Many places in the Emirates are larger than life. But you can still find some captivating hidden gems in the U.A.E – if you know where to look. Here’s an inside guide from those who know.
Finding Hidden Gems in the U.A.E
Most people know the U.A.E for its magnificent displays of wealth. Attracting tourists from far and wide, those looking for stunning hotels and resorts with fine dining will not be disappointed. But there is much more to this Middle-Eastern destination than that.
From resorts to nature reserves, from the desert dunes to coastal islands, the UAE offers so much to see and do among its seven emirates. There are plenty of epic adventures with magnificent scenery, and many with great historical value, around every corner.
If you are planning a trip to the UAE, you’ll want to experience these lesser-known treasures for yourself. So, to inspire the more discerning tourist, we have compiled this list of 15 hidden gems in the UAE.
Yacht hire in Dubai is your ticket to adventure, and you’ll see many spectacular sights along the way. Your first stop on your way out of Dubai should be Moon Island, 50 km off the coast. The only way to reach this moon-shaped sandbar, is by boat, although enterprising tour companies now offer guided tours to this tiny sliver of paradise.
Moon Island is the ideal spot for fishing or sunbathing in peace and harmony with nature. You can also indulge in your favourite watersports here. But have no fear, this is not a beach bustling with tourists. Although very popular, it is far less crowded, but just as beautiful, as those tourist beaches.
Because it is a distance from the mainland, you’ll experience the buzz of Dubai without the chaos during peak season. Plus, you’ll be well situated for the best swimming, water skiing, and snorkelling in the Gulf region. Moon Island allows a different perspective on Dubai. While sunbathing on this crescent moon-shaped island, you’ll wonder how you’ll ever summon the will to leave.
- See also, this guide to the hidden gems of Dubai.
Madinat Jumeirah is a city within a city, inspired by the architecture of an ancient Arabian citadel. You’ll find the best hotels, restaurants, and leisure spots here to be sure, but it’s the stunning attention to detail that will have you hooked.
When you’re not sunning yourself at the private beach and enjoying a variety of watersports, take a short tour of this architectural and landscaping gem. Guided tours are available, taking you about the miniature city in an authentic Abra boat, along the specially created river system.
It is free to enter Madinat Jumeirah, although some activities will carry a charge. After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to a delicious dinner at one of the popular restaurants, and a show at the digital arts theatre.
With more than 50 restaurants and night spots to choose from, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Every major cuisine is represented for your culinary pleasure. And if you decide to stay at one of Madinat’s luxury accommodations, you’ll have access to a private beach and a full spa with views over the Gulf.
Qasr Al Hosn
This 18th-century fortress in Abu Dhabi is a must-see on your UAE trip. The city’s oldest structure stands as a gateway to the past, surrounded by the modern sophistication of the present. Now an amazingly preserved and beautifully restored museum, it once housed the royal family.
When Abu Dhabi was just a simple fishing village, this fortress towered over the coastal landscape, a symbol of strength and protection. Two iconic landmarks make up Qasr Al Hosn – the Inner Fort (originally built in 1795) and the Outer Palace (constructed between 1939-45).
Many wonders can be seen here, including the remarkable House of Artisans. This centre is a treasure trove of arts, crafts, and heritage. Training courses and workshops are offered here to keep the history of traditional crafts made from natural Arabian resources, alive.
The House of Artisans is a multi-faceted vacation experience. Here you can watch traditional craftsmen practice their ages-old skills, or learn how to master these ancient crafts yourself. Of course, every trip needs a few mementoes, and you may also purchase some traditionally crafted souvenirs to take home.
Dubai offers not only natural beauty but breathtaking man-made structures, too. Of these, the Love Lakes are probably the most interesting (and romantic). Consisting of two interlocking, artificially constructed heart-shaped lakes, it is a magnificent sight from the air. But it is just as beautiful at ground level.
Set against the backdrop of the Al Salam desert dunes, this lakeside retreat offers more than just clean air and excellent photo opportunities. Over 170 exotic animal species call the Love Lakes home. These lakes are only one example of several artificial lakes in the man-made desert oasis of Al Qudra. But they are most certainly the most unusual.
The project was at first shrouded in a veil of secrecy. The dream of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, they were designed to be a symbol of love in the desert sands, but also an innovative tourist attraction.
So soak up the sun and the ambience while surrounded by olive tree groves. Have a picnic seated beside the lakes, or sit on one of the wooden benches and daydream about all you’ll still see and do on your Arabian tour. You could also take the adventure further and spend the night under the stars.
Overnight accommodation is available at several designated campsites nearby. Whatever you decide to do, it will be a long time before you forget this charming spot.
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary
Attention all bird lovers! If you have a passion for all things avian, this wetland reserve is the place for you. Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling city of Dubai, the Ras Al Khor Wildlife sanctuary is a haven for thousands of birds.
Reef herons, grey herons, cormorants, black-winged stilts, sandpipers, great egrets, and osprey are just some of the bird species you can spot here. But it is the beautiful pink-feathered flamingoes that are the true stars of the show come wintertime.
This reserve is under the protection of the Dubai Municipality and is fenced off to keep the birds and their habitat safe. Keen birdwatchers may, however, view these magnificent feathered creatures from three marked locations along the perimeter of the fence.
If you are eager to visit this stunning wildlife sanctuary, you’ll be pleased to know that many top hotels are located a short distance away. Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai Al Jaddaf and the Vida Creek Harbour Hotel in Dubai are both just a short drive from this bird lover’s paradise.
Al Ain Oasis
One of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited sites, the history of the city of Al Ain dates back more than 4000 years. But it is not only a historically significant site. The oases of Al Ain also give a glimpse into the biodiversity and cultural heritage of this extraordinary city in Abu Dhabi.
Oasis wells and an ancient Falaj system of water channels distribute water from underground resources and the distant Hajar Mountains to the area’s surrounding farms.
Al Ain can be translated to mean “garden city” and what an apt name it is. Wander its paths lined with thousands of date palms for a truly unforgettable Arabian experience.
This beautiful oasis was declared the UAE’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. But this was not the first time that UNESCO took an interest in the UAE. Back in 1998, UNESCO declared the Emirate of Sharjah as the Capital of Arab Culture.
Jebel Hafit Desert Park
For a truly memorable Arabian experience, Jebel Hafeet on the Al Ain/Oman border is the place to go. At the foot of the majestic Jebel Hafit Mountain, and close to the famous Jebel Hafit Tombs (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), you’ll discover the Jebel Hafit Desert Park.
Here, ancient Arabian history, culture, and adventure combine, with a modern twist. Explore the desert on your own terms, by foot, by camel, or on wheels. Camp out like a Bedouin in a tent under the desert skies. But don’t worry if glamping is more your style, that’s available here too.
The Jebel Hafit Mountain is one of UAE’s highest mountains, despite being the sole mountain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Thanks to the discovery of Bronze Age (3200 to 2600 BCE) tombs at its foothills, it has given its name to the Bronze Age period in UAE history, known as the Hafit Period.
With safe trails for hiking, biking, and horse riding, you’ll get to know these desert sands well. The Jebel Hafit Desert Park also contains many interesting species of local fauna and flora.
You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a whole other world in the distant past. Yet this UAE gem is less than two hours drive from Dubai, via the Dubai-Al Ain Road.
The Hatta Secret Pools
The secret is out! Hatta’s secret pool is one of the best hideaways for nature lovers. Do a spot of fishing, go for a swim, or simply stroll along the banks of tranquil waters. Known by several names throughout its history, the secret pool is so named due to its hidden location.
Tucked away between the rocky enclave on the Dubai and Oman border, the crystal clear waters are not that easy to reach. You will also require a visa for Oman, or your passport or Emirates ID, and it will take an hour’s drive from the town of Deira in a 4×4 to get there. It’s one of the most hidden of these hidden gems in the U.A.E.
But if you can make the journey, you’ll find it well worth it. You’ll pass the village of Jeema, where natural spring water is captured and bottled.
Date, banana, and mango farms are other points of interest en route to the pools, as well as the stunning Hatta Dam. Be sure to make a stop to take some incredible selfies.
Masfout Mountains And Castle
Just half an hour’s drive from Dubai, the Emirate of Ajman is becoming an exciting tourist destination. And one of its most awesome treasures is the village of Masfout. A 90-minute drive from the centre of Ajman will take you to the site of the Masfout mountains and castle.
The Masfout mountains are situated in an enclave located among the Hajar mountains, and the views of Ajman from there are absolutely fantastic. But for a truly memorable experience, make your way to the Mountains’ crowning jewel, the Masfout Castle.
Masfout Castle, built during the 19th century, sits atop these mountains. You’ll face a challenging hike up to the top, but once you reach this old fort constructed from mud, wood, and stone, you’ll enjoy even more breathtaking views of Ajman.
This 19th-century castle was the first line of defence against roaming bandits, heading to the neighbouring country of Oman. Today, the mountains and surrounding terrain of Masfout are more popular with thrill seekers of a less threatening nature, namely adventure tourists.
No longer the route of bandits, they are rather great spots for hiking and biking.
Al Wathba Fossil Dunes
The creation of fossils is one of nature’s most spectacular feats. Get a glimpse of the UAE’s ancient past and marvel at the wonder of nature at the Al Wathba Fossil Dunes. This protected area is home to more than 1,700 fossil dunes and is the largest concentration of fossilised sand dunes in the UAE.
Created through the natural force of fierce desert winds over time, these sands are held together by layers of strong salt crystal sediments. Geologists have dated these marvels of nature as over 4 million years old. But this is just one of the many latest attractions on offer in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Only a 40-minute drive from the Abu Dhabi International Airport, this collection of spectacular sand monuments will astound you. Walk the trails and marvel at these fossilized ridges of desert sand. Be entertained by live music and light shows in the amphitheatre.
Fossils take centuries to form, subjected to aeons of underground pressure and heat. Created from elements that settled when the region was underwater millions of years ago, and aided by the desert winds, no two dune fossils are alike. Learn more about this incredible phenomenon at the visitor’s centre.
In the Emirate of Fujairah, the Wadi Abadila hiking trail awaits. Unlike other hiking trails you may have experienced, this one takes you past flourishing farmlands, natural pools, and freshwater springs. The hiking trails’ difficulty level may be considered easy to moderate, making it ideal even for beginners.
If you choose to walk the entirety of this trail, it should take roughly four hours. But don’t let that dissuade you, as you won’t lack inspiration along the way. Many small wildlife creatures can be spotted along the trail. And there are plenty of spots suitable for family picnics in the shade of palm trees.
Mobile phone coverage is not available here, so you won’t be able to text or call home to describe your adventure. But you’ll appreciate the peace that being in harmony with nature will bring. And of course, what better way to document your time here than with some lovely pics?
Hiking through Wadi Abadilah in the wintertime can still be a pleasant experience, but it is best avoided in rainy weather.
Time for a little mystery and folklore. The abandoned village of Al Madam near Al Madam Sharjah is a true mystery. Built sometime in the 1970s, this area was said to have been the home of the Al Kutbii tribe. But no one, not even the nearby town’s locals, fully understand why this place was abandoned.
It is now a ghost town but its air of mystery has led to it becoming a bit of a tourist attraction. Walk through deserted houses still filled with furnishings, half-buried in the sands of time. Al Madam is one of the UAE’s most perplexing mysteries, but at the same time it affords us a look into local culture.
Local legends tell of “djinns” (Arabian folklore’s supernatural beings) that caused the inhabitants to flee. While we cannot verify the truth of these colourful tales, we can assure you that this will be one of your most interesting stops.
Al Barari Farm
Al Barari is Dubai’s greenest place, and the Al Barari Atmosphere Farm is a resort with a difference. This is a social and leisure hub amidst a botanical setting, featuring a superb restaurant, art classes, cooking lessons, and so much more.
Enjoy the surrounding flora while you take high tea in the gardens. Or delight in the high-end wares at one of the pop-up markets on the lawn. You will always find different activities and exhibitions on the go, for young and old alike. There’s also a pool for the kids, and free parking for all guests.
Sparkling streams, lush vegetation, exotic outdoor decor, and outdoor shaded dining areas all make for a dining experience you’ll never forget. You’ll eat delicious food while being entertained by the sounds of rippling pools and sweet birdsong. Al Barari is a fusion of nature, luxury, and rustic charm all at once.
Best of all, the international cuisine on offer at the Al Barari Farm restaurant relies mainly on locally sourced, wholesome, farm-fresh ingredients. Al Barari is a delight for all the senses, a feast for the eyes and the taste buds.
In the west of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, you’ll find a large oasis, the Liwa Oasis. Situated at the north edge of Rub Al Khali, the largest uninterrupted desert in the world, it is the ancestral home of the Bany Yas tribe. Here, underground water has supported livestock and agricultural needs for many generations.
Some of the world’s largest dunes ripple here, contrasting starkly with the lush green of the neighbouring date palm groves. The Bani Yas tribe lived here, raising camels and harvesting dates. In the summer months, they would travel to the coast and go diving for pearls.
Several forts with high walls and circular watchtowers, built over a century ago, remain. Some of these have been carefully reconstructed from ruins, while others have been remarkably well preserved.
The neighbouring dunes are testaments to some of the oldest sands of the UAE, some of them from over 140 000 years ago. But most date back to the last age, which is impressive enough! Liwa Oasis is also home to one of the world’s largest dunes, the Tal Moreeb.
Al Wadi Nature Reserve
Learn more about UAE culture and traditions on a trip through the desert dunes in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah. The Al Wadi Nature Reserve is not only teeming with wildlife, but it also offers guests some uniquely Middle Eastern experiences.
The falcon is the UAE’s national bird and is known for its excellent eyesight, tremendous speed, hunting process, and intelligence. It is considered a symbol of the strength and heritage of the Arab people. Learn the basics of falconry, camel riding, and archery or take a guided tour on horseback at the Equestrian Center.
With so much to see and do, there’s something to delight everyone from solo tourists to travelling families. But you’re not deprived of a touch of luxury here, because here in the midst of the desert you will also find a hotel with elegant suites and villas.
It is the perfect choice for a much-needed spot of pampering, while still retaining the authentic nature of a nomadic camp. Dine under the stars in your choice of either a modern or traditional Bedouin-themed setting. A hydrotherapy spa also awaits you, after a long day of indulging in the variety of adventure activities on offer.
More about Travel in the U.A.E
- 10 interesting facts about Sharjah, the creative side of the U.A.E
- Enjoy these beautiful things to do in Sharjah
- Escaping to the Al Wadi Nature Reserve in Ras Al Khaimah
- Where is Ras Al Khaimah and what can you do there?
- How to learn more about U.A.E culture and traditions
- The best hidden gems in Dubai
- Interesting facts about Dubai
- The best places to visit in the Middle East
- The perfect Oman road trip itinerary