Though mostly undiscovered by tourists, the tiny kingdom of Bahrain is welcoming to visitors. Those who travel to this former center of the ancient civilization of Dilmun will find a multicultural haven wrapped in the natural beauty of the Persian Gulf coastline. With great urban shopping, dining experiences, and the mysteries of the desert close by, Bahrain may be off-the-beaten-track, but that only adds to its charm. Intrepid travelers won't be disappointed.
A staple on the international Formula 1 racing circuit, the Bahrain Grand Prix takes place in April. Purchasing tickets gives fans an automatic 14-day visa. Prepare ahead if you plan to take in the main Sakhir Circuit, which is a half-hour away from the capital city of Manama. The circuit is in the middle of the desert, and in Bahrain's hot and arid climate, being there to watch a race can be grueling. In keeping with the Muslim habit of avoiding alcohol, the Grand Prix winner is showered with rosewater instead of champagne.
Middle Eastern markets, known as souqs, are like treasure troves from a fairy tale. Haggling is expected. The Bab el-Bahrain souq in Old Manama is especially beautiful. Its narrow streets are crammed with hanging lamps, artisan ceramics, and goldwork jewelry, which is one of Bahrain's most famous exports. Not far south, the Persian market in Isa Town is better known for carpets and second-hand finds.
The Bahrain royal family keeps a special farm for its camels. These creatures have been an important part of life, sport, and commerce in the Middle East for centuries. The Royal Camel Farm just outside Manama showcases them in a non-exploitative environment. It opens daily, and it's a great place to learn and take pictures of majestic adult Dromedary camels and their cuter-than-cute babies. It's free, but be sure to tip the workers.
A global center for natural pearls, Bahrain is a great place to buy and to dive for the tiny perfect spheres. Snorkeling or diving the warm turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf is already a spectacular adventure where you can see rays, barracuda and turtles. Many organized expeditions that leave from Manama include lunch and all the necessary gear for diving into the oyster beds of Bahrain's ancient pearling grounds. Some tours will even allow you to keep the pearls you find.
Beach culture is modest and family-oriented in Bahrain. It's easy to combine water activities like dolphin watching and kayaking with some chill beach sunset-watching action. On Nurana Beach, there's a company called Beach Culture, who will set it all up for small groups who want to enjoy a beach BBQ supper and bonfire as the sun sets on Manama.
Because it's Muslim and Arabic, travelers might expect a low-key nightlife scene, even in the capital city of Manama. But Bahrain has a reputation among tourists for being the party capital of the Middle East. Steer clear of the ex-pat sports bars in favor of dance destinations like Klub 360 in Juffair district. For those who love to dine and lounge, the Diplomatic Area in Manama features sophisticated martini bars and restaurants.
One of Bahrain's iconic sights is a centuries-old acacia tree that has somehow survived the dryness of the desert to become a symbol of tenacity and resilience. There is no surrounding infrastructure, so for some, it could be underwhelming as a destination excursion. If you're heading down the highway between Riffa and Awali, stop and take a look at the Bahraini Tree of Life.
A mere 10-minute boat ride from the Sitra Fisherman's Port in Manama, the placid Al Dar resort islands are a daytripper's delight. Take a pick and go snorkel, watch dolphins, fish for sea bream or barracuda, or stretch out on one of the many beaches. There are a handful of charming chalets to rent if you want to extend your paradise expedition overnight.
This sprawling park combines water activities with history lessons from the ancient Dilmun empire in an unforgettable splash-up of Islamic architecture. From speed slides, adventure rides to therapeutic spa pools, this is a 77,000-square meter oasis that exists to help visitors forget the arid Bahraini climate outside the gates. DJs add to the party vibe on weekends.
Bahraini halwa is a typical Middle Eastern sweet that goes with tea or strong Arabic coffee. For more than a hundred years, the Jawal Showaiter family has been producing several varieties of halwa spiced with nuts, cardamom, and nutmeg. Other local sweets include pistachio filled baklava, kunafa, a kind of noodle cheesecake with sugar syrup, and luqaymat, which are fried dough balls that are especially popular at the end of Ramadan and during other celebrations.