If you are looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination with an authentic taste of Arabic heritage, the rustic charms of Al Ain await you. The ‘Garden City’ has a reputation for being a cultural hub and a perfect retreat for escaping the humidity on the coast of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The city is packed with historical monuments, adventure, outstanding natural beauty and great hospitality.
Perched on an inland oasis in the Eastern region of Abu Dhabi bordering Oman, Al Ain has a friendly population of over 600,000 residents. Its name translates from Arabic, “The Spring”, which indicates its importance as an oasis since time immemorial. Al Ain has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years with signs of life dating back to the Stone Age. Dubai may not appreciate its link to the Flintstones but the residents of Abu Dhabi do!
Sceptical deserts have their droughts!
The United Arab Emirates founder and first President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, grew up in Al Ain. He united the seven emirates and ruled the UAE for over 30 years. It was Sheikh Zayed’s mission to develop the city and he was successful in constructing its infrastructure of housing facilities, roads, bridges, air and sea ports. Sheikh Zayed passed away in 2004 but you will see his image and legacy throughout the UAE as its founding father.
Here’s a Pro Tip: The local currency is the United Arab Emirates Dirham. The current exchange rate is about AED 5 = £1.
Al Ain has an international airport but it’s limited to destinations it serves. Therefore, the best way to travel is by flying into Dubai or Abu Dhabi then taking a bus or taxi to Al Ain. Public transport is by far the cheapest way to travel (one way, 25 AED or the equivalent to GBP5.00pp) but it’s a lengthy journey time of just over 2 hours from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi Central Bus stations. Alternatively, catch a taxi directly to your hotel from either airport with taxi fares costing £60-£80. Journey time from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi airports is approximately 90 minutes.
You’ll find Al Ain A-fort-able!
Al Ain is beautiful and exciting. Here are my top picks for things to see and do:
- Al Ain Oasis is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011. It’s nestled in the centre of the city covering 3,000 hectares of land fed by a traditional, ancient Falaj irrigation system. There are a number of activities to delve into including a visit to the Eco-centre, which will provide an insight on how the inhabitants began taming the desert 4,000 years ago.
- Jebel Hafeet Park sits in the foothills of the eponymous Mountains. The park is in close proximity to the similarly named Tombs, which are another UNESCO heritage site. Due to its location, the Park offers a combination of culture, history and adventure, including camel or horse excursions.
This is a great place to pick up a date!
- Al Jahili Fort is one of the largest forts in the UAE and was built in the 1890’s from mud bricks. It’s best to visit Al Jahili Fort first followed by a visit to nearby Al Ain Museum Palace.
- Al Ain Palace Museum – Built in 1937, the family of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan resided within the Palace until 1966. It showcases how Bedouin royalty lived.
Here’s Another Pro-tip: Friday is the Islamic day of worship so the working week is Sunday to Thursday with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. Therefore, pre-check the opening hours for activities and attractions as timings may vary… and most cultural attractions include free entrance.
- Camel Souk is a great place to witness traditional Arabia. Watch traders arrive in pickups laden with goats, sheep and other livestock. It’s lively and bustling with some hard haggling over camels.
- Souk Al Zafarana has become a one-stop venue for traditional shopping such as spices, perfume and traditional garments. The Souk even features a separate section catering exclusively for women and staffed by female shop-keepers: #girlpower
- Al Ain Desert Safari is where you can choose from a variety of high speed activities, including dune bashing or sand boarding.
- Wadi Adventure Theme Park– this fantastic theme-park features rides, man-made white water rafting, surfing, kayaking and aerial activities.
- Al Ain Zoo houses over 200 species of wildlife and 4,000 animals including the indigenous Arabian Oryx. It’s a fun place to visit.
Here’s another Pro-tip: Like most places within the UAE, alcohol is unavailable except within licensed venues like hotel pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs.
From local eateries to international restaurants, the dining scene is worth exploring and offers a range of culinary options. If you would like to sample the local food, may I suggest a mezze platter with appetizers rich in flavours with saffron, cinnamon, turmeric, nuts and dried fruit followed by sweet desserts and a traditional Arabian coffee.
- Al Fanar Restaurant, is full of character and sets a great ambience with its traditional Arabian décor serving delicious authentic Arabian cuisine.
- Makani Café, translated as ‘My Place’, it’s a lovely outdoor location to sample Arabic and Mediterranean cuisine amongst palm trees and stars. It’s situated within the grounds of the Radisson Blu Al Ain Hotel and Resort and provides evening entertainment with a live band or theatrical acts.
It’s alright to be mezze at dinner!
- Golden Sheep Restaurant provides an authentic experience and is one of the oldest Arabic restaurants in Al Ain. It serves traditional Lebanese cuisine and the local residents love it!
Shisha lounges, cafés and shopping by night are popular pastimes for residents. However, if you want to let your hair down, there are a number of hotels that offer bands which draw in a crowd. Here are my favourite nightspots:
- A/Loft Rooftop Bar: The hotel boasts the only Rooftop Pool Bar and has the most incredible views of Al Ain which stretch all the way to Jebel Hafeet. Ensure you pre-book a table at the Rooftop Bar in advance to avoid disappointment.
- Oasis Café sits on the grounds of the Danat Al Ain Hotel. The atmosphere is serene and you can also enjoy a coffee, dessert and shisha whilst listening to a live band.
- Moodz Club is located at Al Ain Rotana Hotel. It’s an art deco style venue with vibrant lighting and great music which offers a wonderful way to spend an evening.
The accommodation in Al Ain is comfortable and caters to all budgets. Here is my guide to the best places to stay in Al Ain:
- Telal Resort is a five-star boutique venue located in the desert, surrounded by sand dunes. Individually styled villas, private pools, with a shared courtyard in the front but private rear terraces create an intimate experience. The premises do not serve alcohol but you can bring your own drinks in the private quarters.
- A/loft Al Ain is a modern and stylish boutique hotel. Although the brand is part of the global Marriott hotel chain, this property meets the regional and cultural expectations of Al Ain.
- Ayla Grand: The Ayla Hotel chain was born in Al Ain and has three distinct hotels under its umbrella. The Ayla Grand is the newest addition and is the highest hotel in the city, but within walking distance from major attractions.
Hump up the volume!
With guaranteed sunshine all year round, adventurous activities, majestic sights, friendly residents and the tradition of Bedouin hospitality, Al Ain is waiting for you to it explore it for 1,001 magical nights!