When you think of the Middle East you think of headlines, but there are a few oases where you can experience the region’s rich cultural history and hospitality and still feel safe. Kuwait is one of them. A less blingy version of Dubai, it’s sure to put an unusual pin on your family travel map. It’s chock full of adventure for kids who embrace authentic travel experiences and modern amenities.
We raised our son there for six years and entertained lots of visitors who came away enchanted. About the size of Rhode Island, Kuwait is an oil-rich country located on the Arabian Gulf (don’t call it the Persian Gulf there!) between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A sometimes jarring mix of gleaming ultramodern and Old World desert, it offers unique experiences for families who like to swerve off the well-traveled path: gleaming malls and ancient souqs, indoor play arenas and old-style metal playgrounds, new construction next to crumbling pre-Gulf War buildings.
It is a place with very low crime against tourists and a real affection for children. I lost my son more than once in a mall, at a beach, or along the popular Corniche walking path along the Gulf, and never once did I worry about his safety.
Traveling to Kuwait, either as part of a more extensive journey or on its own, is easy. Check online coupon codes for airlines and hotel deals. You will get your 30-day visas upon arrival at Kuwait International Airport. Be prepared to write down the name of your hotel at the intake. Lines are long and the atmosphere a bit chaotic, but it’s easy to find taxis to hotels and around town. Book a room with a swimming pool or Western-friendly beach access such as the Radisson SAS or the Hilton Kuwait resort. Take your trip in the winter, as summertime temperatures exceed 130 degrees of bone-dry heat.
Let the kids go wild at the site of these ships of the desert, and they won’t have to search very hard. We spotted tons of camels herded by Bedouins along the side of the highway all winter long. For a more up-close experience, check out the camel farm. This collective off the 6th Ring Road near Kabd features thousands of camels, both loose and in pens. When we went, a herd walked up to us and started nibbling at my husband’s shirt. They were after the Ritz crackers he had stashed in his pocket! Our son spent a half hour petting a big bull that we were later told was a biter. Yikes!
For a more tame experience, check out the camel races that are held all winter. Kuwaitis breed and wager on camels the way Americans do with thoroughbred horses. Surreal!
There’s simply nothing like Kuwait’s symbolic monument: three metal spheres rising along the Arabian Gulf in Kuwait City. The tallest one houses a world-class restaurant and an observation tower that rotates 360 degrees every half hour, offering stunning views of the Gulf and Kuwait City. The second is a water tower, and the third stores a generator. Walk along the Corniche, which is dotted with playgrounds and open areas along the seafront. We were spontaneously invited to small family barbecues the locals set up in green spots. After your visit, take the kids to the Aqua Park for a swim or a stroll across Green Island. Moms will need to wear baggy, loose clothing at public beaches and pools.
Shopping From Malls to Souqs
If it’s out there, you can buy it in this oil-rich country’s many modern malls such as The Avenues, 360, Al Fanar and Al Kout. Most feature vast play areas for kids: rides, arcade games, even rollercoasters. You can actually leave your children with staff attendants as you shop. We never worried about kidnapping but some of the local kids tend to play rough, so use your judgment. For the most authentic local experience, check out the many souqs, or old fashioned markets, that are scattered about. Two must-sees:
- The Friday Market – Everyone knows and everyone goes to this weekly market and gets lost in a dizzying array of everything from Kuwait, India, the Far East and around the region. Pick up inexpensive souvenirs such as evil eye charms, prayer beads, patterned table cloths and Kuwaiti coffee pots.
- Souq Al Mubarikiyah – More than 200 years old, it is the perfect place to scout out genuine Persian carpets, caftans, Bedouin textiles, spices and graceful Kuwaiti coffee pots. My son enjoyed treasure hunting in the endless arrays of shops and stalls while the shopkeepers plied us with tea and stories of pre-oil Kuwait.
The Kuwait Scientific Centre
Majestic, sail-like rooftops cover an aquarium, an IMAX movie theater, and a Discovery Center where kids can learn hands-on lessons in physics, geology and chemistry. Being the tenth largest oil producer in the world, the Discovery Place is heavy on petrochemical science. Outside, enjoy replicas of the distinctive dhow cargo ships, grab an ice cream cone and stroll the seafront walkway.
Museums and Attractions in Kuwait
Explore the ancient Islamic calligraphy, textiles and artwork at the Tareq Rajab Museum. Located in the basement of a house in the Jabriya neighborhood, it houses one of the richest collections of ancient artifacts. Budding explorers will love the antiquities housed at the National Museum. Young sailors can enjoy exploring the traditional sailing ship replicas. Artsy kids might appreciate the colorful Bedouin textiles made and sold at the adjacent Sadu House. There’s truly something for every interest!
Kids will love the thrill of getting on board a ferry and heading over to an island that is a real mix of old and new. Failakha features ancient Greek artifacts and old-style buildings – some still bearing machine gun strafing from the Gulf War – as well as a petting zoo, hotel and historical complexes.
House of Mirrors
This don’t-miss wonder is located at a private home in an ordinary neighborhood. The House of Mirrors boasts some 77 tons of mirrored mosaics inside and out. The eccentric but kindly artist-owner, Lidia al-Qattan, welcomes tour groups on her own schedule. If you get in, count yourself extremely lucky. If your child isn’t too rambunctious, he or she will be awestruck by the sheer glittering beauty of this labor of love.
This former royal residence, built in the old style, has been turned into a community center with art exhibitions, an amazing gift shop, concerts and movie nights, story time and art lessons. We wandered in one evening to buy souvenirs but ended up watching a showing of the documentary Supersize Me with random strangers from all over the world.
A Few Words About the Culture
Kuwait is a conservative Muslim country, but not to the extent of its neighbor to the south, Saudi Arabia. Women can drive (although traffic is fast and crazy), and not required to cover up. You will find local women in a range of dress styles: body-shrouding niqabs, abayas with head scarves, or jeans and blouses. That said, all women are expected to dress modestly: no short skirts or exposed shoulders and midriffs. It’s not acceptable to shake hands with the opposite sex unless invited – touch your hand to your heart instead. Kids, however, have free rein.
Kuwait is truly is one of the most kid-friendly, adventure-packed places in the world, and I encourage you to explore its hospitality and treasures.
About the Author: Marie Hickman is a former expat, world traveler, and blogger for Valpak.com and other websites. When she isn’t hopping a plane, she and her son, Will, make their home in Palm Harbor, Fla.