Al Ain (العين) which translates literally into ‘the spring’ is also known as the Garden City and is located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, close to the border with Oman – it’s a ninety minute journey from the capital or Dubai and is the perfect place for a weekend escape. Known for its culture and outdoors activities, it’s a must see for any visitor to the Emirates. As an expat who has lived in Al Ain for the past two years, I am hoping to give you the inside track on what to see & do whilst visiting this beautiful city.
Al Ain is famous for being the birthplace of Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, it also has the country’s highest number of Emirati nationals giving the city a very traditional feel. The first thing you will notice when entering the city is that there are no tall skyscrapers like those found in other cities in the region, this is due to a building regulation which stipulates that no buildings should be built taller than six stories, so as to preserve Al Ain’s traditional charm. As you drive around Al Ain you will be surprised by two things, firstly just how quiet it is on the roads as there is little (if any) traffic, and secondly the number of roundabouts is insane!
Coming from Dubai the first point of interest that you will encounter is Hili Archaeological Park (GPS 24.293019, 55.794689) an important archaeological site for the region, where evidence has been found of inhabitants more than four thousand years ago. Excavations began in the 1960s and have thus far uncovered houses, towers and tombs from the Umm Al Nar period (2700 – 2000 BC) which were built of unbaked bricks. The tombs of Al Hili settlement were used for collective burials over centuries and their funerary goods give valuable evidence of life in the oasis, the largest of which is 2.5m high and 8m in diameter. The entrances display engravings depicting humans and oryx. The tomb was restored in 2005 to give visitors an impression of its original appearance. The ruins are set amidst lovely gardens which feature a large water fountain and a number of children’s play areas, if visiting in the morning you are likely to have the whole area to yourself. If you do arrive and the gates to the park are locked, just knock on the window to the security office, or failing that just push the gate open (as it is usually unlocked).
As you leave the park, head straight across the roundabout and you will soon arrive at the Hili Watchtowers (GPS 24.287448, 55.772404) on your left. Al Hili is one of the oldest areas in the city and is the heart of many historical finds. There is little information provided regarding the towers themselves, but it is believed that they were used by watchmen to keep guard of the village and surrounding oasis. The watchtowers are distinct in the fact that one of them is square and the other is circular. Continuing your journey you will arrive next at Hili Oasis (GPS 24.282433, 55.766550) one of seven oases in Al Ain, and of interest due to its reconstructed fort tower, which has been re-built by the department of antiquities and tourism on top of ruins of an old tower that once protected the oasis. The original ruins were removed due to their bad state of preservation – but it is still worth a look and is a nice place for a quick stroll amongst the palm trees.
Heading towards the town centre you will pass Al Qattara Oasis (GPS 24.260739, 55.748463) with its historic souq, which is open on Thursday and Friday evenings from 4pm – 10pm. Here you can sample traditional Arabic coffee, eat dates, shop for handicrafts and witness traditional dance performances.
Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium (GPS 24.247772, 55.715544) the home of Al Ain FC, is the next point of interest on this driving tour. The 45,000 SQM stadium is the newest piece of architecture to come to the Garden City and is split over seven levels. Opened in December 2013 it has already been hailed as one of the most modern and unique sporting venues in the Middle East. If you are in town when there is a match, it is definitely worth a visit as tickets start from just ten dirhams. The atmosphere inside is electrifying and the stadium looks amazing when illuminated at night. On the same road as the stadium you will find Souq Zafrana (GPS 24.234981, 55.721020) which is a hidden secret amongst the Al Ain community, in the fact that not many people seem to be aware of its existence. The souq reflects true Emirati culture and sells everything from abayas and kandoras, to oud, spices, & traditional coffee pots. The souq is all indoors and air conditioned and there is also a separate shopping area just for women. Opening hours are 10am to 1pm and then 8pm until midnight.
Heading towards the town centre you will shortly arrive at Jahili Fort (GPS 24.216484, 55.752010) which is probably the most iconic monument in Al Ain. The fort was constructed in 1891 as a form of defense and also to protect the palm oases. It is home to a photography exhibition detailing the adventures of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger and his exploration of the Empty Quarter in the 1940s. ln order to preserve the historical significance of Al Jahili Fort, it underwent comprehensive restoration between 2007 and 2008 by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. The original part of the fort consists of two buildings, a square courtyard of approximately 1,300 SQM & a round tower, 50m from the fort. The fort is set amongst the beautiful gardens of Jahili Park, which is a great picnic spot and one of the most scenic parks in the UAE. The park also has a recently opened geological garden, the first of its kind in the Emirates, it features 22 types of rock to represent the landscape of the UAE – deserts, mountains, dunes, oases, and their position in relation to the sun, shade and wind. Finally the park also contains a drive through Starbucks which is extremely popular with local residents.
ust around the corner from Jahili Park is the wonderful Palace Museum (GPS 24.215389, 55.760702). This was the residence of Sheikh Zayed between 1937 and 1966. The palace which is located on the edge of Al Ain Oasis, has now been transformed into an informative museum, which is free to enter. Taking a stroll around the grounds and buildings will give you a fascinating insight into Emirati culture and the way in which the Sheikh lived. The palace is not opulent or ornate in any way, it is instead simple, traditional and beautiful. Originally constructed in 1910 and converted into a museum in 1998, the palace consists of majlis’ and courtyards which transport you back to a simpler time, leading to a tranquil experience. Information is limited as you wander around the palace and its grounds, but guides can be hired near the main entrance. The museum is closed on Mondays, Saturdays to Thursdays: 8.30am – 7.30pm & Fridays: 3.00pm – 7.30pm.
The Palace Museum is perched right on the edge of Al Ain Oasis (GPS 24.218405, 55.762187) so make this your next stop. This is the biggest of Al Ain’s seven oases and upon entering the shaded palm groves you will feel as if you are miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and that you have been transported back in time. Walking through the oasis you will be surprised just how cool it is (especially in the summer months) and the sounds of trickling water and bird song is absolutely captivating. You are free to roam as you please within the confines of the oasis, so ensure that you venture off the main pathway and down into the palm groves to see the ancient ‘falaj’ system. The falaj is an ancient method of transporting natural water along channels to the date palms to allow for irrigation developed over three thousand years ago – it is due to these intricate systems that the oasis can stay so verdant and green despite the desert location and scorching temperatures. The oasis is as relevant today as it has been throughout history and you will witness the date palms being farmed – the oasis covers 1,200 hectares and contains more than 147,000 date palms of up to 100 different varieties. As a tourist you are permitted to drive your car through the oasis, but be prepared to get a little lost as there is no signage once you are inside and the roads become almost maze-like.
Once you make it safely out of the other side of the Oasis you should (hopefully) be at the Al Ain National Museum (GPS 24.217179, 55.774297). The museum is located next to the Eastern fort and contains extensive displays divided into three distinct areas – archaeology, ethnography and gifts. The museum is worth a visit if you are in the area, and is a bargain at a mere three dirham entrance fee, though the exhibits are a little old and could do with some updating. The museum will give you deeper insight into Emirati culture and Bedouin traditions, and will be of great interest if you visited Hili Archaeological Park earlier, as it contains many artifacts discovered on site when excavations took place. The museum was opened in 1971 and takes you through the 7,500 year history of the country before oil was discovered – our favourite items in the museum are the photos of Abu Dhabi when it was little more than a fishing village, and it is astounding to see these compared to how the city has now developed. You will also see traditional costumes on display, as well as household items and traditional art. The museum is closed on Mondays, Saturday to Thursday :8.00am – 7.30pm and Friday 3.00pm – 7.30pm.
Across the road is the Murabba Fort (GPS 24.220641, 55.775014) which was once used as a police station. The fort was named after its square shape (murabba is Arabic for square). The fort (like many others in the area) was built as a surveillance tower and used for defense purposes, it was also apparently used as a prison at one stage. The construction of the fort uses palm fronds and palm trunks which is typical for architecture in the area. If you are ready for a break we suggest that you must stop at Leisure (GPS 24.224546, 55.769401) which is probably the most famous restaurant in Al Ain as it has such a great reputation, food is reasonably priced and portions are large. You can sit outside under the palm trees which is just spectacular and you can also participate in traditional past time of smoking a sheesha – the selection on offer is great, as are the prices.
Once refreshed take a short drive to Al Ain Souq (GPS 24.220345, 55.771131) also known as the central or old souq. This is a great place to explore and get lost, and is amazing in the fact that it is unchanged from how it would have been years ago – this is not your typical UAE modernized version of a market, this is the real deal! The souq predominantly sells fruit, vegetables, meat and fish – but take a wander and you will also find household goods and all the accessories you may need for your camel! The souq doesn’t see too many tourists, so make sure you dress modestly and be prepared to haggle.
Take the road out of town towards Mezyad and you will soon arrive at the Camel/Livestock Market (GPS 24.161571, 55.813823) which is located just behind Bawadi Mall. The market is dusty and smelly but well worth a trip to see people trading camels (as well as other livestock such as sheep, goats and chickens). This is the last souk of its kind in the UAE, and is a great opportunity to see camels. Despite the souq being open all day, it is best to visit early in the morning when things are in full swing. Feel free to roam around at your leisure (people will offer to be your guide, but this is really not necessary), but always ask before taking photos, as some of the traders may ask you for money once you have taken your shot. This is a very unique experience and one that you can’t really experience elsewhere in the Emirates. If this doesn’t calm your camel obsession (and you are an early riser, then why not experience the tradition of Camel Racing (GPS 24.320525, 55.686440). This is a spectacular sport and a trip to the races can be one of the most memorable highlights of any visit to the UAE – races start early (at approximately 7am) but the experience is a great one, watch as the camels are cheered around the track, steered by robots (child jockeys are now illegal in the UAE). Camel racing season runs November to March but if you visit outside of season you are still likely to see the camels training and exercising on the track.
If you have a 4×4 you can detour off the main road close to Bawadi Mall to access the Jebel Hafeet Tombs (GPS 24.045300, 55.799942), unfortunately due to the unpaved road you will not make it in a standard vehicle! The tombs are 5,000 year old and are beehive shaped, made up of stacked stones. The Jebel Hafeet Tombs belong to the ‘Hafeet Period’ which was approximately 3200BC – 2700BC. There are many tombs at this location on the Eastern side of Jebel Hafeet Mountain and skeletal remains have been found, other items from the tombs are on display in the Al Ain National Museum.
Al Ain Zoo (GPS 24.179317, 55.738001) is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and is well worth a visit. The zoo contains lions and white tigers within its big cat enclosure, but ensure you check out the Arabian area which includes the native oryx, as well at the mixed-African exhibit which displays giraffes, zebras, and rhinoceros. The zoo hosts daily bird shows, and you can also pay extra to feed the giraffes, or ride a camel – both of which are worthwhile experiences,. The zoo can be navigated on foot in a couple of hours, or you can can take the free mini train. The entrance fee is twenty dirhams. You can read more about Al Ain Zoo in our blog post ‘UAE Wildlife Encounters’
Towering 1240 meters over the Garden City of Al Ain is Jebel Hafeet (GPS 24.058782, 55.777178), Abu Dhabi Emirates highest peak and the second highest in all of the UAE. The drive up Jebel Hafeet is very pleasant and the road is exceptionally good, there are two lanes for ascending, and one for descending (if you have never driven these kinds of roads before just take your time and remember to have fun!). The road weaves steadily upwards through the craggy limestone peaks and there are multiple viewpoints to stop at. You will see the desert, the city of Al Ain, and all the way into Oman – the view on a clear day is pretty spectacular. The road itself winds 11.7km up the mountain getting steadily steeper until you reach the top. At the bottom of the mountain you will also find Green Mubuzzarah (GPS 24.106140, 55.749555) a very popular attraction with families, who will come here for picnics and BBQs (it gets especially busy on the weekends). Green Mubazzarah is a large park where the sides of the mountain have been planted with grass to enable a visual spectacle very unusual for its rugged desert location. There are lots of things in the park to keep you occupied, from the mini train (dry bobsled), to the camel and pony rides for children. Though Green Mubazzarah is most famous for its hot springs, which leave the ground and run through a small river throughout the parkland – you are free to wade and paddle here, though please be aware the water is hot and that you must be respectful of local culture in terms of dress code. If you are feeling really brave you can enter one of the public swimming pools for a 5 AED entrance fee (these are separate buildings for men and women where the water from the hot spring has been diverted to enable swimming). Read more about Jebel Hafeet & the surrounding area in our blog post ‘Drive Jebel Hafeet.‘
We round up our exploration of Al Ain with one of its best kept secrets Zakher/Tilapia Lake (GPS 24.085806, 55.624783) a natural resource of water between the sand dunes just off of the Abu Dhabi truck road. The lake is a haven for bird life and if you visit you are likely to be the only one there. Take some time to roam around the edge of the lake and climb the dunes and you will rewarded with some spectacular desert vistas, including rolling orange dunes and the craggy peaks of Jebel Hafeet. Reports suggest that the lake has been closed and fenced off, but we can confirm that this is definitely NOT the case and there are picnic facilitates on site for public use.
So that covers all of the cultural elements of our trip around Al Ain, but wait there’s more… If you are looking for a bit of fun and excitement we recommend the following. Hili Fun City (GPS 24.301210, 55.782489) opened in 1985, Hili Fun City was (at the time) referred to as the Disneyland of the GCC and was the first theme park in the Middle East. The park is tame compared to attractions experienced in the West, but there are more than thirty attractions ranging from thrilling rides to milder offerings for younger children. All in all this is a great family excursion.
Karting (GPS 24.195203, 55.859541) at Ain Raceway, is a state-of-the-art international go-karting facility specializing in several distinctive track configurations, providing an exhilarating challenge for drivers of all abilities. You can just turn up and drive, plus it is also flood lit if you wish to visit at night. You can paintball here as well!
Wadi Adventure (GPS 24.093933, 55.738468) is amazing! Where else in the world can you white water raft in the desert? Wadi Adventure offers its guests a fun day out, and an experience of a lifetime including: the world’s longest man made whitewater channels, the world’s largest surf pool, an aerial obstacle course, zip line, climbing wall and giant swing. You will also find a family swimming pool and children’s splash area (heated in winter and chilled in summer). Advanced booking of all activities is essential.
Please let us know if we have missed an essential Al Ain experience that should be included, or just let us know if you undertake any of these activities after reading the blog – we really do love hearing from you guys.
All views within this blog are our own & unless otherwise stated, all photos are © Out & About UAE.