A cultural centre in the UAE, Sharjah has for the past three decades acted as a safekeeper of heritage and the arts. Voted Unesco’s cultural capital of the Arab world in 1998, it is a treasure trove of discoveries, from its souqs to its historical forts, and an essential destination if you want to better understand the UAE’s past and present.
Here are some of our favourite reasons to visit the northern emirate and its far flung enclaves.
Khor Kalba Conservation Reserve
The Kalba Conservation Reserve is home to an array of flora and fauna, and is set in the breathtaking landscapes of eastern Sharjah, near the border with Oman. A diverse ecosystem, the area offers three main experiences: the Kalba Bird of Prey Centre, where falconry is the highlight of the day; Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre, which offers a range of hiking trails; and Al Hafiya Picnic Park. There are also stunning mangroves nearby where active adventurers can get on the water and keen campers can pitch up under the stars.
This is a well-kept secret among the country’s avid hiking community. Wadi Shees is located on the far east coast of the UAE, where the water is more reminiscent of the Indian Ocean than the Gulf, and hiking in the area offers a trip back in time.
Several tracks are available around Shees Valley, where the shade of the dramatic Hajar Mountains and its stunning waterway offers welcome respite from the heat. Along the route, look out for the old village and local farms for a real taste of a bygone era that is still very much alive and well in these parts. Local plants and animals dot the paths and a palm oasis is the perfect resting spot along the way.
Khor Fakkan Beach
The sleepy town of Khor Fakkan near the Oman border is undergoing a beautiful revival, with its souq and corniche now boasting a range of shops, cafes and trendy street art. The three-kilometre crescent-shaped beach offers a range of water sports, from fishing and diving to parasailing and kayaking. There is also sailing, scuba diving and snorkelling near Shark Island, which is a short boat ride from the beach. The coastline here is like nothing else in the UAE.
Mleiha Archaeological Centre
One of the emirate’s treasures, the Mleiha Archaeological Centre is located in Sharjah’s central region. Offering a slice of history and activities for all ages, it is also one of the most beautiful spots in the emirate, with its rolling red and golden sand dunes.
A gateway to the country’s Bedouin past, the area is home to the Umm an-Nar tomb, a circular Bronze Era grave, as well as the famed Fossil Rock, a huge rock formation brimming with marine fossils. Activity seekers will find some spectacular hikes as well as quad biking and paragliding over the undulating peaks of Mleiha, while campers can sleep under the stars. A museum houses a collection of several ancient artefacts and offers interactive displays and activities for children.
Souq Al Arsah
Believed to be the UAE’s oldest market, Souq Al Arsah was once a hub for traders from Persia and India. Now a covered space with air-conditioned alleyways, it still features the traditional wooden doors, coral brick walls and hanging lanterns of old. Visitors can find an array of quirky items in the quaint stores, from pearl chests and copper coffee pots to jewellery, perfume and incense. Located on the corniche in central Sharjah, it is close to several of the city’s other popular souqs, such as Souq Saqr, Souq Al Jubail and Souq Al Shanasiyah.
The emirate now boasts 16 museums, including the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum, Sharjah Maritime Museum, Sharjah Heritage Museum and Sharjah Islamic Museum, celebrating the history of Sharjah and the region. The beauty of the museums in Sharjah is that many are within walking distance so, on a cool day, it can be a beautiful way to enjoy the city by foot.
Sharjah Archaeology Museum, the Natural History and Botanical Museum and Bait Al Naboodah Museum are also worth adding to the list, each offering something unique in content and architectural design.
Al Rabi Tower and Hiking Trail
Blending culture and adventure, Al Rabi is a great day trip. The tower marks the start and end of a breathtaking hiking trail overlooking Khor Fakkan and its bay, and is accessible even for beginners. It zigzags up to a 395-metre summit with panoramic views. The structure was built in 1915 as a watchtower to protect the enclave of Khor Fakkan and offers a fascinating window into recent history.
Al Qurm Nature Reserve
Out on the border with Fujairah, this remote destination offers more than 500 hectares of protected mangroves, a rich natural habitat where rare birds, sea turtles and mammals are in abundance. You might spot an endangered Arabian-collared kingfisher flying over the mangroves, or hawksbill and green turtles nesting on the nearby beach. Though expensive, an overnight stay in one of the 20 luxury tents at Kingfisher Retreat is a real treat, with mangroves on one side and the ocean on the other.
Al Montazah Water Park
The emirate’s favourite water park, Al Montazah, offers a fun day out for the family, and is spread across 126,000 square metres, offering two separate experiences: Pearls Kingdom and Island of Legends. Pearls Kingdom offers adventures across 25 rides, with pirates and princesses galore. Over at Island of Legends, visitors can travel back in time to the steam-powered days of the 18th century. Spread across nine different nations, the experience offers something for all ages.
Classic Cars Museum
Even those who are not car lovers can’t help but enjoy the emirate’s Classic Cars Museum, where more than 100 vintage vehicles from around the world are on display as an ode to the automobile. Prized treasures of collector Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, include a 1915 Dodge and a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman.