Capitals in the Middle East
Middle Eastern capitals often sell themselves as modern and exotic, but very often they are little more than a collection of supermalls, construction sites, and shinny office buildings in geometrical shapes. At first sight, Manama isn't anything different – it even lacks of any flamboyant twist, contrary to like Dubai and Doha – but when you venture into the winding lanes of downtown Manama or the neighbourhood of Muharraq (near the airport), you will see a very less modern and lively city. Here the traditional dressed Arabs are easily outnumbered by migrant workers from all over Asia. In these quarters there are always a scent of spices and it's possible to have a brilliant meal for a few dinars. Bahrain's liberal attitude to their expats also mean you can find a cold beer (legally), if you look hard enough.
Erbil (also spelled Arbil or Irbil) is a very spread-out city. The heart of the old part is the citadel that crowns the city from a hill. The old building stretches right to the edge of the hill and all the facades facing the city have been done up, but otherwise the citadel is pretty much left in ruins. Below the citadel entrance is the newly rebuilt city square with illuminated fountains and a clock tower. To the sides you find the real Erbil in shape of the covered souq to the west and the rowdy market street of Handren St. to the east. For a different experience, head for the Christian quarter at Ainkawa, a taxi ride away - the rows of liquor stores will indicate when you are there.
© John Smith
The old town of Jerusalem deserves more than this single article. There is so much history and religious important places packed into one spot that it's hard to do more than scratching the surface. By being the holiest place on earth for Christians, Jews and the third holiest for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina) it's a place of controversy, something we won't dwell with. Go there as a traveller and just suck up the atmosphere. It's pure madness; hordes of tourist getting charmed by vendors, strangely outfitted religious characters rushing trough the narrow lanes and teenage soldiers with pimples and guns. With all the most-see sites like Western Wall, Temple Mount with the Dome of Rock and the church of the Holy Sepulchre taken the attention, there are a lot of wonderful strange sites that are half hidden. Try to find where the last supper took place, the birth place of Virgin Mary or the Ethiopian Monastery Deir-Sultan. No matter what your belief or expectations are, Jerusalem will blow you away.
Kuwait City was actually also a city before the oil boom, with palace, souq, and harbour. It still have those things today, in addition to the mandatory glass-and-steel skyscrapers the Gulf State capitals are so known for. But skyscraper-wise Kuwait is a bit behind the UAE and even Doha, though it's undergoing constant transformation and now has its first super skyscraper, Al Hamre Tower (412 m). However, downtown still has a lot of funky office buildings from the early oil boom days in 70s, which match well with the well-known landmarks of Kuwait Towers and lesser well-known mushroom water towers.
Do as the Lebanese; take a walk on the seaside promenade. With splendid view of the Mediterranean Sea, it's a great place for an evening stroll when the light turns soft and the air is... well, cooler. Families, young couples and friends hang out along waterfront having ice creams, learning to cycle or simple just picnicking on the pavement. At the small cafes in the west end you can have a puff on a narghile (water-pipe) while watching the pole-sitting fishermen. The afternoon can easily be spend here with people watching and chatting with locals.
Muscat is the only real city in Oman. It is accountable for a third of the country's population, but even 1 million people doesn't feel that big when it's spread out as Muscat is. Rather than one dense city, Muscat is made out of connecting towns, each with its own vibe. The walled old town of Muscat is where the Sultan's palace is. Mutrah is the picturesque area along the waterfront where you also find the covered market, the so-called souq. The corniche is particularly nice with great views over the harbour and on a backdrop of craggy mountains. Further inland you find the buzzing neighbourhood of Ruwi which is Muscat's "Little India". For a modern feel (read Starbucks and similar cafes), head to the area along the coast at Shatti al-Qurm. Muscat is a fine mix of new and old, without being as rich in history as Sanaa in Yemen nor as sparkling as the other oil-money-spoiled capitals in the region.
The capital of Saudi Arabia has surprisingly few skyscrapers. It's a very spread out city, which can not be described as pedestrian friendly. There are a few historical sites like the Ad Diriyah (UNESCO enlisted historical neighbourhood) and Masmak Fortress, both restored. Deera Square (nicknamed Chop Chop Square) is deceivingly peaceful, but it's here public executions take place. There are some good museums (particularly National Museum of Saudi Arabia) and then there are always shopping, either in one of the many luxury malls or in the traditional souqs - there is even a falcon market.
The icing cake buildings of the UNESCO listed "Old City of San'a" look almost good enough to eat. Wonderfully beautiful, each building has been pain-stakingly decorated as if in some ancient game of trying to beat the neighbours. Most fortunately, many of the building have been made into hotels, allowing for mush more than an outside glimpse. But the true glory comes from merely wandering around the labyrinth of streets. Some streets are occupied by a single old man whose face shows the history of the country, others overflow with shoppers in one of the best markets in the region. While it is rare to find beauty, history and life all in one place, San'a most certainly delivers all these more than any traveller could ever dream of.