Airport Rating ****
Reception of locals *****
A mixed history
Sometimes I end up in cities that were never on my list of destinations to visit. I've always had a certain amount of interest in Kuwait, this emirate on the corner of Iraq, with a fair bit of separation from the other emirates of the Persian Gulf, but never to the point of looking too deeply into visiting.
Kuwait has a strange history, in that much of its history is just the history of Mesopotamia / Iraq, or colonial rule in the local area (first Portuguese and then British). And the history of Kuwait is the history of Kuwait City given that 70% of the country lives in this one area. It has, for much of its history, been a city of great strategic value in terms of trade, bringing prosperity to the small city many centuries before its emirati cousins to the south.
In fact, other than a period of stagnation in the early 20th century as global trade dried up following the Great Depression, Kuwait City has been relatively prosperous. In the 1970s, while Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and others were still largely small desert towns, Kuwait City was a modern metropolis with social norms more similar to cities in Europe.
During the 1980s the political situation in the city-state changed considerably, with social and political conservatism taking root. In 1990 its northern neighbour, Iraq, invaded the city, decimating a lot of the local infrastructure during its retreat when this local war brought in American and European powers as part of the Gulf War.
Since then, Kuwait City has recovered more slowly despite its expensive oil deposits. Today the city has been overtaken by cities in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. It remains very conservative from a social perspective, and the economy continues to rely almost exclusively on the export of petrol and fertilizer.
That being said, the Kuwaiti Dinar is the strongest currency in the world. Holding British Pounds usually means expecting more money when exchanging for foreign currency in terms of face value almost everywhere in the world, so it was an interesting feeling getting so little when exchanging with the Kuwaiti Dinar. Prices that seemed cheap actually translated into considerable expense. Most of my meals were around 8 or 9 Kuwaiti Dinars, which translates to about £32 -£36.
I'll be honest, my first impression wasn't a good one - and neither were the following couple of days. Compared to its richer neighbours to the south, the city felt dated, perhaps the impact of the Gulf War and its struggles since then. The cityscape is relatively uniform, save for the downtown area which has a few disjointed skyscrapers, as well as the futuristic looking Kuwait Towers.
Social norms are conservative, you can't stay in the same hotel as someone of the opposite sex without marriage, there is absolutely no alcohol in the country, and single women walking on their own are subject to frequent harassment.
This isn't just an observation I made during my week in the city. These are the stories that I heard from people that I met. I made friends with a Lebanese interpreter who showed me around the city and told me stories of how she is regularly harassed and frequently followed home. If she is driving on her own, she is almost always subject to some form of catcalling. She spent a few days showing me around, and from the stares she was getting everywhere we went, I knew she wasn't lying.
The city is also one of the hottest places on the planet. I went during the winter, and each day was over 30 degrees celsius - I've heard during the summer the city regularly experiences days over 50 degrees which seems insane. Unsurprisingly, every building has air conditioning, and it's usually set to a very low temperature, which means you seem to go from one extreme to another.
One giant shopping centre
Much like the rest of the Gulf, Kuwait considers a shopping centre to be its biggest attraction. I'm not one for shopping, and certainly not one for shopping centres, so these things don't really attract me. However, I've got to admit that "The Avenues" is one of the better shopping centres that I have been to.
The Avenues is the largest shopping centre in the country, and the second largest in the Middle East. It's built across different zones that represent different regions from around the world. I saw something similar in Bangkok in Terminal 21, but the scale here is much bigger, and while it seemed tacky in Thailand, it works here - just about.
Don't get me wrong, it's still painfully fake, but it's a more immersive experience. Walking through areas like the Grand Avenue actually made me think I was outside until I'd look up to see a ceiling. It feels like you're in Marbella, with beautiful white brick buildings serving as shop fronts.
Other parts of the shopping centre make you feel like you're in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York. And it's honestly impressive. There are over 1,000 stores and it employs over 30,000 people - it really does feel like a city within a city, with streets, streetlights, fountains, road signs - everything. You can easily spend a whole day here without visiting the same place twice. Small coffee shops, restaurants and even hotels and cinemas mean there is always something to do. I'm told exhibitions and pop-up shops change often, so no two visits are the same.
I had to constantly remind myself to look up - either to remember that I was indoors, or to appreciate the incredible decorations in different zones. Some ceilings are ornately decorated, others are plated in gold, others still are large domes with incredible lighting patterns.
There is even a zone that is built like a traditional Kuwaiti Souk. And I don't know whether it is a design or just accidental, but in this area, even the shopkeepers behave in ways similar to local souks, standing outside and asking you to come in (I can't tell you how much I hate that).
It's one of the many reasons I didn't like another shopping centre - the more traditional Souk Al-Mubarakiya. It's one of the oldest souks in Kuwait and located in the city centre. While the souk is several hundred years old, the area housing it was destroyed twice - once during the Gulf War, and then again due to a large fire in 2022.
The souk that I saw was incredibly underwhelming. The structure housing it seemed devoid of any character, doubtless a casualty of quick rebuilding. The goods the vendors sold were quite interesting, a lot of fruit, vegetables, spices and teas, although conversely there were countless shops selling watches and fake perfumes. It might be for some people, but it wasn't for me.
The city centre is home to several skyscrapers, but the most interesting aren't even the tallest. The Kuwait Towers remind me a little of the CN Tower in Toronto in terms of their shape, although here there are two of them and they have a large globelike sphere near the top of each of them.
While they look similar in size, the main tower is about 40 metres higher than the other, standing at almost 190 metres. Entrance to the viewing platform costs 3 Kuwaiti Dinars, which is just over £12, a very reasonable price compared to viewing platforms in many other cities.
However, if you visit the restaurant in the sphere there is no cost to entry, and the truth is the view from the restaurant is likely not going to be too dissimilar (although the viewing platform spins, while the restaurant does not).
There are two restaurants in the tower, a Japanese restaurant, and a broader fusion restaurant. I went for the second option and really enjoyed it. The food was decent, and the cost was reasonable. The restaurant looked classy, so I expected something very expensive - it was a pleasant surprise to get a bill where the price was about average for a restaurant in the Midlands back home.
However, I'd recommend going in the day. The lights of the restaurant create a glare in the window which can make it a little difficult to see outside. That being said, the views of the city were great, from the skyscrapers of Kuwait on one side, to the waters of the Gulf on the other.
After a couple of days, I began to warm to the city, and actually by the end of the week I found a strange beauty and comfort in it.
The architecture, a strange mix of east and west, seems ugly at first, but I quickly came to appreciate the eclectic mix of buildings. You might be on a road filled with giant concrete monstrosities, but you could turn the corner to see something very different. Some of the buildings I saw had unique designs, from strangely shaped skyscrapers to older buildings with intricately detailed decorations.
I really enjoyed the fact that there are mosques all over the city. In Panjab, I love the sound of prayers over a village loudspeaker in the morning, and here I really enjoyed the call to prayer at various times of the day. It takes you out of the moment and is incredibly relaxing.
I loved the coastal area of the city around Marina beach - the rocky coast broken up by a small but beautiful man-made beach. Nearby are different buildings hosting things like a Lebanese restaurant, a cultural centre, and a scientific centre. All along the coast, men and women of all ages were taking a walk, going for a run, or just sitting and eating on the grassy areas.
It was here where I saw the other side of Kuwait. I saw women going for a jog in western clothes and seemingly looking comfortable. I saw people walking dogs - a pet that is usually considered a taboo in this part of the world. Now granted, these people seemed like foreigners, but it was something at least.
The entire coast is dotted with restaurants, but the thing that really stood out to me was the cats. Yep, the cats. The whole area is overrun by cats (in a good way). They are everywhere, and they aren't shy. They will constantly follow and pester you for food.
There are cats of all colours, and a lot of kittens too, all roaming freely. I saw a lot of people just sitting there feeding the cats, while others would play around with them. If you're eating in a restaurant on the coast, they will meow at you until you give them food - and if you don't. they will happily jump on the table and try and take some (it happened to me!).
It's a part of Kuwait that I really enjoyed, and it made me see a beauty in a city that has suffered a fair bit in the last decade of the previous century.
Would I recommend visiting Kuwait City?
I don't think I would recommend coming out here especially for Kuwait, but if you're in the Gulf region for an extended period of time, a couple of days in Kuwait City would provide another perspective to your Middle East experience, away from the glitz and glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, or the fast-growing modernity of Doha and Manama.
I'm not sure if your experience would be as fun if you're a lone female, but I understand that despite the obvious harassing behaviour, physically, people in this part of the world (men or women), are almost always going to be very safe.
As a Sikh, I didn't experience any obvious issues. Of course, the country is strict and so the food is halaal, so if you do eat meat, you might not have that option here. But the local vegetarian food is good. I didn't see a single Sikh during my time in Kuwait, with most Panjabi immigration being focused in the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain. In fact, I didn't see many tourists at all, at least any obvious western or eastern tourists.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.