It’s been said that all roads in Bahrain lead to Manama, the island nation’s capital city. But since 2004 it would be more accurate to say that all roads in Bahrain lead to the Bahrain International Circuit, home to the F1 Grand Prix and undoubtedly the highlight of the country’s social calendar.
Set in the sandy environs of Manama’s outskirts, the impressive F1 Sakhir Circuit is a mighty edifice indeed – and testimony to Bahrain’s serious oil wealth. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the original source of all those treacle-black riches, the Jabal ad Dhukan oil well first tapped in 1931, sits close enough by that you can almost smell the fumes.
But if you’re heading out for the 2018 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix (and if you love racing, you really should) you’ll want to do more than just watch the cars. So – here are ten of the best things to do in Bahrain between practices, qualifying and race day.
Hit-up the F1 launch and after parties
If you’ve got a ticket to the F1, then you’ve already got a ticket to the launch concert and what’s usually Bahrain’s biggest annual party. Last year saw snake-hipped Spaniard Enrique Iglesias and world-conquering DJ Steve Aoki headline the main event held on a festival-esque stage outside the main circuit. Needless to say the crowds were huge and screamy.
But if that’s not your bag there are plenty of other more exclusive events and artists playing out around Manama. Keep an eye on Japanese restaurant and social hotspot Meisei, whose rooftop is familiar territory for the ultra rich, often found dancing the night away in front of big name DJs and live acts throughout F1 week.
Stay at the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain
Although many of the big name drivers opt to stay at the five-star Sofitel, located right by the Sakhir Circuit, the more central Ritz-Carlton is better located for a visit that takes in more than just the racing.
Typical of Bahrain’s hotchpotch architecture, the exterior is quite the monolith, but the grounds are a playground of luxury, watersports and relaxation. The main pool is massive, as is the horseshoe beach and landscaped gardens, peppered with restaurants, bars and flamingos. Make sure to dip a toe into the Arabian Gulf, too – the water’s warm.
Breakfast at Haji Gahwa
Break free of the hotel buffet and get a taste of breakfast Bahrain style at Haji’s street-side café. Sprawled across an alleyway in the city’s most famous souq, pull up a bench at one of the heavy wooden tables and peruse the many past photos of Bahrain while you wait.
Established in 1950, current owner Suhair will happily tell you its story over delicious chai kalat, eggs and freshly baked breads – there’s no menu, just lots of local treats. And if you’re in any doubt as to its quality, Wolfgang Puck is a regular visitor. Rumour is he’s getting inspiration for his own Manama restaurants, both located in the towering Four Seasons Bahrain Bay. We preferred Haji’s though.
Muharraq may feel like an ancient district of something larger and more modern, but it was actually the island’s capital until 1932
Climb the walls of Qal’At Al Bahrain
Capital of the ancient Dilmun civilisation, the Fort of Bahrain was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005. It offers a rather triumphant stroll through around 4,000 years of human history, occupied as it was from around 2300BC up until the 18th century.
And on a hot Bahrain afternoon, there are few better things to do than immerse yourself in some local culture with a wander of its ramparts. Keep cool in the shade of arched corridors or head to the higher levels for the sea views and breezes wafting in from the Arabian Gulf.
Gawp in awe at Al-Fateh Grand Mosque
It would be hard to miss this vast Islamic centre that counts itself among the biggest in the world. Non-Muslim visitors are welcome, and it’s absolutely fascinating to don the appropriate garb and explore its vast prayer hall under the world’s biggest fibreglass dome, where up to 7,000 worshippers can gather at once.
A local guide will talk you through its architecture and be happy to answer any questions you may have about the mosque itself or Islam in general – we learnt a lot in our hour-long tour. The marble floors are Italian, the enormous chandelier Austrian, and photos are welcome.
Gorge yourself at Block 338
This new dining district, the hiply-monikered Block 338, is awash with in-vogue eating options. Whether it’s a trendy burger from Blaze, a carnivorous feast at Meat Co (complete with ultra cool rooftop bar to aid digestion) or Manama’s number-one rated Café Lilou, a classic Parisian brasserie in the heart of Bahrain.
And as many of Block 338’s restaurants and bars are licenced, once the dining is done you can party until late with freewheeling locals at one of the open air bars. If you’re planning regular visits to Block 338, you should consider basing yourself at the five-star Gulf Hotel which is barely a hop, skip and a stumble away.
Take a stroll through time in the back streets of Muharraq
Modern-day Manama is an amalgam of cities slowly blended together over time by the inexorable push of progress. As a visitor it’s tough to know where one town or city ends and another begins.
Muharraq may feel like an ancient district of something larger and more modern, but it was actually the island’s capital until 1932 and its tangle of alleys, ancient houses, local shops and cafes is spellbinding. From the intricate details of the Sheikh Isa Bin Ali House to the retro-cool 1980s graffiti, it offers something fresh and exciting around every corner.
Get yourself a guide or go it alone and revel in wandering without any particular agenda. Just head for Saffron restaurant to sate your thirst when you’re done and you really can’t go far wrong.
For something special, jump on another boat to remote Jarada Island, a picture-postcard strip of sand that disappears at high tide
Boat out to the Al Dar islands
Everyone loves a day trip, and Bahrain has some gorgeous islands dotted along its coast that make for the perfect quick escape. A ten-minute boat ride from Sitra just outside Manama, the Al Dar islands are perfectly set up for a day of sunbathing, watersports and eating far from the madness of the F1 circus. You can also try your hand searching for pearls in the shallows – the backbone of Bahrain’s wealth before the oil rush.
For something special, jump on another boat to remote Jarada Island, a picture-postcard strip of sand that disappears at high tide but is the ultimate exclusive retreat when the waters start to ebb.
Drink in the views at Sky Bar
No Bahrain visit would be complete without taking in the outrageous cityscape views from one of the skyscraper rooftop bars. Manama’s unfettered architecture may not be to everyone’s tastes, but at night it comes alive in a spot-lit range of mountainous peaks, spikes, summits and vast-spinning propellers.
We liked Sky Bar on the 20th floor of the Hotel Diva in the heart of Juffair for its easy-going but chic styling and unpretentious atmosphere. But mostly we liked it for the views and cocktails, both of which are mouth-watering.
Fuel up before you fly at Flames
Close enough to the airport that it would be rude not to visit on the way home, ART Rotana is a resort complex built on the manmade Amwaj Islands that’s awash with amazing dining options and some spectacular waterside views.
Keep up your meat consumption with a stop-off at Flames steak and seafood restaurant. The grain-fed wagyu rib-eye paired with the beautiful full-bodied Argentine Terrazas Reserva will see you fully sated and snoozing away before your plane even leaves the runway, which is always the best way to fly.