Bringing the UAE’s culture and history to life – Al Ain should be a compulsory stop for all UAE visitors!
Too often glossed over by visitors to the United Arab Emirates, but surprisingly close to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi is the historic city of Al Ain.
Also known as “the Oasis City”, Al Ain makes a fabulous weekender location from the big cities, or you can easily fit in some of the highlights in one day if you are just travelling through.
For anyone who complains that the big cities in the UAE lack culture and history, you are sure to see a different side of the country when you visit Al Ain. In this post we will talk you through:
- Historical and cultural sites of Al Ain
- Fun places to take the kids (and all the family!) in Al Ain
- How to get to Al Ain
- When is it best to visit Al Ain
- Where to stay in Al Ain
This post is part of our series Discover the UAE – come and explore everything this country has to offer for residents and tourists alike.
Exploring Historic Al Ain
Al Ain is the UAE’s most well-preserved historic city and with good standing, thanks to the archaeological finds that can be dated back thousands of years. It is also the original home to the country’s founding Father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan.
Al Ain Oasis
Restored and re-opened to the public in 2016, it is one of seven oases in the city but the largest and most significant. It is the UAE’s first UNESCO site and includes 150,000 trees with over 100 species.
Spread over 1200 hectares in the centre of Al Ain, it is a place to come to seek shelter from the heat of the day. The highlight is exploring the 3000-year-old falaj irrigation system – a grid of waterways for channelling fresh clean water from off the mountains and into the oasis.
The Al Ain Oasis Plaza includes restaurants and shops. You will also find the miniature Oasis which is an interactive display breaking down the workings of the oasis.
Entry Free | Open daily 9am to 6pm | Shops and restaurants 12pm-9pm
Al Ain’s Museums
There’s a good reason Al Ain has a reputation as the country’s historic centre. With the countries ruling Al Nahyan family coming from Al Ain, there are several restored historic buildings of significance. Whilst each of these in themselves might be quite small, they help piece together the picture of the UAE’s fascinating past.
(Opening times correct at time of publishing but can be subject to seasonal changes and will likely differ during the Holy Month of Ramadan). Most include signage in both Arabic and English.
Al Ain Palace Museum
On the western side of Al Ain Oasis, you will come to Al Ain Palace, home of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan with wife Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, until 1966. At the time he was the ruling representative of Al Ain and the eastern districts of present-day Abu Dhabi.
The Palace has been lovingly restored and turned into a museum of the Al Nahyan family history, delving further into Sheikh Zayed’s personal and political life. It gives you a good taste of what Bedouin life for the upper classes was like before the discovery of oil and the formation of the United Arab Emirates as we know them today.
Entry Free | Open daily Sat-Thu 8.30am-7.30pm; Fri 3pm-7.30pm
Qasr al Muwaiji
Birthplace of second UAE President, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, this newly restored building takes you on a tour through the family home and more of the country’s recent history.
For children, they have free activity guides to help make the experience more interactive, and monthly family workshops are held.
Entry Free | Open Tue-Thu, Sat 9am-7pm; Fri 3pm-7pm. Closed Sunday-Monday
Al Jahili Fort
Perhaps one of the UAE’s better-recognised landmarks, the fort constructed in 1891 and lovingly restored gives you a glimpse into the UAE’s desert and military past. It has also previously served as the royal family’s summer residence.
There’s a permanent exhibit showing the works of acclaimed traveller and photographer Wilfred Thesiger from his journey’s through the Arabian Peninsular in the 1940’s, as well as temporary exhibits to see inside, though not extensive.
Entry Free | Open daily Tue-Thu & Sat-Sun 9am-5pm; Fri 3pm-9pm. Closed Monday’s
Al Ain National Museum
Now taking a bigger leap back in time to the prehistory of the country, Al Ain Museum near the Al Ain Oasis is where you will find archaeological artefacts dating back to the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages.
You will also see more exploration into the traditions and cultures of the Emirati people – not huge but a great insight into the way life was, with what little physical artefacts they have (you can read more about why a lot of Emirati history and culture is not immediately visible here).
There are exhibits here from the Hili Archaeological Park – if you only have time for one, this is the better for information at least. You will also find Sultan Bin Zayed Fort on the same grounds.
**Update October 2018 the National Museum is temporarily closed! Signage does not indicate when it will reopen, Tourism staff have given us estimates between 1-3 years and there’s no information online when it will reopen after refurbishment works **
Entry 3AED adults, 1AED kids | Open Sat-Thu 8.30am-7pm; Fri 3pm-7pm
Hili Archaeological Park
Not a museum as such, but a public park that residents use for picnicking and play at weekends. You will get more information and understanding if you first visit the Al Ain National Museum where much of the facts are explained (Arabic and English) as there is no signage as such in the park. The park itself was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011 due to the existence of tombs dating back 5000 years.
Entry Free | Open 4pm-11pm daily
Jebel Hafeet Beehive Tombs – “Hafit Tombs”
Roll the clock back around 5000 years and at the foot of Jebel Hafeet, around 20km south of Al Ain city, you will find hundreds of burial tombs. They are single, round or oval rough-cut rock monuments around 2-3m long and standing 3-4m high. Each tomb is believed to hold between 2-5 people.
There are further burial tombs closer to the coast in one of the islands near Abu Dhabi City “Umm al Nar” but this site is closed to the public.
5AED free entry | Glamping and overnight camping permitted
NB: As of January 2020 the Jebel Hafit Desert Park has opened which now includes the Jebel Hafeet Tombs, previously you could just drive to them. There are options to bring your own camping gear, enjoy a serviced camping experience or luxury overnight glamping – you can learn more here.
Sheikh Khalifa Grand Mosque
A much newer addition to Al Ain, and still yet to open to the public is the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Grand Mosque – or simply the Al Ain Mosque. It stands on the grand scale of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and when complete will house 20,000 worshippers.
Currently estimated for a December 2018 completion but we will update when more is known – open dates in the UAE tend to be quite flexible and often over ambitious! It’s unclear yet whether visitors will be allowed inside to marvel at the architecture as they are able to in Abu Dhabi.
Souk Al Qattra, Arts Centre & Al Qattra Oasis
This historic souk has been restored and now includes an arts centre and gallery. This is the place to come if you would like to see traditional cultural events such as Ayla commonly called “stick dancing”. You will also find here a handicrafts market where local crafters can be seen in action and the opportunity to try Middle East delicacies.
Free Entry | Arts Centre 8am to 8pm, closed Fridays | Souk open evenings October to May
**At October 2018 there were extensive roadworks going on outside the Souk. Despite being advertised as open mornings, it looked pretty closed up and access blocked. Check before planning your visit here**
The Camel Market
To really get involved in the sites, smells and noise of the culture, a visit to the camel market is sure to give you a true taste of the country. Noisy, smelly, exciting, a bit chaotic and who knows if you’re in the right place or doing the right thing but everyone loves to small and laugh at the tourists too, just do it!! Do remember though it is a working market so don’t get in the way of business, always ask permission before photographing.
Entry Free (anyone touting a tour is looking for you to give some $$) Markets are located near Bawadi Mall
Want more camels? A true cultural experience is attending the Al Dhafra Festival held in Madinet Zayed, Western Region, each December, the highlight is a Camel Beauty contest – here’s our detailed guide to help you plan this experience of a lifetime in the UAE desert.
The highest point in Abu Dhabi, it is worth climbing this jagged lime-stone mountain at least once! Jebel Hafeet is 1240m and also the second highest peak in the UAE, second only behind jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah, part of the Hatta Mountain range. Jebel Hafeet uniquely stands alone, but attributes to the fertile valley that lies beneath.
The road is long and windy, you can expect the 12kms to take a good 30 minutes to the top, longer if you add several stops but the views over Al Ain and neighbouring Oman are pretty spectacular! There are a few pull in view stops along the way, some with playparks (would never pass most OH&S tests ) try and avoid looking down at the hideous mess of rubbish beneath you.
Often a bit smoggy, but on a clear day, you can see for miles. A small refreshment kiosk and playpark (that would never pass any sort of health and safety test) can be found at the top to stretch little legs before the drive back down.
This little oasis at the foot of Jebel Hafeet has to be seen to be believed! The greenery is in starks contrast to the surrounding desert. It can be very busy on weekends with picnicking family (and has a little KFC hut on site), people come here for the natural healing of the hot springs, dipping their feet in the water. At your own peril!!
There are some onsite chalets here as well if you fancy bringing a group and staying here overnight.
Entry free | See overnight chalet prices here
Looking for more cultural ways to explore the UAE? We have pulled together a huge list of ideas for uncovering the UAE’s culture HERE
Family Fun in Al Ain
Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort (Al Ain Zoo)
One of the absolute highlights of Al Ain has always been the zoo, and it keeps getting bigger and better! It is in the process of renaming due to upcoming additions including Al Ain Safari (additional charge) as well as on-site lodgings.
The zoo feels spacious, the animals look well kept. Everything seems quite in keeping with the environment (except for perhaps the penguin enclosure…).
The new additions include a Children’s Discovery Garden with splash play area, an oasis, new hippo & croc enclosure and the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre – an absolute must for the kids to experience – and adults will learn a lot about the country’s history too!
It gets busy as the day goes on so get in early in the day. On weekdays you will find it completely crowd-free other than school groups.
Basic Entry 30AED adults, Kids 10AED & additional safari options | Open daily 9am to 8pm | More Information
Hili Fun City
A family fun-park, originally billed when it opened in 1985 as “Disneyland of the GCC”. It’s like heading into a time warp! But for little kids who’d like to try a few fairground style rides it’s a lot of fun. Do note it does have quite unusual hours in keeping with the Arab way. Check opening times though before visiting, we have turned up on holiday weekends as advertised only to find it is still closed.
Entry 50AED all-inclusive (under 90cm free) | Open 4pm-10pm (possibly 12pm in winter TBC) – Closed Sunday & Ladies only Wednesday | More Information
This is where your thrill seekers big and small come for some water action. You will find all sorts of water sports from kayaking to white water rapids, ziplining and climbing walls. There’s a beach (yes in the desert!) and kids splash areas for teh younger kids unable to partake in the more adventurous activities.
Entry 65AED adults, 45AED under 1.2m, under 2yo FREE | Other activities cost extra | Open Daily 11am to 7pm, beach 4pm-6.30pm | More information
Have you joined our family-travel chat group Family Travel in the Middle East? A great way to connect and share ideas with other parents keen to explore the region
Al Ain – How to get there
Al Ain sits 160km south of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the Oman Border (hence why many people use Al Ain as a day trip when doing Visa border runs!). The easiest way to get to Al Ain is in a private motor vehicle, though there are also public transport options.
You can read more on the D.o.T. website and see the current bus timetable for the X90 bus Abu Dhabi Bus Station to Al Ain Bus Station here. This will only get you so far, the attractions mentioned here are all quite spread out over the city.
If you are not a confident driver, unfamiliar with driving on the right side of the road – get a driver and guide. The freeways are FAST (160kms/hr in some stretches from Abu Dhabi!) and although a quite straightforward drive, not something I usually recommend to newcomers to the country unless you have a lot of driving experience.
Residents – if you can handle the 6-lane Sheikh Zayed Freeway at 8am, you will be OK!! Do note, despite the high speeds on the highway, the Al Ain roads are also very susceptible to FOG which can add to the danger level for unsuspecting drivers. If you’d prefer the private tour and driver option, here is a selection available with our preferred provider, Get Your Guide:
Al Ain does have an international airport (AAN), albeit small only servicing 2 airlines. You can get a taxi to/from the airport to town, 18kms away.
Travelling through to Muscat? A family road trip guide Abu Dhabi to Muscat including Nizwa
Al Ain – When to visit
Like much of the UAE, it’s hot pretty much year-round – despite being described as an oasis! It does have some redeeming features in the hotter months though such as Green Muffazarah and Al Ain Oasis.
On top of the mountain, you can expect temperatures to be a few degrees cooler. Al Ain also lacks some of the humidity that you find in the bigger cities when it is hot.
The best time to visit remains over the cooler winter months October through to April. As mentioned above, be aware in winter of fog that can hang around until as late as lunchtime before it burns off.
Due to museum opening times if you are visiting for more of the culture and history. Avoid Monday’s as many places will be shut. Friday prayers are also strictly observed with many attractions and businesses remain shut until later in the day.
Related Reading: The best time to visit Abu Dhabi & the UAE
Al Ain Hotels – Where to stay
There are several fairly reasonably priced resorts and hotels based in Al Ain, albeit everything has a slightly dated ’80s era feel to it, even if they are quite modern, certainly not as shiny as their coastal counterparts!
Family Fun close to town – Al Ain Rotana Hotel
Rotana is highly rated, in an excellent central location and provides large rooms perfect for families, including interconnecting rooms. On site, they also have several dining options including Trader Vics making this one of our Al Ain Favourites.
Resort life in Al Ain – Danat Al Ain Resort
Danat Al Ain has been around for years, and in some respects shows this, but is still a good old family favourite. Larger suites available with 4 onsite restaurants and several pools (not heated though, by experience these are freezing in winter!). There are quite often discounted weekend passes that are attractive with tickets included. Tanjore Indian restaurant on site gets a good review, or those looking for a wholesome family feed and drink will be happy with McGettigan’s pub.
Amazing views from the top – the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet
The only hotel on Jebel Hafeet the Mercure Grand commands some spectacular views. Restaurants and leisure facilities on site. There’s more about staying in the Mercure described in this post.
Luxury Desert Resort – Telal Resort
If you are happy to stay a little bit out of town, a not to miss experience is staying at Telal Resort. Maybe best for the romantic retreat rather than the kids as this one is pure tranquillity (you can see more UAE desert resort options here).
Have you been to Al Ain? Are there any more family-friendly venues or secret cultural gems you would recommend are worth a visit?
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Disclosures: This post is in no way sponsored by any of the places mentioned, all opinions are our own. We have tried our best to put current pricing and timings as at October 2018 but these things can and do change without notice. This page contains affiliate links which may earn us a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase or booking based on our recommendations. You can see our full disclosure policy here.
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