5 mins

15 extraordinary things to do in the United Arab Emirates

From flying with falcons to delving into Arabian art, the UAE hoards plenty of secret travel treasures – here’s how to find them

Jumeirah beach, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (dreamstime)

1: Be a Bedouin for the day

Which emirate? Dubai

A mere 60 years ago, life in the Emirates was nomadic. Tribes hunted with falcons, travelled by camel and lived in tents woven from goat hair. Platinum Heritage’s one-day  tour offers a glimpse of those pre-oil boom days, with a camel ride to a traditional desert camp, an Emirati cooking lesson, campfire storytelling and a falconry display.

For more information: +971 4 440 9827; platinum-heritage.com

2: Horse-ride through the desert

Which emirate? Ras Al Khaimah

The Arabian horse is a noble breed indeed: elegant, powerful and utterly beloved by Emiratis. Saddle up at Al Wadi Equestrian Centre, part of the plush Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah hotel, for trail rides through the surrounding desert reserve or sunset jaunts across the dunes. Camel riding is also available on request.

For more information: +971 7 206 7777; facebook.com/alwadiequestrian

3: See art in ‘ancient’ Arabia

Al Bastakiya, UAE (Dreamstime)

Al Bastakiya, UAE (Dreamstime)

Which emirate? Dubai

Seeking an alternative to skyscrapers? Head to Al Bastakiya, an atmospheric nugget of ‘old’ Dubai – all dusty winding lanes and mud-built barjeel (wind towers) – that’s just 25 minutes from the city centre. It’s now an up-and-coming artistic quarter with galleries and studios aplenty; spend the morning exploring, stopping for brunch in the bougainvillea-shaded courtyard of the Arabian Tea House Café.

For more information: +971 4 353 5071; arabianteahouse.co

4: Go birdwatching

Which emirate? Ajman

Birdlife thrives in the mangroves, lagoons and beach coves of Al Zorah Nature Reserve, a million-square-metre wetland wilderness not far from Ajman’s city centre. Species such as pink flamingos, egrets and herons are commonly sighted – almost 60 species have been recorded here. Contact Quest for Adventure for self-guided canoeing trips, as well as rock climbing, trekking and mountain bike tours.

For more information: questforadventure.net

5: Discover a fortress

Which emirate? Umm al-Quwain

“The UAE has no culture!” is a refrain we’re tired of hearing – it couldn’t be further from the truth. The country has a wealth of cultural institutions, but none quite like Umm al-Quwain’s imposing 200-year-old fortress, which now serves as a museum. It’s full of old artefacts, photos and relics; however, the real buzz is standing atop the stronghold, imaging tribes trying to attack its impenetrable walls.

For more information: +971 6 765 0888

6: Explore the desert on two wheels

Explore the desert by bike in UAE (Dreamstime)

Explore the desert by bike in UAE (Dreamstime)

Which emirate? Sharjah

Move over, camels! These days, serious adventurers are crossing the desert by ‘fat bike’ – a mountain bike rigged up with super-thick tyres to make light(ish) work of those golden dunes. Only the super-fit need apply to Real Expeditions’ Desert Cycling Adventure, a full day’s sand cycling with a night under the stars in a Bedouin-style camp.

For more information: +971 56 545 2588; real-expeditions.com

7: Climb the UAE’s highest mountain

Which emirate? Ras Al Khaimah

At 1,934m tall, Jebel Jais is the UAE’s tallest peak. Its summit can be reached on a challenging day hike – there are some scrambling sections but this isn’t a technical climb. The rewards are plunging views of a sheer-sided ravine, scooped out of the rugged range like a mini Grand Canyon. Contact Adventurati Outdoor for small-group and private trips.

For more information: adventurati-outdoor.com

8: Meet Dubai’s little-known neighbour

Which emirate? Sharjah

After flying into Dubai International, most tourists head south to the city’s skyscrapers and shopping malls. But venturing north will take you to Sharjah, Dubai’s quiet and traditional neighbour. If it’s culture you’re after, you’ve come to the right place: the old Emirati dwellings of Sharjah’s Heritage Area have been carefully restored, alongside museums and galleriescelebrating its oft-overlooked history.

For more information: heartofsharjah.ae

9: Dive beneath the waves

Which emirate? Fujairah

The UAE’s east coast is one of scuba’s best-kept secrets: its reefs are thriving and colourful, thanks to the warm currents (and minimal coastal development) in the Gulf of Oman. There are expansive coral gardens and fascinating wrecks, and seahorses, rays, turtles and whale sharks are commonly sighted. Al Boom Diving has a permanent base in Fujairah.

For more information: +971 4 341 4940; alboomdiving.com

10: Visit an oasis

Liwa Oasis, Abu Dhabi, UAE (Dreamstime)

Liwa Oasis, Abu Dhabi, UAE (Dreamstime)

Which emirate? Abu Dhabi

The lush palms and fruit trees of Liwa rise from the desert like a thirsty traveller’s mirage, just as they have done for thousands of years. Thanks to its groundwater, Liwa prospers despite being three hours from Abu Dhabi city. Spend a day exploring the small fort and date farms. Or visit in January to catch the Liwa Sports Festival at Moreeb Dune, one of the world’s highest sand hills.

For more information: abudhabievents.ae

11: Test your head for heights

Which emirate? Ras Al Khaimah

With much fanfare, the world’s longest zipline (measuring 2.83km) opened on Jebel Jais mountain in February. But few travellers know that the UAE’s highest peak is also home to a new via ferrata route. Away from the squealing crowds, this lofty 1km course traverses sheer drop-offs with knee-wobbling views aplenty. Look out for eagles soaring overhead.

For more information: +971 50 265 6224; jebeljais.ae

12: Visit a wildlife sanctuary

Which emirate? Sharjah

Sandwiched between Sharjah’s busy airport and sprawling CBD, Wasit Nature Reserve is a true urban oasis – a vital sanctuary for both wildlife and city-weary travellers. Its landscape of sabkha (salt plain), sand dunes, mud flats, salty lagoons and freshwater lakes is rich in biodiversity, including 198 different species of birds plus small mammals, reptiles and insects. A visitor centre, hides and observation points allow you to take a good look.

For more information: +971 6 531 1501; epaashj.ae

13: Learn about Islamic history

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, UAE (Dreamstime)

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, UAE (Dreamstime)

Which emirate? Sharjah

The Museum of Islamic Civilization was once a busy souk, stuffed to the rafters with spices, camels and carpets. Now it is filled with the UAE’s largest collection of Muslim artefacts. Manuscripts, tapestries and photographs bring Islam’s stories and scripture to life, and the souk’s old shops have been transformed into galleries of exquisite religious art.

For more information: +971 6 556 6002; sharjahmuseums.ae

14: Make a meal of the Middle East

Which emirate? Dubai

Dubai is famed for its fancy five-star fare, but the real foodie gems lie in the back-streets of its Deira neighbourhood, where Yemeni, Iranian and Palestinian restaurants rub shoulders with Lebanese cafés and Turkish street food. Frying Pan Adventures’ Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage squeezes ten (ten!) delicious dishes into a four-hour evening walking tour, finishing with coffee and baklava.

For more information: +971 56 471 8244; fryingpanadventures.com

15: Fly with falcons

Which emirate? Dubai

After the hubbub of Dubai, a dawn flight over the desert is the perfect tonic. You’ll rise with the sun over the rippling dunes, spying clusters of camels and grazing gazelles, the silence unbroken but for the burner’s brief roars. On Balloon Adventures’ flights you’ll also be joined by peregrine falcons, which swoop and soar between the baskets. A spine-tingling way to start the day.

For more information: +971 4 440 9827; ballooning.ae

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