Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Bahrain

Tom Stainer holding a cat Tom making friends with some of the locals © Tom Stainer

Tom Stainer, Destination Editor for the Iberian Peninsula and Turkey, recently returned from a trip to Bahrain.

Tell us more… I spent three days in Bahrain, the only island nation in the Middle East. It’s a small country next to Saudi Arabia, and an archipelago of 33 islands, so you’re never far away from the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. The name Bahrain means ‘two seas’, and today those two seas are said to mean both the saltwater oceans and the fresh water springs that exist beneath them.

I spent a couple of nights in the country’s energetic capital, Manama, then the final night on nearby Muharraq Island, where I found a sleepier, more traditional way of life.

A huge tray of colourful breakfast dishes at Haji Gahwa restaurant A breakfast of champions at Haji Gahwa © Tom Stainer

Good grub? I loved having breakfast at Haji Gahwa, an atmospheric cafe at the edge of Manama Souq. We went to town on traditional items like baydh tomat (scrambled eggs with tomatoes) and chai haleeb (milky cardamom-infused tea), as well as endless flatbreads, salads, beans, dips and jams. Grab an alleyway table or one indoors – it’s a fabulous Bahraini experience either way.

Fridge magnet or better? If you’re in the market for spices, perfumes, fabric, sweets, jewellery, a new phone or pretty much anything at all, Manama Souq is your place. It’s a hectic warren of lanes and alleys, with vendors selling a delightful mix of high-end and humdrum items. I enjoyed trying piping hot halwa, a ubiquitous Middle Eastern sweet dish made from tahini and honey.

If you do one thing go to… Bahrain Fort. This whole country is rich in history, and nowhere is that more apparent than at this fortification overlooking the Gulf. It was the seat of the ancient empire of Dilmun in 2300BC, and although the current structure dates from the 16th century, it’s still looking good today. We watched the fun light-and-sound show at sunset then explored the floodlit fort as night was falling.

The beautiful facade of the Al Fatih Mosque © Tom Stainer The beautiful facade of the Al Fatih Mosque © Tom Stainer

You’d be a muppet to miss… Al Fatih Mosque. At 6500 square metres it’s the largest mosque in Bahrain, built in 1987 and named after Ahmed Al Fatih, the country’s founder. I was really taken with the peace and serenity of this place, away from the bustle of Manama. It’s a great spot for quiet contemplation and gazing in wonder at some beautiful Islamic design.

For a fun night out… Head to Block 338. It’s a pedestrian quarter in Manama crammed full of trendy bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries. My favourite spot was the Greek-inspired Attic, which has a lovely terrace where you can enjoy killer cocktails and fab views out over the city.

Bizarre encounter? Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones and Robson & Jerome fame was on my flights there and back!

Tom travelled to Bahrain with support from Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority (BTEA), Gulf Air, ART Rotana and Downtown Rotana. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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