March 25, 2019

Beautiful Things to do in Sharjah: The “Creative Hub” of the UAE

Authentic Beautiful Things to do in Sharjah

Authentic Beautiful Things to do in Sharjah

Things to do in Sharjah


Sharjah. It may only be 20 minutes from Dubai but it's an Emirate with a character of its own. Traditional souks, mosques and rising ,sweeping, scarlet desert dunes, of course.

But also: world-class art installations, archaeological remains and a bid for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the works.

Here's our insider look at some of the best things to do in Sharjah.

Disclosure: I visited Sharjah as a guest of the SCTDA. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there's just no point.

Related: The outdoor Emirate. Where is Ras Al Khaimah and why should you go there?

"Our legacy
 is our inspiration, our heritage
is our pride."

What makes Sharjah different?

  • Geography would tell you it’s the only Emirate with two coasts (the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.)
  • UNESCO might point out it’s a former Capital of Islamic and Arabic Culture. Not to mention the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2019.
  • And me? What would I say?

Well, I’d mention the beautiful Hotel Al Bait in the heart of the Heart of Sharjah (that’s not a typo, that is its name.)

I’d mention the archaeological evidence of our journey from Africa to the Middle East, as humans, back when the Red Sea was more of a lake.

I’d mention bronze-red sand dunes, incense and camels, of course.

But away from the awards, and beyond the staples of the Middle East, there is more. Sharjah is an intriguing mix of conservation, tradition and history. It’s a dry state (there is no alcohol) and Sharjah women cover their hair. Yet, through art and the welcome it extends to its visitors, it’s flying into the future.

In their words:

Cultural integration is the common thread in the tapestry of world peace. Tourism is the bridge that helps spread understanding between countries, cultural exchange and friendship. It plants the seed of ideas and opens doors of opportunity to build a better world together.
Sharjah is a tourist friendly destination that is multicultural and welcoming to everyone.
What to see and do in Sharjah

What to see and do in Sharjah

Private lounge in Heart of Sharjah Al Bait Hotel UAE

Private lounge in Heart of Sharjah Al Bait Hotel UAE, selling tobacco in teh souk, chatting with visitors over karak tea

The Heart of Sharjah

Whatever else, Sharjah is not short of ambition. The Heart of Sharjah is a 15 year project to restore the historic parts of a neighbourhood and preserve the traditional way of life - all while opening the area up to the world. 

It's already on a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site list and the souks, Al Shinasiva and Al Arsa, offer guided tours given by women who talk about the sweets and customs you can find within. 

Guides take you behind the scenes to see the production of halva and into coffee shops and tea houses where retired men sip tea and talk about Sharjah to anyone who wanders in. 

There's a small museum and some big, big plans. 

Insider tip: taste halva sparingly. It's very, VERY sweet!

Al Bait Hotel interior in Herat of Sharjah

Al Bait Hotel interior in Herat of Sharjah

The Al Bait Hotel, Heart of Sharjah

And at the heart of it all is the gorgeous hotel the Al Bait, which has swapped bling for quiet luxury, authenticity and history (more about that later.)

It's a fascinating project and I hope it does well. It's definitely worth visiting now. Even though it won't be finished for years, don't imagine a building site. Rather, a thriving work in progress.

Where is Sharjah?

Sharjah is the third largest of the United Arab Emirates.

It’s close to Dubai (around 20 minutes by taxi) and it’s far away as well. This is not the place of chandelier-swinging girls pouring champagne from the rooftops.

Magic polo mirror in Al Noor Island Butterfly Garden

Magic polo mirror in Al Noor Island Butterfly Garden

Al Noor Island and the Butterfly House

Part zen sanctuary, part playground for grown-ups, Al Noor Island takes a swerving wooden walkway across the water to a space that really stands out. 

Here is a place for great views of the Sharjah skyline. For bouncing (literally) along the sandy shore. For seeing a 250-year old tree trunk and retreating into billowing white cotton in the breeze. 

The Butterfly House itself contains 20 exotic species, including the hypnotizing Emerald Swallowtail. The winged beauties flutter inside an intriguing gold-lattice building, but the real draw is the gardens. There are over 70,000 plants and trees. From cacti and meadows to fossil rocks and sculptures, you'll find it all here. 

Insider tip: bounce along the waterside trampoline with no inhibitions! Simple, childlike, harmless fun!

Rain room Sharjah - Abigail King

Standing in the Rain Room in Sharjah

The Rain Room

Travel to the desert to stand in the rain. But not get wet. 

The curious Rain Room installation began life in the Barbican in London but now occupies pride of place in Sharjah in a building with many creative inputs.  The Sharjah Art Foundation and the UAE-based Space Continuum Design Studio in collaboration with Shape Architecture Practice + Research, Sharjah, combined to create this spectacle.

Activated by motion sensors, you can walk through the rainfall and stay dry (as long as you're not wearing black, as I was. then you're wetter than a wet dog that's just emerged from a lake on a wetter than wet kind of wet afternoon.)

While the science is intriguing, it's the visuals that make it art. There's something haunting, captivating, brilliant about watching people, water and light flow together in one room.

You can find out more at the Rain Room website.

Top Tip for the Rain Room

Wear white and move slowly. Leave any valuables at the side just in case you do, in fact, get wet. 

Municipal building lit up during Sharjah Festival of Lights

Municipal building lit up during Sharjah Festival of Lights

Sharjah Light Festival

Every year, lights and fireworks fizz as part of the Sharjah Light Festival. Across the city, in 17 different venues, light displays illuminate the architecture along with music and an easygoing festival atmosphere. Entrance is free and the crowd is welcoming. See more at the Sharjah Light Festival website.

The Blue Souk

Nicknamed the Blue Souk for obvious reasons, this is the place to buy carpets, gold and perfume amid air-conditioned calm. Carpets come here from Iran but the perfume is local and textiles, necklaces and trinkets fill the stores. It's a spot for buying curved dallahs and hanging lights but don't come expecting pyramids of spice and general mayhem. That's not the Blue Souk way.

Al Majaz Waterfront

Palm trees ruffling their fronds like it's a lazy Sunday afternoon. Fountains with jumping jets as energetic as young children on a sugar high. The Al Majaz waterfront, with its line of shops and eateries, provides a calm place to watch the skyscrapers in the distance, across the Khaled Lagoon. 

Local favourite Al Fanar serves up traditional dishes in a friendly atmosphere where it's easy to ask questions. Look out for the life-size fake camel. If you work out why it's there, let me know!

Inside tip on what to eat in Sharjah: as ever, look out for the light but delicious Arabic coffee with cardamom poured from a curved dallah. Try hummus. And dates. And watch out for sticky, hot lequimat to indulge a sweet tooth. With a splash of camel milk ice cream if you're feeling fancy.

The Classic Car Museum

More than 100 classic cars gleam beneath the lights in this slick and polished museum. They run all the way from 1915 and include Rolls Royce, Ford, Mercedes, Chevrolet, Bentley and many others.

Inside Al Mahatta Museum Aeroplanes in Sharjah

Inside Al Mahatta Museum Aeroplanes in Sharjah

Al Mahatta Museum: Aviation History

Formerly the first UAE-built airport back in 1932, today the Al Mahatta is an aviation geek's paradise. Walk inside a cockpit, stroll beneath classic planes and catch up on the fast-moving history of this area.

Sharjah Aquarium

Possibly one for marine fanatics or families, the Sharjah Aquarium allows visitors to walk beneath the water and see Emirati wildlife up close. 

The big hitters involve the sharks and turtles, of course, but the most amusing occupant award probably goes to the large fish that sits at the bottom of the ocean, waiting for smaller fish to clean its teeth. 

Travel from coral reefs to mangrove swamps, rock pools to lagoons through the 20 or so tanks in air-conditioned cool. 

Abigail King in front of Islamic Museum of Civilisation

The Outstanding Islamic Museum of Civilisation in Sharjah

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation

Wow. If you only have time for one museum in Sharjah, make it this one.

Stunning on the outside, even more so inside, this museum used to be a souk. Today, it charts the course of Islamic history through art, science and architectural beauty through more than 5000 different pieces.

Forget what you think you know. And learn.

Flag Island

A sparkling new development of an old area, Flag Island brings recycled running tracks, an open-air amphitheatre and design spaces to Sharjah's city centre. Like the Al Majaz waterfront area, it's a place for people to enjoy being outside while testing out new ideas.

Woman walking on sand with Sharjah skyline in background

The Sharjah skyline from the beach at the Sheraton Hotel

Where to Stay in Sharjah

As you might expect, Sharjah has plenty of top quality hotels. I stayed in three very different properties and I'd recommend them all, for different purposes. 

Al Bait, Sharjah

Gorgeous, gorgeous authentic hotel in the Heart of Sharjah. Stay here for quiet luxury, history and a feeling of being immersed in local culture. Al Bait means "home" and that's the ambiance they achieve. Except cleaner, tidier and with substantially better food. Or perhaps that's just relative to my house.   

The Sheraton, Sharjah

A strong, dependable chain with a local touch. The Sheraton has beachfront access and several pools and international restaurants. It's a little way from town. Manageable but stay here if you're looking for more sun and sand than exploration.

The Kingfisher Lodge, Kalba

Living right in the protected area, the Kingfisher Lodge calls itself the first eco hotel in Sharjah and lines up luxury tents as villas along the coast. It's still finding its feet, a little, as the area is changing so fast. But there's no disputing the beauty of the rooms and plunge pools. 

Related: Feynan Ecolodge and Stargazing with the Bedouin

Insider tip: breathe life and culture into your stay in Sharjah by staying at the Al Bait. It's outstanding.

Things to do Beyond the City of Sharjah

Hire a car or find a guide to venture beyond the city. Driving is straightforward and parking pretty easy, so don't be put off by driving yourself.

Woman walking through desert in Sharjah

Walking through the desert in the rain in Sharjah

Mleiha Archaeological Centre

Ready to encounter the ruby-red, peachy-schmeachy, rust-orange sand you've seen in all the photos? It's time to head into the desert. 

Not only do the sand dunes around the Mleiha Archaeological Centre look pretty but they hide some interesting historical facts as well. 

Years ago (around 130,000 to 120,000, give or take) mankind left Africa and began to spread around the world. The latest thinking has our ancestors crossing the Red Sea, then a more shallow lake, into the Arabian Peninsula before travelling further. 

The Mleiha Centre does a good job of explaining this (and a good job of lunch and coffee) and it's amazing to see the artefacts uncovered here around the Umm al Narera tomb. 

Outside, you can join tours that hike to some of the areas and examine reconstructions of the findings. If you're short on time, stop in the visitor's centre before hitting the road. 

Kingfisher Lodge Al Qurm Nature Reserve in Sharjah

Kingfisher Lodge Al Qurm Nature Reserve in Sharjah

The Al Qurm Nature Reserve, Kalba

Visit the most northern mangrove forest in the world at the Al Qurm Nature Reserve. Home to endangered Arabian-collared kingfishers, as well as hawksbill and green turtles, it's also home to a new eco-hotel, the Kingfisher Lodge. 

Try kayaking, paddle-boarding, hiking and cycling. Or just relax in the plunge pool and watch the sun set over the beach.

Insider tip: Al Qurm means mangrove in Arabic.

Practical Notes for Travel to Sharjah

What to Wear in Sharjah

Sharjah is conservative but not restrictive in how people dress. While Emiratis wear traditional dress, most of the 80% expat population do not. 

That said, you really should cover your shoulders and knees to avoid causing offence but there's no need to cover your hair. See-through clothes and anything showing cleavage is also a no-no and be prepared for people to approach you about it, in case you decide to "rebel." 

That said, in the heat, it's useful to cover up to avoid sunburn and other skin irritations. Loose-fitting cotton clothes and a handy scarf work in the day. Temperatures drop quite suddenly in the evening so carry a jumper with you but you'll seldom need a coat. 

What to Pack for Sharjah

Sharjah is cooler than other areas in the Arabian peninsula so check the weather and pack accordingly!

Plug sockets are the same as in Britain, so no need to pack an adapter if you're from the UK. 

Pack a scarf and some bug spray. Sunscreen. Comfortable shoes and a hat.

When Best to Travel to Sharjah

From November to March, the weather is enjoyable and not too hot. June to August reach peak temperatures and although you'll find a breeze at the coast, it may not be enough! 

Getting to Sharjah

While Sharjah has its own airport, Dubai International connects easily all around the world. There are several daily flights from London to Dubai and the transfer from Dubai to Sharjah City takes 20 minutes if you time it right, around 90 if you get stuck in traffic.

*Heathrow Express is the fastest connection from Central London to Heathrow Airport. It sells advance fares from £5.50 each way at weekends. Children 15 and under travel for free and they now accept Contactless and Oyster on their services too.*

Getting Around

Taxis or Uber are the best ways of covering the gaps, unless you hire a car. Bring cash as credit cards are not yet accepted. Most beach resorts are a little way out of town and have shuttles in to the centre. If you stay at the Al Bait in the Heart of Sharjah, you can walk to most central locations with comfy shoes and a spirit of perseverance! Otherwise, hop in a car!

To venture further afield, it's probably best to hire a car. Roads are quiet and the tarmac is good and signs are usually also in English. 

The Best Places to Visit in Sharjah in Summary

The good thing about travelling with a new group of friends is that it opens your eyes to the fact we're all different. Some thrill in the sparkle and intrigue of the souk. Others spend hours watching the sunset, hoping to see a turtle. For me, this time, the Museum of Islamic Civilisation kept me entranced. All those threads from around the world. All those different images to the ones Hollywood promotes. 

But we all loved the Rain Room, and the food. 

What I loved most about the spirit of the place, I found in the most unusual of locations. A brochure in the Sheraton. There, the guide on what to wear and how to behave in public began with one of the most beautiful messages I've seen. 

Cultural integration is the common thread in the tapestry of world peace. Tourism is the bridge that helps spread understanding between countries, cultural exchange and friendship. It plants the seed of ideas and opens doors of opportunity to build a better world together.
Sharjah is a tourist friendly destination that is multicultural and welcoming to everyone.
This is a basic guide to our culture. In welcoming visitors to our beautiful emirate with an open heart, we hope that you will accept our hand of friendship by respecting our culture and becoming ambassadors of goodwill.

Well, you can't say fairer than that. Happy travels everyone.

So there you have it, a collection of beautiful things to do in Sharjah. Taste a little of its culture and thread your way into the tapestry of world peace.

Introduction to Sharjah Video

Disclosure: This lovely trip was in partnership with Sharjah Tourism. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like and say what I like because... you know... people fought for me to have that right. It's important and I plan to use it. 

More Travel in the Middle East

Wondering where to begin? Start with this guide on the best places to visit in the Middle East.

See our travel guide to the best things to do in Jordan and then check out this post on planing the perfect itinerary in Jordan.

And explore Israel, starting with this guide to two days in Tel Aviv.

Travel Tips for the U.A.E

Did you enjoy these interesting facts about Dubai? Why not check out our other articles about the United Arab Emirates.



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