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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
. . . . . . .
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.
. . . . . . .
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.