The United Arab Emirates, the UAE, is a country located to the east of the Arabian Peninsula pointing into the Arabian Gulf just north of Oman. It’s a union made up of seven individual emirates, each with their own rulers, but overall governed by the capital Abu Dhabi, the most visited and best known of the emirates internationally is doubtless Dubai.
Having lived in Dubai for 6 years, I have had a chance to visit each of the emirates repeatedly, exploring the sights and attractions. Here are my three favorite things to do in each of the emirates.
The largest emirate with more towns than just the capital city, Abu Dhabi is making a mark as an emirate that takes sustainability seriously, with the low-carbon city Masdar and several nature reserves. It’s also home to world-class branches of the biggest names in museums, such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim, due to be finished in 2025.
1. Louvre Abu Dhabi
My top location in Abu Dhabi is the Jean Nouvel-designed Abu Dhabi Louvre, with not only superb exhibits, historic artifacts, and art, but also a building that would be worth visiting even if it was empty.
2. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Aim to get to the Grand Mosque just before sunset, and you’ll not only be in place for the haunting call to prayer, but also a play of light that enhances the shimmering white marble of this grand mosque to perfection. Just remember to cover up — ladies need to have covered heads, arms, and legs. Use it as an excuse to buy a stylish abaya.
3. The Empty Quarter
A 30-minute drive from the bustling capital city, you will hit the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, and — in my mind — the most beautiful place in the Emirates. You can drive all the way to the oasis of Liwa, through endless red sand dunes, or simply head to the luxury Qasr al Sarab hotel for an unforgettable stay.
Dubai is a popular layover and transit hub, a party city crammed full of luxury hotels, fabulous shopping — such as in the Dubai Mall, reportedly the largest mall in the world — and top-notch restaurants from around the globe. There are adrenaline-filled experiences and much fun to be had, and choosing just three things to do is difficult.
1. Museum Of The Future
Opened in 2022, the Museum of the Future is not only a gorgeous building (try and head there after dark for some great photographs) but also a superb museum with mind-blowing exhibits. You even have an AI guide and a flying fish, of sorts. Very much themed around sustainability, it will make you gasp, as well as think.
2. Burj Khalifa
Obviously, you cannot miss out on getting to the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The views are incredible, highlighting just how close this modern city is to the desert, and offering quite a thrill. And you are steps away from the Dubai Mall and the Dancing Fountain, the world’s largest, making this a place you can spend all day and night.
3. Wild Wadi
It gets hot in the UAE, and there is nothing better than cooling off in a water park. And no, this is not just for children, but it helps if you are young at heart. Rent yourself a cabana and meander along the lazy river in a large rubber ring, even if you forgo the thrilling slides. Wild Wadi is still my favorite, despite the larger Aquaventure at the Atlantis Dubai.
Sharjah is the UAE’s third most populous city and the emirate next to Dubai. It’s known as a cultural emirate filled with libraries, cultural centers, and museums. This is also the only “dry” emirate, with no alcohol served even in the luxury hotels.
1. Museum Of Islamic Civilization
Some 5,000+ artifacts detailing the Islamic civilization make for a stunning display of gorgeous calligraphy, manuscripts, pottery and glass, coins and jewelry, and little artifacts you’d love to display in your own home. All housed in a stunning landmark, this Museum of Islamic Civilisation is worth spending a few hours in.
2. Al Madam Village
Is there anything more fascinating than an abandoned village? Al Madam was only built in the 1970s and abandoned some 10 years after, but it looks like time has forgotten the village. Reasons given were the djinns, ghosts that supposedly haunt the village, or maybe more likely, the lack of infrastructure. The fact is though, that the desert has started to reclaim Al Madam, making it a great spot for interesting photographs.
3. Al Qasba
Al Qasba is one of those destinations within a destination It’s an entire quarter by the waterfront filled with shops, restaurants, a Ferris wheel, galleries, and Instagramable spots. The Maraya Arts Center is worth a visit, always showcasing regional artists’ work. This is a lovely place just to stroll or take a boat trip along the waterways.
Ajman, the next emirate along the coast, is practically merging into Sharjah. I have to admit that I first went to Ajman to buy some wine, as the alcohol laws are more relaxed there, and you do not need a permit. But while securing my tipple, I also discovered a lovely emirate with very traditional sights.
1. Al Tallah Camel Racecourse
Camel racing is a traditional pastime in the UAE and the surrounding countries, with often large race courses. Here in Ajman, it is a more sedate affair — but no less exciting. The camel races are fun to watch, especially as the camels are ridden by little robots, making for an unusual spectacle.
2. Dhow Shipbuilding Yard
Ajman has a lovely still busy shipyard where they still build the traditional regional boats, the dhows. Worth sitting nearby and watching the age-old craftsmanship in action.
3. Ajman Museum
This is a lovely little museum located in a small white fort detailing the history of Ajman. Very different from the modern museums in other emirates, it’s a little gem.
Umm Al Quwain
Even though only the second smallest emirate after Ajman, Umm al Quwain is probably the most overlooked, driven through and passed, but rarely stopped at. More nature than city, this little emirate is great for wildlife lovers.
1. Seneyah Island
Off the coast of Umm al Quwain, the 5-mile-long island used to be settled by the emirates’ residents but is now a haven for gazelles and birds. Among the mangroves and ghaf trees, you will find archaeological sites and a timeless landscape.
2. Vida Beach Resort
Away from the frantic fun in Dubai, you can stay in this lovely beach resort and enjoy the same coastline as Dubai, just much less crowded. This makes a great base for exploring this end of the UAE.
3. Mangrove Beach
This is where the fun is, with water sports galore. In keeping with the sedate emirate, go for a kayak among the mangroves and spot the local birds.
Ras Al Khaimah
Where Dubai offers the city thrills, Ras al Khaimah offers outdoor exhilaration. Look no further for adventure and adrenaline thrills.
1. Mountain Climbing And Hiking
Ras Al Khaimah has the highest peaks in the UAE and plenty of opportunities to go hiking and climbing. But this is a formidable region, so best join a group with guidance.
2. Visit A Pearl Farm
The emirates have a long history of pearl farming, and at Suwaidi Pearls, you can learn more about these precious gems and their link to the UAE.
3. Toboggan Ride
Hiking not enough adrenaline for you? Try a toboggan ride through the mountains. From the highest peak in the UAE, Jebel Jais, you ride down the mountain with fantastic views along the way.
Fujairah is one of my favorite emirates, as it is the only emirate to lie on the coast of the Indian Ocean and also has the Hajar Mountains as a backdrop. History and nature make this well worth exploring.
1. Snoopy Island
Can you resist that name? The island off the coastal resort of Sandy Beach looks like Snoopy lying on top of his doghouse, and offers superb scuba diving, dolphin-watching, and water sports. A boat ride along the stunning coast is an absolute must.
2. Al Bidya Mosque
The oldest mosque in the UAE — a million miles away in looks from the fancy Abu Dhabi one — is a tiny adobe mosque dating to somewhere around the 15th century and is even on the tentative UNESCO list.
3. Hajar Mountains Wadis
Organize a local driver through our hotel, or hire a car, and go wadi exploring. Having the same rugged countryside as Oman, lying to either side of Fujairah, here you find similar natural wonders.
Pro Tip: The best way to explore all the emirates is by renting a car. The road system is great and the distances easily manageable. Just bring your passport, visa, and International Driving License and you can rent a car from any of the largest airports.