When you think about booking a trip to the United Arab Emirates, visions of sail-shaped luxury hotels and the world’s tallest building usually come to mind. But while Dubai may serve as your entry point to discovering the UAE, there is far more to experience than just the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa.
With impressive manmade islands and endless luxurious hotels and resorts, major hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi make great introductions to this Persian Gulf nation. However, many of the country’s hidden treasures lie in its lesser known cities.
Read on to discover the hidden corners of the UAE as I introduce you to some truly incredible cities to include on your next itinerary. Experience the country’s authentic culture and history, as well as stunning natural landscapes by visiting cities like Ajman and Al Ain.
The adventure starts with a simple Emirates flight booking. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s Top 10 airlines, flying Emirates mirrors the opulence you can expect across the UAE and makes a great introduction to the hospitality you’re sure to experience within the country.
Lesser Known Cities in the UAE
Al Ain: A Garden City in the Desert
Those travelling to Abu Dhabi should also check out Al Ain, especially since it’s within the same emirate (just a 1.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi).
Al Ain is where UAE’s first president grew up and continues to be where you’ll find one of the nation’s largest populations of UAE nationals. It’s a rather green city, somewhat surprising for being surrounded by desert. This has led to the city being nicknamed the Garden City.
The city is the first in the UAE to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the 19th century Al Jahili Fort which houses an exhibit detailing Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s travels through the Rub Al Khali Desert.
Discover more history and culture by visiting the Al Ain National Museum. Browse the museum’s extensive collection of native musical instruments, Bedouin jewelry, and other artifacts. You can also tour the home of UAE’s founder and first President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan by heading to the Al Ain Palace Museum.
Catch a cab to the country’s second highest peak, Jebel Hafeet, for a falcon’s eye view of the city. Come back down from the heavens to seek out the camel market and find relaxation in the shaded walkways of Al Ain Oasis.
For more of a wild adventure, try some white water rafting at the base of Jebel Hafeet. The park is also known for offering the world’s largest manmade surf wave and kayaking channel.
Image: Michael Peter Glenister [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Sharjah: Cultural Capital of the UAE
Sharjah is UAE’s third largest city behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Located along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the city is considered by many to be the cultural capital of the UAE.
The city may only be a 30-minute drive north from Dubai, but it is a world away from the towering skyscrapers and flashy nature of its more famous neighbor. And its dedication to preserving the ancient culture has led it to become a UNESCO Cultural Capital of the Arab World.
Sharjah is a city that manages to harmoniously blend modern day hotels and restaurants without deteriorating its offering of Arab traditions. Shop the many stalls of the famous Blue Souk, step back in time by visiting the city’s many museums, and be captivated by local art in its many galleries.
Introduce yourself to the local wildlife by checking out the Arabian Wildlife Center and top off the day by taking a ride on the giant Eye of the Emirates Ferris wheel. You also can’t go wrong simply spending the day along the Al Majaz Waterfront.
Image: Firoze Edassery [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Ajman: For Nature and Wildlife
Ajman is the capital and main hub of the emirate going by the same name. Visitors can take advantage of Ajman’s 10-mile long beach that runs along the Arabian Gulf, which seems to be eternally bathed in warm sunshine. Best of all is the fact this paradise lies less than an hour outside of Dubai.
Hike through the mangrove forests of Al Zorah Nature Reserve in search of flamingos and dozens of other bird species. Alternatively, you can hike the foothills of the Hajar Mountains which run along UAE’s border with Oman.
Get further off the beaten path by taking a desert safari or by visiting one of the inland enclaves such as Al Manama or Masfout. You may be able to catch some camel racing or try a bit of quad biking. If you’re feeling less adventurous, you can settle for a round of golf at the Al Zorah Golf Club.
Stroll along the beaches of Ajman’s Corniche region, a place that tempts visitors with its many restaurants and shops. Set yourself up in one of Ajman’s lovely beach resorts, where you will experience a more economical and peaceful stay than can be found in the resorts of Dubai.
Ras Al Khaimah: UAE Before Mass Tourism
Ras al-Khaimah city is just a 1.5 hour drive from Dubai and offers the chance to escape the crowds of UAE’s most populous city. The city has managed to stay off the radar of most tourists but offers no shortage of beautiful resorts and spas.
It also offers the chance to see what the UAE looked like before mass tourism took hold in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dine on authentic Emirati cuisine like camel-milk ice cream and maybe learn the art of falconry.
Day trips can easily be arranged to check out the haunted and abandoned village known as Jazirah Al Hamra or to climb the hundreds of steps that lead to the top of Dhayah Fort. UAE’s emirate of the north, Ras al-Khaimah is surrounded by the Hajar Mountains.
The emirate boasts UAE’s tallest peak Jebel Jais, which now offers a chance to ride the world’s longest zip line. The mountain also offers up the 4-hour Via Ferrata climbing adventure. You’ll be safely attached to a steel cable as you climb the mountain and get to take in smaller zip lines along the way.
Be sure to check out the more of this emirate’s history by visiting the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah. Marvel at the beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque or take in the much more modest Mohammed Bin Salim Mosque which was built in the late 19th century to replace the former 18th century mosque that was destroyed by the British.
Image: Robert Haandrikman (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Fujairah: History Everywhere
You will find Fujairah on the east coast of the UAE along the Gulf of Oman. Fujairah City is home to the UAE’s second largest mosque which is said to hold nearly 30,000 people.
It is named Sheikh Zayed Mosque, not to be confused with the mosques found in Abu Dhabi or Ras Al Khaimah that go by the same name. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque found in Abu Dhabi is the largest in the country.
The 17th-century Fujairah Fort overlooks the city and offers up the Fujairah Museum with its collection of weapons that date back to the Iron and Bronze Ages. Other notable artifacts on display include a 2,000-year-old ostrich egg bowl as well as a collection of pre-Islamic silver coins.
Roughly 20 miles north of Fujairah city, you’ll encounter the oldest standing mosque in the UAE. Al-Bidyah Mosque might not be as flashy as the country’s more modern mosques, but it is said to have been inhabited for around 4,000 years.
A bit further to the north is Al Aqah Beach and Snoopy Island. This beach resort area offers visitors the chance to scuba dive and snorkel, unlike UAE’s other cities which are located along the Arabian Gulf.
Other sights worth mentioning include the Ain al-Madhab Hot Springs as well as Al-Hayl Castle. At one time in history, the castle made up part of the fortification that helped to defend the surrounding area. The castle is one of the few remaining structures of that fortification.
Image: Mark Cristian Delas Alas (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
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