The seven emirates are rich in history and culture, with Abu Dhabi perhaps leading the way when it comes to the arts scene. Here is our guide to the best cultural places in the UAE.
In financial terms, the UAE’s capital is one of the Middle East’s wealthiest cities. However, it is equally rich in history, nature and art. Museums, forts, mosques and the former home of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan are just some of the exceptional sights to see.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
Did you know that falcons have their own passports and can travel alongside passengers on airlines including Emirates and Etihad? Well, you would if you’ve ever been on a brilliant tour of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. Now in its 20th year, visitors have enjoyed it so much, they ranked it the No.2 thing to do in the city on TripAdvisor – behind the Sheikh Zayed
From Dhs170. Daily tours run 10am & 2pm. Abu Dhabi to Sweihan Road, near to Abu Dhabi International Airport, www.falconhospital.com (02 575 5155).
Al Ain Oasis
UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 2011. Since then, it’s been open to the public, with walkways through a spectacular 147,000 date palms. You’ll see farmers tending to the crops and galleries that provide an insight into how cultivating date palms intensified the rate of human evolution in these parts.
Free. Open daily 8am-5pm. Al Mutawaa, Al Ain (02 599 5438).
Al Jahili Fort
History buffs should drop by the permanent exhibition dedicated to Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer and travel writer, who became a close friend of Sheikh Zayed. Thesiger crossed the colossal Empty Quarter with a local Bedouin tribe back in the 1940s, becoming the first European person to do so in the process. He documented his journey from Salalah, southern Oman, to Abu Dhabi through a series of photographs, which are now on display.
Free.Open Sat-Sun, Tue-Thu 9am-5pm; Fri 3pm-5pm; Mon closed. Sultan Bin Zayed Al Awwal Street, Al Ain (03 711 8311).
It’s dusty, smelly, dirty, gritty, chaotic, brash and brilliant. The country’s biggest daily camel market is buzzing and one of the most interesting sights you’ll see. It’s free to explore – don’t be fooled by anyone who tells you to pay – and to take pictures in, just be sure to keep your eyes peeled for any startled camels that may be on the rampage.
Free. Open Tue-Thu, Sat-Sun 6am-7pm; Fri 3pm-5pm. Zayed Bin Sultan Road, Al Ain (03 711 8311).
Last year, independent movie house Cinema Akil found a permanent home in Dubai, but that hasn’t stopped the regular pop-ups at Warehouse421. The arthouse cinema brings cult films to Abu Dhabi like no-one else.
Various dates and times. Warehouse421, Mina Zayed, www.cinemaakil.com (058 524 6362).
Louvre Abu Dhabi
From Jean Nouvel’s jaw-dropping architectural design – the building itself is one of the most striking parts of the museum – to the permanent exhibition that explores the evolution of art in unison with mankind, this museum is unmissable.
From Dhs60 (adults), Dhs30 (ages 13-22), free (under 13). Saadiyat Cultural District, Saadiyat Island, www.louvreabudhabi.ae (060 056 5566).
Manarat Al Saadiyat
Whether you’re into music, cinema, art, or just want to work on your own creative skills, you’ll find something to pique your interest at this very cool arty hub on Saadiyat Island. The annual programme is full of workshops, gigs, art fairs and other special events, while free screenings of restored classics and contemporary world films are shown every Monday and Saturday.
Free. Open daily 9am-8pm. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island (02 657 5800).
Qasr Al Hosn
The oldest building in the city, this fort houses an exhibition that lets visitors explore the lives of the past rulers of Abu Dhabi and the people who lived in the palace. You can also view great works of art in the The Cultural Foundation and discover more about traditional crafts in the House of Artisans.
Dhs30. Open Sat-Thu 9am-7pm, Fri noon-10pm. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum Street, www.alhosn.ae.
Qasr Al Watan
We’ve all driven past those incredibly grand gates and wondered what it would be like to take a glimpse inside Abu Dhabi’s Presidential Palace. Well Qasr Al Watan (Palace of the Nation) has just opened to the public, and now you can take tours around this incredible building. It contains a huge library, various exhibitions and an enormous chandelier made from 350,000 crystals.
Dhs60 (adults), Dhs30 (children). Open daily 10am-8pm. Al Ras Al Akhdar, www.qasralwatan.ae.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Did you know that the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was named as the second best landmark on the planet by TripAdvisor? The huge mosque has the capacity for 40,000 visitors and is home to the world’s largest rug measuring 60,546 sq ft.
Free. Open Sat-Thu 9am-10pm; Fri 4.30pm-10pm. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street (02 419 1919).
The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi
We’re all jealous of those lucky people who get to go to university at NYU Abu Dhabi, but at least we can enjoy the fantastic facilities at The Arts Center. Offering film screenings, dance performances, poetry readings and musical recitals, there’s always so much to see and experience.
Prices vary. NYUAD Campus, Saadiyat Island (02 628 6868).
Ultra-cool creative hub Warehouse 421 was built by renovating two former industrial warehouses in the Mina Zayed area. Since opening in November 2015, it has hosted numerous exhibitions and showcased the work of so many talented local and regional artists and designers. There’s also a calender of special events such as talks, workshops, film screenings and performances.
Prices vary. Open Tue-Sun 10am-8pm. Mina Zayed (02 676 8803).
Ajman’s petite size makes for a more character-filled visit and if you make the right choices you can have a great time here.
Ajman National Museum
The city’s most popular tourist attraction proudly displays Ajman’s past glory. Just like many other similar museums in the country, it’s housed in one of the UAE’s oldest forts and once served as the home to the ruling family. There are documents, relics, archaeological displays, weaponry and jewellery dating back to 3000 BCE that offer an insight into traditional day-to-day life.
Dhs5 (adults), Dhs1 (kids). Open Sat-Thu 8am-8pm; Fri 2.30pm-8pm. Sheikh Abdulla Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi Street, Al Bustan (06 711 6666).
Sheikh Zayed Mosque Ajman
While smaller in size compared to its Abu Dhabi counterpart, this is still a sight to behold. It sits just on the outskirts of the city and is an impressive piece of traditional architecture of huge sacred importance.
Free. Open daily 8am-10pm. University Street, Ajman (800 29723).
From painting your own Banksy to marvelling at a Las Vegas-style theatre extravaganza, exploring pokey backstreet galleries to getting lost in world-famous museums, Dubai is a vibrant canvas like nothing you’ve ever seen. Here’s how to embrace your inner Da Vinci and crack a smile wider than Mona Lisa’s.
Alserkal Avenue has similar origins to many of the artistic areas around the world: it was a neglected warehouse district until 2007. And, just like London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Meatpacking District and Los Angeles’ Arts District, it has burst into the 21st century with a bit of a spruce up. It’s now a major art hub hosting a regular parade of galleries, exhibitions, talks, workshops, film screenings, festivals and museums. Many of them are free to enter and explore.
Various opening times. Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz 1, www.alserkalavenue.ae.
Learn about the trusted “ships of the desert” through a range of information showcasing the significance the animals have had on Arabic culture. Its stand-out feature is undoubtedly the impressive camel skeleton.
Free. Open Sun-Thu 8am-2pm; Fri closed. Al Shindagha Historical Area, Bur Dubai (04 392 0368).
This will be the best Dhs3 you’ll ever spend. Dubai Museum’s vast maze of underground galleries feature some intriguing dioramas of Dubai in days of long ago, from the merchants in the souks to the pearl fishers, as well as fascinating maps illustrating how the area has grown over time.
Dhs3. Open Sat-Thu 8.30am-8.30pm; Fri 2pm-8.30pm. Al Fahidi Fort, Bur Dubai (04 353 1862).
Stars of American Ballet, BBC Proms, Thriller, Al Murray, The Sleeping Beauty, Phantom of the Opera… You name it, it’s on at Dubai Opera. The world-class performance hall plays host to some of the most revered musicals, orchestral, ballets and musicians around.
Prices and dates vary. Downtown Dubai, www.dubaiopera.com (04 440 8888).
Fine Art Gallery
Fine Art Gallery exhibits all sorts of works from across the Gulf region, Europe, Africa, India, America and Canada. One upcoming installation that we can’t wait to see is Nature & Me, a living art exhibition created by aquascaping artist Huzefa Goga, featuring foliage, rocks – and even fish – from around the world.
Free. Open Sat-Thu 9am-7pm, exhibitions Fri-Sat noon-7pm. Fine Art Gallery, Al Quoz (04 338 8892).
Gulf Photo Plus
Dubai’s centre for photography aims to inspire and equip budding snappers through workshops, exhibitions, events and more. Time to up that Insta game.
Prices and dates vary. Unit 36, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, www.gulfphotoplus.com (04 380 8545).
Habtoor Palace, LXR Hotels & Resorts
Palette Tranquility is being exhibited at Le Patio at the hotel for two months, showcasing the work of four talented artists – Karine Roche, Annabelle Smith Bigno, Leila Barakat Mukhaimer and Anneke Bester – that’ll make you feel like you’re “walking on clouds”.
Free. Until early April. Habtoor Palace, LXR Hotels & Resorts, Al Habtoor City (04 435 5555).
This is an excellent way to learn more about the religious and cultural traditions of the region. Guided tours run four days a week and last around 90 minutes. Be sure to dress respectfully – long trousers for men and long skirts and headscarves for women.
Dhs10. Tours start at 10am on Sun, Tue, Thu & Sat. Jumeirah Beach Road, Jumeriah 1, www.cultures.ae (04 353 6666).
Designed to look like an Arabian citadel from centuries ago, this 442-seater theatre was the first to be built in the city. Everything from Shakespeare to pantomimes finds a home here. It’s a strong venue for kids’ shows.
Prices and dates vary. Madinat Jumeirah, www.madinattheatre.com (04 366 6546).
Theatre by QE2
The renovated world-famous cruise liner is a permanent hotel, restaurant and tourist attraction anchored in Old Dubai. Plus, it has a 515-seater theatre that will welcome shows such as Alice in Wonderland and Motown.
Prices and dates vary. Theatre by QE2, QE2, Port Rashid, www.theatrebyqe2.com (04 526 8888).
Join a series of workshops, classes and public programmes including life drawing and acrylic painting classes. They are run for all ages and all abilities in Alserkal Avenue.
Prices and dates vary. Unit 74, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, www.thejamjardubai.com (04 341 7303).
While Dubai is a regular fixture on scores of the world’s travelling troupes and West End and Broadway’s performers’ calendars, The Junction aims to be a place where locals, residents and aspiring regional acts can hone their skills and express themselves.
Unit H72, Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al Quoz, www.thejunctiondubai.com (04 338 8525).
The Workshop Dubai
A stunning two-storey villa bathed in natural light doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for an art gallery, but that’s what you’ll find here. The multi-concept space exhibits and sells any number of artworks, custom-made furniture, smart gadgets and antiques.
Free. Open daily 8am-11pm. 23B Street, Jumeirah (055 136 9454).
For 15 years, XVA has been the home of contemporary Middle Eastern art in Dubai. There’s an ever-changing roster of exhibitions on display plus stalls selling bespoke paintings, sculptures, posters and more.
Free. Open daily 10am-6pm. Al Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai, www.xvagallery.com (04 353 5383).
This stylish Al Quoz pop-up space is home to a wide range of unique film and video productions. It can be used to screen films, create films, host events and is a regular home for amateur stand-up comedy shows.
Prices and dates vary. 4B Street, Al Quoz (04 221 2160).
The UAE’s east coast is sought out en masse every summer by those looking to escape the heat. But it doesn’t just serve as a refuge for the sweltering, the emirate has some excellent historical sights to visit throughout the year.
Al Bidya Mosque
While historians argue about precisely when it was built, they’re all in agreement that Al Bidya is the nation’s oldest mosque, thought to date back to the 15th century. Apart from some very minor restoration work, the structure has largely remained untouched.
Free. Open daily 9am-5pm. Dibba Road, Highway E99, Fujairah.
This is one of the UAE’s oldest and largest castles and is thought hail from the 16th century. Almost a decade ago, it was opened to the public by Fujairah’s ruling family. It sits on a high hill and overlooks the whole city.
Free. Open daily 9am-5pm. Fujairah Heritage Village, Fujairah
RAS AL KHAIMAH
The UAE’s northernmost emirate is sprinkled with 5,000-year-old tombs, an abandoned “ghost village”, the Queen of Sheba’s Palace and a mountain range that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs. Culture? Ras Al Khaimah has it everywhere.
“Ghost Village” of Al Jazeera Al Hamra
With the help of hit shows such as Netflix’s Dark Tourist, the search for the macabre, dangerous or eerie has soared among travellers. If that’s your bag then Al Jazeera Al Hamra (also known as Jazirat al-Hamra) should be on your list. Often labelled as RAK’s “ghost village”, it attracts curious visitors keen to explore its abandoned buildings, crumbling mosques and dusty backstreets. It is one of the most unique experiences you can find in the UAE and oozes history – and eeriness.
Free. Al Jazeera Al Hamra, 20km south of RAK City.
Did you know you could walk around Jurassic Park? The soaring Hajar Mountain range was formed more than 70 million years ago meaning it was already five million years old when dinosaurs were wiped out. Technically it dates back to the Crustaceous period, however, famous dinos from Steven Spielberg’s hit film such as the T-rex and velociraptors actually stem from this era rather than the Jurassic period. It’s just the latter had a better Hollywood ring to it.
Free. 55km north-east of RAK City.
Khatt Springs and ruins
This area is famous for the mineral-rich hot pools, where the water is sought out for its therapeutic properties. They’re surrounded by 170 archaeological sites. Visit the mud-brick watchtower, the beehive tombs from the Hafit period or burial sites from the Umm Al-Nar period. Don’t miss the Khatt Fort either, which dates back to the 19th Century.
Free. Khatt, 30km south of RAK City.
Queen of Sheba’s Palace
Also known as the Qasr Al Zabba (Palace of Zenobia), this is one of the archaeological treasures from the Middle Ages. It is the only known ancient Islamic palace in the UAE and dates back to the Julfar period between the 13th and 16th centuries. The ruins sit 200 metres above sea level on top of a rocky hill and provide sweeping views across RAK. You can access the palace by climbing a stone staircase. Be prepared to hike over rocky and unstable grounds to reach it.
Free. Near to Shimal village, 13km north-east of RAK City, www.rakheritage.rak.ae.
Ras Al Khaimah National Museum
This is a fascinating step back into the history of the region and is housed inside a 19th century fort. The structure – home to the ruling RAK family until the early 1960s – is bursting with archaeological artefacts found within the emirate. Some of the items in the collection include traditional weapons, tools and ceramics highlighting RAK’s past as
a significant trading post.
Dhs5 (adults), free (kids). Open Sat-Thu 8am-6pm; Fri 3pm-7.30pm. Al Hisn Road, RAK City, www.rakheritage.rak.ae (07 233 3411).
This is the UAE’s third largest and third most populous city and is a delight to explore, especially for those looking to learn some more about Islam.
This enormous geological formation is jam-packed with natural wildlife and, of course, fossils. It’s a surreal experience and many of the fossils have been found to be more than 80 million years old. Take a hike around the rock and you’ll find a nature reserve where oryx, gazelles and mountain deer roam free. Hike to the top and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views over the surrounding dunes.
Free. Dubai to Hatta Road, near Al Awir, Sharjah.
Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization
This museum is one of the best ways to learn about Islam. Just about everything you’d want to know is covered here. There are galleries dedicated to different aspects of the faith, including the importance of hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca millions of Muslims make every year). There is also a profound amount of information celebrating the scientific accomplishments, inventions and discoveries made by Arabic scholars, especially in mathematics and astronomy.
Dhs5 (adults), free (kids). Open Sat-Thu 8am-8pm; Fri 4pm-8pm. Al Mujjarah Street, Sharjah (06 565 5455).
Wasit Nature Reserves
What better way to embrace the UAE’s history than by becoming one with nature? And, at Wasit Nature Reserves, you can get up close and personal with some of its 198 species of feathered friends. The Wasit Wetlands are 4.5 sq km of salt plains on the outskirts of Sharjah and have served as a sanctuary for local and migrating birds since 2007.
Dhs15 (adult), free (kids under 12). Open Sun-Thu 9am-6.30pm; Fri 2.30pm-6.30pm; Sat 11am-6,30pm; Sun closed. Ramtha area near the suburb of Wasit, Sharjah (050 213 3915).
The tiny slice of land between Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah is often overlooked by travellers, but to pass it by unexplored would be an opportunity missed. Umm Al-Quwain is home to a hotbed of wildlife and has a stunning natural landscape, don’t skip it on any cultural journey.
Umm Al Quwain wetlands
The diminutive emirate of Umm al Quwain is one of the best-preserved places in this modern nation, providing an untouched window into the country’s natural history. The coastline remains undisturbed. Visit the wetlands surrounding a bright blue lagoon that is dotted with little islands for a fix of animal fun as flamingoes feed and turtles dive under the water’s surface. It’s a prime spot for twitchers, as thousands of migratory birds pass through every year. Not only that, but you can also explore the wetlands by boat or kayak, so don’t miss a journey through the mangroves while you’re here.
Free. Near to Khor al Beidah, Umm al Quwain.