The United Arab Emirates (UAE), situated in the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula, is famous for possessing the world’s tallest building, the world’s only 7-star hotel, and the world’s only indoor ski resort, has skyrocketed to the top of many travel publications’ lists of must-visit global destinations.
The UAE and Tourism
Since becoming a country in 1971, the UAE has worked hard to make itself one of the world’s premier hubs for travel and leisure. With the over-the-top extravagance of the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the homage to Islamic culture and heritage in Sharjah, and the pristine beaches, endless sand dunes and warm winters, it’s not hard to see why millions of visitors flock to the small country each year.
For our two week-long visit to the region, which included the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, while in the UAE we based ourselves in the Tecom area of Dubai where my brother had been working for several months. While in the UAE, we explored a range of what the country has to offer, such as the budding art and restaurant scene in Dubai, Sharjah’s Museum of Islamic Civilization, and the well-visited Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, as well as some of the lesser known sites such as the National Museums of Ras al Khaimah and Umm al Quwain and the Fujairah Fort. We also explored the vast range of cuisine that an international country such as the UAE has to offer, one of our favorite restaurants was India House in Ajman.
Getting to the UAE
Dubai International Airport is one of the world’s busiest and well connected airports, so getting here will not be an issue. As a way to reduce the cost of our trip I redeemed 85,000 frequent flyer miles with United for a free round trip flight from Washington Dulles to Dubai. Since my travel dates were flexible I was able to take advantage of the available Saver Award tickets which cut in half the amount of miles I redeemed.
We also planned this trip around Carrie's work trip to Lahore, Pakistan, so that also helped reduce the cost of traveling to Dubai.
What to See and Do in Dubai
Before arriving in Dubai, I read about Alserkal Avenue, an area of converted warehouses, not far from Noor Bank Metro Station, that house the city’s growing art scene. Described as Dubai’s “art and cultural center”, Alserkal Avenue was something I had to check out. During my visit I explored two of the most popular galleries, the Green Art Gallery featuring Nazgol Ansarinia’s “Surfaces & Solids” and the Leila Heller Gallery featuring two different exhibits, one by Ghada Amer and the other by Wim Delvoye. The Ghada Amer exhibit, “Earth. Love. Fire”, the largest in the region (15,000 sg ft), brings together, for the first time, her ceramics and canvas work. The exhibit also features Amer’s iconic stainless steel sculptures. Wim Delvoye’s exhibit, “Sculpture”, is a fusion of Islamic ornamentation recast onto metal suitcases.
In between my visits to the galleries I grabbed coffee and did some blogging at A4 Space, a cafe near the Green Art Gallery set in one of the warehouses. The spacious modern-designed cafe was full of people working or engaged in conversation. It was the perfect place to write and catch up with Carrie who was in Pakistan for work at the time and would be joining me two days later.
Where to Eat in Dubai
Tom & Serg
Within walking distance of Alserkal Avenue is Tom & Serg, a trendy restaurant serving Asian fusion foods with a simple exposed industrial interior. I had an Italian soda and a breaky bao sandwich, which several others were eating. The sandwich is a Vietnamese-Japanese fusion chicken sandwich, with a sriracha-hollandaise sauce inside a large pork bun. My server, with his flat-billed Yankees hat and tattoos was friendly and energetic and could have been a server in DC, New York, or London.
What to See and Do in Ras al-Khaimah
Ras al-Khaimah is the most eastern emirate along the Arabian Gulf and one of the lesser visited. One of the big draws is the Ras al-Khaimah National Museum located just behind the police station in the center of town. The National Museum (entry 5 Dirhams) is housed in a well-preserved 18th century fort, that until the 1960’s served as the home of the Qawasim rulers of the emirate. The museum housed several displays of coins and pottery found in the emirate dating back to the 13th through 18th centuries. Other exhibits included an assortment of shells, historical photos, and an exhibit on life in Ras al-Khaimah that explored the importance of fishing and navigation of the sea in the emirate.
What to See and Do in Umm al-Quwain
Bordering Ras al-Khaimah to the west and connected by the coastal highway is the equally lesser visited emirate of Umm al-Quwain. Intrigued by the emirate’s history, Carrie and I stopped in at the National Museum of Umm al-Quwain (4 Dirhams). It was also housed in a fort, this one dating back to 1768 with cannons and a large tank outfront. The museum, which we had all to ourselves had several displays of life as it once was in the emirate, depicting markets, kitchens, and home life of the residents of Umm al-Quwain. It’s worth noting that the single staff person we encountered was extremely welcoming and helpful.
Where to Eat in Ajmam
The small emirate of Ajman, sandwiched between Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain, is where we decided to have lunch during our day-trip to Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain. Lonely Planet recommended India House, a popular vegetarian restaurant. I had an aromatic masala chai with a delicious green paneer palak accompanied by several pieces of paratha. The small restaurant was full of south Asian expats, always a good sign and very inexpensive by emirati standards- my curry cost just 17 Dirham or about $4 USD. We rounded off our meal with a traditional bowl of muhkwas.
What to See and Do in Sharjah
Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization
Sharjah, the most populous emirate, is just a short drive from Dubai. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, situated along the corniche is set in an immaculate building that was once a souk, presents the many contributions Islamic civilization has made to mankind and is well worth a visit. The museum, which cost five Dirham to enter, has extensive displays, some that are interactive, of the accomplishments of astrologers, mathematicians, and cartographers during the Golden Age of the Islamic civilization (8th to 13th centuries). The Islamic Civilization is responsible for much of what modern man takes for granted in math and sciences, such as the development of algebra, astronomy, and modern day medicine.
Another exhibit on the ground floor explores mosques in different parts of the world. An interesting fact about the mosque in Washington DC-it was constructed following the death of the Turkish Ambassador who died in DC in the 1940’s at a time when DC did not have a single mosque. The upstairs floor of the museum displays an immaculate array of Islamic art, such as manuscripts, ceramics, woodwork, textiles, and jewelry.
What to See and Do in Fujairah
The industrial emirate of Fujairah, with its busy oil-exporting port conveniently straddles the Gulf of Oman. On our drive to Muscat, Oman from Dubai we opted to cross at the Khatmat Malaha bordering, just south of Fujairah City. Fujairah City was the perfect place to stop and take a break from driving, and with that we decided to stop at the Fujairah Fort. The magnificently restored fort was free to enter and provided sweeping views of the neighboring mountains, date-palm oasis, and modern high-rise Fujairah City. With the late November temperature in the mid 80’s we didn’t spend long climbing the ruins.
What to See and Do in Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
A little over an hour south of Dubai, along the Sheikh Zayed Road is Abu Dhabi, the capital and the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates. One of the most important sites to visit is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque constructed in 2007. The mosque is an immaculate bright white that is equally impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. The mosque’s design was inspired by Moorish, Mughal, and Persian Islamic architecture, and serves to unite the Muslim world by incorporating the different designs. The mosque’s size is incredible, accommodating 40,000 worshippers and its beauty breathtaking.
Once inside it is impossible to not to constantly look upward with sheer amazement at the ornate detail in design on the walls, ceilings, or the grand chandeliers. The mosque contains a beautiful Persian rug that is the world’s largest, measuring at 60,570 square feet. We were among hundreds of others taking in the beauty and magnitude of the mosque. With full confidence, I can say that it is the most beautiful building I have ever seen and encourage every visitor to the UAE to visit it.
A big thank you to my brother Arthur for letting Carrie and I stay with him during our stay in Dubai.
When traveling to a country it’s important to think about the lesser visited destinations. This will not only enhance your experience, but also allow you to contribute to and impact areas that rarely benefit from travelers. Interested in planning a trip of your own, but unsure of where to start or don’t have the time? Then consider Backpacking with the Bonds. Please reach out to us through our online form here.
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All Photography by Albert Bond