Discovering hidden gems in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and exploring lesser-visited places in the UAE
The United Arab Emirates is known for its opulent skyscrapers, glamorous shopping centres, and white sandy beaches. However, for travellers aiming to experience culture beyond the glitz, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path destinations to discover in the UAE.
The UAE, formed in 1971 under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, comprises seven separate Emirates, each with its own set of attractions and things to do. While Dubai and Abu Dhabi are well-known, the smaller Emirates of Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain, and Ajman are often overlooked. Although Dubai and Abu Dhabi are famous for their fancy buildings and modern designs, there’s still plenty to discover in this fascinating country outside these two most-visited Emirates.
Many travellers miss out on the smaller Emirates, but those who make an effort to visit are well-rewarded. We explore some of the best off-the-beaten-track places in the UAE, offering a unique and authentic experience for those who venture beyond the usual tourist spots.
Off the beaten path in Dubai
If you grow weary of the flashy hotels and enticing beaches in Dubai, there is another side of the city worth exploring. Before the construction of skyscrapers, Dubai’s historical centre was once a bustling fishing village that dates back to the early 1700s.
Dubai Old Town and Dubai Creek
The area known as Old Dubai includes the districts of Bur Dubai, Deira, Karama, and Satwa. The charming neighbourhood of Deira is one of the oldest parts of Dubai, steeped in centuries-old history. Deira is a reminder of Dubai’s trading past, with narrow lanes leading to the ancient gold and spice souks where merchants have traded for centuries. The souks are filled with an array of goods brought in by boats along the waters of Dubai Creek.
Dubai Creek is a historic waterway that once served as the city’s centre for trade and commerce. The creek still bustles with activity today, as modern yachts and traditional Arabian dhows share busy wharves. It’s fun to ride on one of the small motorised wooden vessels known as abras which ferry passengers across the creek between Deira and Bur Dubai.
On the western side of Dubai Creek is the historic district of Bur Dubai, where narrow alleys and winding streets add to its character. Many of its original buildings are still intact, including Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city and home to Dubai Museum.
Discover Dubai’s diverse neighbourhoods
After Deira and Bur Dubai, other neighbourhoods can be explored, each revealing a different facet of the city. One such neighbourhood is Al Fahidi, a traditional Arabian area that starkly contrasts the modern cityscape of Dubai. The narrow winding alleys are lined with beautiful coral and gypsum buildings, some dating back to the 19th century. The area is now home to art galleries, museums, and cultural centres that showcase the city’s rich history and heritage.
Get a taste of Dubai street food
Dubai may be a destination you associate more closely with lavish buffet spreads at luxury hotels, but this multicultural Emirate has a diverse and surprisingly tasty street food scene. Dubai’s street food scene offers a variety of cuisines, from Indian chaat to Emirati machbous. Many vendors use family recipes passed down for generations to create delicious and authentic dishes. This cultural experience allows you to sample food from different regions, learn about their origins, and interact with locals.
Falcon Heritage Centre
For those interested in the history and culture of the UAE, a visit to the Falcon Heritage Centre in Dubai offers the opportunity to learn about the vital role that falcons have played in Emirati life for centuries.
The displays feature various types of falcons, their habitats, and falconry tools and techniques. The centre also offers interactive experiences where visitors can learn how to handle and fly a falcon under the guidance of experienced trainers. Visiting the centre provides a fascinating glimpse into the unique relationship between humans and these majestic birds of prey.
Attend a race meeting at Meydan Racecourse
Attending a race meeting at Meydan Racecourse is a thrilling experience that offers much more than horse racing. With its state-of-the-art facilities and stunning architecture, Meydan Racecourse is a world-class venue that attracts visitors worldwide. The races are held on Thursdays and Saturdays during the winter season. Along with the excitement of watching the races, the addition of live music, delicious food and drinks, and an electric atmosphere makes for an unforgettable day out.
Al Marmoom Conservation Reserve
The Al Marmoom Conservation Reserve is a beautiful sanctuary in the heart of the Arabian Desert, covering 10% of the Emirate of Dubai. It is home to more than 200 types of indigenous flora, fauna, and birds, with the renowned pink flamingos being the main attraction at Al Qudra Lake, which is also home to various migratory birds and a favourite spot for birdwatchers. Visitors can take a guided tour of the reserve to learn about the local wildlife and conservation efforts or explore the many walking trails and cycling paths, including the popular Al Qudra Cycle Path.
The Hajar Mountains and Hatta Heritage Village
If you’re looking for a chance to uncover some of the hidden gems of the UAE, the Hajar mountains are worth checking out. While most of the mountain range is in Oman, parts of it extend into the Emirates of Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, and Sharjah. One fun way to explore the area is by taking a 4-wheel drive safari from Dubai to the mountain resort of Hatta. Here, you can discover rugged peaks, refreshing natural water pools, and the Hatta Heritage Village – a living museum that showcases the traditional way of life of the region. Some don’t realise it, but Hatta is an exclave of Dubai.
Ras al-Khor wildlife sanctuary
Ras al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in Dubai. It covers an area of 6.2 square kilometres and includes a wetland ecosystem consisting of mudflats, lagoons, and mangroves. The sanctuary is home to many species of fish, reptiles and mammals, as well as more than 270 species of birds, including flamingos, herons, and cormorants. The flamingos are the star attraction of the sanctuary, and visitors can observe them in their natural habitat from three purpose-built hides. The reserve provides an excellent opportunity to experience Dubai’s natural beauty and biodiversity.
Dhow cruise, Khor as Sham, Musandam, Oman
This one-of-a-kind day trip from Dubai takes you across an international border to the Musandam peninsula. Embark on a scenic drive along the Pirate Coast before reaching Oman’s breathtaking Musandam peninsula. This rugged area is known for its stunning natural beauty, including deep inlets, craggy peaks, and secluded bays enclosed by towering cliffs. You’ll have the opportunity to explore this dramatic landscape from a traditional dhow cruise and a 4WD vehicle, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the region’s natural wonders.
Off the beaten path in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is a city of contrasts, with its modern skyscrapers and traditional mosques. It is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the largest Emirate in the country, covering 84% of the landmass. Abu Dhabi’s attractions include its modern architecture, world-class museums, rich cultural heritage, and luxurious hotels. Away from the city centre, Abu Dhabi offers plenty of opportunities to gain a deeper insight into the traditional culture of the Emirate.
Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali)
For travellers seeking an authentic and immersive adventure, Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter is a must-see destination. Also known as Rub al Khali, the vast desert expanse spans the southeastern region of the UAE. It is the largest continuous sand desert in the world, covering an area of approximately 650,000 square kilometres (roughly the size of France). The Empty Quarter is a mesmerising landscape of rolling dunes, towering as high as 300 meters in some areas, making it a true desert explorer’s paradise. Popular activities include dune bashing, sand boarding, and camel treks.
Known for its stunning sand dunes, towering palm trees, and traditional falaj irrigation system, Liwa Oasis is a natural wonder and a living testament to the resilience of the local people who have cultivated it for centuries. The oasis is famous for its date production and is considered one of the largest and most fertile oases in the Emirates. At the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort & Spa, you can look forward to myriad desert adventures in an Arabian Nights-style setting. This luxurious resort offers an unparalleled experience in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s desert.
Camel Beauty Pageant in Abu Dhabi in Madinat Zayed
The Camel Beauty Pageant in Abu Dhabi’s Madinat Zayed is a unique cultural experience that offers a glimpse into the region’s rich heritage. As an integral part of Emirati culture, camel beauty contests showcase these majestic animals’ elegance, grace, and strength. Visitors can witness the spectacle of adorned camels parading in elaborate costumes and intricate decorations while expert judges evaluate their beauty. It’s a truly captivating sight, with live entertainment, traditional food, and local crafts adding to the festive atmosphere. The Camel Beauty Pageant is a must-see event for those seeking an authentic cultural experience in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi’s Pearling Cruise – A Journey into a Vanished Way of Life
Embark on a Pearling Cruise in Abu Dhabi aboard a traditional pearling boat, known as a dhow, for a fascinating insight into a bygone era. Sail out into the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf and admire the stunning Abu Dhabi skyline from an alternative perspective while learning about old pearl divers’ traditional techniques and tools. Get the chance to open pearl oysters and, if luck is on your side, discover a precious pearl that is yours to keep! This 60-minute experience offers a captivating glimpse into the vanished way of life of pearl divers in Abu Dhabi’s history.
Falcons hold a special place in Emirati culture and tradition. The Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi is a world-renowned institution dedicated to their care, welfare, and conservation. Established in 1999, the hospital boasts state-of-the-art facilities, including a surgical wing, diagnostic laboratory, and rehabilitation centre staffed by expert veterinarians and falcon specialists. Visitors to the Falcon Hospital can witness falconry demonstrations, learn about the history and importance of falconry in Emirati culture, and even participate in interactive experiences such as handling and feeding falcons. The Falcon Hospital is a leading centre for falcon healthcare and a unique cultural attraction that offers a fascinating insight into the age-old tradition of falconry and the vital role falcons play in the UAE’s heritage.
The Zayed Centre
The Zayed Centre, also known as the Sheikh Zayed Centre, is a cultural and educational institution in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that pays tribute to the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father and first president of the UAE. The Zayed Centre is dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage, values, and achievements of Sheikh Zayed, who played a pivotal role in the development and progress of the UAE. The centre features exhibits, displays, and interactive installations that showcase Sheikh Zayed’s life, leadership, vision for the UAE, and contributions to various aspects such as education, culture, environment, and humanitarian efforts. The Zayed Centre is an important cultural landmark, inspiring visitors to learn about the history, culture, and leadership of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed’s enduring legacy.
Al Ain – Abu Dhabi’s destination within a destination
The oasis city of Al Ain is situated in the eastern part of the Abu Dhabi district near the border with Oman. It boasts many attractions that make it a compelling destination in its own right. One of Al Ain’s notable features is its cluster of historic fortifications, and its irrigated oasis is one of the most attractive and luxuriant in the UAE. Here are some of the must-see and must-do experiences that Al Ain has to offer.
Al Jahili Fort: Step back in time
Located in the historic city of Al Ain, Al Jail Fort is about an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi. This iconic fort served as a vital defensive structure during a time the region was plagued by tribal conflicts. The meticulously restored fort was constructed in the 1890s and is one of the oldest in the area. Explore its ancient walls, traditional towers, and fascinating exhibits that showcase the region’s Bedouin heritage. Set within the Al Jahili fort, explorers will enjoy the Wilfred Thesiger Museum, which tells the story of one of the desert’s great adventurers. After exploring the fortress, stroll through the lush Al Jahili Oasis, a serene haven of palm trees, gardens, and freshwater springs.
Al Ain Oasis
The vast and picturesque Al Ain Oasis is known for its lush date palms, fruit trees, and traditional falaj irrigation channels. It covers over 1,200 hectares and is a living testament to local ingenuity of farming methods. Visitors can stroll along shaded pathways, explore the ancient falaj system, and learn about the traditional irrigation systems used to cultivate the area.
Exploring Al Ain’s UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites
The Cultural Sites of Al Ain, including Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud, and Oases areas, make up a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site. These sites are recognised for their significant testimony to the transition of cultures in the region, showcasing the shift from a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering to a settled, rooted way of life. These historical gems in Al Ain provide invaluable insights into the UAE’s cultural evolution.
The second-highest peak in the UAE, Jebel Hafeet, is an arid limestone crag with views that extend across the lush desert oasis of Al Ain and into Oman. Once isolated, Jebel Hafeet has been tamed, and one of the world’s most exhilarating drives now winds to its summit through a series of 21 hairpin bends. The Green Mubazzarah hot springs are found at the base of the mountain, and along the route up to the top lie several viewing points.
Al Ain Camel Market
The Camel Market in Al Ain is a traditional market where camels are bought and sold for various purposes, such as racing, breeding, and milk production. It is a bustling place where camel owners and traders gather to showcase their camels and negotiate deals. The market is abuzz with enthusiastic haggling, lively conversations, and the distinctive sounds and smells of camels. It’s a unique and fascinating experience that offers a glimpse into the deep-rooted significance of camels in Emirati life and traditions.
Off the beaten path in the rest of the UAE
Beyond Abu Dhabi and Dubai, five more Emirates await discovery…
Located on the west coast north of Dubai, Sharjah is the third-largest Emirate by area and population. Sharjah’s history dates back more than 5,000 years, and in 1998, the city was named the ‘Arab City of Culture’ by UNESCO. Sharjah is known for its rich cultural heritage, with several museums and historical landmarks, including the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, the Sharjah Art Museum, and Al Hisn Fort.
Discover the charms of Sharjah’s Arts and Heritage areas
Enjoy a rewarding stroll through the historic part of Sharjah, immersing yourself in the rich heritage. The meticulously restored Arts and Heritage Quarter features narrow lanes and traditional coral-stone buildings that have stood for centuries. Discover the vibrant Souq Al Arsah, believed to be the oldest covered marketplace in the UAE, bursting with colours, scents, and sounds. Al Hisn (Sharjah Fort) is a historic landmark built in 1823 to serve as the ruling family’s residence and defensive stronghold. Today, it has been transformed into a museum illustrating the history and traditions of Sharjah.
Explore Sharjah’s Museums of Islamic Civilisation, Arts, and Heritage
Sharjah is home to several museums that offer insights into the region’s rich history, art, and culture. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation is a must-visit, with a world-class collection of over 5,000 exquisite artefacts. The Sharjah Heritage Museum provides a glimpse into the Emirati way of life, with exhibits showcasing traditional crafts, customs, and culture. The Sharjah Arts Museum is a hub for art enthusiasts, with an extensive Emirati and international art collection, including paintings, sculptures, and multimedia installations.
Uncover the mysteries of Al Madam ghost town
Al Madam ghost town is an abandoned village in the Sharjah desert. About an hour’s drive from Dubai, Al Madam is a popular tourist destination for those with a penchant for unexplained mysteries. The village was built in the 1970s but was abandoned by its residents in the early 1990s. The reasons for this are unknown, but many theories exist, including a curse, a gas leak, and a dispute between the residents. The once-bustling settlement now lies deserted with its decaying buildings, empty streets, and sand-covered structures. As you wander through the ghost town, you can’t help but feel a sense of eerie silence and solitude, with nature slowly reclaiming the once-thriving village.
Kalba Conservation Reserve
Sharjah is also home to several natural attractions, including Kalba Conservation Reserve, which is home to a diverse ecosystem and wildlife. Spanning over 60 square kilometres, the landscapes in this protected area are characterised by sand dunes, rugged mountains, and verdant mangroves. Wildlife includes several oryx species, gazelle, and many migratory birds, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and birdwatchers. There are also numerous hiking trails, and the steamy mangrove forests are popular for kayaking.
Mleiha Archaeological Centre
Located in the heart of Sharjah’s desert, Mleiha Archaeological Centre offers visitors a glimpse into the region’s prehistoric past, with exhibits of ancient artefacts, fossils, and interactive displays that shed light on the ancient civilisations that once inhabited the area. Nearby archaeological sites provide the opportunity to explore prehistoric caves, fossil rocks, and ancient burial sites.
On the Gulf of Oman’s eastern coast lies the mountainous Emirate of Fujairah, a stark contrast to the modern cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Although often overlooked by travellers, Fujairah offers a side of the country worth exploring.
The Emirate’s capital, Fujairah City, boasts several historical landmarks, such as the Fujairah Fort, UAE’s oldest fort, and the 15th-century Al-Bidyah Mosque. Visiting Fujairah promises a glimpse of a different side of the UAE.
Discover the rich history of Fujairah by visiting the Fujairah Fort, a remarkable structure dating back to the 16th century. Constructed using local materials such as mud and stone, the fort’s sturdy walls enclose a fascinating collection of exhibits showcasing the fort’s purpose, ruling families, and traditional way of life. Ascending the fort’s towers provides panoramic views of the coastline and surrounding mountains. Visiting Fujairah Fort is a chance to appreciate its strategic importance, delve into the past, and absorb the rich cultural heritage of Fujairah.
Dating back to the 15th century, Al-Bidyah Mosque is a prime example of Islamic heritage in the region. Its beauty lies in its simple architecture that showcases traditional Islamic elements. Constructed using mud and bricks, the Al-Bidyah Mosque features four unique domes and a central pillar that capture the essence of its era. As the oldest mosque in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Bidyah symbolises the Islamic faith and represents Fujairah’s cultural and historical significance within the UAE.
Fujairah Heritage Village
Experience the rich tapestry of traditional Emirati culture at Fujairah Heritage Village. This cultural enclave offers a glimpse into the customs and traditions of the region. Stroll through the village’s recreated streets adorned with traditional Emirati architecture and charming market stalls. Explore the traditional houses and learn about the daily lives of Emirati families in the past. With its informative exhibits and engaging cultural activities, Fujairah Heritage Village provides a captivating experience that allows visitors to sample the richness of Emirati heritage.
Fujairah Museum is a cultural treasure trove that comprehensively explores the region’s heritage. Step inside and encounter a wealth of artefacts, displays, and exhibits that shed light on the customs, traditions, and daily lives of the people of Fujairah. From traditional clothing and jewellery to ancient artefacts and archaeological finds, the museum’s collection provides a fascinating insight into the region’s rich history.
Ras Al Khaimah
Ras Al Khaimah, often abbreviated to RAK, is the UAE’s most northerly Emirate, bordering Oman’s Musandam province. This often-overlooked Emirate offers a rich history and stunning landscapes. Explore ancient forts, pristine beaches, and Immerse yourself in the region’s traditions and customs, experiencing warm hospitality from the locals.
Dhayah Fort, an impressive castle-like structure nestled amidst the mountains and fertile date wadis of Ras Al Khaimah, holds an important place in history. Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List, this hill fort is the sole remaining fortification of its kind in the United Arab Emirates. Dating back to the Late Bronze Age, it served as a settlement and defensive stronghold. Restored in the late 1990s, the twin-peaked golden mud-brick fortress offers panoramic views of the surrounding palm trees, lush lands, neighbouring Oman, and the ocean. Climbing its 239 zigzagging steps rewards visitors with impressive vistas. At the fort’s base, a larger defence provided refuge to the local inhabitants during times of danger while watchtowers dotted the fertile oasis to ensure communication. The hill on which the fort stands serves as the central hub of the oasis, and nearby lie ancient Wadi Suq tombs dating back to 2,000 to 1,300 BC.
Al Jazirat Al Hamra
Al Jazeera Al Hamra, the only remaining historical pearling village in the Gulf region, offers a captivating glimpse into the past. This village, which translates to Red Island, showcases traditional elements such as a fort, watchtowers, mosque, souq, and courtyard houses of various designs. Built with local materials like coral blocks, fossilised beach rock, and mangrove tree beams, the village reflects the classic social strata architecture and town planning of the Middle East. The ancient mosque with twenty domes, narrow alleyways, and ornamental archways further add to its historical significance. While the village is now in ruins and uninhabited since the discovery of oil, it remains on the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Tentative List.
Experience an exhilarating adrenaline rush on the world’s longest zipline at Jebel Jais. As you zip along the 2.83km line, you’ll soar above towering mountain peaks and dart through deep ravines, reaching speeds of up to 150 kmph. For three electrifying minutes, you’ll feel like a superhero flying 1680 metres above the Arabian Gulf, creating an unforgettable adventure.
Umm Al Quwain
Experience what the UAE was like before oil. Located on the country’s western coast, Umm Al Quwain is the least populous of all the emirates. Despite its small size, Umm Al Quwain is home to several natural and cultural attractions, including Ed Dur, an archaeological site dating to the Bronze Age, and the Umm Al Quwain Fort, built in the 18th century. The Emirate is also known for its beautiful beaches and wildlife, with several nature reserves and bird sanctuaries.
Ed Dur Archaeological Site
Umm Al Quwain is home to Ed Dur, one of the largest archaeological sites in the United Arab Emirates. Sometimes known as Al-Dour, the site contains the remains of a once-bustling trading centre that thrived in the 1st century AD. Visitors can explore the remarkably preserved ruins of a fortified settlement, including buildings, walls, and a grand bathhouse, for a glimpse into the area’s rich history.
Umm Al Quwain Fort
Located at the heart of the Emirate, Umm Al Quwain Fort is a beautifully preserved fortress and a significant historical landmark dating back to the 18th century. The fort features traditional mud-brick walls, wooden ceilings, and watchtowers. Visitors can explore the interior chambers, which are home to exhibits and artefacts, showcasing the rich heritage and culture of Umm Al Quwain.
Umm Al Quwain Old Town
Stroll through the charming streets of Umm Al Quwain Old Town with its traditional coral-stone houses overlooking the harbour. Witness skilled craftsmen working in the dhow building yard, highlighting the town’s remarkable maritime legacy.
Located on the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf, Ajman is the smallest of the seven Emirates. Renowned for its warm hospitality, this charming Emirate offers the perfect blend of modernity and tradition.
Housed in an 18th-century fortress, Ajman Museum offers insights into the Emirate’s history and cultural heritage through its exhibits and displays.
A picturesque waterfront promenade where you can enjoy a leisurely stroll, take in beautiful views of the city skyline, and relax in the serene atmosphere. Visit Ajman’s lively fish market, where you can witness the fishermen bring in their fresh catches.
Conclusion: Why head Off the Beaten Track in the United Arab Emirates
In conclusion, the United Arab Emirates offers a wealth of experiences beyond the glitz and glamour of downtown Dubai. From the stunning mountains of Ras Al Khaimah to the tranquil mangroves of Umm Al Quwain, each of the seven Emirates presents its unique charm and attractions. Whether you’re seeking cultural immersion, outdoor adventures, or a glimpse into history, venturing off the beaten track in the UAE promises unforgettable discoveries and a deeper understanding of this fascinating country. So, go beyond the city limits and embark on a journey to uncover the hidden gems that await in each Emirate of the UAE.
Off the Beaten Track in the United Arab Emirates Tailor-Made Holiday
The U.A.E: Seven Emirates Tour is an 8-day/7-night private holiday that will take you through the Sheikhdoms that comprise the United Arab Emirates. You will discover the country’s heritage and natural beauty, at the same time gaining an insight into the character of each individual state.
Accommodation throughout is at some of the region’s finest hotels and resorts including the Emirates Palace in Dubai, the Ajman Saray, A Luxury Collection Hotel in Ajman and the Al Badayer Retreat, set within the sweeping dunes of central Sharjah.