The Ideal 3 Days in Manama, Bahrain
Published January 20, 2019
Most people don’t think of the Kingdom of Bahrain as their first choice for a visit to the Gulf. For Carrie and me, our trip to Bahrain was not only a chance to see my brother who was there for work but to enjoy the warm weather, explore another Gulf nation, and add a new country to our ever-growing list. At the time of posting this guide, I’m only 6 away from the big 100!! Bahrain, the smallest of the Gulf nations (third smallest in all of Asia) is in many ways similar to other Gulf nations we’ve traveled to with lots of non-national workers (50% of Bahrain’s population), a terrific infrastructure, and a high cost of living. In many ways, Bahrain is different as well with a vibrant local food scene, a relatively walkable capital city (Manama), and a rich cultural heritage.
The island of Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia via a causeway and as such draws a fair amount of its visitors from there. When it comes to travel and tourism Bahrain is most famous internationally for hosting a Formula One race.
We traveled to Bahrain at the end of December when the weather was warm, a major draw from the cold Amman winter weather. It was warm enough to lounge by the pool, making it the perfect destination for a short escape from winter. We spent three days exploring the souq (market), learning about Bahrain’s history and traditions, lounging by the pool and eating lots of delicious food!
Bahrain Visa Requirements
Most visitors need a visa to enter Bahrain, but how you get it (online or on arrival) and how long you’re eligible to stay vary based on citizenship and/or current residency in a GCC - Gulf Cooperation Council country minus Qatar (as of Jan 2019). The eVisa is available to many nationalities while others are eligible to get the visa on arrival. Best to check this link to see which category you fall into. In our experience for a U.S. passport holder, it was not necessarily worth getting the eVisa in advance. The eVisa was going to cost us 18 BD each, but on arrival, it was only 5 BD each. I do not understand why there was a discrepancy.
The immigration and security process at the Bahrain airport was near seamless. Directly after immigration, there was a duty-free shop handing out free SIM cards. I declined the offer but regretted it almost immediately after leaving the airport as my Jordan phone didn’t work in Bahrain. Having a Bahrain phone for data would have been helpful for getting around. My advice, if you have the option to take them up on the offer.
Where to Stay in Manama
As we were in Bahrain for 3 nights, we wanted a hotel that was centrally located, affordable, with excellent reviews and a pool to soak up the December rays. The Downtown Rotana, part of the Rotana hotel group based in Abu Dhabi provided all of that and more. The hotel was located in Manama’s business district at the edge of the Manama Souq and close to the waterfront. One perk to staying in a hotel that caters to business travelers is that almost no one uses the hotel’s facilities. I know this for a fact as when I traveled for work in the past there was always zero time to enjoy the hotel’s amenities. This meant we had the roof-top pool and spa almost entirely to ourselves.
The Downtown Rotana, which appeared to have been remodeled or kept in really good condition is a high rise hotel with a fantastic rooftop bar providing sweeping views of Bahrain. Like other Gulf nations, Bahrain’s skyline is rapidly changing and at night it was great to check it out over cocktails. We upgraded to a city-view room located on the 19th floor with floor to ceiling windows that provided spectacular views from the Al Fateh Grand Mosque all the way to the Four Seasons hotel and resort, quite an impressive 180-degree view of Manama’s skyline. The upgrade was totally worth it.
The hotel’s location meant a lot of great restaurants and several major attractions were within easy walking distance. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and highly recommend the Downtown Rotana for the location, affordability, amenities, and style. If you do decide to stay and don’t book through the Rotana website be sure to check out their website as we missed out on a promotion that for a small additional charge would have included another room upgrade, free champagne and chocolates, free breakfast and a 30 minutes couples massage!!
Where to Eat and Drink in Manama
Bahrain has a diverse selection of restaurants and a local food scene influenced by South Asia.
Haji’s Cafe (Haji Gahwa)
Situated in an alley at the edge of the souq, Haji’s Cafe is popular with locals. We tried to go here our first night in Bahrain but they were, unfortunately, closing (at 9 pm) as we arrived. So we went two days later for breakfast and found the place absolutely packed! After waiting for roughly 5 minutes we were seated inside.
There was no menu so we ordered based on what we saw others eating. We shared between us bowls of ful, beans (similar to baked beans), daal, and an omelet (only I ate). The dishes were accompanied by several large pieces of bread. The food was delicious and filling. If you want home-style Bahraini food you really must eat at Haji’s Cafe.
Saffron by Jena
Before we traveled to Bahrain I was curious what other bloggers, if any, had covered regarding where to eat. We happened upon Leyla of Cutlery Chronicles YouTube video which inspired our visit to Saffron by Jena. The restaurant, a short walk from our hotel is located inside a remodeled building inside Manama’s souq and is unsurprisingly popular with locals.
We stopped by for breakfast on our first day in Bahrain and were really satisfied with our decision to eat here. Carrie and I, along with my brother split the Saffron Royal Breakfast which comes with balaleet, egg and tomato, hamsat nikhi, ful, luba, zinjibari, kabab roll, and mihyawa. All traditional Bahraini breakfast food. We added an avocado tartine and falafel, and between the three of us struggled to finish everything. The food was simply amazing! We enjoyed it so much we almost returned.
If you’re on your own or the Saffron Royal Breakfast doesn’t interest you they have a menu covering many other Bahraini staples.
Local spot in the souq
This place doesn’t appear in any blog post, guide book or Google map, and it was so good and affordable I’m pleased to say we ate here twice! During our first night in Bahrain as we explored the souq in search of somewhere to eat after we found Haji’s Cafe was closed, we stumbled upon this local kebab restaurant. Carrie especially liked it as they had a vegetarian wrap, not always an option.
Go ahead and explore the souq and if you see a place that appeals to you then just go for it. Sometimes the best or most memorable meals are the ones that aren’t planned out in advance.
Craving something we really can’t get at home in Amman we opted to join my brother and his colleagues at a Mexican restaurant further south of the city from where we had explored. The restaurant was not our typical choice when traveling in the Middle East, but after eating there I have no complaints about the decision. The happy hour priced drinks were great and the burrito, something that’s challenging to get in Amman was satisfying. Carrie could find a vegan option on the menu. We washed our dinner down with tequila and cigars.
What to See and Do in Manama
Bab Al Bahrain and the Souq
Built-in 1949 the Bab Al Bahrain serves as the main gateway to the souq. The gate and customs buildings located in the aptly named Customs Square were once a stone’s throw from the water’s edge, but because of land reclamation, the gate now sits roughly a mile from the sea.
The Bab Al Bahrain is the main entrance to the souq with locals and foreigners passing through each day. From there you can explore the narrow alleys of the souq where traders sell everything from cell phones to herbs and spices. It’s well worth a stroll considering most of the vendors will leave you alone, making for a pleasant walk in the evening.
One of the main reasons to visit the souq is to go shopping or window shopping in the Gold Souq. You’ll see people from all over the world buying and selling gold jewelry and watches. Unlike the rest of the souq here your glances are likely to draw attention from sellers.
National Museum of Bahrain
Knowing little about Bahrain’s history before we traveled there it was only natural we stop by the comprehensive and beautifully designed National Museum of Bahrain. You’ll most likely catch a glimpse of the impressive museum as you drive across the causeway from the airport to Manama. At only 1 BD per person, the museum provides an excellent overview of the island’s history, culture, and traditions. It’s easy to reduce Bahrain to just another oil-producing Gulf nation, but Bahrain has a rich history that can only be appreciated with a visit to the museum.
During our visit, there was an exhibition of traditional headdresses from Saudi Arabia. The intricate and elaborate headdresses were impressive and showed regional variations of style. The national museum is a must for anyone who visits Bahrain. Getting to the museum will require taking a taxi as it’s on the other side of a highway and along the water.
Bahrain Fort (Qal’at al Bahrain)
As we learned at the National Museum of Bahrain, the island country has a deep maritime history and was an important trade outpost that many outsides occupied or attempted to occupy for certain periods, including the Portuguese. As a result, there are several forts dotted around the island. The Bahrain Fort located along the northern coast, close to downtown Manama makes for a great backdrop.
Archeological findings suggest the fort which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site was occupied as far back as 5,000 years ago. The fort is free to enter and popular with both locals and tourists alike. The nearby museum is 2 BD to enter and if you’ve visited the National Museum of Bahrain like we did earlier that day you can skip the museum as there is overlap with what’s covered.
Beit Al Quran (Museum of the Koran)
Beit Al Quran, which you’ll undoubtedly notice the first time you travel from the airport into Manama, is one of the most renowned Islamic museums in the world. The museum houses a large selection of Korans, manuscripts, and Islamic art. Some Korans on display date back hundreds of years, including the first Koran, made using a printing press in Germany, and several other remarkable Korans including the smallest. The entrance is a suggested donation, and the museum closes in the middle of the day so plan to be there late morning or late afternoon.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque
The Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain’s largest mosque named after the country’s founder is worth visiting even if you’ve been inside other equally impressive mosques. Unlike other mosques we’ve visited, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque provides a guided tour (available in several languages) which includes a history of the mosque and a general overview of Islam. It’s definitely the most informative mosque tour we’ve taken.
The mosque, built in 1987 on land reclaimed from the sea can accommodate up to 7,000 worshippers at a time. The architectural style of the mosque is Islamic and was built as a replica of an ancient mosque in Egypt. Carrie and I managed to walk here from Beit Al Quran, about a 30-minute walk, completely manageable in December, but probably not so in spring or summer.
As you can see Bahrain is worth the visit and should not be passed over as just another Gulf nation. The tiny island has lots of great local restaurants and things to see and do, such as beautiful beaches, famous pearl diving site (we tried to go diving, but the weather didn’t permit, unfortunately), and so much more. Honestly, we only scratched the surface with our short stay and hope to have the opportunity to visit again!
Photography by Albert and Carrie Bond
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