Discovering the old and new in Manama, Bahrain

A thriving food scene and two Unesco World Heritage sites make Bahrain well worth a visit

Exploring Bahrain's 'Little India' in Manama. Sophie Prideaux / The National 
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Why Bahrain?

It may be small, but when it comes to history, Bahrain punches well above its weight. Now home to two Unesco World Heritage Sites, this archipelago seamlessly juxtaposes the old and the new.

Although the flight time between the UAE and Bahrain is only an hour, a glance out of the window on your approach will leave you feeling as though you've ventured much further from home. The Arabian Gulf below is a camouflage of turquoise and emerald green, broken up by a dozen or so white-sanded islands.

The tiny nation also has a thriving food and arts scene and a colourful history, making it the perfect place to spend a weekend exploring.

The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain is a great base for exploring. Courtesy: Ritz-Carlton Bahrain 

A comfortable bed

The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain is something of a veteran when it comes to the country's luxury hotels. The resort boasts 11 restaurants, a shopping arcade, its own private island and a resident flock of flamingos, making it tough to tear yourself away. Still, it's a 10-minute drive into the heart of Manama, the country's capital, making he Ritz-Carlton a great base from which to explore. The 245-room hotel is set within 20 acres of lush gardens, complete with winding paths and a jogging track, while its private beach has several water sports options. Double rooms cost from Dh1,179 a night.

For something a little different, The Merchants House has just opened in the heart of Manama's old town. The Campbell Gray property is Bahrain's first luxury boutique hotel, offering 46 spacious, open-plan suites. Rooms start from Dh1,040 per night.

Inside The House of Coffee in old Muharraq. Sophie Prideaux / The National 

Find your feet

At just 765 square kilometres, Bahrain is one of the smallest nations in Asia, so tourists can cover some serious ground during a short trip. To really get a feel for the country and its rich history, start with a wander through Muharraq. Connected to the capital by a 20-minute drive and a number of bridges, this older, sleepier district is a warren of cultural discoveries. The area's traditional houses are a highlight – they have been lovingly restored to pay homage to the residents and industries they would have previously served. From the House of Coffee to the place where women would have once embroidered traditional thobes, each intricate doorway reveals the story of years gone by.

Bahrain Fort is one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bahrain, and dates back to the 16th century. Sophie Prideaux / The National 

Next on your list should be a visit to Bahrain Fort, a majestic structure that sits at the heart of what would once have been the capital of the ancient Dilmun empire. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this Unesco World Heritage Site is beautifully preserved, and offers a window into the past that is wonderfully framed by Manama's modern skyline. Learn more about the Dilmun empire with a visit to the Bahrain National Museum, including how the mysterious burial mounds that still dominate the landscape to the north of the island came to be.  

Once you’ve learnt about the history of this Arab nation, visit Block 338 to get a feel for its more modern side. This small but lively pocket of Manama is bursting with art, cafes and upmarket eateries. With graffiti-lined walkways and diners spilling into the streets, its a great spot to explore, especially in the evening.

A visitor looks at traditional light-shop in local souq at Bab al Bahrain in Manama, Bahrain June 27, 2018. Picture taken June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Meet the locals

There is no better way to see Manama's labyrinthine markets than through the eyes of a local. Tour company Localppl offers a number of personalised excursions, each operated by extremely proud Bahrainis who will pack you with as much knowledge, food and adventure as they can manage in the two-and-a-half-hour timeslot. My guide, Hessa, grew up navigating the streets she shows me around, and energetically pulls me into tiny stalls and cafes to introduce me to shopkeepers whom she has known since she was a little girl, each keen to show off their wares.

Exploring Bahrain's 'Little India' in Manama. Sophie Prideaux / The National 

Manama's sprawling souq, with the historic Bab Al Bahrain sitting proudly at its entrance, is not only a treasure trove for shoppers, but packed full of history and diversity. From Bahrain's "Little India" to its  colourful Hindu temple, a few hours exploring here is the best way to discover the people at the heart of this kingdom. 

Book a table

Bahrain's reputation as a foodie hotspot has grown steadily in recent years and, for such a small nation, it has more than its fair share of impressive dining options. For fine dining, the tasting menu at Plums, the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain's steakhouse, is unbeatable. Headed by celebrity chef Yann Bernard Lejard, this experimental and sophisticated spot offers a dining experience you won't forget in a hurry. The resort's Mexican restaurant, the colourful Cantina Kahlo, is a great casual dining spot serving up authentic street food dishes inspired by wholesome family recipes.

A traditional lunch at Haji’s Café, one of Bahrain's oldest eateries. Sophie Prideaux / The National 

For a bustling Bahraini lunch spot, join the locals at Haji's Cafe on the edge of Manama Souq. This fuss-free spot has been running since 1950, and its history is visible in the photos that adorn the walls. Go here hungry and take the recommendations of the friendly staff.

And for a stylish, late-night vibe, Block 338's Hazel Rooftop Lounge offers stunning views of the Bahrain skyline while serving up sushi, tapas and sharing plates. It also offers regular live music, so can get crowded, especially at weekends.

Shoppers’ paradise

Bahrain has more than its fair share of glitzy malls, bursting with the usual international suspects and high-end luxury labels. But if you're after a more authentic shopping experience, take a trip to Al Aali Mall in the Seef area of Manama. Here, you'll discover a host of homegrown brands. From traditional fabrics to jewellery and coffee shops, this is the place to discover something new.

Bahrain is a great spot for pearl diving, with tourists able to keep any treasure they find. Sophie Prideaux / The National 

Don’t miss

If you're looking for somewhere to relax, head to Jarada Island. This tiny sandbar sits in the middle of the Arabian Gulf and can be reached only by private boat. The strip of land is so small, it disappears at high tide, but when conditions allow, it's a great place to spend a few hours snorkelling or diving for oysters.  

What to avoid

Unless you love the roar of Formula One engines, you might want to avoid visiting during the annual Grand Prix. ­Bahrain kicks off the racing season usually in March or April, when thousands of fans descend on the small Kingdom. It also means hotel and flight prices go up, so it's worth keeping an eye on the F1 calendar.

Getting there

Gulf Air operates regular flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Bahrain, with fares starting from Dh810. Once you get to the airport, it’s a 20-minute taxi ride into Manama.