Manama is a compact city which sits atop the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain. Richard Abbott takes a whirlwind tour.
1. Bahrain International Circuit
Grand Prix motor racing arrived in Bahrain four years ago, following the construction of a unique US$150 million circuit in the desert at Sakhir. The venue has quickly established itself as a fixture on the annual Formula One calendar, following the inaugural race, which was won by Michael Schumacher. This year’s event took place in April, but the circuit is open all year round for visitors to sample the high-adrenalin racing environment. A variety of “experiences” are on offer, from passenger rides to “drive your own car” days. For a more sedate option, go for the Open Tour, which is available on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. (Call the circuit to find out about the driving experiences on offer, as availability can be limited.) Tel +973 1745 0000, bahraingp.com.bh.
2. Manama souk
Hot, noisy and sweaty, but well worth the effort, Manama’s old souk offers a good slice of everyday life. Take a cab to the Bab-al-Bahrain (Gate of Bahrain) – taxi drivers are notorious for their inflated fares, so insist they use the meter. A large white arch which used to be the home of the Bahraini government, the Bab-al-Bahrain nowadays serves as a tourist information and handicrafts centre, and provides an ideal entry point for the myriad of streets and alleys that make up the souk. Don’t expect to find many stalls peddling traditional Arabian wares – you’re more likely to find a knock-off watch or dodgy electronic game – but the spice area is worth exploring, as is the gold souk, where you can haggle over pearls. It’s best to come in the early morning or late afternoon, as much of it is closed in the evening.
3. The Grand Mosque
Those who make the effort to visit this building will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into Islam. Upon entering Al-Fatih, you will be approached by a friendly individual who will show you around this beautifully appointed religious building, completely free of charge. Not only will you see some gorgeous furnishings but, if you time your visit right, you can watch the call to prayer or even witness the ceremony itself take place. Remember that mosques have strict dress-codes: no shoes, no shorts, and women must wear an abaya (long black cloak) and headscarf, which will be provided.
4. Bahrain National Museum
Showcasing thousands of years of Bahraini history, the two-storey National Museum (not far from the mosque) is a must-see sight. The collection of ancient artefacts, documents and letters displayed across the three halls is one of the best in the Gulf. It is a great place to learn about the Bronze Age civilisation of Dilmun, which covered many of the islands in the Bahrain archipelago, and was one of the great trading centres of the ancient world. You will also find exhibits about Bahraini people through the ages, while a newer hall is devoted to natural history.
5. King Fahd Causeway
If you are driving into the country from Saudi Arabia, you will enter via the spectacular King Fahd Causeway, which links Khobar in Saudi Arabia to the western coast of Bahrain’s main island. Opened in 1986, this stunning feat of engineering consists of a series of bridges stretching 25 kilometres across the water. The causeway – which was funded entirely by Saudi Arabia – is a spectacular sight, especially at sunset, when the snaking highway and the far coastline create an impressive vista. Find a driver to take you to the middle of the bridge, where the border checkpoint is situated on a small island. (Remember, you will need a visa for Saudi Arabia to reach this part.) Here, you will find a tower housing a small restaurant and a viewing deck on the roof.