10 of the best things to do in Bahrain

While Bahrain is no bigger than Greater London in size, this diminutive island nation is packed with exciting things to do. Historically, it is a kingdom of seafarers, pearl divers and merchants – and it remains connected to its roots, with a wealth of heritage crafts, traditional architecture and unique activities to discover. But the biggest surprise? That it’s still so under the radar…

1. Go diving for pearls

Traditional pearling boat (Shutterstock)

For 2,000 years, and long before the discovery of oil and gas, Bahrain’s economy was dependent on pearls. Local divers would scour the seabed for the finest examples, which were then exported overseas by wealthy merchants. These days, most of the world’s pearls are sourced from farms, but Bahrain still offers the chance to dive for oysters – and whatever you find, you can keep. There are five licensed pearl-diving operators in the Kingdom, while the UNESCO-listed Bu Maher Fort contains pearl-themed exhibits and photography.

2. Get to grips with Gulf history

Bahrain National Museum is a must-visit (Shutterstock)

If you only have time to tour one attraction, make it Bahrain National Museum. On the waterfront of Manama, the capital, this cultural institution is packed to the rafters with artefacts, photography and interactive exhibits, covering 5,000 years of local history. From jewellery and primitive tools excavated from ancient civilisations, to prized pearls and a 1930s Buick gifted to the first Emir of Bahrain, there is so much to see here. The state-of-the-art National Theatre of Bahrain is just next door, while the nearby ​​Bait al Quran museum celebrates the history and artistry of the Quran, with a world-leading collection of Islamic texts.

3. Tour a traditional neighbourhood

The traditional houses are still in Manama (Shutterstock)

Just like its Gulf neighbours, Bahrain’s modern skyline is dominated by high-rise towers and outlandish architecture – with the triangular-shaped World Trade Center as Manama’s eye-catching centrepiece. But refreshingly, the country also values its more traditional architecture, and has preserved the charming houses of Muharraq, its former capital. Here, the old pearl merchants’ mansions and courtyard villas feature hand-carved wooden doors, coral decoration and mashrabiya (patterned screens). As you wander, seek out ​​Sheikh Isa bin Ali House, a former royal residence, and Kurar House for its beautiful embroidered textiles.

4. Ask all your burning questions

Ahmad Al-Fateh Grand Mosque (Shutterstock)

For inquisitive minds, Manama’s Ahmad Al-Fateh Grand Mosque is a must-visit, as its friendly and informative guides welcome questions on all aspects of Islam, faith and Bahraini culture. Whether you’re curious about the Call to Prayer, or want to learn more about women’s rights and religious etiquette in the country, this is the place to get a straight-talking answer. The mosque itself is also compelling, capable of holding up to 7,000 worshippers – and adorned with Italian marble, Indian teak and hand-blown glass from France. In the company of a guide, visitors of all faiths and none are free to explore.

5. Get hands-on with Bahraini heritage

Bahrain has a rich tapestry of heritage crafts (Shutterstock)

Whether pottery, embroidery, wood-carving or calligraphy, Bahrain has a rich tapestry of heritage crafts, which are kept alive by various cultural institutions. At Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre, local makers demonstrate everything from basket weaving to woodworking, with opportunities to join expert-led classes in Bahraini embroidery, jewellery-making, mosaics and more. Even the centre itself is a treasure, built from traditional coral stones and palm fronds. In Manama, the Craft Industries Development Centre is full of artisans’ workshops, where you can purchase pieces directly from the people who made them.

6. Travel back in time

The Qalet al Bahrain at night (Shutterstock)

One of the Gulf’s most important archaeological areas, Qalat al Bahrain has been occupied since around 2300BC, and is the nation’s oldest UNESCO World Heritage Site. It features a 16th-century Portuguese fortress, which has been painstakingly restored in recent years, standing sentry on the north coast. Walking beneath the stone archways is certainly spine-tingling, but the area around it is arguably even more impressive: relics dating back 4,500 years have been discovered here, many of which are on display at the adjoining museum. The fortress also hosts concerts and cultural events year-round.

7. Explore the Middle East’s art scene

Bahrain is also big in modern art (Shutterstock)

As well as its love of heritage crafts, Bahrain has an insatiable appetite for modern art, and regularly hosts exhibitions by the Middle East’s top painters, designers and sculptors. Don’t miss the likes of Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain Arts Society and Bait Al Salmaniya – which also offers art workshops and live music nights. In Manama, Jehan Saleh Printmaking Studio features exhibitions by Bahraini artists, plus printmaking masterclasses for all abilities, while La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art combines a gallery, restaurant and spa in a 150-year-old family home.

8. Haggle for treasures in Manama Souq

Spices for sale at Manama Souq (Shutterstock)

Bahrain has malls aplenty, but shopping at Manama Souq is far more exciting – with its eclectic stalls, charismatic traders and warren of tiny backstreets. Follow your nose to find Iranian saffron, Indian chai and Arabic incense, or haggle hard for hand-woven rugs and colourful kaftans. On Saturdays, nearby Bab al Bahrain also hosts a market with live local music and handicraft stalls.

9. Go behind the scenes of Grand Prix

Pay a visit to Bahrain International Circuit (Shutterstock0

Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One, it’s hard not to be impressed by Bahrain International Circuit – the US$150m home of the country’s Grand Prix. Racing runs in the blood of Bahrainis, and a behind-the-scenes tour reveals the huge scale and speed of its favourite tournament: you’ll visit the race control tower, explore the high-tech media gallery, and even walk out on the track. Meanwhile, experience days put you behind the wheel (or in the passenger seat) of a Radical SR3, to follow in the track-marks of Schumacher, Hamilton and other racing legends.

10. Kayak the Amwaj Islands

The Amwaj Islands are completely man-made (Shutterstock)

The Amwaj Islands are no ordinary archipelago: created in the 2000s, they are entirely man-made, giving the nation much-needed space to build new hotels, homes and amenities. The islands have been absorbed into Bahrain’s infrastructure, and are well-connected to the mainland (around a 15-minute drive from central Manama) but Bahraini watersports company Scuba Life puts an adventurous spin on the neighbourhood, offering kayaking trips between the islands, to spy their beaches and architecture from a whole new perspective. It also offers paddleboarding and sailing tours of the area.

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