With its full-throttle development, iconic skylines of high-rises, and world famous beach resorts the United Arab Emirates has become a favourite for family holidays and city breaks also a high class tourism destination. Landmark tourist attractions such as Dubai’s towering Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi’s modern Sheikh Zayeed Mosque, have branded the UAE as an up-to-the-minute luxury destination.
Scrape below the surface though, and you’ll find there’s more here than skyscrapers, shopping and sandy shores. Culture-fans can delve into the country’s Bedouin past on starry desert nights before exploring the many forts that guarded the coastline long before the domination of the glitzy high rises. While for nature-lovers, the desert starts where the cities end and the jagged peaks of the Hajar Mountains are ripe for adventuring.
The Burj Khalifa is one of the United Arab Emirates most famous buildings and the soaring sky-high landmark of Dubai. Not only is it the world’s tallest building, but it also lays claim to the titles of tallest freestanding structure in the world, highest observation deck in the world and elevator with the longest travel distance in the world. A trip up to the observation deck with its panoramic views across Dubai is a sightseeing highlight for most tourists who visit, though for those who suffer from vertigo it might be best to give it a miss.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a mammoth modern mosque of incredible beauty. Harnessing contemporary design and ancient craftsmanship skills, the mosque is a harmonious blend of modern and old. It doesn’t fail to dazzle all who enter with its lavish use of gold, mosaic work and glass work, marble in gigantic proportions and blindingly white stone contrasting dramatically under the Emirati blue sky.
The summit of Jebel Hafeet is a favourite day trip from Abu-Dhabi and Al-Ain with sumptuous desert panoramas all the way up to the top on the winding road. After the twisting mountain road drive, it’s all about the views and you are rewarded with being able to see across the area’s vast sweep of desert.
The oldest mosque in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Bidyah is an important historical site that lies in the Emirate of Fujairah. Although modest in proportions, this adobe building was beautifully designed with its original ventilation shaft patterns in the walls still visible. The entire surrounding area is an archaeological site, where many pottery and metal artifacts have been excavated.
The Hajar Mountains scythe through the desert, creating the jagged and wild heart of the United Arab Emirates. Twisting roller-coaster roads with spectacular scenery along the way connects the region’s tiny villages. There are wadis (valleys) to explore and hiking opportunities abound.
Sharjah Arts Museum
The most important museum dedicated to the arts in the country, this modern Sharjah museum is home to the most diverse art collection in the United Arab Emirates. The museum is recognised for its collection of works by Arabic artists and also for its important pieces by European artists who specialised in painting the Arab world. The museum is also noted for its program of temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization
One of the best museums in the country to focus on Islamic history, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation has fascinating exhibits dating from the early years of the Islamic empire. Many displays feature manuscripts and religious documents, and tourists will find them easy to understand thanks to excellent information boards throughout.
Dubai’s museum is a great place to get a feel for traditional life before the oil boom transformed the United Arab Emirates. There are good displays about local Bedouin life as well as exhibits exploring how fishing and pearl diving were the economic mainstays until the mid-20th century. The museum is based in the well-restored Al-Fahidi Fort, made of traditional coral-block architecture.
The Bastakia quarter of Dubai is the last remaining fragment of Old Dubai and shouldn’t be missed. This small heritage area really evokes the simpler, gentler past of the city before skyscrapers took over the skyline. Narrow lanes are lined with beautifully preserved buildings in typical Arabian architecture styles, many with wind-tower features. There are various museums, where you can enter the houses and see typical Arabian interiors within the quarter, along with mosques and a small surviving segment of the original Dubai city wall.
Dubai Creek Dhow Ride
The Burj Khalifa may give you that famous skyline view from up high, but the most iconic Dubai views are still taken from the water. Dubai Creek slices through the city and the best way to experience Dubai is from one of the beautiful dhows (traditional Arabic boats) that ply the creek. Sunset cruises are particularly beautiful as you watch the lights of the high-rises begin to twinkle in the dusk.
For those with an adventurous streak, make a beeline for the empty stretch of desert hugging the coastline outside the cities. There is a myriad of things to do in the desert, from four-wheel-drive trips and dune-buggy journeys, to sand boarding, hiking and camel treks. Most people plan a desert trip from Dubai, but Abu Dhabi and Fujairah are also excellent bases for desert sightseeing. For those less inclined to adventure, Bedouin-style dinners are a softer alternative if you want to experience the empty beauty of the desert.
There’s a beach for everyone in the United Arab Emirates, from the city beaches surrounding Dubai and Abu Dhabi to the enclave of luxury sweeps of sand around Ajman and the wilder beaches of the Emirate of Fujairah. Many luxury hotels have private patches of sand, which non-guests can use for a day fee. Water-sports such as diving, jet skiing and snorkeling are also available at many resort locales.