The capital city of Bahrain is Manama, and while this is where most people live and where the country’s main offices, banks and shops are, it’s the rest of Bahrain that offers the more backpacker friendly sights. There is a price to pay though – to be frank, public transport is excrement here and in some parts – non-existent.
Tourism is not promoted, you’ll get the hint when you splash out $60 US for your Bahrain Visa on arrival and when you realise there are no decent bus networks, nor any kind of organisation in the road and street designs. Hostels are also non-existent, so get yourself booked into the trendy Ibis Seef Manama Hotel (WiFi, breakfast and a swimming pool) and take things from there.
Whoever designed this country’s road networks was thinking of one thing only – cash. Hard cash and Bahrain is rich. Rich in oil. The black gold has been a source of revenue here for the last century. So having backpacked (or bus-sed or car-red) your way strategically through the main sights of downtown Manama, it’s time to explore the rest of Bahrain. Hire a car (from 7BD a day) and off you go, you should be able to get through these five sights in a day no problem.
1.Bahrain International Circuit (Formula One Race Track)
Formula One racing fans will love this place. Carved out in the remote desert is a state of the art racing circuit to match any on the planet.
The race track is about a 30 minute drive south west of Manama and opened in 2004, hosting Grand Prixs ever since. Tours can be organised (as a cheapskate backpacker, I didn’t pay for that) and the place is open all year round for all sorts of events including drag racing, 4wheel drive racing and motorcycling.
Despite opening in 2004, there is still no public transport out here – crazy! I drove there myself, but you could taxi it, though that would cost a lot, so hiring a car is the way to go for sure. Also the Bahrain Grand Prix is one with a difference because we are in a strict Muslim country here. So this means no champagne for the winner – instead some fizzy pomegranate alternative and to replace the girls with boob revealing tops, the girls here have Gulf costumes and keep their pearls well hidden. There’s a shop, some trophies and a mock car to pose beside and you can get access to the grandstands.
2.Saudi Arabia Border – King Fahd Causeway
This is yet another real treat for the border crossing backpacker. Bahrain has a bridge “land border” to Saudi Arabia and offers a unique chance to stare across at the forbidden kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a difficult country to access for the non-Muslim. Visas are a nightmare, even for transiting. However, in 1986, the King Fahd Causeway was finished, creating a bridge between the two countries in a magnificent piece of engineering.
So once you’ve hired a car, all you need to do is to pay 2 Bahrainian Dinars for access to the bridge towards Saudi Arabia. You will drive across the first island, Umm al-Nasan and then a further 12 kilometres on the bridge and you arrive at the island which is shared by both countries. On your side, the Bahrain part of the border, beyond this, lies Saudi Arabia.
All the customs, visa and immigration formalities are carried out on this island. Unless you have a visa for Saudi Arabia, you must not leave the Bahrain side of the border.
I decided to see how far I could get without a visa, and I was able to get past the customs check and got a piece of paper for leaving Bahrain. At the passport stamping office, I could not leave Bahrain however, as I didn’t have a visa for Saudi Arabia and they are not available at the border.
I was about 10 metres from Saudi Arabia in my car and I got to see the two flags side by side at the Bahrain exit point and also the two DickMonalds (there is a DickMonalds on both the Saudi and Bahrainian side!).
Some tourists go to the lookout tower and restaurant on the Bahrain side. The lookout tower was closed on my trip, so I watched the sunset from my car and by the Gulf. You can also pick up some Saudi Arabian dollars – shops will swap 1 Bahrainian Dinar for 10 Saudi Arabian Riyal as will the currency exchange places. For novelty purposes and because I collect them, I picked some up as well as a Saudi Arabian Ayran drink (a drink I loved during my time backpacking in Azerbaijan).
3.The Tree of Life
Sticking out in the lonesome south eastern desert is the “Tree of Life”. This barren lonely tree has survived for years and years in the remote desert – there is no water nearby.
I got completely lost in the oil fields on route to the Tree of Life, and it is not well signposted except from when coming from the city, but you’ll eventually see it. There is a tourist appeal to it now too – it even has a welcome sign and a dude selling ice cream here!
4.Dar An Naft (Bahrain Oil Museum)
With oil being the main product of the country, it’s cool to head out to see the location of Bahrain’s first ever oil well.
Again, you’ll be best to go here in a hired car – not only can you get lost but being your own boss and having the freedom to drive around is better. Plus it’s cheaper to hire a car than it is to pay for a taxi here. Car hire is from 7 Bahrain Dinars per day (22 US Dollars) and with petrol just a few Bahrain Dinars to fill a tank, it’s also cheap to drive around. The museum is called Dar an Naft.
5.Bahrain National Football Stadium
If you’re a football freak like me, you’ll not be satisfied with just the Formula One racetrack. Also outside the city of Manama is the national football stadium. It is the main sport here in fact, though the Bahrain team have never even come close to World Cup qualification.
This stadium is no tiny venue – it holds 41,000 fans! It is outside the capital and in a place called East Riffa – it can be hard to find, so again – hire a car. It was renovated in 2012 and once hosted the Gulf Cup.
Here are some videos from my time touring Bahrain away from the capital city of Manama: