A one and a half hour drive from Abu Dhabi city, Al Ain is one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the old centre of government, many of the emirate’s traditional forts are found in Al Ain. Until cars and motorways made it an easy 1,5 hours trip between Abu Dhabi island and the oasis, it took caravans and people walking over the dunes 5 days to cover the distance. Keep that in mind as your drive away to a somewhat gentler pace of life among Al Ain’s UNESCO listed World Heritage Sites.
Al Jahili Fort
Set in lush landscaped gardens, the picturesque Al Jahili Fort and the stepped layers of the main tower, are one of Al Ain’s most iconic structures. The fort was built in 1891 to protect palm plantations, ensuring inter-tribal peace and protecting the mountain passes. Inside the fort, the small photo exhibition of Wilfred Thesiger is in itself worth stopping for. The British explorer crossed the Empty Quarter in the mid-forties on camel back and documented what he saw with his camera, making this exhibition a voyage through time back to the Bedouin life in the UAE region. Make sure you see the documentary movie on site and view the small exhibition on Sheikh Zayed The First.
Details: Sultan Bin Zayed Al Awwal Street, Al Ain
Daily, 9am – 5pm, Friday, 3pm – 5pm. Closed Mondays
Telephone: +971 3 711 8311
Al Ain Oasis
Walking through an oasis comprised of 147,000 date palms and fruit bearing trees like mangos, oranges, bananas and figs is an immersive experience for all the family. The city of Al Ain owes its name to this huge 1200-hectare oasis, which has supposedly been cultivated for several thousand years. The oasis has plenty of working examples of the falaj, an indigenous system of complex water channels that tap into underground wells.
You can also explore narrated trails that criss-cross the interior paths of the oasis, either by foot or even better using the bike rentals available. There is also a small eco centre and information pavilion at the West Gate and bike pickup/drop of places are at either side of the oasis, that work via a self-service system (for which you need a credit card).
Details: Not far from Jahili fort on Hessa bint Mohamed Street, Al Mutawaa. There’s plenty of free parking and easy access to adjacent visitor sites, such as the Al Ain Palace and Al Ain National Museum
Entry: Free. Daily, 8am – 5pm. Information Centre: 9am – 5pm
Telephone: +971 2 599 5438
Jebel Hafeet Viewing Platform
Jebel Hafeet or “Mountain Hafeet” is a little wonder in itself. An ancient seabed, jutting out from the sands up to an altitude of about 1,250 metres above sea level, the spectacular views that it offers attract thousands of tourists annually. There’s a decent paved road which winds 12-miles up the mountain, with several parking lots along the way offering ample viewing opportunities and beautiful backdrops for photos. You will also find a café and a hotel near the top for refreshments.
Details: Located south of the Al Ain border shared with Oman, past the Green Mubazzarah park.
Accessible all year
The camel souk is a unique place. You might never see so many camels of different colour, size or breed together in one place. Maybe a racing camel for thirty thousand dollars is on your shopping list? This is not a tourist event, but a proper trading market with the smells and mingle associated. The herders might try to sell you tours around the animals, but feel free to walk around on your own. On a Friday, you can enjoy a slighter calmer feel.
Details: Follow Zayed Bin Sultan Street east of Jebel Hafeet. The market is adjacent to Bawadi Mall
Daily, 6am – 7pm
Al Ain Palace Museum
Al Ain Palace Museum, the former home of the late UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was once a political and social hub. The meandering complex of courtyards was renovated to reflect traditional designs and opened as a museum to the public in 2001. You can see how the family lived, and how local and international dignitaries were received, including the tent that Sheikh Zayed used to host guests during the winter in true Bedouin style.
Details: Western edge of Al Ain Oasis, Hessa Bint Mohamed Street,
Al Mutawaa, Al Ain
Open, 8am – 7.30pm. Friday, 3pm – 7.30pm. Closed Mondays
Telephone: +971 3 711 8388
Al Ain National Museum
The Al Ain National Museum is the oldest museum in the UAE. Its collection of archeological artifacts from digs around Al Ain and other areas in UAE outlines the history of settlement in this region, from the much milder climates in the Stone Age to recent times. The museum
also has a collection of gifts presented by various dignitaries to UAE rulers.
Details: Zayed bin Sultan Street, next to Al Ain Oasis
Entry: Adults AED 3, Children under 10, AED 1
Daily, 8am – 7pm, Friday, 3pm – 7pm
Telephone: +971 3 711 8331
Souk Al Qattara and Qattara Arts Centre
Next to Al Ain’s Al Qattara oasis, a traditional handicrafts market takes place every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from October to May. Best visited on Thursday and Friday evenings, take a stroll through the different stalls with local handicrafts, honey and dates and sample lovely homemade food such as lukaimat which are deep fried doughballs, served with date syrup and sesame seeds. You might also see one of the regular dance performances
by local men, so much part of the Emirati culture.
Combine the visit with a peek into the Al Qattara Arts Centre at the fort right next to the souk. The tranquil courtyard has been beautifully restored to house state of the art workshop and exhibitions, with regular classes on offer. Mohammed Mandi, a well-known Emirati calligrapher, has his own workshop studio there. The basement of the centre has been opened to reveal the five metre sequence of archeological layers dating back to the Iron Age, that was discovered during the renovation. Just ask at the reception desk.
Details: Al Qattara,
Al Ain Art Centre is open, Saturday – Sunday, 8am – 8pm. Closed Fridays.
Souk: Daily, 6pm – 11pm
Wheelchair access available
Telephone: +971 3 711 8225 / +971 3 761 8080
Qasr Al Muwaĳi
Qasr Al Muwaiji is the birthplace of the President of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The square enclosure with projecting corner towers and a grand entrance gate was used as a diwan (a council or seat of governance) and as a place for the community to congregate. It is now open to visitors as a museum and exhibition setting out the chronology of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and Sheikh Khalifa’s life story.
Details: Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, Al Ain. Parking available outside the palace.
Daily, 9am – 7pm, Friday, 3pm – 7pm, Monday closed. Entry: Free.
Wheelchair access available.
Telephone: +971 3 767 4444
Hili Archeological Garden
To see an example of one of the ancient bronze age tombs scattered across the emirate, stop in this public garden where archeological remains are set between lawns and play-grounds. At the heart of the park is the circular Hili Grand Tomb from the Umm an-Nar period (about 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE), evidence of just how long humans have been settled in this area. The actual artefacts found here are on display in the Al Ain National museum. Consider combining it with a picnic or evening stroll.
Details: 10 kilometres outside Al Ain on the road to Dubai. Mohammed Bin Khalifa Street, Al Ain. Open, Saturday – Sunday, 4pm – 11pm.