When people think of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is often the first and only place that comes to mind. Certainly the mega-city is the premier destination in the country thanks to its massive luxury developments and cosmopolitan flair, however there’s a lot more to discover if you give the rest of the country a chance. From wealthy Abu Dhabi to historic Sharjah, and the desert in between – the UAE is a land of extremes, all of which are worth experiencing. So get ready to find out where to go in the UAE.
The road network in the UAE is very well developed, especially in coastal regions (read: around major cities). Train services are not well established; unless you count the Dubai metro. For entering the country (or traveling between Dubai and Abu Dhabi), airlines are numerous and state-of-the-art, especially the Emirates and Etihad lines. In general, there shouldn’t be issues navigating between the major cities, however venturing off the beaten path could complicate matters.
The weather in the UAE is largely arid with hot summers and warm winters. Some areas can get cooler (namely the Hajar Mountains). You should be aware of potentially hazardous dust storms as well as short, torrential rainfalls that result in coastal flooding during the summer. Lastly, the coastal region in late summer can become very humid due to a southeastern wind. You might want to plan your trip to avoid this if possible.
Where to go in the UAE
Dubai has made a name for itself over the last several years with massive, awe-inspiring developments and luxury escapes to bring in visitors and investment – with the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) the most famous. There is a wealth of both ultra-modern and traditional sights to see here – even if you’re not in the upper echelon of the 1%. There is shopping (from the world’s largest mall to more traditional Arab souks), hotels, nightclubs, man-made islands, beaches, indoor skiing, the world’s fastest roller coaster and much more. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, try venturing out into the nearby desert – 4×4’s are becoming increasingly popular, and are a great way to navigate the dunes if you know what you’re doing. The sheer opulence might be somewhat overwhelming, but Dubai is worth a trip in order to see one of the 21st century’s premier metropolises.
Often overlooked in favour of larger Dubai, the UAE’s second largest city (and capital) is still a worthwhile stopover. It may not have the same level of international flair as its larger counterpart, but Abu Dhabi makes up for it with a more authentic and laid-back, but still modern attitude. Thanks to oil wealth (Abu Dhabi actually had to bail out Dubai several years back), there has been an increase in development to compliment the already high commercial and political importance of the city. Wander the many parks, visit the spectacular waterfront, gasp at the size of Sheikh Zayed Mosque, or attend one of the many cultural events in the city. Like Dubai, you can also plan desert getaways from here if you’ve had your fill of the city. So while visitors seeking a more energetic escape might prefer the bustle of Dubai, the more relaxing (but still full of life) Abu Dhabi will appeal to those looking for a more traditional type of vacation.
Located outside the city of Al Ain (about 160 km from Abu Dhabi and 120 km from Dubai) lies the mountain known as Jebel Hafeet. The peak reaches the middling height of 1219 metres, however a trip there is well worth it for the ascent and the view. The winding road that snakes its way up the mountain is a blast for anyone who enjoys a good drive, while the view over the nearby city and desert is famous for its stark beauty. There are many sightseeing areas along the road, as well as hot springs (and a variety of animals) in the foothills. If you’re on the road anyways, it’s absolutely worth going out of your way to ascend Jebel Hafeet.
While the UAE’s third largest city doesn’t have the luxury and glamour of its larger cousins, you’d be remiss to give it a pass. Especially for those with even a passing interest in Arab history, Sharjah is a dream come true, with museums, souks, and many more cultural events and sites in easy reach in the old town. This is not the city to visit if you’re looking to let loose, as modesty laws are strictly enforced and there is no alcohol on offer. However, if you’re looking for art, history, and some traditional flair and cooking – Sharjah is the place to be.
The region’s highest mountain range (which also stretches into Oman) offers a significantly different type of escape than what you’ll likely come to expect from the rest of the UAE. The peaks rise impressively out of the barren desert, creating valleys, featuring winding roads linking small villages, and allowing a variety of plant and animal life to thrive. There are many hiking trails on both sides of the border to take advantage of, no matter how much time you have or what your skill level is.
The emirate of Fujairah lies on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, and has become well known for both beautiful beaches and massive amounts of shipping and trade. Let’s face it though, if you’re here, you want to take advantage of the warm waters and white sands. While there are other options as well, Al Aqah is the pinnacle of what the emirate has to offer. There’s snorkeling and diving available, and a variety of local wildlife ranging from sea turtles to (thankfully harmless) reef sharks. Luxury hotels dominate the area behind the beach; so you can spend the morning in the waters, and then retreat to the comfort of 5-star service in the evening.
How much does it cost?
Round trip flights between Pearson and Dubai can be pretty expensive, often starting around the $1700 Canadian mark, and only going up from there. Thanks to the prevalence of Emirates and Etihad airways across the world, you can often find deals and a variety of options depending on where you are – so be sure to shop around. Still, it’s a long trip; so don’t expect any amazingly cheap flights.
Once you arrive in the UAE, you’ll quickly find that it can get very expensive, very quickly – particularly in Dubai. The average cost for day will generally run about $335 with a budget of $169 for accommodation, $50 for food, and $96 for water. On the low-end, you can drive the price down to about $130 per day while the higher end of travel can cost about $932 per day (or much more if you really want to go for it). Still, if you have the money, or just want to see what the UAE is doing with their money, it’s sure to be a memorable trip.
Health and Safety
The UAE is one of the safer countries in the region, and as such there is no nationwide advisory in effect according to the Government of Canada – although a high degree of caution should be exercised due to the prevalent threat of terrorism. The security situation in the UAE is relatively stable, however everyone, particularly Westerners, should still be aware of their surroundings and pay attention to local reports and warnings. Petty crime is a danger, as it is in any crowded tourist area, however the crime rate is very low all things considered. Women should avoid traveling alone at night as harassment and even assault can occur, though it is rare. When traveling by car, be wary of erratic driving practices. In addition, make sure you are prepared with extra gas, you’re in a convoy, and you have water, food, and cell service before you venture off into the desert in a 4×4. Pirates are known to operate off the coast, so make sure you know what type of area you’re entering before you head off on the sea.
While the UAE is more open and liberal than many nearby countries, local traditions and laws must be respected – and there are severe penalties for not doing so. Public displays of affection, including handholding, should be avoided. In addition, homosexuality and prostitution are very harshly punished – even sometimes leading to the death penalty. Drug laws are very tough, with Westerners being detained for long periods in the past for such offenses. Alcohol laws also differ from location to location, though it is prohibited for all Muslims to consume alcohol. In all cases, drinking must be done in approved areas, namely hotels and some other establishments that cater to international visitors. Public intoxication is also illegal, no matter where you were drinking. Finally, the dress code also differs from emirate to emirate, though shorts (both men and women) as well as revealing cloths or short skirts (women) should be avoided. As long as you don’t violate local customs, you should be fine – so do your research ahead of time depending on where you’re going.
These are just a few examples of where to go in the UAE, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Check out our Country of the Week for more general information about Emirati history and culture.
*Cover Photo: Dubai skyline | Final Photo: A camel on the beach in Dubai
Stay informed. Stay Current.