Al Ain was an important oasis and place of refuge on the early trading routes. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Accordingly, it has many ancient sites worth visiting and the city itself offers visitors an insight into the rich, vibrant culture and traditions of local Emiratis. Al Ain, however, doesn’t draw the same volume of tourists as the more popular cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Most visitors to the Emirates never make the 1 ½ hour drive to Al Ain and the few that do, rarely spend more than a day here. Most come in on a one day tour organised out of Dubai or Abu Dhabi and find themselves on a whirlwind visit to a handful of the more prominent tourist attractions only. There is so much more to Al Ain, however. Definitely more than what you can see in a day. Living here, I often wondered why Al Ain has so few visitors as it has so much to offer.
So, when is a good time to visit? Without doubt, the best time to visit is from late September until mid-April. During this time, the temperatures are, by far, more bearable. You can expect average daytime temperatures to be in the high 30s Celsius in autumn and around the low 20s Celsius in winter. And, during this period, the days are mostly sunny with crisp-blue skies, thereby making it perfect for taking a few days to explore what I believe is one of the more beautiful cities in the Emirates.
Over the 3 ½ years in which I lived in Al Ain, I had the chance to really explore and appreciate this city. So, if you are coming to Al Ain and you are looking for something interesting to see and do, I can definitely recommend, in no particular order, the following:
Jebel Hafeet is the tallest mountain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the 2nd tallest in the UAE. You can drive to the top, either in your rental car or in a taxi, stopping along the way at the numerous view points and picnic areas. Alternatively, if you’re feeling energetic there is a hike to the top, though I’m told parts of it are a bit of a rock scramble. You do also need to check a reputable hiking guide in order to locate the starting point of the climb, as it is not particularly obvious. Once at the top, you can park in the carpark situated at the highest point to take in the magnificent views over the city of Al Ain and Oman. If you have time, visit the Al Khaima café, situated behind the Mercure Hotel, and indulge in some of the best Moroccan tea and shisha around, while you watch the sunset over Al Ain and enjoy the city lights as they begin to twinkle. You might need to take a jacket though, as it gets pretty chilly on top of the mountain, particularly in winter!
Jebel Hafeet Tombs
These ancient burial tombs can be found here at the base of Jebel Hafeet. There are quite a number of tombs all in various stages of restoration – some are fully restored, others partly restored, while others still are in quite a state of disrepair. There are many more tombs in the surrounding foothills, than you first think! So keep a close eye out for them. This trip is best done in a 4×4 vehicle. The track out to the tombs crosses a wadi and whilst the track is not long, it is fairly rocky and bumpy. Also, don’t attempt this trip if it has been raining and the track is muddy, even if you are in a 4×4. Nic and I once saw an abandoned 4×4 which had become stranded in the mud and was unable to be recovered until the whole area dried out. Also, it is important to remember this is a historical site and should be respected as such. As the saying goes “Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photos.”
Whether it’s a half day trip, full day trip or camping overnight, a desert trip is definitely a must. I’m not talking your typical Desert Safari tourist attraction here. I’m talking about a real UAE desert experience, see here. There are very few tour companies that I know of that offer such an authentic experience, aside from Marina Bruce A.K.A The Desert Diva. Marina is able to organise an experience of a life time, one that I am sure you will most definitely enjoy!
Al Jahli Park
Al Ain is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Garden City. It really is a beautiful, green city surrounded by desert. There are many parks within the city that you can enjoy, but I would have to say that Al Jahli Park is by far my favourite. It’s located close to the heart of the city, next to Al Jahli Fort and opposite the Al Ain Rotana hotel. The best times for visiting the park are of a late afternoon during the week, or, during the day on a weekend (Fri-Sat) when it is alive with activity. Local Emirati families and UAE residents alike can be found picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. Take some time out from sight-seeing, grab yourself some takeaway lunch or an early dinner and enjoy the beautiful surrounds, or at the very least, take a short stroll through the manicured gardens.
Al Jahli Fort
Adjacent to Al Jahli Park is the beautifully restored, Al Jahli Fort. This fort commands attention and is great not only for those who want to learn about these historic buildings but also those who are interested in culture. It hosts a permanent exhibition on Sir Wilfred Thesiger and his inspirational journeys in the 1940s throughout the area. Definitely worth seeing. On occasion, the fort also hosts performances by various visiting symphony orchestras.
The Green Mubazzarah & Hot Springs
Located at the base of Jebel Hafeet is a park known as The Green Mubazzarah. This park was built by Sheik Zayed around an underground hot spring and is a great place for a picnic, a BBQ or to simply relax. Visitors can even dip their toes into any one of a number of flowing hot spring water canals and enjoy its warmth. Alternatively, for a small fee, you can visit the actual hot spring itself and bathe in the 40-45 Celsius water. Although, I must say that the modern design of the bathing area lacks some of the aesthetic charm that I first envisaged when I read about the hot springs. The Green Mubazzarah also features a man-made lake, a number of fast food outlets, and walking tracks. Chalet accommodation is also available for rent at the far end of the park for those who would like to stay a little longer.
Many people aren’t aware that the city of Al Ain is built around seven oases. While each oasis is a working date farm, I still highly recommend taking a walk or cycling through at least one of them. Depending on the season, you may get the chance to watch the workers climbing and tending to the date palms or even see the dates being harvested. Most of the time, however, the oases provide a chance to escape the busyness of the city streets and enjoy some quiet time and respite from the hot sun. There are also forts and other historic buildings dotted throughout which are in various stages of restoration, all of which are quite interesting. You can also see falajs still in use, a traditional irrigation system used throughout this area for over 3000 years.
The most visited of the seven oases is definitely Al Ain Oasis, largely due to its accessibility and central location. However, personally I think that Al Hili, Al Jimi and Al Qattara are equally as attractive and well worth a visit. You can find them as follows:
- Al Hili – the entrance to this oasis is behind Al Hili Fort
- Al Jimi – the entrance to this oasis is just down the road from the Al Qattara Arts Centre , and
- Al Qattara – this oasis is located adjacent to Heritage Village Restaurant and Coffee Shop
Al Qattara Traditional Souq
Situated next door to the Al Qattara Arts Centre is the Al Qattara souq. Its history dates back to the mid-20th Century. Renovated in 2014/15, the souq is now open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, from October until May. Here you will find Emirati women selling traditional handicrafts, oud, frankincense and other wares out of their palm-leaf thatched stalls. You can also take some time to enjoy the local Karak tea, or Arabic coffee and dates, while you sit and watch traditional dance performances by the local men. There is even freshly cooked traditional Emirati food for sale, if you’d like to stay awhile, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a meal. This souq offers a great insight into Emirati culture and traditions, and is definitely well worth a visit.
The Camel Souq
The Al Ain Camel Souq is situated behind Al Bawadi Shopping Mall. It is, apparently, the last remaining camel souq in the UAE. Here you can wander around by yourself and see the camels up close in their pens, take some photos, and you may even be invited to pat one. There is no entry free and it is open every day from early until nightfall. Be aware, though, you might be offered a tour of the camel market and then be asked to pay. Feel free to say no if you are not interested as many of the stall holders will offer you information about the camels free of charge.
Heritage Village Restaurant and Coffee Shop
Heritage Village is open 24/7 and is a great place to relax and have a meal, indulge in some shisha, or enjoy some Moroccan tea. For me, Heritage Village has a great atmosphere which you can just sit back and soak up and I also like that is frequented largely by local Emiratis and very few, if any, tourists. Afterwards, as it is right next to the Al Qattara oasis, you can enjoy a walk under the date palms.
Al Ain National Museum
The National Museum has a substantial collection of ancient relics and artefacts as well as housing a display on Emirati culture and tradition. For the small entrance fee, it is definitely worth a visit to learn more about the history of the area and its people.
The Palace Museum
The Palace Museum was the former home of Sheik Zayed, the UAE’s founding father before becoming a museum in 2001. The palace contains information about the ruling family and offers a glimpse into their early life. The grounds are beautifully kept and make for an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the gardens, the various buildings and the restored fort.
Al Ain Zoo
Definitely allow yourself at least half a day to a full day to enjoy what the Al Ain Zoo has to offer. The zoo is quite large and houses a wide range of interesting desert flora and fauna, including the magnificent Arabian Oryx and the elusive desert fox, and has a large conservation program in place. It also recently opened a new safari park. Opening times vary based on the season, so it is best to check timings and prices on the zoo’s website before your visit. The zoo also has a number of picnic areas as well as food and drink outlets.
Al Bawadi Souq
Near the camel market and next to Bawadi Shopping Mall is the Al Bawadi Souq. This is worth visiting, particularly if you are interested in buying a majilis or fabrics, though you will have to bargain hard to get a deal. Stall holders also sell a number of other goods and wares for you to browse through if you have time and are interested.
A Hot Air Balloon Ride in the Desert
While a number of ballooning companies operate their business out of Dubai, when the winds are right, many launch from around the Al Ain area. Nic and I took a sunrise hot air balloon ride with Amigos Balloons which launched approximately 20 minutes out of Al Ain. It was certainly a breathtaking and unforgettable experience, watching the sun rise slowly on the horizon while we drifted silently over the sand dunes, taking in some pretty spectacular desert landscape.
So whether you have a spare day or a spare week there is lots to do and I have no doubt you will enjoy Al Ain!