From KidZania in Dubai to Warner Bros World in Abu Dhabi, parents are spoilt for choice when it comes to world-class experiences for their children to indulge in, but you can generally expect to spend at least Dh200 to get through the door. Head to the emirate of Sharjah, however, and you'll find a world of family-friendly attractions that will leave your wallet in a much happier place. We round-up six to try.
Sharjah National Park
The wonderful thing about this 630,000-square-metre park, the largest in Sharjah, is how vibrant, colourful and lush it is. The desert feels like it's miles away, so this could be a manicured park anywhere in the world. It boasts hundreds of leafy trees and shrubs, row upon row of date palms, tracts of pink, yellow and white flowers such as bougainvillaea, uplifting birdsong and even tiny striped squirrels darting left and right. My toddler ran wild, ripping off his shoes to bound across the grass after a stray cat. There are shady BBQ areas, benches, two playgrounds (one for older kids), a giant slide, and walking and cycling tracks. The cafe opens at 11am. A multitude of trees provide shade and the playgrounds are mostly covered.
Open from 8am to 10pm, Al Dhaid Road, opposite Sharjah International Airport, entry is Dh2 for adults and free for children under the age of 4
Al Mamzar Beach Park
Fine white sand, tepid seawater and hot showers by the seaside: three of my favourite things. Chasing waves (more like ripples) on the beach – one of five in this 106-hectare park – with my family under a breathtaking flame-red Arabian sunset one evening remains one of my fondest memories of the UAE. The park offers multiple playgrounds, a swimming pool and clean picnic areas with grills. Sunloungers, umbrellas, bikes, private chalets and jet skis can be hired. There is oodles of green space, as well as changing rooms, food kiosks and a restaurant. A favourite spot for families at weekends.
Open from 8am to 11pm, Al Mamzar on the Sharjah/Dubai border, entry is Dh10 per person or Dh30 per car. It is an additional Dh5 to gain access to the children’s pool
Sharjah Discovery Centre
My toddler made a beeline for Drivetown, where miniature electric cars have a slow acceleration pedal that allows self-steering around a soft winding track. Our trip here was worth it for that alone. The rest of the exhibits were a little over his head, but children between 3 and 12 years will appreciate the hands-on displays, including Bodyworld (basically a biology lesson); an Airport complete with check-in desk and arrivals/departures boards; Waterworld, where kids can jump into an inflatable boat and a pretend rescue helicopter; Buildtown, where you can stack soft bricks and play on two mechanical mini-diggers. Role-playing is encouraged with a pretend TV station, supermarket, radio station and craft workshop. There’s also Sportsworld, where you can play basketball and football, plus a soft-play area for toddlers. This is a popular spot for school tours, so if you’re looking for a quieter experience, aim for
Open from 8am to 8pm, Al Dhaid Road, beside Sharjah National Park, entry costs Dh5 for children, Dh10 for adults and is free for kids under 2
Sharjah Desert Park & Arabian Wildlife Centre
Here, we learnt that Arabian cheetahs are extinct and native leopards are "critically endangered", which is an extremely depressing fact, but there is a breeding centre to ensure this story isn't repeated. And how fantastic that kids can observe the magnificent cats here, plus more than 100 species of baboons, wolves, gazelles, native (and otherwise) snakes, fish, insects, birds and fauna. I also learnt that the Arabian Peninsula boasts more poisonous snakes than I would like. There's a walk-through cave in the aviary, a tank where blind fish from Oman live, and a nocturnal section that's home to native cats, foxes and bats. There's also a separate children's farm.
Open from 9am to 5.30pm, Al Dhaid Road, Interchange 9, Sharjah, entry is Dh10 for adults and is free for children under 12
Sharjah Aquarium and Maritime Museum
This was our first sighting of a black-tip reef shark, and my son was fascinated by the sea turtle, stingrays, jellyfish and seahorses. The museum offers a display of old pearling and fishing boats or wooden dhows with lateen sails, reminding us that long before oil trading, the Arabian Peninsula relied on pearl and fish trading with India and South Africa.
Open from 8am to 8pm, Al Meena Street, Al Khan Area, Sharjah, entry is Dh25 for adults, Dh15 for children up to 12 and is free for those under 2
Desert Oasis Petting Farm
Technically this farm is in Dubai, but only a few kilometres from the Sharjah border, and given that it's the only petting farm in the UAE, it's well worthy of inclusion. Sure, you can eyeball most of these creatures in zoos and parks, but watch your children's eyes light up when they get to touch a camel or an emu (which I thought was an ostrich, so I learnt something, too). My son adored the long-eared goats and was allowed into their pen to pat them. There are donkeys, deer, sheep, ducks, geese and tortoises. There's also a mini playground for younger kids. It's a fantastic way to spend an hour outdoors. The adjacent equestrian centre offers horseriding lessons for Dh100 each or 12 for Dh1,000.
Open from 3pm to 6pm, plus 9am to 12pm on weekends, Desert Equestrian Club, Al Khawaneej, Dubai, entry is Dh10 and is free for children under 2. Visit www.desertoasispetting-farm.com for seasonal timings