Apart from when they were invaded by Iraq in the first Gulf War back in 1991, chances are most people had never heard of this tiny desert nation before. Blessed with abundant oil fields amongst what is mostly uninhabitable arid land, life in Kuwait these days is rather good, as their recovery from being occupied, looted and trashed by the forces of Saddam Hussein more than 20 years ago is more or less complete.
Shopping malls abound in the capital city of Kuwait City, their unique towers are still as fascinating as ever, and the current oil boom is filling the pockets of oil company employees, the government, and foreign businesspeople doing intensely profitable deals here. But is there more to do here than walk around air-conditioned shops and work?
There certainly is, because as all seasoned travelers know, finding the truly worthwhile aspects of a destination is about walking in the footsteps of the locals. You find their culturally significant places, and accept it as they do. You ask about what they find beautiful and you go see it. You look up their history, and you seek out its artifacts and their effect on the landscape.
In short, you could see Kuwait as a small, featureless desert state only of interest due to its oil reserves, or you can go see what composes the history and daily lives of the people that live here; the latter suggestion does Kuwait the justice it deserves.
Currency: Kuwaiti Dinar
Languages: Arabic, English
What To Do
Despite being having been looted and damaged extensively by the Iraqi forces during the first Gulf War, there are still many pieces of Kuwait’s rich history on display at the Kuwait National Museum. 2,000 artifacts are on display here, with these relics dating back as far as the Bronze Age, alongside works of fine art and a hall depicting life in Kuwait before the oil age catapulted this tiny nation into the modern place it is today.
Serving originally as a home for Sheik Mubarak in the early 20th century, Seif Palace is a decadent sight for the eyes. In the process of being reconstructed after a fire in the 1980’s, and the destruction of the remainder of the complex during the Gulf War, access to the grounds is not possible at this time. However, the beauty of this place, located just across from the Grand Mosque (which does have tours available) should grant it a place on your sightseeing itinerary.
The modernist representation of Kuwait City (as well as the nation itself, as this structure appears on Kuwait’s currency), the Kuwait Towers contain blue spheres that are seemingly impaled on a group of three spires. One serves as a water tower, the other houses electrical equipment that powers the spectacular lighting that makes this landmark really stand out at night, and the last one has a restaurant on its highest sphere, allowing one to enjoy a (expensive) meal while admiring either the vastness of the desert beyond the city, or the Persian Gulf.
For those jaded by the malls that house the same old tired brands that you’re sick of by now, then Souq Al Mubarakeya offers a traditional antidote to this problem. Offering a glimpse at the slowly dying form of commerce that involves the heat of the streets, the smell of exotic spices, and the competitive thrill of attempting to negotiate the best possible deal for that trinket you want bring home to your Mom and Dad, this outdoor market will thrill and amaze you.
Finally, those seeking a taste of both ancient and recent history should take a ferry across to Failaka Island. This island still contains many ruins from the days of Alexander the Great, who established an outpost here, far from his empire’s home base back in Greece.
Those who are war buffs will find plenty to scope out here as well, seeing how there are many abandoned and destroyed pieces of Iraqi artillery and armour. Additionally, there is no shortage of abandoned buildings here, pockmarked with bullet holes, and walls missing from aerial bombardment during the armed conflict that took place here more than 20 years ago.
What To Eat
The most popular dish in Kuwait is borrowed from the Indian subcontinent, as Biryani has taken a solid foothold here in recent decades. This dish is composed of basmati rice, chicken (mutton or fish is also used), eggs, vegetables, and lots of spices.
As for a dish that has its origins in this region, Harees is a widely enjoyed meat porridge. Pre-soaked wheat is simmered in a pot with meat (usually chicken) and butter, which is mashed up after excess liquid has been removed. The porridge is then topped with cinnamon sugar, making it a unique treat to have in Kuwait.
Being situated in a desert, raising livestock is quite difficult, so Kuwait has taken advantage of its seaside location, where an abundance of fish exists. As such, these aquatic creatures have made it in to the local culinary scene, as Mutabbaq Samak is a frequently enjoyed dish. Grouper, Rabbitfish and Bream are the three most popular fish inputs, with the rice that composes the base of this meal being cooked in the fish stock that results from the preparation of the aforementioned seafood.