good jolt.
    Love your flamingo dress, so cute.
    And I had to giggle about the shoe removal at the mosque. And WHAT a mosque. Stunning.
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Details Of, Various.

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Exactly. It is an exhilarating feeling and almost a relief that it can still happen! It’s just too easy to get jaded sometimes. It was a very refreshing, if short, trip 🙂

  • Hannah Wasielewski
    December 11 2014

    I have a friend who spent 6 weeks in Bahrain and she absolutely loved it! Considering the island is so small, you can see quite a bit in just one day. But it seems like there is a lot to do, your pictures make me want to visit right now!
    Hannah Wasielewski recently posted..Announcement: Our Next Big Adventure!

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Six weeks would have been a bit much for me, but I certainly could have used longer than this! I’m glad your friend had a great experience though 🙂

  • I love your dress! I just met someone recently who did his masters degree in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the region. The Middle East is certainly an area that I am interested in exploring, but I’m not sure it would be a place I would do alone.
    Katelyn @ Diaries of a Wandering Lobster recently posted..A Band of Traveling Friends: The Sao Miguel Story

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I definitely was put at ease by having a local accompanying me. I’m sure I would have managed on my own, but this was a really nice way to try out the region for the first time. I have considered joining a small tour to explore more of the Middle East in the future.

  • Kelly Russell
    December 11 2014

    Yet another great post, Alex. I haven’t commented in awhile, but I’m still reading every post! I love how open you are to trying new things and visiting new places – don’t ever lose your open-mindedness! 🙂 … also, the flamingo dress is fab.

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Aw, thank you Kelly — and it’s so great to hear from you! I try to keep an open mind… yes girl for life 🙂

  • Jana
    December 11 2014

    Something I am always asking myself when I read your posts and see your amazing pictures is how you learned to takes these great photos and which program you are using to edit them!

    I am so impressed by the richness of colors your pictures always have!
    Jana recently posted..A Hike Along Allgäu Alpsee or How I’ve Almost Been Eaten by Mud

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Hey Jana — check out my Obsessions page, I use the Adobe suite to edit 🙂 Obsessed!

  • Kristen Noelle
    December 11 2014

    The Middle East has an intriguing & mysterious exotic charm that I’m anticipating to discover as well. A visit to the UAE at least within the next couple of years is definitely a must. How cool that you landed a stay at plush Intercontinental, and were able to see so much in a day! Your mosque photos are beautiful.
    Kristen Noelle recently posted..PHOTOS | Jhene Aiko & SZA – Enter the Void Tour

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Thanks Kristen! It definitely feels like there is a big new corner of the world out there to explore now…

  • Stef
    December 11 2014

    That really looks exotic. How great that you got the chance to see so much in just 24 hours. Lucky you 🙂
    Stef recently posted..101 Bucket List Ideas for 2015 you can do (almost) everywhere

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I know, I was very lucky to have such great hosts! They really made it possible for me to see as much as possible.

  • Sky
    December 11 2014

    I love this! I am *so* intrigued by the Middle East, I would love to travel there someday. I think I would find the mosque so interesting – I am extremely intrigued by Islam and I’d love to learn more!
    Sky recently posted..Central America Adventure – 1 Month to Departure!

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      This would be a great one to visit then — so much education and information!

  • Tawny of Captain and Clark
    December 11 2014

    Bahrain is one of our favorite countries. We were there in 2010 and were able to explore with our friend May, a local. Her father is veterinarian to the Royal Family and we were able to tour their personal zoo as well as watch as a few royal falcons were trained to hunt. It was an incredible experience!

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I love that story 🙂 You guys are the coolest!

  • Kacy
    December 11 2014

    What a whirlwind! It really looks like you saw everything in 24 hours. I felt similar to you about travel to the Middle East until reading this, and now I’m very intrigued!
    Kacy recently posted..DC: Flights with Benefits at Maple

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Maybe your mind will be similarly blown by an unexpected layover, one of these days 🙂

  • Ashley
    December 11 2014

    I always love reading about places I know next to nothing about, and I’ll admit Bahrain is one of them. It seems like such a fascinating place, and Al Fateh Grand Mosque looks beautiful. The Middle East is definitely a region of the world that has been calling to me lately- especially Jordan and Iran.
    Ashley recently posted..A Quick Guide to the Beaches of Railay

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      I love getting the opportunity to write about places that maybe I’ll be the first one to share with some of my readers. There’s no greater feeling 🙂

  • Chalsie
    December 11 2014

    What a day! I’ve never been to the Middle East before, but it’s incredibly intriguing!
    Chalsie recently posted..Why everyone should travel solo at least once

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Agreed — I’m definitely on the lookout to return sooner rather than later.

  • Erika
    December 11 2014

    I’m so impressed with how much you managed to fit into one day! And your pictures are absolutely stunning. I — like you — have always been a little afraid to travel to the Middle East, but your post is inspiring me to step out of the box a little. It looks like a beautiful and interesting place!
    Erika recently posted..My Favorite Butterscotch Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Thanks Erika! I still can’t really believe I crammed so much in — I didn’t sleep much, that’s for sure!

  • I have to say that I feel mainly indfferent to the Middle East although I am very interested in going to Jordan, Socotra Island in Yemen and maybe Oman, but the rest just doesn’t really interest me. I think it has a lot to do with desert scenery not being terribly exciting to me and also because of the attitude towards women. Interesting post nonetheless 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..So… I’m a Penguin Warden

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      This is why I love this blog — I had never even heard of Socotra Island before this comment section! I’m obsessed and now must go! I do understand your hesitations about the inherent misogyny in the region, though. The rash of women being imprisoned in Dubai for reporting their rapes has definitely turned me off visiting that country 🙁

  • Miquel
    December 11 2014

    I am so intrigued by the Middle East and would love to travel there sometime. That mosque looks amazing!

    O and if this whole blogging thing doesn’t work out you could always try out professional camel photography. Love those camel photos!!!
    Miquel recently posted..Chatuchak Weekend Market in Photos

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Haha. I’d love to see that on LinkedIn!

  • Amanda
    December 11 2014

    A royal camel farm?? Awesome.

    (Also, love that flamingo dress!)
    Amanda recently posted..Swimming With Wild Dolphins in New Zealand

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Thanks 🙂 I rarely, rarely ever splurge on clothing. But when I saw this baby for 60% off at a design co-op in Athens, it had to be mine!

  • Diane
    December 12 2014

    You know, I never really gave Bahrain much thought (hate heat) but if I’m ever traveling somewhere far and Bahrain is a possible stopover option, I’d love to visit. Not sure I could pack in as much as you did in a day’s time but I can try. Did they have a/c pumping everywhere? Very cool!
    Diane recently posted..Top blogging pet peeves that make me want to scream

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      AC was indeed EVERYWHERE! In fact, I had to ask them to turn it down in the car! The temperature leaps were just too wide.

  • Melanie Fontaine
    December 12 2014

    I’ve wanted to go somewhere in Arabia for a really long time, but places like Bahrain were never really on my radar either… to be honest, I didn’t even know that there were so many interesting things to see!

    On a different note: I’ve been following your blog for a couple of years now and while I always thought that your photographs were great, I’ve also noticed that they just keep on getting better! 🙂 I’m wondering: Have you ever considered writing a post on Photography tips? Not so much the technical side, but your creative tips? I’d love to learn from you! 🙂

    xx
    Melanie Fontaine recently posted..Hopes, Dreams and Plans for 2015

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Wow, thank you so much Melanie! I’ve had a few requests for a post like that recently. Thanks for the nudge — I really need to make that happen!

  • Jade
    December 12 2014

    I never would have thought about visiting the Middle East but this post has really made me think! And by the way, you look great in the abaya and headscarf!

    • Alex
      December 14 2014

      Thanks Jade! That is a huge compliment — well, that I made you think. But also the second one 🙂

  • Laura
    December 12 2014

    I loved this post! I have never been to Bahrain or even thought about visiting, but you’ve got my interest piqued.
    Laura recently posted..The Best of Sydney: Cafes