Known for kicking off oil production in the Arabian Gulf, the diminutive island kingdom of Bahrain is more than just a deposit of fossil fuels. With enclaves of independent restaurants, museums and heritage sites packed with local history, and atmospheric souqs where everything from produce to some of the world’s most beautiful natural pearls can be bargained for, Bahrain is a rare experience where the charm of its origins hasn’t been overshadowed by a deluge of modernity.
FRIDAY MORNING AND AFTERNOON
One of the best examples of this is the island’s quiet nature on a Friday morning. Shops are shut, streets are traffic-free and everyone remains at home until dhuhr, the midday call to prayer, echoes across the island. For visitors, this is the time to sun lounge and meditate under clear blue skies. After the prayer, life bursts forth in the afternoon as shops and cafés open, and narrow souq lanes fill up with shoppers stocking up on ingredients for family meals or perusing fabrics for kaftans. These are some of the best places to get a feel for the culture, with the labyrinthine Manama Souq (Block 304, Manama), not far from some of the island’s top hotels, an ideal place to wander.
Entering at the historic Bab Al Bahrain — which aptly translates to “Gateway to Bahrain” — the excitement and chaos of the souq greet shoppers with a riot of colors, sounds and aromas. Within Bab Al Bahrain, make a pit stop at Naseef Café (Bab Al Bahrain, Manama), beloved for its traditional fare and ice cream (the mango flavor is a must-try) since it was established in 1920. Winding through the crowd, follow Bab Al Bahrain Avenue to become acquainted with the kingdom’s most luxurious export: natural pearls. To preserve the nation’s pearl-diving heritage, the sale of cultured pearls has been banned, and shops in the souq’s Gold Souq building (Shaikh Abdullah Road, Manama) practically glow with the beauties, set in ornate pieces suited for royalty. Farther into Manama Souq, another glimpse of its pearlescent past can be found in Bait Khalaf (Road 109, shaikhebrahimcenter.org). Once a pearl merchant’s house, it is now a heritage site showcasing Manama’s pearl-trade history amid stunning traditional architecture and meticulously carved wooden doors and balconies.
Friday is the evening to go out in town, and The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain (Bldg. 112, King Mohammed VI Ave., Al Seef, ritzcarlton.com) offers buzzing bars and restaurants within steps of each other. Start off at the newly opened Cantina Kahlo, a vibrant spot that sets the evening off in a lively atmosphere with authentic Mexican cuisine. Neighboring the hotel, it’s easy to venture over to check out the trendy scene at Bushido (Bldg. 52, Road 38, Seef, Block 428, bushido.com.bh), decked out in Japanese style and featuring an excellent mezzanine bar and lounge where a DJ spins tunes while you sip a nightcap.
Today, begin where life on the island did, at one of its earliest settlements, Qal’at al-Bahrain (Karbabad, culture.gov.bh). This ancient harbor and former capital of Dilmun (a third-millennium B.C. civilization) lies just outside of Manama on the northern coast and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Occupied for over 4,000 years, the site is an archaeological tell — a hill formed over time by successive human occupations — that was most recently a Portuguese fort. Its museum displays the wealth of artifacts that have been found here. While you’re in the area, stop by the Bahrain Arts Society (bahartsociety.org.bh). The nonprofit cultural organization was started by a group of artists in 1983. Today it promotes and develops local artists by hosting exhibitions, workshops and lectures year round. Next, continue the historical education at the Bahrain National Museum (Shaikh Hamad Causeway, Manama, bahrain.com), a 12-minute drive along the coast. Here, a contemporary façade masks rooms full of Bahraini heritage and history, from the Dilmun to the Islamic period, and changing showcases of modern art and exhibits.
Moving forward in time, and heading briefly inland, is La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art (92 Hoora Ave., Block 306, Manama, lafontaineartcentre.net), housed within a 19th-century mansion updated with Islamic accents. First, sate an appetite at the center’s restaurant, where European dishes are served in a refined and peaceful setting. Refueled, peruse the mansion’s rooms, which display contemporary artwork, sculptures and photography by international artists.
Nearby, it’s time to fully take advantage of the region’s affinity for modern indulgences at Moda Mall (Bahrain World Trade Center, Manama, modabahrain.com), where luxury boutiques make for an easy shopping spree. Dior, Gucci and Hermès are but a few of the labels on offer to visiting fashionistas.
Head back into Manama tonight to get a taste of Block 338 in the Adliya area, a neighborhood of stand-alone, licensed bars and restaurants within villas. Book a table at Upstairs Downstairs (Bldg. 754, Road 3825, Adliya Block 338, Manama, upstairsdownstairs.me), an award-winning restaurant in an English country-house style that draws crowds for its international cuisine enjoyed alongside a soundtrack of live, local jazz musicians. After dinner, walk off some of the dining indulgences on the way to the edge of Block 338, to The Foundry (Bldg. 1082, Rd. 3831, Adliya Block 338, Manama, tfr15.com). This cool new spot vaunts an industrial-chic vibe and — even better — skillfully crafted cocktails by an expert bartender brought in from France.
Tour the rest of the small kingdom by having your hotel arrange a driver to see the sights. Heading south into the center of the island, find the Tree of Life (near Jebel Dukhan) a 50-minute drive from Manama. This 400-year-old, 32-foot-tall mimosa causes a stir as it thrives yet appears to have no water source amid the stark desert landscape.
Break up the drive back into town and stop at Well No. 1 (Jebel Dukhan), Bahrain’s — and the Arabian region’s — first oil well, which began spouting the black gold in 1932 for Bahrain Petroleum Co. Twenty minutes closer to Manama is the Shaikh Salman Bin Ahmed Al-Fateh Fort (Riffa), or Riffa Fort, which dates back to 1812. Decorated by simple but regional architectural accents in gypsum, here visitors have the opportunity to step into Bahrain’s history, as the structure served not only as a fort, but also as a residence to the Khalifa family, which has ruled the kingdom since 1783.
One of the more low-key evenings in town each week, this is a good time to visit the older area of Muharraq, north of Manama toward the airport. This is also the ideal chance to get a taste of traditional Bahraini cuisine at Saffron by Jena (Al Qaisariya Souq, Muharraq). This minuscule café mirrors Bahrain with its unassuming size that brims with culture and character. A variety of traditional dishes served together is the famed draw and includes a rich egg and tomato mix; warm sandwiches filled with mango chutney, onion and cheese; bread with mehyawa, a fish, cumin and coriander mix that packs a tangy punch; spiced potatoes; and more. Save your appetite because it’s all worth trying.
Continue the evening’s traditional flavor and end it as the locals do. A 15-minute drive away is the new Amwaj Islands development, where relaxed cafés sit alongside the shoreline. Settle in for a pleasant evening of chatter around a cup of tea, or something a bit stronger in the form of the region’s beloved shisha pipe, at Um Kalthoom Café (The Lagoon, Amwaj Islands, amwaj.bh).
This story originally ran in the Spring 2017 edition of The Ritz-Carlton Magazine, which can be viewed here.