The UNESCO World Heritage Site Al Ain, also dubbed the “garden city” or the “oasis city,” is a uniquely beautiful place. I mean, really – have you ever been to an oasis? My visit to this small city was one of my favorite experiences during my trip to the United Arab Emirates. An afternoon in Al Ain is a wonderful change of pace from ritzy Dubai and busy Abu Dhabi, and it will leave you with a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of Emirati culture. Here is an itinerary to make the most of your afternoon in Al Ain.
Getting There. Al Ain can easily be reached by bus from centrally located stations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – all three cities are roughly equidistant from each other, as you’ll see on the map here. See my tips on transportation within the Emirates in my Abu Dhabi post. To get to Al Ain around noon, you should leave Dubai or AD between 9 and 10 am.
Al Ain National Museum. This small museum is a short walk away from the bus station, so it’s a good first stop on your visit. The museum includes exhibits of Emirati culture, but my favorite part was the section that displayed gifts given to UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan by heads of state and ambassadors from around the world. In my biased opinion, the coolest gift was a moon rock given to the UAE by US President Richard Nixon in 1973, following the Apollo XVII mission in which the flag of the UAE was carried to the moon…(If you’re into US history, be sure to read the text in the image below.) The museum also showcases a wall of photos of the famed Sheikh Zayed engaging in a variety of activities, such as holding babies, fishing, shooting guns, training falcons, and waving. Lol. Good stuff. Next to the exit of the exhibit, you’ll see the family tree of the ruling Al Nahyan family – including Sheikh Zayed’s 19 sons!!
The Oasis. This was the highlight of my trip to Al Ain. The oasis is the jewel – or, really, the emerald – of Al Ain. We visited in the summer, so it was VERY hot. Ideally, I’d recommend visiting when it is a bit cooler. The late afternoon hours are also a great time to walk through the lush greenery, as the light streams beautifully through the palms and the temperature is not as sweltering. However, despite the blistering heat while I was there, I felt a sense of calm as I followed the adobe path that winds through the oasis. The oasis is comprised mainly of date palms, and you can see the gorgeous fruit hanging from the trees as you walk through. The date palm has historically held a special role in Emirati culture, especially in the pre-oil era: not only does the tree provide fruit, but palm fronds are also used to make huts and other goods. You’ll also notice small canals throughout the oasis that serve as part of the irrigation system that keeps the palms watered evenly. Ultimately, the oasis is a symbol of what is possible in the desert– of a people’s ability to survive in even the most unforgiving of circumstances.
Al Ain Palace Museum. This palace served as the home of Sheikh Zayed and his family; it is a complex of buildings and courtyards right on the edge of the oasis. It’s pleasant to stroll around and check out the grounds. As you do so, you’ll notice a Land Rover right in the center of the courtyard. This vehicle is similar to the ones that Sheikh Zayed would take to visit the Bedouin peoples in the desert. As such, the vehicle serves as a symbol of Sheikh Zayed’s connection to his people. The large tent in the next courtyard is where Sheikh Zayed would host guests, offering the traditional coffee and dates that characterize Arabic hospitality.
Al Jahili Fort. This fort was really cool. It was built in 1891 to protect the city and, as a classic example of Emirati military architecture, it serves as a symbol of Al Ain and the UAE as a whole. Upon entrance into the well-cooled tourist center, we were warmly greeted with – you guessed it – Arabic coffee and dates. Sitting on the Bedouin cushions while having this snack was a wonderful respite from the heat outside. As you walk around inside, you’ll see displays about the history of the fort. You’ll also find an interesting exhibit on Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer and writer who ventured into the desert to live with the Bedouin people.
After visiting these spots, we headed to Dubai on the bus and were back in time for dinner. An afternoon in Al Ain is easy to squeeze into your trip to the UAE, and it will be worth your while. Comment below for more information on our visit to Al Ain!