If you prefer the glitz and commercialism of Gulf cities to be combined with a little personality, a trip to Manama is the perfect compromise. Home to a quarter of the country’s inhabitants, the oil-rich capital of Bahrain is strewn with evidence of its prosperity. Gravity-defying skyscrapers dominate the skyline and luxury hotels are testimony to the city’s burgeoning economy. However, it also possesses a unique charm that many other Gulf cities have lost, polished away over decades of glamour and refinement.
Manama’s charm and beauty is derived from the contrast of past and future: skyscrapers and colonial architecture, modern art galleries and vibrant markets nestle alongside each other in juxtaposing harmony. Of course, the city offers vast air conditioned malls, fantastic shopping and five-star luxury, but beneath the glossy exterior, there is so much more waiting to be discovered.
Direct flights to Manama will bring you to Bahrain International Airport, 6 miles from the city.
Manama’s tropical climate means that average daytime temperatures rarely drop below 20°C. The summer months of June-August see long, hot, dry days with temperatures in the high thirties, while in winter (December to February), temperatures hover in the low twenties, with the odd shower. If you are looking for cheap flights to Manama, the best months to plan your trip are November (average daytime temperature of 28°C and limited rain), March (25°C) or June (37°C), when there tends to be fewer tourists and the temperatures are pleasantly warm and relatively dry.
Your trip to Manama promises more variety than the average Gulf city when it comes to architecture. Whether you are an architecture lover or not, a wander around some of the old and new monuments will give you a good idea of the cultural and economic evolution of the city.
Built in 1984, Al Fatih Mosque is the largest mosque in Bahrain and one of the largest in the world. The vast structure was crafted from Italian marble, Austrian glass and Indian teak, and carved by Bahraini artisans. Aside from its beauty, the Al Fatih Mosque is breath-taking for its sheer scale: the structure was built to accommodate 7,000 worshippers and boasts the largest fibre glass dome in the world. If you visit the mosque, remember to dress conservatively so that you can admire the incredible architecture without causing offence.
Bahrain Fort was built in the 14th Century on a site which dates back to 3,000 BC. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has been recently refurbished and remains an outstanding illustration of Bahrain’s complex past. If you want to better understand the history behind the Bahrain Fort, visit the Bahrain Fort Museum, which was opened in 2008 and houses an exhibition hall and conference hall, as well as offices and accommodation for archaeologists.
To get a good look at Manama’s ever-changing skyline, head to the Corniche Al-Fatih, where you can amble along the sea front, enjoy a range of amusements and cafes, and get great views of the skyscrapers.
On your trip to Manama, a visit to the National Museum of Bahrain will acquaint you with the country’s past. Within its postmodern walls, the museum exhibits incredible archaeological artefacts, as well as a replica souk, complete with traditional crafts and trades – perfect for a whistle-stop tour of Bahrain’s history. As you leave the museum, take note of the Bahrain National Theatre, the third largest theatre in the Middle East, whose gravity-defying shape is based on local lore.
Situated less than 20 miles from Manama is a sight that defies all logic and belief: The Tree of Life, which stands alone in the centre of the brutal Bahraini desert. Occupying the highest point in Bahrain, the tree stands at 32 feet high and is 400 years old, thriving despite the blistering daytime temperatures and freezing nights and no apparent water source. Some believe that the tree marks the location of the Garden of Eden; whatever your beliefs, seeing this huge, indomitable tree will fill you with optimism, strength, and the realisation that anything is possible.
Bahrain is renowned for its exquisite pearls, and a trip to Manama wouldn’t be complete without a small glimpse into the city’s traditional industry. You can choose to go pearl-diving yourself; there are plenty of organised excursions for you to choose from. Alternatively, if you want to learn more about pearl diving without actually getting your feet wet, you can visit the pearl diving museum. Housed in the former Supreme Courts, within the magnificent building you will learn everything you need to know (and possibly a bit more) about Manama’s pearl diving history.
Of course, a visit to any major Gulf city must include a spot of retail therapy. Manama offers some of the best shopping opportunities for all tastes, from exclusive boutiques to traditional souks. Escape from the sun with a trip to one of Manama’s many malls, where you will be greeted with air con, and a vast selection of brands, as well as entertainment and eateries. The Bahrain Mall covers 750,000 square feet and boasts 120 retail outlets, as well as cinema complex; if you are still ready to shop until you drop, check out its smaller counterparts, such as the Seef Mall or the high-end Moda Mall.
Despite its prosperity, Manama has not abandoned its roots: for a more traditional shopping experience, there are a range of souks to choose from, including the Gold Souk – for all things sparkly; the Spice Souk – for, you guessed it, all things spicy; and the Manama Souk – a maze of stalls selling everything from electronics to crafts.
As can be expected, gourmands will be in heaven in Manama, where you can choose from cheap traditional eats to five-star dining experiences. At least one traditional shawarma is a must on your trip to Manama: don’t be put off by the dodgy kebab that you had after a night out; the traditional Levantine kebab is a far cry from grease-laden staple favoured by alcohol-fuelled Brits. Meat such as chicken, beef, buffalo, lamb, or a combination thereof, is roasted on a spit and served with a range of toppings, served in a soft pitta. Once you taste your first real shawarma, it is unlikely that you will want to eat anything else on your trip to Manama….
If you have had your fill of Persian fare, there are plenty of other options to choose from: in Manama, your only limitations are your budget and your sense of adventure!
Manama really does have the best of both worlds: world-class shopping, archaeological sites, architecture and museums join together in a fusion of contradictions, resulting in contemporary traditionalism, gritty opulence and cultural delights that will not fail to delight you.
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