In December 1971, six emirates along the Arabian Gulf — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm Al Quwain — formed the federation of the United Arab Emirates, joined by Ras Al Khaimah a couple months later. The intervening decades have seen the UAE emerge as a regional powerhouse and fascinating destination in its own right, with much to explore. Here, on the eve of the country’s 50th anniversary, are some of its most compelling attractions.
1. LOUVRE ABU DHABI
The architecture of this Jean Nouvel–designed branch of Paris’s Louvre museum is as much a work of art as the collection inside. Perched on the water’s edge of Saadiyat Island, a metallic dome made of 7,850 geometric stars filters dappled light onto the courtyard beneath, inspired by sunlight diffused through palm fronds in the emirate’s palm oases. It’s an extraordinary space where the indoors and outdoors meet seamlessly; there are even lifeguards on hand to make sure no one falls into the Arabian Gulf as they gaze up in awe. A self-described “universal museum,” the collection spans millennia, focusing on what unites civilizations rather than what differentiates them.
2. CULTURAL FOUNDATION
Standing across a wide plaza from the fortified walls of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s oldest building, the Cultural Foundation creates a striking contrast. Its architecture blends modernist and Islamic styles, all tall arches and symmetry and a touch of blue and orange tiles. First opened in 1981 to house the National Library, a performance auditorium, and exhibition spaces with soaring ceilings, the Foundation today showcases contemporary art from the United Arab Emirates and beyond, as well as offering workshops in painting, calligraphy, pottery, and more. Wander away from the main exhibitions for a glimpse at original mosaic walls that are as stylish today as they were 40 years ago.
3. ALSERKAL AVENUE
On a nondescript industrial road in Dubai’s Al Qouz district, the repurposed warehouses of Alserkal Avenue are bursting with galleries, art spaces, and a creative community that’s pushing boundaries. Stop by Zawyeh Gallery to see works by emerging Palestinian artists, or pop into Lawrie Shabibi for young contemporary creatives from North Africa and the Middle East. Up-and-coming “calligrafitti” artist eL Seed has his studio here, and the district is also home to the city’s only art-house movie theater, Cinema Akil.
4. SHARJAH ART FOUNDATION
Sleek white cubes sit alongside traditional coral walls and hidden gardens at the Sharjah Art Foundation, a leading showcase of regional and international contemporary art. Exhibitions change regularly, featuring both big names and emerging artists. Don’t miss the Rain Room, an immersive installation where a continuous downpour stops as you walk beneath it. Also look out for the foundation’s newest acquisition, the Flying Saucer, a brutalist UFO-shaped building (pictured above) that is now an exhibition and community art space.
5. EXPO 2020 DUBAI
It’s been 170 years since the Great Exhibition — the precursor to all World Expos — took place in London’s Crystal Palace, and after a year’s postponement due to Covid-19, anticipation is high for the latest iteration, Expo 2020 Dubai. Slated to run from October 1 to March 31, 2022, with a theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” the event will showcase technological innovations from around the world. Architecture is likely to be one of the biggest draws, with global starchitects and up-and-coming designers all making their mark on the 4.38-square-kilometer expo site. Beyond Asif Khan’s dramatic 21-meter-high carbon-fiber entry portals inspired by mashrabiya screens, highlights include Santiago Calatrava’s striking UAE Pavilion (it’s shaped like a falcon in flight) and Grimshaw Architects’ Terra Sustainability Pavilion, featuring 1,055 photovoltaic panels and a 130-meter roof canopy to generate its own energy and water. With 190 countries participating in the event, this is set to be the most international World Expo yet.
6. MLEIHA ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTRE
Mleiha in central Sharjah has an extraordinary claim to fame: it’s considered one of the first places anatomically modern humans passed through when they left Africa, as evidenced by the 130,000-year-old stone tools found here. The center’s highly informative museum covers settlements from the Paleolithic all the way through to the modern age, but it’s not just limited to indoor exhibitions. Desert buggy adventures, guided hikes, tours of ancient tombs, horseback riding, and fossil hunting connect you with the surrounding landscapes and millennia of history.
7. AL JAHILI FORT
Close to Al Ain’s UNESCO-listed palm oasis, this mud-brick fort was built in 1898 as a summer residence for Abu Dhabi’s rulers. After falling into disrepair, the fort has been renovated and turned into a museum where you’ll be given a warm welcome, accompanied by Arabic coffee and dates. After exploring the cool, shady corridors and rooms that were once home to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, head to the excellent exhibition of photography from British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s travels by camel through the Rub’ al-Khali desert in the 1940s.
8. BUHAIS GEOLOGY PARK
Ancient rocks may not be high on every traveler’s agenda, but the architecture alone makes a journey out to this geological site in the Sharjah desert worthwhile. Opened just last year, the park’s interpretive center comprises five interconnected concrete pods with steel cladding and a shape inspired by sea urchins; the latter are among the fossilized creatures on display here alongside rare ophiolite rocks that date back 93 million years to a time when this whole area formed a shallow sea. There’s an on-site café where you can drink in the harshly beautiful scenery, but for the best views take the outdoor trail past rock formations and ancient tombs for panoramic vistas of the limestone mountain ranges of Jebel Buhais and sand dunes beyond.
9. QASR AL HOSN
The oldest building in Abu Dhabi (its original watchtower dates back to the 1790s) sits smack-dab in the center of the city, a low-rise bastion of tradition surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers. Opened to the public as a museum in 2018 following a decade-long renovation, the former fort and royal palace charts the history of the emirate from a fishing and pearling settlement to the modern day. Long white walls and symmetrical arches draw the eye and the camera. Visit the adjacent House of Artisans for a glimpse of local crafts, including traditional Bedouin textiles and khoos palm-frond weaving. Time your visit right and you can take part in hands-on workshops.
10. SHARJAH MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION
In a sprawling former souk on the Sharjah Corniche adorned with geometric patterns and topped by a huge golden dome, this fascinating museum offers insights into Islamic culture and history. Spanning seven thematic galleries with high arched ceilings, the collection’s 5,000 artifacts trace the principles of the Islamic faith, Muslim scholars’ innumerable contributions to science, medicine, and astronomy, as well as 13 centuries’ worth of arts and crafts. Look out for the astrolabes in the Gallery of Science and Technology — ingenious astronomical instruments once used to ascertain the direction of Mecca.
Culture & Heritage
11. BAIT AL OUD
One of the most familiar sounds in Arabic music and one of the world’s oldest string instruments, the oud is similar in shape and style to the lute. Bait Al Oud, in Abu Dhabi’s villa-filled Al Nahyan neighborhood, is dedicated to teaching its namesake to a new generation of musicians, alongside the qanun (a kind of lap harp) and the rebabah. There’s also a workshop on-site where instruments are painstakingly handcrafted. Check the institute’s concert program (performed both by recognized oud musicians and its own graduating talent) to hear the oud in action.
12. DUBAI CREEK
For a glimpse of where Dubai began, head to the city’s namesake creek. It was along the shores of this broad saltwater inlet that the Bani Yas tribe first settled in the early 19th century, developing the area into a center of fishing and pearling. Today you can still feel the energy of the trade that Dubai was subsequently built on. Hop aboard one of the small wooden abra taxi boats that have been plying the waterway for decades; at just one dirham per journey, they’re among the city’s best bargains. Cross from Bur Dubai to the bustling jetties of Deira on the opposite bank and pick up saffron, dried herbs, and frankincense at the spice souk, or go for some serious bling at the neighboring gold souk, a covered arcade where hundreds of shops overflow with every imaginable kind of jewelry.
13. HOUSE OF WISDOM
While Dubai may be famous for its unmissable buildings, Sharjah is where the architecture is getting really interesting these days. Take the months-old House of Wisdom. Designed by Norman Foster & Partners, it’s a reimagining of what a library should be — a cultural space for people to meet, converse, and share ideas. A far cry from dusty libraries of yore full of shushing and disapproving looks, the building is already full of students making use of the extraordinary light-filled spaces, cozy reading nooks, and two cafés. You can even print your own book within minutes using an innovative Espresso Book machine.
14. SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE
It’s impossible to enter this Abu Dhabi landmark and not swoon at the building’s sheer beauty. The curves of its 82 domes, the reflecting pools, the faultless symmetry of its 1,000 columns, the detail of the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet crafted by 1,200 artisans, all merge into one architectural masterpiece. Built in a mix of Moorish, Ottoman, and Mughal styles, it’s one of the biggest and most ornate mosques in the world, and a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture (it was completed in 2007 after 11 years of construction). Visit in the daytime when the white marble contrasts sharply with the clear blue sky or come just before sunset when the evening call to prayer echoes around the courtyard and a sense of serenity sets in.
15. QASR AL WATAN
Set within the vast Presidential Palace compound on the Abu Dhabi Corniche, Qasr Al Watan dazzles with its scale and detailed craftsmanship. It’s a place of astonishing architecture and equally astonishing facts. It took workers 150 million hours to complete the building, with each of the hand-carved maple doors taking 350 hours. You’ll feel dwarfed in the center of the 10,000-square-meter Great Hall with its soaring ceilings, shimmering marble, intricate mosaics and tile work, and 37-meter-diameter central dome. For a more intimate-scaled space, step inside the House of Knowledge, a gallery that celebrates the Arab world’s historic contributions to science and humanities with displays of antique manuscripts and traditional music instruments like the oud. Outside is just as impressive; visit on weekend evenings for a light and sound show projected onto the palace’s vast white-marble facade.
16. SUWAIDI PEARLS
In the early part of the 20th century, 80 percent of the world’s pearls came from the Arabian Gulf before the invention of cultured pearls in Japan caused the industry to collapse. Abdulla Al Suwaidi, grandson of one of the last Emirati pearl divers, opened the region’s first pearl farm in 2005 off the coast of his hometown of Al-Rams in Ras Al Khaimah, just 25 kilometers south of the border with Oman. Jump on a boat to his floating pontoon to see the oyster beds, learn about the history and hardships of pearl diving in the Gulf, and try your luck at finding your own pearl.
17. AL AIN OASIS
Strolling or cycling beneath the dappled light that streams through the innumerable date palms forming this UNESCO-listed oasis in eastern Abu Dhabi is the best way to experience one of the loveliest parts of one of the country’s loveliest cities. Fed by the ancient falaj irrigation system, the largest of Al Ain’s oases is divided into different farms growing 100 varieties of dates as well as mangos, bananas, and citrus fruits. Look up and you may see workers at the top of the trees checking the dates and removing old palm fronds. It’s an ancient skill—people have been tending these groves for 4,000 years.
18. PERFUME HOUSE
Located alongside Dubai Creek in a heritage building formerly belonging to the ruling Al Maktoum family, the Perfume House (part of Al Shindagha Museum) offers a fascinating journey through fragrance, a fundamental part of Emirati culture. Sniff your way through the interactive displays and learn about the unlikely origins of key ingredients in traditional perfumes, such as ambergris, a secretion from a sperm whale’s digestive system, and musk, obtained from the perineal glands of the male musk deer. You’ll also discover herbal ingredients that are widely available in the city’s souks, still used in the production of homemade scents.
Sleeping in the Desert
19. QASR AL SARAB DESERT RESORT BY ANANTARA
Situated near Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), this secluded desert escape emerges from the dunes like a mirage. Qasr Al Sarab, with its fortlike architecture, tinkling fountains, and wide desert vistas, is the stuff of Arabian Nights fantasies. Daytime is filled with sunshine, chilled pools, and swaying date palms, while at night it’s a place of cool breezes and lantern light. Climb the highest dune you can find for sunset. It’s unmissable.
20. AL MAHA DESERT RESORT & SPA
Just under an hour’s drive from downtown Dubai, the tented suites at Al Maha are your base for desert safaris, horseback riding, and sundowners in the dunes of one of the UAE’s largest wildife reserves. Start your day with breakfast on the pool deck of your tent and you’re likely to be visited by friendly gazelles; wander the palm-shaded paths and you’ll meet majestic long-horned Arabian oryx, the country’s national animal. Add in an Arabian Oud Renewal Therapy at the spa and a private desert dinner, and you’ve got the ultimate glamping experience.
21. THE RITZ-CARLTON RAS AL KHAIMAH, AL WADI DESERT
Jump on a mountain bike to explore this expansive resort or head to the on-site Equestrian Centre for a desert hack with the resident retired racehorses. The 16 hydrotherapy experiences at the spa’s Rainforest facility are an excellent way to recover from the day’s adventures. When evening falls, refuel at the Farmhouse with house-smoked Black Angus short ribs, washed down with a Hair of the Oryx — a Bloody Mary given an extra kick of Bedouin spices.
22. MYSK MOON RETREAT
The name suggests a lunar setting, but this far corner of Sharjah, with its red desert and crumbling escarpments, looks more like something shot by NASA’s Mars rover. Located near the excellent Mleiha Archaeological Centre, Moon Retreat’s 10 dome tents come with their own pools and barbecue grills. There are plenty of family-friendly activities, but the highlight of a stay here is stargazing. Time your trip for a meteor shower, lie back on traditional carpets and cushions, and enjoy the show.
23. DUBAI DESERT CONSERVATION RESERVE
The Arabian oryx, a graceful desert antelope with long tapered horns, became extinct in the wild in the early 1970s. Thankfully, successful captive breeding programs led to their reintroduction in the following decade, and there are now thriving populations in protected areas across the UAE. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, under an hour’s drive from the city, is one of the best places to spot them—more than 600 individual oryx live in the dunes here.
24. ABU DHABI FALCON HOSPITAL
Every year, about 11,000 falcons visit this facility in Abu Dhabi where a team of vets ensures that the national bird of the UAE, potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars each, is kept healthy and that injuries are treated promptly. Tours of the facility provide a glimpse at routine health checks, talon trimming, and “imping” (feather mending) as well as an introduction to the hospital’s focus on research and conservation.
25. ARABIAN WILDLIFE PARK
Located off the coast of Abu Dhabi’s western region, the Arabian Wildlife Park on Sir Bani Yas Island is home to 17,000 free-roaming animals including Arabian sand gazelles, reticulated giraffes, and cheetahs. The Anantara group’s trio of intimate resorts on the 87-square-kilometer island offer safari drives in open-top 4WD vehicles and wildlife walks led by expert guides, as well as diving and snorkeling to discover the underwater wildlife—dugongs and dolphins also call these pristine waters home.
26. AL WATHBA WETLAND RESERVE
More than 250 species of resident and migratory birds have been sighted in this Abu Dhabi reserve, including 4,000 greater flamingos that have chosen this site as their only regular breeding ground in the UAE. Two walking trails traverse the wetlands, offering hides for close-up observation of the birds. The reserve closes for the breeding season to avoid disturbance to the flamingos, so plan your visit for the winter months.
27. MANGROVE WALKS
Keep an eye out for herons, mud crabs, and the occasional gazelle at Abu Dhabi’s recently inaugurated Jubail Mangrove Park, where you can stroll along a 2.3-kilometer boardwalk that meanders through a protected mangrove forest. It’s a serene way to spend an hour or two. Educational canoe and kayak excursions are also on offer for those wanting to learn more about the park’s delicate ecosystem.
Winter in the UAE is the best season for tackling the rocky peaks of the Hajar Mountains, with great hiking trails to be found in Ras Al Khaimah. These are not to be underestimated — you’ll need sturdy shoes and hiking poles for the most challenging trails. Go with a reputable guide such as Adventurati Outdoor to make the most of it and ensure you don’t get lost.
The thrill of tackling the hairpin bends on the spectacular drive up to the summit of the country’s highest mountain, Jebel Jais, is rivaled only by what awaits at the top. Not for the faint-hearted, the Jebel Jais Flight holds the record as the world’s longest zip line, catapulting adrenaline junkies face-first along a 2.8-kilometer cable high above craggy ravines and wadis at speeds exceeding 120 kph.
30. SURVIVAL TRAINING
At the bottom of Jebel Jais is the new Bear Grylls Explorers’ Camp, where you can learn the skills necessary to survive in the wild. Half-day and 24-hour experiences are available to challenge adults and families alike. For a really intense experience, join the Primal Survival Course and learn life-saving skills such as how to source food and water locally, and how to build emergency shelters.
31. DESERT DRIVING
Join the Emirates Driving Institute’s Desert Driving Course to gain all the skills necessary to tackle the desert behind the wheel of your own 4WD. Starting in a classroom, you’ll learn the ins and outs of off-road vehicles before heading out into the desert to discover how to read the sand, how not to get stuck, and how to get yourself out when you inevitably do. An international driving permit is required, and you’ll receive a certificate at the end.
The UAE’s coastline is ideal for wakeboarding and wakesurfing. For glassy, undisturbed waters head to Abu Dhabi’s Ghantoot Marina for a session with Xtreme Wake. Being in a protected channel means you won’t get knocked off the board by choppy waves or other vessels’ wakes — perfect for beginners or those looking for pristine conditions with practically no other marine traffic.
33. COVE BEACH
Beach life is big in the UAE. With year-round sunshine and long stretches of soft sand, it’s not hard to see why. But while the country’s many public beaches are ideal for casual days out, for something a bit more chic, it’s to the beach clubs that residents head. And few are as inviting as Dubai’s Cove Beach at the Caesars Palace hotel on Bluewaters Island. Set in the shadow of the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, it comes with a chilled vibe, tasty food, and three swimming pools on a swath of golden beach. Head here in the morning for yoga and breakfast, indulge in rosé all day, or go all out on a Jacuzzi-equipped private cabana.
34. TWIGGY BY LA CANTINE
Twiggy brings a shot of Mediterranean glam to Dubai Creek, complemented by refreshing swims in a 100-meter lagoon pool. But the main draw is the food, with Gillardeau oysters served alongside Provençal squid, lobster cannelloni, and freshly grilled seafood. Long lunches easily turn into sundowners here, so toast the sun as it sets behind the city skyline in the distance with a glass of something from the well-curated wine list.
35. ZAYA NURAI ISLAND
Day passes to this private resort island off the coast of Abu Dhabi city may set you back AED480 (about US$130) per person, but most of that is redeemable against food, drink, and activities. The rest is a small price to pay for a visit to these sun-kissed shores. Lounge by the beach in the shade of palm trees, or go for the perfect Insta-shot on the overwater swings. Boho-chic beach bar Smokin’ Pineapple is the spot for cocktails and wood-fired pizza, while the free-flow Friday brunch at Frangipani is worth a journey of its own.
Must-Do Dining Experiences
36. ARABIAN TEA HOUSE
Shady palms and fragrant frankincense smoke are enticing reasons to lounge in this lovely café on Sharjah’s Corniche, but the main draws are the huge Emirati and Arabic breakfast trays loaded with halloumi, zaatar, and rose jam. Add a spiced karak tea or Arabian coffee and you could easily spend a whole morning here. Arabian Tea House also has branches in Dubai.
The dizzying views from the world’s tallest restaurant — it’s situated on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa — are matched by serious prowess in the kitchen. Lunch à la carte brings artfully plated rock-lobster thermidor and veal cheek tortellini, while a delicate peach melba or French cheese selection nicely rounds things off.
38. HELIPAD SUNSET SUPPER
A head for heights is a prerequisite for The St. Regis Abu Dhabi’s monthly Helipad Sunset Supper, located on the top of the highest active helipad in the Middle East. Cocktails, canapés, and cakes are served to just 20 diners at a height of 255 meters above sea level, accompanied by helicopter’seye views of the capital.
39. BU QTAIR
Bu Qtair does only two things — fish and prawns — but it does them oh-so well. Though this low-key eatery at the Umm Suqeim Fishing Harbor on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach may have upgraded from a modest shack to a more substantial building a few years back, the kitchen continues to turn out the same Keralan-spiced fresh seafood that has attracted crowds since the 1980s. Go hungry and be prepared to queue — it’s definitely worth the wait (971-55/705-2130).
Dine with the fishes at the underwater restaurant at Atlantis The Palm, where the residents of an 11,000-liter aquarium — sharks and rays included — glide past your table. The food is as mesmerizing as the views, with creative and colorful 15- or 18-course progressive menus competing with the marine life for your attention.
41. 1484 BY PURO
As far off the ground as At.mosphere may be,the title of the highest restaurant in the UAE goes to this mountaintop venue near the summit of Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah. Grab a table on the terrace, order the 1484 burger, topped with a stack of onion rings, and take in the views, which at 1,484 meters above sea level extend across the peaks and valleys of the Hajar Mountains.
42. FOUQUET’S ABU DHABI
For après-art dining, nothing beats this fine French brasserie at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s a branch of the legendary Parisian restaurant of the same name, with a menu — designed in collaboration with three-Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire — that impresses as much as the chic surrounds: think duck foie gras terrine with date chutney, sole meunière, and classic beef tartare prepared at the table.
43. SONARA CAMP
Hidden deep within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Sonara Camp sparkles with twinkling fairy lights, live music, fire shows — and serious food. The dune-top bar lounge is the spot for sunset cocktails and shisha, while the open-air kitchen turns out flavorful fatoush fusion salad alongside pulled lamb shoulder with ras el hanout and vegan shawarma.
44. QUEEN ELIZABETH 2
When it resumes normal operations in the months ahead, this floating hotel will once again offer visitors the chance to dine aboard a historic British ocean liner. First launched in 1969 and permanently moored at Dubai’s Port Rashid for more than a decade, the QE2 offers several distinct dining experiences, from mod British bistro Queens Grill and sundowners on the Pavilion deck to the Golden Lion, which lays claim to being the oldest pub in Dubai.
45. TRÈSIND STUDIO
Overlooking skyscraper-flanked Sheikh Zayed Road, Himanshu Saini’s 20-seat private kitchen is one of the most exciting food experiences to appear in Dubai in recent years. Playful, flavorful, and beautifully photogenic, the Delhi-born chef’s modern Indian cuisine bursts with creativity and flavor. Tasting menus change frequently and collaborations with big-name global chefs, such as Ana Roš from Hiša Franko, are often on the cards.
Tucked away in the heritage district of Ajman, capital of the UAE’s smallest emirate (it’s surrounded by Sharjah on all sides except along the coast), this new concept store named for the country’s international dialing code acts as a showcase of local brands and makers. Ranging from children’s clothing to perfume, jewelry, coffee, and candles, 971 offers a highly shoppable insight into today’s local creative scene.
47. MIRZAM CHOCOLATE
The homegrown chocolate maker’s Abu Dhabi store is the perfect place to try its exquisite creations, all made from bean to bar in the UAE. Inspired by tales of old Arabian trade routes and the Silk Road, ingredients include Emirati honey, orange blossom, and date syrup. Pick up a coffee and nibble your spoils as you admire views of Qasr Al Hosn across the square. The company also operates a shop and factory in Dubai.
48. GLOBAL VILLAGE
Running from October to April each year on the outskirts of Dubai, this vast outdoor themed “village” manages to combine kitsch sights and surprisingly sophisticated shopping choices into a big, fun excursion. It’s a one-stop shop for everything from Yemeni honey to Syrian cheeses, Senegalese fabrics, Turkish lanterns, and more, with great food stalls for refueling mid-spree.
49. MAGIC RUGS
In the Al Seef area on the edge of Dubai Creek, this friendly, no-pressure store is the perfect place to browse handmade rugs and antique carpets. Syrian owner Mahmoud Khsayem can often be seen weaving freestyle contemporary tapestries on his loom — give it a try yourself at one of their regular workshops.
50. KULTURE HOUSE
This mosaic-adorned villa-turned–concept store in Dubai’s upscale Jumeirah neighborhood stocks homewares, pottery, and accessories from around the world. Look out for Tunisian ceramics, Emirati kaftans, and Colombian beaded bracelets, and don’t miss the hidden room in the back for regular pop-ups, ranging from plants to pottery to bamboo toothbrushes.
This article originally appeared in the June/August 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine.