The UAE is a dynamic country with an intriguing mix of old and new; from cultural hotspots to thrill-seeking attractions, picture-perfect beaches to treasures of the past.
Perhaps the best thing about the UAE as a place to live is the sheer variety of destinations it encompasses.
In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you can be assured of seeing awe-inspiring architecture, record-breaking attractions and enough fine dining and nightlife to keep you occupied almost indefinitely. The smaller emirates, on the other hand, offer a glorious respite from the endless skyscrapers and traffic jams.
In Dubai, there’s a definite divide between the old and the new parts of town. Head to the creek and its surrounding areas of Deira and Bur Dubai for a flavour of what Dubai used to be like. Souks, narrow side streets, heritage sites, local restaurants and a bustling waterway make this a great part of town to investigate. In contrast, the mind-boggling modern developments that make up new Dubai – Downtown Dubai, Palm Jumeirah and Marsa Dubai accommodate spectacular buildings, first-class hotels, shopping delights, and more besides.
From exploring Ajman’s mangroves to sea kayaking in Umm Al Quwain to snorkeling off the coast of Fujairah, there are ample opportunities to get back to nature. Sharjah, in the meantime, may be small, but is packed with some of the best museums, art galleries and other cultural attractions in the UAE.
Known around the world for breaking records for the highest, largest and best of everything, Dubai also has deep roots and heritage underneath its sparkling surface.
Deira & The Creek
Away from the gleaming skyscraper valleys lies a very different Dubai.
Head for the Al Fahidi Cultural Neighbourhood in Bur Dubai, close to Dubai Creek, and you’ll find an atmospheric heritage area of traditional windtowers, courtyards and winding alleyways. A myriad of cultural attractions such as Dubai Museum and the historic Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House are located nearby, as well as the Textile Souk. Stroll along the creek to the abra station and cross the water to explore the bustling souks on the Deira Side, or take a dhow cruise with traditional food as the sun sets over the city.
Once the central residential hub of Dubai, Deira remains an incredibly atmospheric area. Narrow convoluted streets bustle with activity while gold, spices, perfumes and general goods are touted in its numerous souks. Dubai Creek was the original centre of Dubai commerce, and it still buzzes today with boats plying their transport and cargo trades. Along the creek you’ll find the atmospheric Fish Market and Al Mamzar Beach Park, a great spot for a day out by the sea.
Inland is Deira City Centre, one of Dubai’s first mega malls. Deira Tower on Al Nasr Square is worth a visit if you’re after rugs, where you'll find around 40 shops offering a colourful profusion of carpets from Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan.
Downtown Dubai is home to some of the city’s biggest attractions.
At the heart of Downtown is the world’s tallest tower, the shimmering Burj Khalifa, which points like a needle more than 800m skywards and contains exclusive apartments, the At The Top Burj Khalifa SKY observatory, and the Armani Hotel Dubai. By its base are The Dubai Mall and Old Town, while the centrepiece is the spectacular Dubai Fountain, which draws crowds to witness the regular evening
shows where jets of water shoot 150m into the air along the length of Burj Lake to music. Performances take place daily at 1pm and then 6pm to 11pm at 30-minute intervals.
Nearby, The Dubai Mall offers plenty of indoor entertainment including an ice rink, the theme park SEGA World and the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. Old Town is home to the atmospheric Souk Al Bahar. Circling the Downtown complex is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, which has a growing number of alfresco eateries and hangouts; it’s a wide and pleasant place to stroll, and popular with joggers. Just behind Downtown, the buzzing strip over on Sheikh Zayed Road is known for the striking architecture of its high-rise residential buildings, office towers and top-class hotels.
Known by most as Dubai Marina, this area is the epitome of new Dubai’s rise to modern prominence. Marina Walk boulevard provides continuous pedestrian access around the 11km perimeter of the water and is a popular circuit for morning joggers, skaters and cyclists. It is a great place for a stroll any time, but it really comes to life in the evenings and cooler months when you can sit and gaze out across the rows of gleaming yachts and flashing lights of high-rise hotels. Dubai Marina Mall sits along the walkway with a number of alfresco cafes connecting the mall with the boulevard bustle. Nearby, The Walk at JBR is an outdoor parade of shops, restaurants and hotels parallel to the beach that has become a huge leisure-time draw for visitors and residents. Shopping and dining complex The Beach at JBR opened in 2014, providing a plethora of new food and shopping options. Located right on the beach, the new development also boasts a jogging track, public changing facilities and toilets, outdoor cinema, and water play area for children.
The beach itself is massively popular during the cooler months. The spaces in front of the hotels are reserved for guests, but there are areas in between that fill with crowds of families and groups of friends at weekends. The waters are fairly calm here and the shallow areas are scattered with bathers, while the hotels offer a variety of watersports such as parasailing and boat rides that anyone can sign up for.
Construction continues on the Dubai Eye project, which will see the building of Bluewaters Island off the southern canal entrance to hold the world’s tallest observation wheel, along with leisure amenities and residential developments.
Jumeira might not have the exotic atmosphere or history of Deira, but its beaches, shopping centres and pleasant, wide streets make up for it. The area is traditionally one of the most desirable addresses for well-off expats, and the origin of the infamous ‘Jumeira Jane’ caricature – well-to-do expat women who fill their days shopping, spa-ing or lunching with fellow Janes in the establishments along Jumeira Beach Road. The area is home to a range of stylish boutiques and shopping centres, including Mercato Shopping Mall, and excellent cafes.
There are some interesting cultural spots here too. Jumeirah Mosque is one of the most recognisable places of worship in the city and welcomes visitors with tours and educational programmes, while a couple of galleries will keep art enthusiasts happy.
Just outside Jumeira, on the border with Satwa, lies 2nd December Street. It offers a completely different vibe to the sedate Jumeira suburbs; it’s a hectic thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants, and is the main destination for anyone needing to feed their late-night hunger, show off their expensive customised car, or watch the city pass by as they enjoy some street-side Lebanese fare.
At the other end of Jumeira is Umm Suqeim, where the ultimate attraction has to be the iconic Burj Al Arab – be sure to visit its restaurants or spa at least once while you live here. Souk Madinat Jumeirah is a picture perfect leisure destination in itself, brimming with popular cafes and restaurants amongst its waterways and Arabesque architecture, and packed with shops and stalls.
Stretching several kilometres out to sea between Marsa Dubai and Al Sufouh is the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s original, mind-boggling man-made island built in the shape of a palm tree. Stretching out along the exclusive ‘fronds’ are countless luxury villas, while the ‘trunk’ is lined with desirable apartments along the Golden Mile (accessed by the left fork onto the Palm) and the Shoreline.
Standing boldly at the seaward-most point of the island is the Disney-esque Atlantis hotel, which has become an icon in itself. Dotted along the east and west ‘crescents’, are a raft of deluxe hotels including One&Only The Palm, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, the Kempinski, Sofitel and Anantara. Aquaventure is Atlantis’ thrilling water park, and you can get up close to the marine life at Dolphin Bay and The Lost Chambers aquarium. The Trunk is home to Fairmont The Palm and RIVA Beach Club, which both offer day access to their private beaches.
You can drive the length of the Palm and around its perimeter for great views back to the shore, and the sea wall here has a pleasant sidewalk for a stroll. Plans are afoot to widen this into a boardwalk that will be dotted with kiosks, and for two piers to be built out into the water.
If you want to avoid having to drive, you can take a ride on the monorail for a more interesting trip up the Palm, and for an elevated view of the luxury-villa-lined fronds. The picturesque Al Ittihad Park, which stretches beneath the monorail, bustles with dog walkers, joggers making use of the springy, 2.9km running track and kids enjoying the play areas dotted throughout.
The UAE's captivating capital has distinct and dynamic neighbourhoods with something to suit all tastes.
The Al Bateen area (not to be confused with Al Bateen Airport) stretches along the coast on the south western side of Abu Dhabi Island, between the InterContinental hotel and 19th Street. A world away from the bustling city centre, it is one of the capital’s most affluent areas and has a pleasant, residential neighbourhood feel with plenty of green, open spaces to enjoy.
The Bateen dhow yard is well worth a visit, with its evocative smells of freshly cut African and Indian teak. Craftsmen use traditional skills to build the dhows and racing hulls that can be seen in competitions off the Corniche. If it’s not too busy, the craftsmen will happily share the intricacies of their art. The yard is open every day except Friday and the best time to visit is at 5pm. The main draw of this area is the extensive waterfront area, including the Fishermen’s Marina and the Yacht Marina. The area is undergoing development and is changing rapidly, but after strolling around and admiring the yachts you can visit one of the marina’s restaurants and cafes which have scenic views across the Arabian Gulf. There are also a number of shops and diving clubs based in the marina. Al Bateen has several public gardens and parks, popular for picnics and ball sports when the weather is cooler. There’s a special green and pink running/cycle track along parts of the way. Wedged in between the mangroves surrounding the palace, Al Bateen Beach was upgraded with superb facilities, including children’s play areas and toilets, and entrance is free.
Just off the main island, spanning the land between Mussafah Bridge and Al Maqtaa Bridge, this area is noted for a cluster of grand hotels and nearby Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The Arabic name is Bain Al Jessrain but, to just about everybody now, it’s known as ‘Between the Bridges’.
The area is defined by the Shangri-La, Traders Hotel and Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, which provide the main entertainment focus. Sharing the same stretch of creek and beachfront, the hotels have top-notch restaurants, plus a wide range of facilities including spas, gymnasiums and swimming pools.
The hotels are adjacent to the Souk at Qaryat Al Beri development, a Disney-esque recreation of a traditional souk in a modern setting. It offers a variety of shops and restaurants under one roof, connected by a waterway on which Arabic gondolas, or abras, slowly meander through the unique architecture, under arches and past restaurant terraces.
The whole complex overlooks Abu Dhabi’s architectural piece de resistance, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which sits across the creek – a stunning masterpiece reminiscent of a sultan’s palace, the mosque is one of the very few in the country that allows tours. For more traditional architecture, look across the road from Qaryat Al Beri to one of the most ornate Persian-influenced mosques in the city. This small turquoise blue gem is not open for tours but you can admire the craftsmanship from outside.
Just across the water, looking back from the island side, is the Ritz-Carlton Grand Canal hotel. In the evenings, an abra runs between the Ritz to the hotels on the opposite side. Rides are free, although priority is given to hotel guests.
This area of reclaimed land is entirely man-made and connected by a causeway to the south western end of the corniche. The main draw here is Marina Mall, a popular leisure hub with a variety of international brands and a cinema. Poking out from the roof of the mall is the 100m high Sky Tower, where you can have some lunch and enjoy panoramic views of the city. The beachfront walkways are also great for admiring and photographing the city’s superb skyline. Along the waterfront there are a number of popular Arabic restaurants and cafes along with Heritage Village, a quirky place to soak up some history.
Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club offers watersports facilities and hosts local and international racing events. The round Abu Dhabi Theater building is also worth a look, although its interior is accessible only during occasional events and concerts. Next to it stands an enormous flagpole.
Connecting Breakwater to the main island is Al Ras Al Akhdar peninsula. This area is dominated by the beautiful, and massive, Emirates Palace. The hotel is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and should be at the top of every visitor’s list of ‘must sees’ in Abu Dhabi. It is a stunning property set in more than 85 hectares of landscaped gardens, surrounded by a pristine stretch of white-sand beach and a new yacht marina. Palatial in every sense, luxury and opulence oozes from every inch of the hotel, from the huge gold domed roof in the reception area to the massive hand-woven carpets displayed on the walls.
The hotel is also home to some exceptional restaurants, a couple of excellent galleries and seasonal exhibitions and a 1,500-seat auditorium that hosts a variety of shows throughout the year, including concerts during the Abu Dhabi Classics series.
Seen as the face of the city, the corniche runs along the western coast of the island and is one of the best places to while away a relaxing day. Home to some of the city’s most impressive buildings, Corniche Road is lined with high-rise towers, but there are plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy the open air.
As city beaches go, it’s a spectacular location for a day by the sea, and you can rent sun loungers at one of three BAKE beach clubs. The beach side of the road is paved all the way along and is popular with promenaders a casual stroll along the corniche is a favourite part of many residents’ evening routine. It’s ideal for rollerblading, jogging and walking, while the special cycle path draws both enthusiastic amateurs and more serious cyclists. At the intersection of Khaleej Al Arabi St there’s a range of cafes and restaurants for refreshments and refuelling.
The inland side of the Corniche Road has been beautifully landscaped with parks, picnic grounds, small gardens, fountains, cafes and covered seating areas lining the pavements. To explore these attractions from a different perspective, visitors can book a dinner cruise along the corniche on board a traditional wooden dhow or cabin cruiser.
The corniche should not be confused with the New Corniche or Eastern Corniche, which runs along the north eastern side of the island overlooking mangroves. It’s a popular place for picnics and fishing, with shaded areas for the joggers and cyclists to rest. The Eastern Mangroves promenade has new cafes and venues, as well as watersports.
With its bluer-than-blue sea, soft white sands and laid-back vibe, Saadiyat Island feels a world away from the city. Thanks to the Sheikh Khalifa highway, though, it’s only 10 minutes from Downtown Abu Dhabi. If Yas is all about thrills and spills, Saadiyat is evolving into the cultural, arty capital of the Middle East. Abu Dhabi’s very own world-famous Louvre and Guggenheim are expected to open in the next few years, along with the much-anticipated Zayed National Museum and even a Performing Arts Centre.
For your immediate art fix however, head to the impressive NYUAD Art Gallery on NYU’s Saadiyat Island campus. This fantastic addition to the capital’s art scene is free to visit and features exciting museum-style exhibitions of art, sculpture and culture, covering both historical and contemporary subjects. Manarat Al Saadiyat is another art space with seasonal exhibitions, talks and workshops. Hotel offerings on Saadiyat Island and at the impressive Saadiyat Beach Club offer sumptuous retreats and amazing dining venues, as do the St Regis and Park Hyatt, all beautiful beachfront properties.
The enticing Saadiyat Beach Club offers a taste of luxury by the sea; there is pool and beach access, a Jacuzzi and spa facilities, private cabanas and bungalows, as well as a handful of restaurants and bars to choose from. For something much more budget-friendly, BAKE beach club runs Saadiyat Public Beach where you can rent sun loungers and try some non-motorised watersports.
This area, formerly known as the Tourist Club, forms the northernmost corner of Abu Dhabi Island. Along with neighbouring Al Markaziyah, this is the city centre and, currently at least, the main business district. The area is a real fusion of residential and commercial, with high-rise business towers, embassies and the Al Noor Hospital surrounded by a good range of local and international shops. The older buildings interspersed with shiny new towers offer a glimpse of the city’s heritage and history. Two of the busiest roads in the capital, Hamdan Bin Mohammed St and Sheikh Zayed First St, run through the district. It’s a haven for those in need of some retail therapy, as the local, traditional shops share the streets with big name international stores, quirky discount shops and smaller malls (which, 20 years ago, were considered huge!).
Nearby Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre is a great place to go for colourful fabrics, Indian and Arabian gifts and jewellery – there are shops selling all sorts of bizarre items. The backstreets next to the centre have many shops selling traditional abayas and khanduras as well as touristy knick-knacks for a fraction of the prices you’ll pay elsewhere. For a more comfortable and comprehensive shopping trip, Abu Dhabi Mall will more than suffice.
There are some interesting ethnic dining options to be found here, and the area also has its fair share of hotels. To escape the mass of buildings, your best bet is to head for Capital Park on Khalifa bin Zayed The First St. You’ll pay a dirham entrance fee to find a large pond with fountains, a children’s play area, a small amusement arcade and an on-site restaurant – it’s a world away from the busy city streets.
A destination in its own right, Yas Island has become one of the UAE’s most popular leisure hubs. Luxurious hotels, record-breaking attractions and the Formula 1 Grand Prix define this loud, unparalleled entertainment complex.
Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix every November, has a unique design; the track runs through the island’s flagship hotel, the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, giving lucky VIPs enviable views on race weekends. What’s more, the dazzling Yas Marina is incorporated into the circuit, so the yachting crowd can not only make grand entrances but also view the race from their boats. Other F1 fans – of more modest means – still enjoy thrilling racing moments, with some 50,000 people attending each year.
And racing is only part of the draw of the F1 weekend: the end of each day brings performances from A-listers at du Forum that have included Pharrell Williams, The Who, Beyoncé, Aerosmith, Jay Z and Prince over the years.
Equally, Yas Marina Circuit is a year-round venue where petrolheads can put their driving skills to the test with karting, drag racing, drifting and supercar driving. In keeping with the theme, Ferrari World – the world’s largest indoor theme park – has enough attractions to keep motorsports enthusiasts entertained, including the world’s fastest rollercoaster. If all that speed makes you sweat, cool off at nearby Yas Waterworld, and enjoy 40 rides and attractions.
Outside the big cities, there is much to see, from oases to rocky mountains, wadis and beautiful coastline, as well as archaeological sites, museums, souks and much more.
The smallest of the emirates, Ajman still has lots to offer travellers, including fine dining, luxury hotels and pristine beaches, with a few heritage attractions thrown in for good measure. It’s a more relaxed emirate in all senses of the word.
The emirate’s star attraction, Ajman Museum, houses a variety of interesting displays in a restored fort that is well worth visiting, as much for the building as for its contents. The emirate’s main souks are a reminder of days gone by, while the modern Ajman City Centre is home to shops, foodcourts and a cinema. The tiny emirate is known for being one of the largest boat building centres in the region; while mainly modern boats emerge from the yards these days, you may still catch a glimpse of a traditionally built wooden dhow sailing out to sea.
Al Ain is Abu Dhabi emirate’s second city and of great historical significance in the UAE. Its location on ancient trading routes between Oman and the Arabian Gulf rendered the oasis strategically important.
Commonly known as ‘The Garden City’, Al Ain features many oases and lovely patches of greenery for the public to enjoy. After a greening programme instigated by the late Sheikh Zayed, the seven natural oases are now set amid tree-lined streets and beautiful urban parks. Its unique history means that Al Ain is home to interesting sights and attractions, including the Hili Archaeological Garden and the Al Ain Palace Museum, although there are modern amusements too like Hili Fun City.
Just outside the city sits one of the largest mountains in the UAE, Jebel Hafeet, while the sand dunes of Bida Bint Saud are great to explore on camelback. Al Ain’s archaeological and historical legacy is of such significance that the city was recently placed on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
The dramatic landscape of Fujairah makes it feel like a different world. If driving from Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the journey takes you through the spectacular Hajar Mountains before arriving at this picturesque location along the Gulf of Oman. The mountains and wadis that stretch west of the coast contain some of the country’s best and most accessible camping spots, and the beaches, reefs and villages that line the coast attract visitors from every emirate.
Located at the northern-most point of the east coast, on the border with Musandam, Dibba is made up of three fishing villages, which share an attractive bay, fishing communities, and excellent diving locations – from here you can arrange dhow trips to take you to unspoilt dive locations in Musandam. There are good public beaches too, where your only company will be crabs and seagulls, and where seashell collectors may find a few treasures.
Head to Fujairah City for a mix of old and new. Its hillsides are dotted with ancient forts and watchtowers, and there is a modern container port and a thriving free zone attracting major companies from around the world. It is a good place for birdwatching during the spring and autumn migrations as it’s on the route from Africa to Central Asia. Since Fujairah City is close to the mountains and many areas of natural beauty, it makes an excellent base from which to explore the countryside and discover stunning wadis, forts, waterfalls and even natural hot springs.
Just to the south of Fujairah you’ll find Kalba, which is renowned for its mangrove forest and golden beaches. Technically the town belongs to Sharjah, but it’s a pretty fishing village that still manages to retain much of its historical charm. You can visit Bait Sheikh Saeed bin Hamed Al Qasimi, an old house dating back 100 years that’s home to fascinating heritage displays and historical artefacts.
Sharjah was named the cultural capital of the Arab world by UNESCO in 1998 and the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2014 by the Organisation of Islamic Conference, due to its well-preserved heritage area, an evolving arts scene, some wonderful museums and a thriving cafe culture. Cultural events including the Sharjah Light Festival and Sharjah Biennial draw visitors from all over the UAE and beyond, and that’s just the city – the emirate is home to some fantastic desert, including popular spots Big Red (a 90m high sand dune) and Fossil Rock, and a few enclaves on the east coast.
For a sense of what the city is all about, head to Khalid Lagoon. At Al Majaz Waterfront you can choose from a cluster of restaurants to watch the nightly fountain show on the lagoon, take an abra ride, or check out the kids’ play areas.
A wander further north brings you to the city’s heritage and arts areas, currently being restored and developed under the Heart of Sharjah project, with one of the most impressive collections of museums and heritage sites in the region. Shoppers will have a blast too, searching for gifts in Sharjah’s souks – Souk Al Arsah is a more authentic experience than those in the rest of the country.
Ras Al Khaimah boasts the best natural scenery in the UAE. With the stunning Hajar Mountains as its backdrop and the sparkling waters of the Arabian Gulf on its shore, the northernmost emirate is the perfect destination for an outdoor break with plenty of opportunities for camping, hiking and soaking up the sun. Several five-star hotels offer more for your dirham than you could expect to get in the bigger cities.
Ras Al Khaimah contains several archaeological sites, some dating back all the way to 3,000BC. The town is quiet, relaxing and a good starting point for exploring the surrounding mountains, visiting the ancient sites of Ghalilah and Shimal, the hot springs at Khatt, and the quirky local camel race track at Digdagga. Al Hamra Village, just south of the city, is a gorgeous development with its own mall (with a VOX Cinemas, restaurants, play centre and a supermarket), golf course, marina and five-star hotels.
A visit to Umm Al Quwain is a great way to see traditional Emirati life; fishing and date farming are still the main industries, as they have been for centuries. It has plenty of modern attractions too – its beach resorts are popular (and extremely affordable) hangout spots among UAE expats, and it was the first place in the country to offer skydiving.
The emirate has six forts, and a few old watchtowers surrounding the town. With plenty of mangroves and birdlife, the emirate’s lagoon is a popular weekend spot for boat trips, windsurfing and other watersports. Another popular family activity is crab hunting at Flamingo Beach Resort. At nightfall, groups of hunters set off into the shallow mangrove waters with a guide, where they spear crabs, which are then barbecued and served on return to the resort.
Emirates Motorplex hosts various motorsport events, including the Emirates Motocross Championship, and Dreamland Aqua Park is one of the most popular attractions.