When did we go: January 2020 How many days: 2 Where did we stay: Ibis Sharq How did we get there: Emirates from Dubai
As we were heading to the Middle East for a cruise, we decided to add a few countries that were in close proximity to the list in an attempt to try and catch Chris’ father in their race to 100 countries. Our original plan considered a stopover in Saudi Arabia; however, the visa entry costs of $250 AUD each, quickly changed our itinerary to extending our time in the small nation of Kuwait.
Kuwait is perhaps not on anyone’s list for places to holiday, and we would hazard a guess that most people’s knowledge of the place doesn’t extend much beyond Saddam Hussein’s short-lived invasion 30 years ago. With this in mind we didn’t really know what to expect with limited tourist information available online and our own very little knowledge about the country itself.
Most online blogs and expat websites provided a short list of ‘good’ touristy things to do in Kuwait City, as well as a bunch of general commentary about the place. Perhaps the most enlightening was from one expat who opined, ‘the best thing to do in Kuwait is to go the airport and fly to Doha’. But we were not overly perturbed – how bad could it be?
While Kuwait isn’t exactly tourist friendly, the entry process for many countries is rather simple with a reasonably priced visa-on-arrival available. Kuwait also offers an e-visa which you can purchase ahead of time, but the website for this was ‘buggy’ to say the least. So, our advice is stick to the visa on arrival and follow the signs to ‘visa issuance’ when you arrive. The visa cost approximately $15 USD (must be paid in KWD) and along with some simple forms was all you need to gain access to Kuwait on a tourist visa. You are required to keep a hold of your entry visa (an a4 piece of paper), as you will need this when you check into your hotel. They will take the visa back when you leave.
To follow previous form for us we continued our preference of avoiding taxis from airports. Now thoughts of Middle Eastern nations, with their cheap petrol, are not ones where good public transport comes to mind. But to Kuwait’s credit a workable and efficient bus system does exist, including a couple of airport express buses. We caught the ‘X3’ airport express bus, which took about 45 mins to get us from the airport to our hotel for the price of 1 dinar ($3.3 USD) each. The buses were well used, and some routes seemed to have buses every couple of minutes. Details on bus routes can be found here.
Now Kuwait’s bus system was not for the faint hearted, and from our experience needs some local insight to master it. Most buses have no ‘stop’ buttons and people can alight whenever the bus comes to a stop, and sometimes when the bus is still in motion. This lack of local knowledge hindered us getting back to the airport, with our 30-minute wait for the ‘X3’ having us a bit worried. Luckily friendly locals aided us on an alternative way back to the airport. This included a transfer at an unknown bus station on the other side of the city centre and then getting on a small and rather dirty local bus the rest of the way. This took a little longer than the ride from the airport, but the opportunity to travel through the back streets of a number of neighbourhoods was worth it. If you’re in Kuwait don’t be afraid to try the buses.
Getting around Kuwait
Much to our hotel concierge’s consternations we set out on both mornings on foot to explore the city. After walking around Kuwait for a whole day we can understand why. It would be fair to say that there were limited considerations of pedestrians in the design of the city with footpaths that just stop, curb ramps non existent, cars parked wherever, and long wait times at traffic lights to cross. It was the things of Chris’ nightmares.
In saying that we are still glad we walked the streets of Kuwait. While it was perhaps more stressful that our average walk, it allowed us the opportunity to duck down back streets and avoid the dull and monotonous main drags. We really believe you learn a lot about a place by walking through it, and Kuwait reinforced this.
It was also a great way to burn off all the hummus and bread we had been eating. In the end we didn’t end up catching a single taxi in Kuwait, but there was no shortage of them, and plenty of advice online about how they work.
The Grand Mosque
Perhaps the number one tourist attraction in the entire country, and definitely the highlight of our trip. The Kuwait Grand Mosque sits smack-bang in the middle of the city centre, between the souk and the palaces on the waterfront. It is the 8th largest in mosque in the world and offers an immense and awe-inspiring main hall, which is the largest in the world only supported by four pillars. The cavernous space is softened by the plush carpet under foot, ornate glass chandeliers above, and intricate woodwork to the women’s prayer hall on the mezzanine level to the rear of the hall.
Tours of the Mosque are run in the morning and afternoon, generally either side of lunch-time prayer. Morning tours start around 9am and seem to run every half hour. Entry is free and you will be greeted with the warmest hospitality. Enter near the south west corner of the Mosque. Visitors should dress conservatively; pants and shirts with sleeves for men, while abayas are provided for women. Standard attire for a visit to any mosque in this part of the world.
Our tour was led by the wonderful Michelle, who through her Glaswegian accent, provided us with a knowledgeable and personable experience. Unlike other Grand Mosques you can visit in the Middle East, which are teeming with tourists, the comparable anonymity of Kuwait’s provided us with opportunities to explore and experience the Mosque in a way we couldn’t have expected.
Suggestions from Michelle like, ‘feel free to lie on the floor to get the whole dome in your photo’, and a chance to stand up on the pulpit and view the mosque from a different perspective were completely unexpected and so welcome. Our experience at the Kuwait Mosque has almost ruined our expectations for other Mosques in the region, with their long lines and rigid controls over where you can go. We highly recommend visit the Grand Mosque as part of any trip to Kuwait, you won’t be disappointed!
Following out tour of the Grand Mosque we walked over the main souk (market) in the city for some more exploring and lunch. The souk sits over a number of city-blocks and offers a car free space to shop, try a date and other dried fruits, and grab a bite to eat. The souk is divided into several sections, with a large fish market tucked in the middle.
We spent a good couple of hours wandering the aisles of the souk and found the vendors to be very friendly and not pushy at all when compared to souks in places like Dubai and Doha. Situated on the edge of the souk is a large number of restaurants, who mainly sell what we understand to be Lebanese and Iranian style meals, which was more than fine by us. We settled in for a meal of hummus, grilled meats and free flowing freshly baked breads.
Fully stuffed, we set off on foot again for one of the last ‘must-do’ tourist attractions in Kuwait.
Al Shaheed Park
Situated along the southern boundary of the city centre is a new addition to Kuwait City’s public offerings. A linear public park named Al Shaheed. The park includes a number of museums, restaurants and exercises spaces, and offered a pleasant escape from the hustle and bustle of the city as well as some rare green space.
Like all things in Kuwait entry is largely focused on driving, and actually finding our way on foot was surprisingly difficult, but once inside we thoroughly enjoyed the park.
Kuwait from our observations was at times a city defined by class and wealth, with many spaces like the luxury shopping centres feeling off limits to those from the ‘global south’ in Kuwait for work. But the park, like the souk, was one of the few spaces where people of different backgrounds, wealth and ethnicity mingled freely.
We spent approximately an hour walking through the park, unfortunately the museums were closed on the day we visited. The eastern edge of the park is only five minutes’ walk from our hotel and is connected by a pedestrian bridge.
Lastly, we would be remiss to not give a quick mention to the other couple places we indulged ourselves while in Kuwait. Photos and info on the restaurants below.
- Shawarma Shuwaikh – http://www.shawarmashuwaikh.com/
- Assaha – http://www.assahavillage.com/Restaurants/3/-1/Kuwait
- Recco – http://eatrecco.com/
Some final fun facts with Chris:
Kuwait is a dry country with alcohol being strictly prohibited – results in a huge range of juices everywhere.