Bahrain may be the smallest country in the Arab world, but its diminutive size means you can experience most of its highlights in a weekend. The name of its capital, Manama, translates as "sleeping place", but life in this waterfront city of 155,000 is anything but languid with a variety of cultural attractions and a nightlife that carries on into the wee hours. Like its neighbours, Bahrain has transformed its coastline by filling in with sand what were shallow waters around the capital. Today reclaimed land props up a hyper-modern skyline.
Tucked in and around this futuristic urban sprawl, however, are examples of traditional Bahraini architecture such as the Beit al Jasra and the Bin Matar House, contemporary museums, archaeological remnants of the ancient kingdom of Dilmun, not to mention some of the best places for house and hip hop music in the Gulf. A growing interest in Middle Eastern art has generated a handful of cutting-edge exhibition spaces; of note are the Albareh and the Al Riwaq galleries. Stir all this together and you've got a next-door destination that will appeal to art lovers, history buffs and night owls alike.
Head five kilometres west of Manama to Qal'at al Bahrain, a Unesco world heritage site that features a 12th-century Portuguese fort wedged atop an ancient tell. Although only 25 per cent of this mound has been excavated, it nonetheless reveals a continuous human presence in Bahrain that extends back to about 2300 BC. For an even deeper look into Bahrain's long past, head to the nearby National Museum to peruse a collection of artefacts dating from the Stone Age to when oil was discovered in 1931.
The winding lanes of old Muharraq, the former capital that is about 15 minutes from Manama, are undergoing a massive renovation in the hope of the area becoming this city's cultural hub. Start at the 19th- century Beit Sheikh Isa mansion, a former royal residence and superior example of Islamic architecture that is filled with traditional porticoes, embellished gypsum wall carvings and a wind tower that still cools the rooms. The restoration process continues across the road where many former homes have been transformed into educational centres, such as the Abdulla al Zayed Press Heritage House, and cafes, including the newly opened House of Coffee.
Cross the bridge and head to Manama centre for a tour of the La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art, the country's first private museum, housed in a 150-year-old family home, before heading to the nearby Bab al Bahrain souk, dotted with Indian and Bahraini sweet shops. Nearby is the Adliya district, where recent reconstruction work has made it into a pedestrian-friendly quarter that is home to some of the city's liveliest restaurants and contemporary art galleries.
Cash-rich shopaholics will relish the newly opened Moda Mall, positioned at the base of the World Trade Centre, which features a Villa Moda store kitted out with interiors from the Dutch design master Marcel Wanders. Thrill seekers will enjoy an afternoon of karting at Bahrain's International Circuit (www.bahraingp.com), which also hosts the annual Formula One race. Year-round temperate waters mean a day on Manama Bay is a must. If time allows, charter a boat to Hawar Islands, which double as an excellent spot for birdwatching.
Breakfast Art lovers hungry for works from emerging Middle Eastern talent can head to Al Bareh Art Gallery Cafe (www.albareh.com; 00 973 17 713 535). The canopied eatery, next door to the gallery space, offers Arabic breakfasts (US$11; Dh41) of foul, labneh and feta cheese, or fluffy pancakes ($10; Dh37) smothered in bananas and caramel sauce. Breakfast is served all day. Lunch Both royals and expatriates frequent Cafe Lilou (00 973 17 714 440), a bona fide Bahraini institution. Located in the heart of Adliya, this patisserie succeeds in combining freshly baked French pastries with American classics - such as piping-hot brioche topped with cheeseburgers ($9; Dh34). Dinner The palaces of Bali serve as the inspiration for the décor at Monsoon (www.alghalia.com; 00 973 17 749 222), an Asian fusion restaurant that specialises in South-east Asian and Far Eastern fare. Begin with a Singaporean-style crispy chicken salad ($8; Dh28) topped with mangoes, sesame oil and a lime and chili dressing. The locally caught hammour doused with tamarind sauce ($25; Dh93) is perfect. Call ahead to reserve a table outside, overlooking its ponds.
Budget Conveniently situated in the centre of Manama, a 10-minute drive from the airport, Ramee Baisan Hotel is an ideal spot to experience urban Bahrain. Amenities are limited, but the 105-room hotel houses one of the city's best Friday brunch spots - The Warbler. Double rooms cost from $79 (Dh292) per night, including breakfast. Ramee Baisan Hotel Bahrain, Building 176, Road 2005, Block 320 (www.rameehotels.com; 00 973 17 296 237).
Mid-range Those pining for all things American should opt for Juffair Hotel, which is located in Juffair, a lively expatriate suburb of Manama, a stone's throw from a restaurant strip nicknamed "American Alley" and a US navy compound. The 106-room hotel has a gym, pool and one of the city's most popular spots for live entertainment and Tex-Mex cuisine, Wrangler (www.wranglerbar.com). Double rooms cost from $172 (Dh634) per night, including breakfast. Juffair Hotel, near Grand Mosque, 676 Road 4015 (www.bestwesternjuffair.com; 00 973 17 827 600).
Luxury Despite its status as an island nation, few hotels in Bahrain have access to the beach. The 245-room Ritz Carlton, however, has laid claim to one of the best stretches of Manama Bay. The eight-hectare resort's facilities include beachfront tennis courts, a 2,000 sq m spa and its own private island that houses 23 luxury villas with private pools and 24-hour butler service. Double rooms with breakfast cost from $424 (Dh1,558). Ritz Carlton Bahrain, Building 88, Road 1703 Area 317 (www.ritzcarlton.com; 00 973 17 580 000).
A return flight on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain costs from $360 (Dh1,325), including taxes.
To learn more about Bahrain's past and present, see A History of Islamic Societies by Ira M Lapidus.