It’s strange, but I first fell in love with Sharjah because of how steep its overpasses are. Its underpasses, too. Going up, going under, it’s all slightly too precipitous. Who knew there were average gradients for overpasses and underpasses — what is this gradient, and why has Sharjah, joyfully, stomach-lurchingly, declined to follow this norm?
Sharjah is the third-largest emirate but has a personality all its own. Prior to the country’s federation, it was one of the wealthiest and biggest ports on the Arabian Peninsula and was famous in the 1970s for being a transportation hub off the beaten track.
It’s now a pre-eminent site of art and learning, thanks largely to its ruler, Sheikh Sultan, a playwright with a PhD in history. In 2006, he initiated the Sharjah Museums Authority, now a complex of 16 museums that includes the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, the Sharjah Art Museum, the Sharjah Science Museum and the Sharjah Archeology Museum.
Sharjah was also the site of the UAE’s first great cultural flowering with poets such as Adel Khozam, based there in the 1990s, and later the artists around Hassan Sharif. Those artists' legacy lives on in the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Emirates Fine Arts Society, which are both headquartered in what’s known as the Heart of Sharjah, near the Corniche.
The city’s Islamic Arts Festival runs every December and January with new local and international commissions. Even the city’s waste management plant, currently under construction, has a cultured pedigree: it was designed by Zaha Hadid.
A comfortable bed
While not known for fancy hotels, there are a few good options. The Hilton Sharjah, which is within walking distance of the Al Qasba waterside precinct, has rooms starting at Dh470 per night. The Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa is one of the swankiest but is a bit further out, with rooms starting from Dh628 per night. The Radisson Blu sits on the waterfront and has a nice selection of pools. Rooms start at Dh490 per night (prices include taxes). A luxury hotel, Al Bait, is set to open in the Heart of Sharjah later this year.
A walking tour of the emirate
Start at the Bait Alserkal, part of Sharjah Art Foundation, which is in walking distance of many of the main museums, such as the Sharjah Art Museum, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum. From there, head south toward the rest of the Sharjah Art Foundation spaces.
Top of the pops for contemporary art and film in Sharjah, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s biennial is one of the art world’s most attentively noted exhibitions, and its year-round exhibitions give museum-level care to important, but often under-studied Arab and international artists (SAF opens four new shows on March 16). The Foundation also restored the Heritage Area of Al Mareija, around the Corniche, keeping alive old building practices and preserving the narrow walkways of traditional Gulf architecture.
Next, take a taxi to Al Qasba, two low columned buildings that face each other over an artificial canal. They host a mix of offices and cultural outfits, such as the Furat Qaddouri Music Centre and the Maraya Art Centre. Restaurants and coffee shops line the canal on each side, looking over the families who rent boats on the water. For the kids, there’s a Ferris wheel at one end and a playground at the other.
Meet the locals
Beyond the culture – and, of course, the overpasses – one of Sharjah's best attribute is its walkability. It has plenty of public spaces such as Al Qasba, Flag Island and Noor Island (which also hosts a butterfly sanctuary), where the full panoply of the city’s population – Emiratis, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Levantine Arabs – wander in the evening. You can mooch around its small streets, in and out of souqs or within the busy (and enclosed) Central Souq. The Corniche is a working waterfront with shops selling fishing line for boats, lead sinkers, heavy anchors and thick chains. Wooden dhows cruise up and down the creek on fishing expeditions and on informal trade routes.
Book a table
Sharjah’s eateries are good value for money and delicious. Just south of the Heart of Sharjah is Najmat Lahore, whose suave French-speaking, Pakistani head waiter is a famed local.
Nearby, Al Maksoof Al Iraqi serves masguf, a freshwater carp dish (meals there approximately Dh110 for two people), and Aroos Damascus, near the Central Blue Souq, serves fantastic Syrian food (Dh100 for two). Al Sanobar is reportedly the oldest fish restaurant in the emirate and is still owned and run by a Lebanese family. The mother cooks while her sons dish out the food (Dh150 for two). Afterwards, head to Zahrat Al Shemal for an unlimited ice cream selection. A small ice cream is a steal at Dh7.
The souqs along the Corniche are set under shaded walkways and, again, cater more towards the local population than tourists seeking pashminas. I picked up two Khaleeji dresses there for Dh60 each. The Central Souq sells the usual mix of jewellery, fabrics for dresses, and oud shops, and if you’re food shopping, at 3.30pm Al Jubail Market holds a daily fish auction.
Drive to the Arabian Wildlife Sanctuary, a zoo focusing on animals endemic to the Arabian Peninsula – flamingos, vipers and blind cave fish from Oman. About 25 kilometres outside the city. Open daily from 9am to 5.30pm with the following restrictions: closed Tuesdays, Thursdays 11am to 5.30pm, and Fridays 2pm to 5.30pm.
What to avoid
Sharjah’s traffic is notorious: it’s cheaper to live there than in Dubai, so the traffic to and from Dubai is clogged at peak times. Traffic follows the general flow of the Sheikh Zayed Road: heavy going south in the morning, and heavy going north in the evening.
Sharjah is serviced by the Sharjah International Airport, which, reflecting the demographics of its population, is particularly strong on routes eastwards to Pakistan and India.
Depending on the time of day, Sharjah city centre is only a 20–30 minute drive from Dubai International Airport, and 30 minutes from downtown Dubai. It is about two hours’ drive from Abu Dhabi.