Al Fateh mosque Bahrain

Bahrain 101 – A beginner’s guide to travelling in Bahrain

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If you’ve never even considered travelling in Bahrain, I really don’t blame you. Neither had I until very recently. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone considered it as a travelling destination until I met my boyfriend Alex. He grew up there as an expat kid and some of his family still live out there. So, as I’m a grown up now, I decided it was time to spend Christmas away from home and meet the family.

Big step.

Now, as a traveller, I couldn’t resist trying to cram in some sightseeing along with the family festiveness, and who better than my bloke to show me the sights. After all, he used to live here!

So here’s my guide to travelling in Bahrain for the first time.

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first-time-travel-guide-to-bahrain

Where / What is Bahrain?

If, like me, you’re having trouble placing Bahrain on a map, it’s a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the western section of the Persian Gulf. It’s a funny little place, with a real mix of Arabs, Western expats and South and Central Asian immigrants an is known for being the playground for Saudi seediness (they come over and use it as their ‘playground’ at weekends… if you catch my drift).

Middle East 4

First impressions

I really wasn’t expecting much from Bahrain as a place. For the first few days I couldn’t see anything at all that I liked. Near where we were staying in Juffair was an ‘American Strip’ with Burger King, McDonald’s Shawarma Express, and all number of awful tacky restaurants. At weekends (Fridays and Saturdays), the Bahraini equivalent of a chav-fest begins, with kids on motorbikes revving their engines and chav-mobiles driving by with their music and bass turned up to unimaginable levels.

I was seriously unimpressed.

Also the road system here is ridiculously confusing, with no clear signage and the worst driving I’ve seen outside of Cambodia, but driving is the only way to get around as public transport is unreliable, crowded and seriously smelly. It looked as though there was nothing to do here but go shopping in the massive malls. Kind of like a Dubai but 15 years ago (I visited Dubai in 2007 and did not like… one bit). A kind of soul-less desert, which time forgot. For the first few days I was imagining what I was going to write about on my return to the UK. I even came up with a blog title: Where Culture Comes to Die. I know. Pretty scathing review, right? Well luckily for me (and for Bahrain), my opinion did change.

Discovering the cultural side of Bahrain

A few days into my trip, we hired a car and embarked on a road trip, with Alex showing me a few spots of interest. It was liberating to have our own car and be able to explore at our own pace, rather than relying on taxis. We criss-crossed around the capital of Manama and its surrounds, with little idea of where we were going, thanks to a new (and very confusing) road system. At one point, we almost drove into the causeway leading to Saudi Arabia. That would’ve been an epic fail as it’s illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. I know. Backwards.

So if you’re planning a trip to Bahrain, allow me to recommend a few places of interest.

The Ahmed Al Fateh Mosque

Also known as the Grand Mosque, this was easily the best things about my time in Bahrain (I do bloody love architecture). It was beautifully designed, humble and truly eye-opening. It’s also free to enter and gave one of the most friendly welcomes I’ve ever had from a tourist attraction, let alone a place of worship. I’ve written a full blog post on this, for more detail click here.

Al Fateh Mosque picture travelling in bahrain

The Al Fateh Mosque, Bahrain

The Pearl Roundabout area – symbol of a struggle

The Pearl Roundabout recently symbolised the hope of the Shia Muslim majority to gain more say in the way the government is run, but unfortunately the demonstrations in 2011 were the catalyst for a government crackdown in which dozens were killed by the Saudi army. The Pearl Roundabout was destroyed and the entire area surrounding it closed off. Today a road has been built over the top of it, and the whole area remains spookily empty. I don’t recommend trying to get in there (the army will have a few questions for you), but a drive over the area provides a haunting reminder of the civil unrest which so recently happened here.

Another point on this; there are quite a number of army check points around the suburbs of Bahrain. We accidentally drove into one where there seemed to be some kind of anti government protest happening. best advice here is to leave as quickly as you can and avoid places where people are congregating as it’s not unknown for petrol bombs and other missiles to be thrown at cars. It’s rare but it does happen so it’s better to be safe in these situations, I believe.

Pearl Roundabout

The Pearl Roundabout, as it was before the 2011 rebellion. Now it has been destroyed. Image: http://www.pbase.com

Visit the souks

Selling everything from scarves to spices (and weird little cow toys), the souks in the centre of Manama are definitely worth a visit to pick up a bargain or two. Bahrain is famous for its pearls and 24ct gold (which is very yellow in colour if you like that kind of thing), so make sure you practice your bartering skills on these local treasures. I managed to pick up 3 handmade silk scarves for the equivalent of about 8 quid so just keep walking away and they will chase you down to make that sale! However – ladies beware! If you are western, you will be stared at. I purposefully toned down my very blonde hair before going to Bahrain but it made no difference at all. The men there love a good stare. Just make sure you’re dressed modestly and ignore it, and all will be well.

Bahrain souk, travelling in bahrain

The souks of Manama contain all sorts of interesting treasures

Visit the Camel farm of Janabiya

Always a crowd-pleaser, camels are just about as Arabian as it gets, and whilst passing a huge area filled with palm trees, we couldn’t help but stop to find out what it was. It turns out it’s a camel farm owned by the king. It’s marked as private property, but don’t worry about that – drive right in and ask if you can visit. They’re very friendly there and it’s actually fine for tourists to visit.

The king keeps the camels, we were told ‘just because he can‘, as a man might keep a flock of chickens or a herd of cows. They aren’t used for anything in particular – not racing, meat or milk, but just for a bit of a laugh! (As you do).

The camels are pretty friendly and although they are tied to their posts, they are allowed to roam freely in the grounds too. For a couple of Dinars ‘tip” (read: bribe), you can even ask to interact with them. Win!

Janabiya camel farm travelling in Bahrain

Take a walk around Bahrain Fort

Dating back to 2300 BC, and containing remains right up until the 18th century, Bahrain Fort is an archaeological site which has been excavated slowly over the last 70 years. It has been designated a UNESCO World Hetitage Site, and is now a protected area. Some parts are just ruins in the ground, but the most exciting part of it lays with the massive castle-like fort which still stands strong. We had some fun running in and out of the various rooms and little nooks, and looking out over the moat, and pretending that we lived there, but you might be a little more grown up than us and just enjoy it for its beautiful architecture. Entrance is free.

Bahrain fort

Soak up the history in the Qal’at Al-Bahrain Site Museum

If you like old relics and bones, then this place has got your name written all over it. Giving a thorough history of Bahrain’s occupation through time, and the way each civilisation lived (and died), it’s an eye-opening passage through time. The museum is conveniently located right next door to Bahrain Fort (see above), and for a few Dinars, you can spend as long as you like learning and soaking up the culture. Believe me, it’s good.

Bahrain museum

Pick up a bargain at A’ali pottery shops

They sell nothing but pottery (and some weird swing chair things??) in A’ali, and somewhere with that amount of stock needs to sell those bad boys. And they do – very cheaply too. Get your bartering hat on again and head towards the Saudi border, and take lots of scarves to wrap your new purchases in. We bought a beautiful earthenware tagine pot which we intend to use fully over the next few months (see middle picture). Is it sad that I’m really excited about that?

Bahrain aali pottery

Visit the Forbidden Pork section in any supermarket

OK, it’s probably just me but when I saw that there was a cordoned off area for pork in a Bahraini supermarket, I got excited! As Bahrain’s religion is Islam, and pigs are considered as dirty meat, this must be kept out of sight from the majority of shoppers. But it feels just so wrong, yet so right to wander into a giant refrigerated room full of ham, spam, bacon, sausages, pork chops and rolled joints. I even found the world’s largest pork pie in there. Fantastic.

Bahrain pork section in supermarket

Getting to Bahrain

I flew with Qatar Airways (London, via Qatar), which was the cheapest airline over the Christmas period. You can also fly direct with Gulf Air or British Airways.

Where to stay

Majestic Arjaan by Rotana – Manama

Oryx Tower

InterContinental Regency Bahrain

My experience of Bahrain was a mixed one for sure, but I managed to find some great little gems along the way. Although politically unstable and a little shady in places, as long as you’re sensible and take care of your own personal safety, there’s no reason why you won’t grow to love this little island. I’m getting there. Maybe my next visit to catch up with the family will make me love it more.

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

Comments 28

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    LovePuffin Travel Blog

    Oooh yes Oman is awesome you should definitely go there. UAE is a funny one for me. Perhaps a bit too much conflict between old and new worlds but places like Dubai just don’t sit right with me. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time – will keep an eye on your adventures!

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  4. cambridge airport cab ma

    I love the place Bahrain but never travel with family. A’ali pottery shops is awesome and collect these kind of architectural portraits is my hobby. This post actually help me to know more about this city and i definitely go there next time with family.

  5. Brad Bernard

    I love your assessment of this place! I lived in Saudi for a project and we would escape to Bahrain for bacon and movies and cold beer and women showing their ankles (ok, maybe that’s awkward).
    I remember getting so excited to watch Hunger Games in the theatre. It was edited down to like 40 minutes, and didn’t really make sense, but it was glorious! Love your blog, puffin.

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    LovePuffin Travel Blog

    I might have met some of you types whilst I was visiting Bahrain, escaping the confines of Saudi and (sometimes literally) letting loose on the streets of Bahrain! Thanks for taking the time to comment, love your blog too – especially the top 50s of each month. Are you trying to bankrupt me??

  7. a

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you
    write again soon!

  8. Ali Aburowais

    Really nice !! … I enjoyed reading about ur experience in Bahrain ….

    I am Bahraini .. and I can recommend more places to visit of u like …

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  10. sanna

    wow…Bahrain is good place to visit. I went to Bahrain only for business trip. Now I am planning to go Bahrain with my family & visit to all places in Bahrain.This post is really Informative & helpful.Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Diane

    I would like to add one more famous place in Bahrain that Al-Areen Wildlife Park:
    Regarded as one of the best tourist and most frequently visited spot in Bahrain, this wildlife park is a rich host of a huge number of flora and fauna. It has over 500 species of animals and about 10,000 plants. It has a reserve area and an open area for the visitors to see the nature closely. As well as Ramee hotels also very famous in Bahrain for their excellent services.
    http://www.rameehotelsbahrain.com/

  14. Nuj

    Hey! Thanks for the info! If it is not too much to ask, would you have a rough estimate of how much can be spent on a 2day-1night stay in Bahrain? I am a resident of Saudi Arabia (iqama) just recently, but have the multi exit/reentry permit, and plan to visit Bahrain during the Hajj days. I want to secure a budget for that. Thanks in advance.

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  16. Diane

    Hey ,
    thank you for sharing such a nice experience. I visited Bahrain last year but lots of place in their I didn’t see.
    I would like to read more articles of you.

  17. Mohammed K. Zayani

    Hello there!

    Great article, although you did miss few things when you came over.

    Some few things actually, for example, we have the largest graveyard in the world that it even has the royal Dilmunian family buried (somewhere) there.
    Also, you haven’t been to the sea part, there are a lot to see and things you can do in water rather than being on land (I mean it’s an island after all). We have great friendly dolphins that you can swim along, there is also an island where it comes out during the day and goes back underwater during night. The sand is really great, super clean and as you dig down water comes out. Many people go there for water sports, eat, drink and have water picnics, they keep it clean of course after they leave. We also have our own version of Titanic, look it up! It is a very beautiful sight and waters there are very shallow, you can even walk to it. Finally, the nightlife in Bahrain, it is what our little island is famous for! (plus that is why Saudis and other regional countries come over a lot).

    The best time to come to Bahrain is from end of September all the way through April or May, because the weather becomes really great and that is when Bahrain becomes more festive and lots of events going on.

    Here are few things that I know as a native and hope to see you around again. You are always welcomed back here.

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Mohammed

    Thanks so much for your detailed reply! There is certainly a lot more to see and I now have some ideas for my next trip for sure 🙂

    My sister in law still lives in Bahrain so I’m sure I will visit again – thanks for making me feel so welcome 🙂

  19. Lavita

    Hello 🙂

    Loved your article!

    I had a quick question. which supermarket was the one you went to? that has the pork section?

    Thanks

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  21. Jenna

    Wow, glad to see your opinion changed since I will be traveling there in the very near future.
    The one thing I didn’t see is where you stayed. This website recommends some 5 star accommodations https://www.hotelsnearme.co/content/travel-tips-visiting-manama-bahrain
    Which are unfortunately out of my price range. I am looking for something safe, and something a little more authentic then a Ritz Carlton. Any experiences or feedback that you have would be helpful.
    Thank you in advance Jenna

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Jenna

    I stayed with my boyfriend’s family as they live in the area. I’d recommend staying in Juffair, which is a suburb outside Manama which is home to the US army base and has a lot of restaurants and cafes to enjoy, as well as a shopping mall. It’s not as expensive as Manama and also quite westerner-friendly too. The Arman Hotel is 4* and usually comes in quite reasonable! Check it out here: http://www.booking.com/hotel/bh/arman.html?aid=906994&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1

  23. Ikay Esc

    Love your detailed post. I’m new here in Bahrain and I am looking forward to have a fruitful stay even on this super hot weather. 🙂

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