Despite its relatively small share of the UAE’s oil wealth, Dubai spent big and grew likewise. Today, it’s a land of superlatives: the tallest building in the world (the 830m-high Burj Khalifa), the largest shopping mall (Dubai Mall), the busiest airport. For many it’s a transit stop, but away from the malls and waterparks there is a gleam of authenticity.
“Dubai was built on trade,” said David Millar, author of Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates, “and its creek still bustles with dhows carrying cargo.” Head to Al Fahidi Fort, the emirate’s oldest building, which doubles as a heritage museum.
If you look, there’s plenty of culture to be found. “Soak up Arabic art in Bastakiya, or wander the gold and spice souks of Bur Dubai and Deira, and then visit Jumeirah Mosque,” advises Wanderlust’s former web editor Hazel Plush, who spent two years in Dubai.
Elsewhere, just a mile from the vertiginous Burj lie the 9th-century Jumeirah ruins – a former trading post linking Iraq and Oman. There’s even wildlife to be found in the city-centre wetland reserve of Ras Al Khor, a haven for flamingos and other birdlife. Proof that Dubai isn’t all about the money. HOW TO GET THERE: Flights depart from many UK airports to Dubai; flight time from 7hrs.
This emirate accounts for nearly 90% of the country (and its oil), but much is desert: the famed Empty Quarter. Its capital (and that of the UAE) is the antithesis of Dubai: where one spent on commerce, the other went for culture, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening this year and a Guggenheim to follow.
On local culture, the giant Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a modern wonder in itself. Be sure to also stroll the corniche to its dhow harbour, before visiting the city’s oldest building, the 18th-century Qasr Al Hosn Fort.
Elsewhere in the emirate, the ‘garden city’ of Al Ain is very different. “Its Jebel Hafeet is a stone monolith that rises to 1,249m and gives great views,” said David. Also head for Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, the former ruler’s residence, and Al Jahili Fort, which was erected to defend its palm groves.
Another splash of desert greenery is Liwa Oasis, a series of villages in a 100km arc. The towering Moreeb Dune, one of the planet’s tallest, is only 25km away, but the standout is the island of Sir Bani Yas, a nature reserve that is home to endangered Arabian oryx and the ruins of a Christian monastery. HOW TO GET THERE: Flights depart from many UK airports to Abu Dhabi; from 7hrs.
Nestled against the Hajar Mountains, Ras al-Khaimah is actually a lot older than Dubai and Abu Dhabi having once been a major world trading centre some 1,000 years ago. “It also has real natural beauty,” explained Hazel. “Think sweeping desert, mountain-scapes and an untouched coastline.”
The Jebel Jais mountains and the winding roads leading to the summit (Shutterstock)
Climb Jebal Al Jais, the UAE’s highest mountain, in the Hajar peaks – also home to the UNESCO-listed prehistoric settlements of Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ayn. Elsewhere, Jazirat Al Hamra, an abandoned coral-blocked fishing village, and 16th-century Dhayah Fort, which now rewards visitors with panoramic vistas, are well worth a visit. HOW TO GET THERE: Fly with Qatar Airways from several UK airports via Doha. Or fly to Dubai; Ras al-Khaimah is a 2hr drive from there.
East-coast Fujairah has a very different feel to the rest of the UAE. David calls it a “hidden jewel”, and it is visited far less by travellers. Its namesake fort – the country’s oldest – has also just reopened after renovations.
“The UAE’s oldest mosque, Al Badiyah, is in Fujairah, too,” adds Middle East expert Matthew Teller. But the emirate’s main draw is its reefs, which are perfect for snorkelling and diving. Swim in the shallow waters of Martini and Sharm Rock to spot rays, reef sharks and turtles near Shark Island and Snoopy Island (named after the cartoon dog). HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Dubai; Fujairah is around a 2hr drive from there.
Sharjah is Dubai’s near-neighbour – though very different. It brims with history: a rich combination of forts and souks. Its ‘heritage centre’ is also sprinkled with museums, including the 19th-century Al Hisn Fort, which reopened in 2015 with a number of exhibits exploring its ruling family’s history.
The retail-heavy Blue Souk is the city’s most famous landmark, but try Souq Al Arsah instead – one of the UAE’s oldest. Out of the city: dune safaris are popular, while fragments of the emirate lie on the country’s east coast – a snorkelling hotspot. HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Dubai; Sharjah is around a 20min drive from there.
Umm al-Quwain & Ajman
Little Umm al-Quwain has stuck to its traditional roots since it began life as a fishing village. It is home to two important archaeological sites, though: Al Dur, a huge 2,000-year-old coastal city, and Tell Abraq, a desert city dating from around 2,000BC.
Ajman is even tinier, and apart from its namesake fort, its main claim to fame is its traditional dhow building yard, the largest one still operating in the world. HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Dubai; Ajman is around a 45min drive from there; Umm al-Quwain is about 1.5hrs.