Ask 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, men 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 could 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 Show 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 its best to keep up with the Joneses, who, in this case, are Dubai and Qatar, which keep churning out gleaming buildings that look like a cross between something out of The Wizard of Oz and Blade Runner. As soon as downtown appears, one can see that Kuwait is investing in its future. The center of town has a lot of interesting buildings that feel international, with an Arabic flair. The most recognizable of these buildings are the Kuwait towers. If the country sold refrigerator magnets or T-shirts, these would be plastered on everything. Located near the turquoise water’s edge on the east side of town, the beautiful monuments look like giant Faberge eggs on a stick. If you’re feeling adventurous, 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 by doing 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. Even if you aren’t shopping, you’ll be rewarded with great photos of men dressed in thobes haggling over the price of a 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 Grand Mosque is the eighth largest in the world and the biggest in Kuwait. I’ve visited a lot of mosques, and I was seriously impressed. It actually has an appointed representative who takes curious travelers on tours of the building. We were seated, served a cold bottle of water and then led around the main parts of the building, receiving a fantastic overview of Islam and the traditions of Kuwait. The Q&A left me knowing more than I thought I would be interested in, and they even presented a short 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 got a fantastic introduction. And 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, a few minutes walk away from the mosque, is a traditional shopping mall full of everything from knock-off designer shirts to perfumes, stuffed camels, and spices. A mini-version of Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, it makes a very entertaining window-shopping opportunity. The Kuwaitis are very polite 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, which 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 the mad the-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 here like you’d expect, but it’s got some great little restaurants hugging the water, with 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 do 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, 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 kebobs.
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.