It’s official – Muharraq Island in Bahrain has just been named the Islamic Cultural Capital for 2018. But what about this tiny Arab kingdom has wowed the judges at the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation? A casual 5,000 years’ worth of pearl trading history, that’s what. It’s just one reason why Bahrain should top your travel wish list next year. Here are a few more…
1. Explore Bahrain Fort
Hulking Bahrain Fort has roots in the Bronze Age, when Bahrain was the capital of the ancient Dilmun civilisation. A wander around the complex reveals swooping archways, excavated tombs and a treasure-laden museum.
Top tip – head to Bahrain Fort after sunset, when floodlights reveal just how huge the building is.
2. Race around a Formula One track
The Bahrain International Circuit gets out the big guns, hosting the annual Bahrain Grand Prix, plus a rota of drag racing and superbike competitions.
Us average Joes can tackle the Karting Circuit – one of the most challenging go-kart tracks in the world.
3. Dive for pearls
In Bahrain, you can try your hand at pearl diving. Yep, you read that right – divers get to dive down to the famous oyster beds, hold on to as many oysters as they can clutch in their mitts, and then keep any pearls as souvenirs.
To get your head around just how important Bahrain’s 5,000-year-old pearl harvesting trade is, walk the Bahrain Pearling Trail, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 3.5-kilometre-long route winds past the old merchant’s houses, that are some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in Muharraq.
4. Peer up at the minarets of Khamis Mosque
You can’t miss the quartz-coloured Khamis Mosque – its twin minarets soar above the suburbs of Manama. It’s one of the oldest mosques in the Arab world, with a history that reaches back to the 11th century.
5. Pick up pearl jewellery in the Manama Souq
A mishmash of open-air stalls, smoky tobacco outlets and bargain souvenir shops cram the narrow lanes of Manama Souq. The best way to make an entrance? Through the archway of the grand Bab al Bahrain monument.
6. Gawp at the Tree of Life
The Tree of Life, near the south-east coast of Muharraq, is a 400-year-old Ghaf tree surrounded by miles of bone-dry desert. No one truly knows how it has survived. Its giant gnarled branches and green leaves are one of the most surreal sights you’ll see in Bahrain.
7. Catch a festival, any festival
Who knew a pint-sized kingdom could pack in so many festivals? But it’s no new thing – Bahrain was the first Gulf nation to popularise arts and music back in the early 1900’s.
Since then, it’s had cultural festivals coming out of its ears. Food festivals, design weeks, autumn markets, pearl jewellery exhibitions, al fresco art sales, folk music weekends – there’s practically a festival for every week of the year. One of the most popular is the annual arts and culture festival, Spring of Culture, that you can catch in spring 2018.
8. Swim with whale sharks
Bahrain is said to be the birthplace of diving, so it’d be downright rude to not go for a dip.
Nearby Fasht Najwah reef attracts huge (and very docile) whale sharks between March and April.
Meanwhile, Abu Thalma isn’t nicknamed the ‘El Dorado of dive sites’ for nothing. Clownfish, sea turtles, rays, lionfish, barracuda and massive tuna are all regulars, as well as seasonal herds of dugongs.
9. Browse 5,000 years of history at the Bahrain National Museum
Part art gallery, part café, part sculpture garden, mostly museum – the Bahrain National Museum doesn’t pull any punches. Best of all, it’s right on the seafront, so you can step outside and catch views of one of the island’s many bays.
10. Do the downward dog at La Fontaine Centre
La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art is technically an arts centre, but it also dishes up a yoga studio, fine-dining restaurant, open-air theatre and spa. And it’s all set within the walls of a 150-year-old Bahraini house.
11. Hurtle around the Sakhir Desert
Located in the heart of the Sakhir desert, The Land Rover Experience at Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) is the first Land Rover Experience Centre in the Middle East and North Africa. Get ready to be hurtled up 3.5 kilometres of sand dunes, crashed down nail-biting hills, before being driven through dramatic obstacles.