If you’ve not been to the UAE's Garden City yet, then you’re in for a treat. Al Ain offers a more laid-back pace of life than the Emirates' bigger cities and is the perfect place for a chilled-out weekend away.
Just one hour from Dubai and 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, so it has a special place in the country’s story. It’s also a good destination if you’re looking to reconnect with nature thanks to its date palm forests, mountain peaks and natural hot springs.
Keep in mind that for most activities in Al Ain, which is part of the Abu Dhabi emirate, you’ll need to have a green pass on the Al Hosn app.
Here are 10 must-dos when in Al Ain:
1. Drive on one of the world’s best roads at Jebel Hafeet
The Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road has been ranked as one of the greatest driving roads in the world and it’s not hard to see why.
With about 12 kilometres of perfect, winding tarmac and an almost lunar landscape, the smooth surface winds up the 1,249-metre-tall mountain on Al Ain’s border with Oman. The drive guarantees amazing views of the city and epic sunrise vista points. Pop into the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet hotel located near the mountain peak where you can enjoy a sundowner with the view, or even a game of mountaintop mini-golf.
Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, Tawam, Al Ain
2. Go on a safari at Al Ain Zoo
One of the Garden City’s biggest tourist attractions has to be Al Ain Zoo. Founded in 1968 by Sheikh Zayed, the 400-hectare zoo at the foothills of Jebel Hafeet is home to oryx, giraffe, Barbary sheep, rhinos, hippos, tigers, lions and more. Kids will enjoy the petting zoo and there’s also a well-respected conservation and breeding programme.
The new Al Ain Safari will cover more than 217 hectares when it's complete, but for now, the 54-hectare section that is already open to the public offers one of the world’s largest man-made safaris where you can encounter the Big 5 from the safety of an SUV or safari truck. Emirati Safari Guides will take the lead, giving you more information about the animals and the surrounding landscape as you drive.
Al Ain Zoo, Nahyan The First St, Al Ain; alainzoo.ae
3. Step back in history at Qasr Al Muwaiji
For an in-depth exploration of the history of the UAE, head to Qasr Al Muwaiji, one of Al Ain’s Unesco-listed world heritage sites. Inside is a permanent exhibition filled with rare photographs and artefacts that celebrates the life of the President, Sheikh Khalifa, who was born here. Peek inside the north-west tower, which was previously used as a residential area for Sheikh Zayed and his family. Visitors to the palace can also take part in some of the regular events that take place on-site, including poetry evenings, excavation and restoration sessions and a falconers' camp.
Qasr Al Muwaiji, Khalifa Bin Zayed, Al Muwaiji, Al Ain; qasralmuwaiji.ae
4. Unwind at Al Batha Nature Reserve
Escape into nature at Al Batha Nature Reserve, located near Hili Archaeological Park. This recently renovated eco-tourism project showcases the UAE’s flora and fauna and has ducks, birds, ghaf trees and a playground for the little ones. It is the perfect place to go for a picnic on the undulating golden dunes now that the weather is cooler and the best part is that it’s entirely free to enter.
Al Batha Nature Reserve, Al Nabbagh, Al Ain
5. Spend the night in a bubble tent at Jebel Hafit Desert Park
For something a little bit different, why not book a night at Jebel Hafit Desert Park where you can camp in a dome under the shadow of the towering mountain. This desert park is great for those looking to go biking, hiking or trekking and there are three different camping experiences on offer if you want to make it an overnight stay.
Take your pick from basic camping, where you bring all your own gear, serviced camping in a Bedouin tent with breakfast provided or sleeping in a five-star air-conditioned bubble tent for the full glamping experience.
Jebel Hafit Desert Park, Jebel Hafit, Al Ain; jebelhafitdesertpark
6. Take a dip at Green Mubazzarah
Also in the shadow of Jebel Hafeet is Green Mubazzarah Park, a natural oasis in the city. Filled with rolling grassy hillsides, it's a great place to go with children, with plenty of outdoor space for running around or enjoying a picnic. There’s also a small lake and a mini-train for rides around the outskirts.
The big draw here is the natural mineral hot springs that run through man-made channels in the park. They also flow into bigger pools (one for men and one for women) if you want to take a swim in the steaming water. And if you fancy spending the night here, the on-site Green Mubazzarah Chalets by Danat Hotels & Resorts are rustic but entirely comfortable and come with great mountain views.
Green Mubazzarah Park, Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain; visitabudhabi.ae
7. Visit Zaman Lawal Heritage Village
Part of the Telal Resort in Al Ain’s Remah desert, the Zaman Lawal Heritage Village is worth a visit even if you’re not staying at the luxury boutique resort.
Guests can tuck into Emirati food at Khatta restaurant or visit The Local Souk, a traditional-style market selling handicrafts, spices and more. Inside the House of Good Fortune, there’s an exhibit detailing the importance of date palms – something intrinsic to the city of Al Ain, while the House of Pearls sheds light on the Garden City’s pearl-diving past, when men would travel to the coasts for months on end to harvest these gems from the depths of the ocean. There’s even an old pearl diving boat called The Jalibut on display.
Zaman Lawal Heritage Village, Telal Resort, Remah, Al Ain; telalresort.ae
8. Wander through Al Ain Oasis
Al Ain Oasis was the first curated Unesco World Heritage Site in the UAE, and is a beautiful spot to while away a few hours under the shade of thousands of date palms.
This 1,200-hectare estate is home to more than 147,000 palm trees with around 100 different varieties. Take a stroll or hop on a bicycle and two-wheel around the oasis, passing the hundreds of small farms within it. Be sure to visit the welcome centre on arrival; here, you can see interactive exhibits on how the oasis works and what’s being done to ensure traditional farming methods can continue in the future. You can also see the traditional irrigation system in use throughout the oasis – the technique dates back more than 3,000 years.
Al Ain Oasis, Central District, Near Al Ain Palace Museum; visitabudhabi.com
9. Delve into history at Hili Archaeological Park
A little bit of a drive from the city is Hili Archaeological Park, which is a must-visit for any history buffs. This place is the earliest known evidence of an agricultural village in the UAE, and dates back to 3000 BCE.
One of the most dramatic buildings here is the unroofed Grand Tomb, which is more than 4,000 years old and around 12 metres in diameter. Beside this is Hili Site 1, where guests can see the remains of what was once a tower built from mud bricks. There’s also a large round building surrounded by a moat and the remains of several villages from the Iron Age, where you can see houses with well-preserved walls and one of the earliest examples of the falaj irrigation system.
Hili Archaeological Park, Hili, Al Ain; visitabudhabi.ae
10. Enjoy the exhibits at Al Jahili Fort
One of the largest and oldest forts in the UAE, Al Jahili Fort in the heart of the Garden City is a good one to visit. Constructed out of mud-brick, straw and palm tree fibres, it dates back to the early 19th century when it was believed to have been built to protect the adjacent oasis and its date palms.
Today, the building has been carefully restored and is a museum with various exhibits on display including a black and white photography series from British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger with images taken during his crossing of the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert in the 1940s.
When you've taken in the exhibits, architecture and history, there’s a little lounge where you can sit and enjoy a coffee and children will love exploring the gardens and running around in the park behind the fort.
Al Jahili Fort, Sultan Bin Zayed Al Awwal St, Al Ain; visitabudhabi.ae