Temperatures start to cool in November which means it’s the perfect time to start planning a visit to the United Arab Emirates, our destination of the month.
Whether you’re a Dubai first-timer or have lived here for years, it’s easy to perceive how the past intersperses the future to result in one open global city that’s teeming with both historical and modern influences. I have enjoyed a special connection with Dubai since moving here two years ago. I like the city and its bold architecture, spectacular skylines, eye-catching fashion, vibrant nightlife, growing contemporary art scene, deeply rooted traditions, flourishing culture and, of course, the warm desert climate and gorgeous beaches.
When in Dubai, it’s quite easy to forget you’re in a reclaimed desert that has been built over with structures as grand as any of the sheikh’s palaces. It’s incredible how fast the city grew: 40 years ago, there was only a fisherman village here and now it’s one of the world’s biggest, yet still growing metropolises that will host Expo 2020. It never ceases to amaze me that what was once a desert where locals made a living with jobs like pearl diving, is now a country where the world’s tallest building stands. Dubai has been through a lot, yet there’s so much more to come.
Dubai’s iconic skyline
With a population of 2.8 million and growing, Dubai is one of seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country officially formed in 1972, though prior there had been a long-standing association between these emirates under British protection. The country’s official language is Arabic, but almost everyone speaks English. In fact, Emirati citizens are a minority both in Dubai and the UAE as 85% of the population are expats from all over the world.
The entertainment capital of the Middle East, Dubai just exudes distinction through soaring skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa; crowded souks filled with gold, spices and fine Emirati cuisine; man-made islands; fascinating museums; a sleek metro that zips through the sky; giant shopping malls; indoor skiing; water parks like Wild Wadi and Aquaventure; fine teahouses; lively clubs and bars; desert landscapes; luxury hotels; fountain shows and more. While there are a thousand of things to do in Dubai, the entire UAE is worth a visit.
Typical Emirati souvenirs at the market
However, the country isn’t all about Dubai…six other Emirates comprise the UAE. I love venturing out of Dubai to explore more of the country’s markets, souks, mountains, cities, beaches and trails- all are just as beautiful as the glorious desert. Yet there’s so little information out there about the other emirates, so you might not be familiar with them. If you ever find yourself here, take time to get to know the country and the culture – I promise you won’t be disappointed.
To experience the UAE at its most authentic, don’t miss Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates and the UAE capital. Its name is Arabic for The Father of the Gazelle, referring to the gazelles that once lived on the land.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the world’s eighth largest, is a must-see attraction open to non-Muslims, and it will knock your socks off! The first time I drove to Abu Dhabi, I saw the massive structure appear on the horizon and then grow bigger the closer I approached, an impressive welcome to the capital! There are also plenty other ways to have fun here with Ferrari World, Formula 1 Yas Marina Circuit and the Falcon Hospital, where I got to hold a falcon. A tour of the facility provides an overview of the history of falconry as an integral Gulf tradition.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Saadiyat Island, the emirate’s soon-to-be culture hub will be home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opening this month (can’t wait!), as well as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum (both still in early planning and construction phases).
Located in east Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is the historical seat of the Sheikhs and where His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was born. The magnificent Al Ain Oasis was the UAE’s first curated UNESCO World Heritage site, and a must-see for travelers.
The third largest emirate, Sharjah is the UAE’s cultural capital, known for its numerous beautiful mosques, its gold souk and the Sharjah National Park. Among its gems is the Calligraphy Museum where local and international calligraphers showcase Arabic calligraphy on paper wood, canvas and ceramic.
The Al Qasba canal and Eye of the Emirates wheel in Sharjah
Quiet and relaxed compared to the other emirates, much of the activity in Ajman happens along the corniche overlooking the Arabian Gulf and its 16km- /10-mile stretch of beach. For a culture fix, you can head to Ajman Museum, an eighteenth-century fort that served as the ruler’s residence until 1970.
Least populated of all the emirates, Umm al-Quwain is in the northern part of the UAE, and its name is Arabic for Mother of Two Powers. Umm al-Quwain’s calm lagoon is one of the UAE’s best places for sailing. Bird watchers can enjoy wonderful wildlife at Al Sinniyah Island, a marine sanctuary covering 35 square miles / 90 sq kilometers that’s the largest of the islands.
The Museum of Ajman is located in an old fortress.
Located in the northern part, Ras Al Khaimah was originally known as Julfar. It borders Oman’s Musandam exclave and outdoor enthusiasts love its diverse landscapes, breathtaking coastlines and the terracotta desert dunes that surround the city.
Nestled between the Hajar Mountains and the Indian Ocean, Fujairah is the fifth largest emirate, and the only that is not only almost completely mountainous but is also the only emirate located completely on the Gulf of Oman, with no shores on the Arabian Gulf. It’s home to the UAE’s oldest, Fujairah Fort, which was constructed in 1670, and has served as both a defensive building and home for the ruling family. Scuba divers should head to Snoopy Island, named after the cartoon dog its shape resembles, to admire the colorful marine life swimming in the reef.
The beach of Fujairah