x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Kuwait City: A different blend

From old ruins to memorabilia from the Iraqi invasion, the Arab city offers a surprising mix.

Why Kuwait?

While Kuwait's development hasn't been as frantic as some of the states in the lower Gulf, there's still plenty to explore in the sprawling city of three million. Many citizens have been made rich by the country's huge oil reserves, but beneath the bling and flashy cars the welcoming traditions of the Arabian Peninsula are still alive and well.

Backpackers beware - Kuwait isn't cheap. Visitors who are prepared to splash out can find a comfortable bed in high-end hotels across the city or take advantage of the sunny climate in coastal resorts. The giant malls that have sprung up all over the country have proved popular with a population that loves to eat, shop, smoke shisha and watch western cinema.

For anyone with an interest in the region's history, Kuwait has some of the region's best ancient ruins on Failaka Island. Those with a liking for more current events will be able to see evidence of the Iraqi invasion in buildings, museums and, most indelibly, in the tales that the locals will be happy to recount in the country's traditional shisha cafes.

A comfortable bed

Within walking distance of the Salmiya shopping district and restaurants and cafes that hug the marina, the Marina Hotel (www.marinahotel.com; 00 965 2223 0030) is as close as you can get to one of the city's favourite hangouts. The hotel's seaside pools offer a less polluted alternative to the coast, and its boat-shaped restaurant serves seafood and a first-class view of the skyline. Double rooms cost from 119 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1,553).

If you prefer to leave the hustle of the downtown behind, Hilton Kuwait Resort (www.hilton.com; 00 965 22256222) offers a comfortable alternative on the south coast. Guests who are interested in spending their time under the sun can choose between two vast pools or a long stretch of private beach. Double rooms with a sea view cost from 110 dinars (Dh1,436).

To join Kuwaitis at one of their favourite retreats, it is just a short boat ride from the marina in Salmiya to Failaka Island. Ikaros Hotel in Failaka Heritage Village (www.failakaheritagevillage.com; 00 965 9001 4123) offers a range of attractions, including a museum, a children's zoo, a giant chessboard and trips to nearby historical sites. Double rooms start at 48 dinars (Dh626) but large groups might prefer one of the refurbished traditional villas with a private courtyard.

Find your feet

Only the bravest of newcomers should consider exploring Kuwait's lively roads in a rented car. For the rest, taxis can be easily hailed in most of the streets. It is unusual for a woman to ride a cab alone, and don't be surprised if your driver refuses to turn on the meter - it's customary to haggle before getting in.

A good place to start exploring Kuwait is Souq al Mubarakiya in the heart of the old city, where traders sell a plethora of products from the Arab and Persian worlds. The National Museum, which is recovering from looting during the Iraqi invasion, is a short ride away, as is the splendid Grand Mosque.

Located several kilometres to the south-east of the city centre in Salmiya, the Scientific Centre has an Imax cinema and the largest aquarium in the Middle East. To get a taste of Kuwait's seafaring heritage, visit the Marine Museum in Salwa further along the coast. Even though it's behind the Radisson Blu (SAS) hotel, the building is difficult to miss. One of the exhibits is an 80-metre dhow - the world's largest wooden boat.

Meet the locals

Shisha cafes can be found all over the city and range from grotty hangouts for working men to plush venues in the high-end hotels. Travellers will get the most hospitable welcome in the old town's cafes, where old retirees spend their days.

For a real dose of the country's recent history, the young patriots who volunteer at the National Memorial Museum (00 965 2484 5335) will be more than happy to show you around the intriguing collection of memorabilia from the invasion. The tour ends at a severed and bullet-ridden statue head of Saddam Hussein that was given to the museum by US troops.

Book a table

The fish market in Souq al Mubarakiya offers a delicious meal at a reasonable price. Pick your fish and sit among the locals in the open-air bazaar as the Iranian employees roast your choice to perfection with a delicate blend of spices. A zubaidi (pomfret) large enough for two costs around eight dinars (Dh104).

Traditional Kuwaiti restaurants are hard to find, but for those interested in experiencing local dishes such as chicken majbous or murabian, try Freej Soeleh on Salem al Mubarak Street, near the Marina Mall. Mains cost around 2.5 dinars (Dh33). Americans missing the taste of home might want to check out the Early Bird beside the Champions Gym for children in Jabriya. The menu includes food you would expect at any self-respecting greasy spoon, including pancakes smothered with toppings for 2.250 dinars (Dh29). Come early, it closes at 3pm.

Shopper's paradise

Malls are central to Kuwait's social life and they are worth visiting just to see the array of bouffant and Mohican hairstyles worn by the young men who parade among the shops every weekend.

The Marina Mall, the Avenues in Al Rai and the 360 Mall on the sixth ring road have the best range of shops. Visitors looking for a different and more authentic shopping experience should go to the giant open-air Friday market near the fourth ring road in Shuwaikh.

What to avoid

Kuwait's national and liberation days are on February 25 and 26. Locals celebrate in gridlocked streets by spraying strangers and their cars - inside and out - with canned "party" foam. Don't visit Kuwait during this time if you value your personal space.

Don't miss

Opened in 1979, the bulbous Kuwait Towers are still one of the most distinctive landmarks in the Gulf. The largest of the three protruding towers reaches 187 metres above sea level and includes a rotating restaurant, a viewing deck and a collection of pictures from the invasion.

 

jcalderwood@thenational.ae