Ask most people what they think of Kuwait and you’ll get a lot of interesting answers. Many conjure up thoughts of a flat ugly desert with oil wells pumping in the background, Arabs running around with machine guns looking for someone to kidnap, or even broken down cities scorched by the sun. Our opinions about places are often shaped by the media or sometimes even just the name of a place. I went to Kuwait yesterday to visit what I thought may potentially be the worst destination in the world. Boy, was I surprised!
I remember seeing an IMAX film a few years ago about the Kuwaiti oil fields that had been set on fire by the retreating Iraqis. I half expected to see something like this now, but 1991 was the Middle Ages in “Gulf time”. America was watching The Cosby’s and Roseanne. Face it, we’ve all come a long way since then. I was pleasantly surprised from the moment I stepped off the plane.
Kuwait City has been doing it’s best to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, the Joneses are Dubai and Qatar who keep churning out gleaming buildings that look like something from The Wizard of Oz or Blade Runner. It’s obvious that Kuwait is investing in it’s future. Many structures exude an international flair mixed with homespun Arabic elements. The most recognizable of these buildings are the Kuwait towers. If Kuwait sold refrigerator magnets or t-shirts, the towers would be the image that would be plastered on everything. These beautiful tall monuments are perched near the turquoise water’s edge on the east side of town and look like giant Faberge’ eggs on a stick. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go to the center of one of the towers and enjoy a panoramic 360 degree view of the capital.
I only had a day to see Kuwait so I chose the most iconic places from a Google search, created a mental map, downloaded a Kuwait tourism off-line map app and got started. My first stop was the Sharq fish market, located on the Gulf Road behind one of the malls. The market is proof that the waters are still full of amazing seafood options and even if you’re not shopping, you’ll be rewarded with great photos of men dressed in thobes haggling over the price of slab of fish. Right outside the entrance is a small marina crammed full of traditional wooden fishing dhows. Come early and see the fisherman bringing in their catches. It’s mesmerizing!
The Great Mosque is the 8th largest mosque in the world and the biggest in Kuwait. I’ve been in a lot of mosques, but I was very impressed with everything about this one. The mosque actually has an appointed representative to take curious travelers on a tour of the building. I expected to get second class kafir (non-Moslem) treatment, but the administration rolled out the red carpet. A small group of us were seated, served a cold bottle of water and then led around the main parts of the building with a fantastic oral overview of Islam, the traditions of Kuwait, and a question and answer session that left me knowing more than I thought I would be interested in. They even presented a short easily-watchable video that explained fascinating details about the prayers, Ramadan and everything else you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. From a PR perspective, Islam was given a fantastic welcome introduction. The building itself was amazing. The central prayer area holds over 10,000 devotees at a time and is beautiful from floor to ceiling. Plush royal blue carpet, gold scrolled artwork, Italian marble and a memorable central dome impressed me the moment I walked into the room. Compared to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, this was the Bellagio. Definitely worth a stop.
The Souk-Al Mubarakiya is a few minutes walk away from the mosque and is a traditional shopping mall full of everything from knock-off designer shirts to perfumes, stuffed camels and spices. It’s a mini-version of Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, has some very photogenic areas, and makes a very entertaining window shopping opportunity. The Kuwaitis are very non-aggressive and happy to just sip their tea and talk amongst themselves while you snap photos and pore over their wares. On Thursdays and Fridays there’s a market called Friday Market about 20 minutes drive to the south of the city. The market is huge and really gives you insight into what people in the area buy. There’s traditional clothing, antiques and even refrigerators for sale in a mad 2-day event.
A short drive to the southeast part of town puts you at the Salmiyya Corniche. There’s not a lot of tourist geared areas like you might expect, but it’s got some great little restaurants hugging the water and gives you a fantastic view of the skyline contrasted with the bluish-green water. The beach is beautiful as well, framed with palm trees and dotted with women dressed in black abayas. The area is a great place for just walking and admiring the beauty of the cityscape. It’s like a friendly Abu Dhabi.
There’s no single tourist destination to give you a reason to visit Kuwait. After driving around and visiting buildings and different areas of town all day, my favorite things to see in the city were the simple ones: walking around the Al-Mesjid al-Kabir area, watching the people shop, taking photos of the amazing buildings, and absorbing the culture. Kuwait is not like Dubai. The locals walk around in traditional dress, shop, eat and everything is within walking distance. You won’t hear western music on the radio.You won’t find alcohol anywhere. The best thing you can do is find a sidewalk cafe and order some freshly squeezed orange juice to sip on while you feast on falafel and grilled kebob.
Do I recommend Kuwait? Yes! If you have some extra time on your hands when visiting Dubai or another Middle Eastern destination, grab a cheap flight and spend the day there. You’ll like it much more than you ever thought you would.