We all love to travel for leisure, but sometimes our jobs "require" us to visit destinations. Sometimes it can be a challenge and other times, there is a chance to experience the destination! This was the 3rd time I had visited Kuwait City for work. It is a city in the Middle East that is often visited for work due to its developing infrastructure and industry. Fortunately this time I had a couple of days where I could see some of the city.
Kuwait International Airport receives flights from a number of destinations, especially around the Middle East, but also many European cities, Asia and from New York JFK. Alternatively, it is only a relatively short connecting flight from Dubai or Doha on carriers such as Emirates and Qatar Airways.
Be aware that there are actually 2 terminals that are quite a way apart from each other - when returning to the airport they are actually about a 15 minute drive if you go to the wrong one! The main terminal receives the majority of the flights, whilst the smaller Sheikh Saad Terminal receives flights from carriers including Fly Dubai. The immigration process can be faster at the smaller terminal, however the facilities for phones, exchange, food and transport are more limited.
The visa on arrival process (if required) can be a little challenging if you don't know the tricks. First, take a number from the machine! Next, you need to buy stamps from a machine that does not give change and doesn't take credit cards! It also doesn't accept old currency! The stamps cost 3KD, so it is best to change some money before you land in Kuwait! Otherwise you will need to use an ATM and then try to buy something to get some change. There is a photocopy machine (sometimes attended) where you need to photocopy ur passport. Then fill out the immigration form and wait for your number to be called - from there the process is simple. I can't stress enough the frustration if you don't have those 3KD to buy the stamps, so please save yourself the headache and change some money ahead of time.
If you are hiring a car at the airport, be careful! Some of the companies will rent vehicles that are downright unsafe. The roads in Kuwait are not very good, so hiring a decent safe car is a real priority. I used a company called "Bentley" because it was the only company at the smaller terminal that was open. I cannot advise against hiring a car from this company strongly enough. The cars are unsafe and the service is deplorable. I would rather walk.
There are taxis, but again be cautious that the vehicle is safe for travel. Taxis aren't expensive so choose the better quality companies and only use genuine operators. At the airports there will be people who will offer to drive you to where you want to go but they are not genuine operators. Taxis are probably the easiest way to get around if you don't hire a car. There are not meters in the taxis, rather prices are either printed inside or agreed upon with the driver. As a general rule, short journeys start at 1KD and work up. The drivers will often try to bata for higher rates, but you will come to know quickly what the going rate is and avoid being "taken for a ride". You can also arrange "hotel taxis" which a re generally cleaner and much nicer, but cost a bit more. Relative to western cities, these taxis are still not too expensive!
Kuwait is a relatively conservative city when it comes to religious and cultural practices. Bringing alcohol into Kuwait is forbidden and carries significant penalties. If you are coming for business, don't expect any late nights over bottles of red wine! As in all cultures, respect for local customs should be shown and in Kuwait that is largely focussed around the religious aspects. Like most cities though, its more about common sense and it is much less intimidating than people tend to make out. In Kuwait, women visitors don't need to cover their head, although dressing modestly in public places would be encouraged (covered shoulders and dresses past the knee).
The roads in Kuwait are not great in some areas and the local drivers can be frightening - zooming up the emergency lanes, zipping between cars at speed and not using indicator signals. Exercise caution if you are driving around Kuwait. It is very possible to navigate your way around and Googlemaps works quite well, but be prepared to stay patient and keep your wits about you!
Where to Stay:
There are a number of well known Western chain hotels in Kuwait city. I had previously stayed at the JW Marriott and must admit I found it to be quite dated.
I prefer to stay at the Jumeirah Messilah. It is a little way out of the centre of Kuwait city, which to be honest I don't mind. It has it own beach access and is not far from the airport. The rooms are very nice and so are the facilities. There is a Talise spa, well equipped fitness centre, kids club, pools and several dining options. The buffet breakfast is worth the extra money if you like a hearty start to the day!
If you are staying as a group or family, the villas are an excellent option and they have excellent kitchen facilities and living spaces.
Probably the only detraction is that it is a bit out of town, so walking to any tourist sites isn't an option - you are looking at a 2 to 4KD cab fare into most places.
What To See & Do:
Visit the Mubaraqiya Market at night, especially on a weekend when the crowd will actually provide more atmosphere. It is vastly different from the commercial malls and although not as traditional as middle eastern soul's once were, you will still get the traditional experience. You will find traditional butchers, spice stalls, date sellers, fabrics and tailors, fresh fruit and lots of bright lights and busy people. It's a very pleasant way to spend an evening strolling through the lanes. There are a couple of small traditional "coffee stalls", where local men will be sat around drinking coffee and talking loudly about their day.
The Central Fish market is definitely a place worth visiting. Not to be confused with the Fish Market Restaurant, this seafood wholesalers is located at the marina near Souq Sharq. It is a large space filled with tables of fresh seafood sold to the public and restaurants. Buyers will bata with the fish mongers and the selection on offer is massive. It is open from 8am through to 9pm. If you go earlier you will see the fish being off-loaded from the many fishing boats that pull into the port. There is also a large population of very well fed cats!
On either side of the fish market is a marina. One side has mainly traditional fishing vessels and the other has a variety of private speed boats.
Liberation Tower is a large telecommunications tower that is a prominent landmark in the Kuwait City skyline. it is not possible to access the tower.
The Grand Mosque is a wonderful piece of architecture and a building visitors to Kuwait City should certainly visit. Outside is really impressive, however walking through the inside is the most breathtaking. You can enter the mosque outside of prayer times and there are local Kuwaitis who will happily take you for guided tours. Modest dress should be worn and women can borrow scarves when they enter to cover their hair. Inside is beautifully decorated with intricate details and lighting.
Where To Eat:
A nice place to start any from hotel dining options is Arabella Mall. Situated on the water, there are a large number of restaurants in a pleasant atmosphere. There are some well known chain outlets like Cheesecake Factory, Texas Roadhouse and Paul cafe. I had sushi at Katsuya - it was decent without being outstanding, but the view was really nice! Probably a bit expensive for what it was.
Another popular place is The Avenues - the largest of the malls in Kuwait City. In addition to a wide range of shops, there is a huge selection of places to eat, although most are pretty "fast-foodie". The gelato at Moreli' is well worth trying!
I also ate at The Fish Market, which is very close to Kuwait Towers. I wouldnt say the quality is brilliant but its not bad. I was hoping for more traditional middle eastern style seafood, but most of the menu is asian inspired. You can also select seafood from the display and have it cooked to your preference.
The other place I ate was at the Mubarqiya Market - here you will find more of the traditional middle eastern cuisine - mixed grills, hummus, tabouleh, etc in the mostly Lebanese run restaurants that are mostly clustered together. Have a look around but they are mostly quite similar. I always think you can't go wrong with a fattoush (salad), tabouleh, hummus, mixed grill and aryes (minced meat between flat bread). This style of food is really quite cheap and if the market is busy, the atmosphere is really nice with a buzz from the crowd of people.
In almost all destinations, there is the temptation to tick off as many of the known tourist sites as possible. I also like to try and find a couple of things that are a bit more traditional and unique to the local area I'm visiting. a nice thing to do in many middle eastern countries is to take a drive away from the cities and check out some of the smaller, more bedouin towns. The landscape, although it may initially appear arid, can be surprisingly photogenic and spectacular.
I went for a short drive out of Kuwait City passed Jahra to a place called Al Matla. On a nice day or especially at night you will get a great view looking back over the city skyline from the elevated cliffs. Be careful driving off the road as the erosion has created some sharp drop offs. I saw a couple of people doing some rock-climbing. If you drive up the road and use the GoogleMaps coordinates (29.425130, 47.690547), you will turn right off road and drive past a small sheep farm and come to a nice outlook point. I came across 2 local Kuwaiti men who had set up a small fire and were starting to boil a kettle to make tea and coffee. It is a traditional practice in most middle eastern countries to invite strangers to share tea and coffee. If you get an opportunity in the desert like this, it is extremely pleasant to sit and share conversation - many locals speak very reasonable english and my arabic was good enough to at least provide entertainment.
The men told me this is quite a common spot for local people to come and sit. Unfortunately it has also led to a great deal of rubbish being left which does detract a bit. But if you have time and a car, this is well worth the drive out of the city.
Kuwait Towers are probably the most iconic landmark in Kuwait City. I think the most impressive view from the ground is at night when they are dazzling with the colours of the Kuwaiti national flag. If you are going to pay to go up to the viewing neck however, i would suggest doing this on a clear day or around sunset - at night, they have lights on in the inside of the viewing deck, which reflect on the windows making it difficult to see and impossible to get good photos! To go up to the viewing platform (at 123m high) costs 3KD/ There is also a small photo exhibition which illustrates the damage done during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait which is well worth seeing. There is also a restaurant at 82m, which was closed when I was there.
Number 1 Travel Tip:
Visiting a traditional islamic country such as Kuwait should never be seen as intimidating, rather it is a fantastic opportunity to experience a different culture. You won't be eating pork or drinking alcohol, but there is a richness to the local customs and the people. Try to experience some culture and interact with local people - you will likely be surprised how welcoming and proud they are to talk about their home.
5 Word Travel:
Middle eastern culture. Small city
Even importing alcohol into Kuwait is forbidden, so if you are having a lay-over this will be an issue if you have any in your luggage. The penalties can be severe, so it is simply not worth the risk!