The UAE boasts a global reputation for glorious beaches, glittering skyscrapers and world-famous chefs.
However, it is the pocket-sized art hubs, corner-side culture, lush nature trails, hidden history and unbeatable street food that the locals fall in love with.
In this new series of guides, we speak to the experts – the artists, the culture lovers and the photographers – to find out where they spend their days off, to inspire some adventures of your own.
For our first instalment, we’re going off-grid with the tour guides, leaving no stone unturned in our quest to unearth the UAE’s best spots for hiking, yoga, pottery and even a spot of improv.
Nature and nurturing the arts in Dubai
For Nada Badran, Dubai’s magic lies in its lesser-known spaces. The founder of celebrated tour company Wander With Nada has lived in the city for almost all of her 33 years and spends her free time seeking out the city’s gems.
“One of my favourite places to spend time in Dubai is the Courtyard in Al Quoz,” she says. “It’s like an inner-city oasis filled with light and greenery and has such an uplifting vibe.
“The plants have been brought from all over the UAE so it feels like you’ve left Dubai and walked into the tropics, and once you add in the water fountains there’s a really nice garden feel.”
As well as being a space to unwind with nature, Courtyard is also a hub for the arts, most notably at the Courtyard Playhouse, where Badran is also a regular.
“There are all sorts of workshops for acting, improv and comedy, and you can also go and watch the shows live – they are hilarious,” she says with a laugh. “When you start to get hungry, Cassette does amazing food with awesome playlists to enjoy while you eat.”
While you’re in Al Quoz, Badran also recommends checking out The Mud House Studio, to try your hand at the pottery wheel.
“It helps me to disconnect from the digital world and just explore my creativity,” she says. “It’s really hands-on and there’s no pause button to check your phone, you need to concentrate and let your hands wander and do the work.”
Wisdom and wandering in Sharjah
Just an hour outside of Dubai, in Sharjah, lies what Badran calls a “true Arab medina”.
“Sharjah doesn’t get the attention it deserves at all, and one place I love to while away an afternoon is the House of Wisdom,” she says.
“It’s inspired by the original House of Wisdom in Baghdad and is a modern-day knowledge hub where you can go to seek enrichment – and lots of books.”
The library was built in 2019 to commemorate Sharjah’s ongoing cultural journey.
While she recommends taking time to admire the beautiful architecture, designed by Foster + Partners, Badran also suggests heading to the Espresso Book Machine. “You can order any book from the library’s database and they’ll print and bind it for you in about five minutes,” she explains. “There’s even a bed area where you can lay back and read your newly printed edition.”
The last place on Nada’s list is the seaside city of Khor Fakkan in Sharjah, and more specifically, Al Rabi Mountain Trail, where she loves to hike.
“The city of Khor Fakkan is really up-and-coming, and the mountain trail is a truly hidden gem,” she says. “It takes about four hours in total, starting at the historical Al Rabi Tower and ascending up to about 395 metres with stunning panoramic views.
“One side faces the turquoise ocean and the other side looks on to mountains and Khor Fakkan City. As soon as you get to the bottom, you’re in the city centre, where you can get some authentic Emirati food.
“One of the really popular restaurants is Hosn Khorfakkan, it usually has a line down the street, but it’s definitely worth the wait.”
Fresh catch and coffee in Abu Dhabi
In Abu Dhabi, local Emirati tour guide and owner of Golden Link Travel, Ebrahim Al Harbi, also believes that food is key to experiencing the culture of the capital.
Ebrahim, 27, has lived in Abu Dhabi all his life and is dedicated to sharing the UAE’s rich heritage, starting with Al Mina Fish Market near Zayed Port.
“The fish market is a big part of our culture,” he explains. “Fishing was the income for families back in the day and we even have a cooperative of fishermen today.
“Locals come to the market at about 5am to get the freshest catch and take it to one of the many surrounding restaurants where they will cook it for you. It’s the best way to eat seafood.”
Visitors can stroll freely around the market, purchase a variety of fish and shellfish and have it cooked by one of the many vendors inside the market, before devouring it outside sitting on an upturned lobster pot.
For culture, Ebrahim spends his free time at the House of Artisans, a permanent exhibition that pays homage to artisans of the UAE, at Qasr Al Hosn.
Visitors here can discover local crafts, including the materials, skills and techniques required to produce them, and view contemporary pieces by emerging and established Emirati artists.
However, for Ebrahim, it’s all about the coffee. “There’s a coffee house inside where locals show you how traditional Arabic coffee is made and you get to enjoy a cup once the demonstration is over,” he explains.
“It’s a great place to interact with locals, plus you can pick up a pair of Nike trainers customised with UAE designs.”
There’s nowhere quite like Al Ain
Ebrahim’s favourite place in the UAE is Al Ain, for its traditional architecture and warm Middle Eastern charm.
“It's really hard to narrow down the best parts of Al Ain, but Al Ain Palace Museum is worth a visit to see the humble beginnings of the sheikhs at their former childhood home,” he says.
“I also love visiting Al Ain falaj, the ancient underground irrigation system in Al Ain Oasis that waters all the palm trees.
“To me, all of the UAE is beautiful – there’s no place in the world quite like it.”