Planning on a trip to Al Ain? We've got the best places you need to see and do
Planning a weekend in Al Ain, but hate planning? Then cut out and keep this handy itinerary.
If you think Al Ain has nothing on Abu Dhabi or Dubai, then think again. It may be smaller and sleepier than its neighbours, but the green city on the UAE/Oman border has so much to offer that you must pay it a visit.
Al Ain means the spring in English, and it was once a vital oasis on the caravan route from the UAE to Oman. You can still visit the oasis today – but that’s not the city’s only point of interest...
Thursday Start your weekend with a trip to Al Ain Zoo, one of the city’s star attractions. Spread over 400 hectares – the same size as Lulu Island – you can spend at least three hours looking around its modern, spacious enclosures. Throughout September zookeepers are hosting special carnivore talks, while school kids can build and decorate a model of a carnivore from recycled material. Prizes will be given for the best design and decoration, most innovative construction and most informative model. Between October 3-7, over Eid, the zoo will celebrate Asian animals with cultural shows in the live stage area and keeper talks. If you arrive after nightfall, hire a pair of night goggles – a world first for a zoo – and watch nocturnal animals come out to play. You can use them all around the zoo, but the African and Asian exhibits will be the most rewarding. Goggles Dhs50 per hour. Entry Dhs20 adults, Dhs10 kids three-12, under threes free. Sept Sun-Thu 10am-1pm, Fri-Sat 4pm-10pm. Oct 3-10 (Eid) daily 10am-10pm, Oct 11-31 Sun-Thu 9am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-10pm. www.alainzoo.ae (03 799 2000).
Hilton Al Ain is just 5km from the zoo, and a good option for dinner and drinks. Its Japanese restaurant is stylish, with black walls, traditional paintings and sliding shoji doors. With just 10 tables and a sushi counter that seats five, Toki is compact – so book ahead. Sit at the counter if you’d like to watch the chefs prepare sushi, or in one of the two booths if you want privacy and an authentic Japanese experience. For one of them you’ll need to remove your footwear. Staff are Japanese, and are attentive and polite. The menu has a wide selection of quality sushi, sashimi, noodles and fried dishes. Daily 6pm-11pm. www3.hilton.com (03 768 6666).
Once your dinner’s settled, pop into Paco’s, Hilton Al Ain Tex-Mex restaurant, which also has live music. Its resident band, Bolt, play a mix of chart music with a rock flare Tuesdays to Saturdays. Sun-Thu noon-1am, Fri-Sat 2pm-2am. Details above.
Slap bang in the middle of the city, Ayla Hotel, a new four-star hotel with 153 rooms and suites, is a good bet. The price of a night’s stay includes the use of the hotel’s fitness studio, which has a gym, sauna, steam room, men and women’s Jacuzzis and an indoor pool, but if you just want a night in then make use of the films on demand service and the pillow menu, which has five options. Double room Dhs500, including breakfast. Al Muttaredh, behind NMC Speciality Hospital, www.aylahotels.com (03 761 0111).
Friday For an authentic Emirati experience, get up early and visit the camel souk. The livestock market runs all day but trading is busiest in the morning. As well as a chance to see thousands of camels, goats and sheep up close as you tour their pens, the souk gives you the opportunity to listen to Arab traders discussing the price and merits of their animals. You can also buy plants and stroke baby camels. Women should dress conservatively and if you take photos, carry Dhs10-20 change to tip the owners. Daily 6am-7pm. Street 137 (Zayed Bin Sultan Street), also known as Mezyad Road, behind Bawadi Mall.
Jebel Hafeet is about 10km south west of the market. At 1,249m high, the peak is one of the tallest in the country. A single road winds to the top, at which you’ll find a small cafe. But it’s the view you come for; you can see for miles on a clear day.
On the way down, stop for lunch at Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet, around the 915m mark. Skip its all day dining restaurant – its decor looks like the backdrop of an ’80s game show – in favour of its terrace restaurant, Eden Rock, which has city views and a wood-fired barbecue on Thursdays and Fridays. If you linger, you could also sit in Al Khayma, a tent with traditional majlis seating that’s open for shisha (Dhs45) everyday 3pm-4am. The tent is by the pool and overlooks the desert and city; if you end up there later on, an Arabic singer provides entertainment every night 9pm-1am. www.mercure.com (03 783 8888).
Alternatively, if you can cope with the heat then stock up on picnic food at the supermarket – Abela near Tawam Hospital, next to the Oasis Village compound, is a good option. You can eat al fresco under the shade of trees at Green Mubazzarah Park in the south of the city, at the base of Jebel Hafeet. The 160-hectare park is double the size of Emirates Palace’s grounds, and gets its name from the lawns that stretch across it, which are fed by underwater springs. As well as a man-made boating lake, a stream which is heated naturally runs through the park – you can paddle in it for free. You can soak in hot springs heated to 40-45°C, too; men and women bathe separately for Dhs10. The park also has areas designated for barbecues, camping and chalets. Daily. Dhs696 one-bedroom chalet, Dhs1,102 two bedrooms. (03 783 9555).
Once the midday sun has done its worst, spend the afternoon cooling off at Wadi Adventure, an outdoor waterpark next to Green Mubazzarah Park. Book ahead if you want to try surfing in its 150m long pool, which has man-made waves over 3m high. Otherwise, try kayaking and white water rafting. If you’ve tried rafting before you might find even the fastest river tame, but this makes the 500m long, grade four black run ideal for families looking for thrills in a safe environment. While you’re there, try the 14m high, 200m long zip line over the river, a swing that drops 14m leaving your stomach behind. You can also climb a 14m climbing wall or complete an obstacle course in the air. There are two levels – one 7m high, one 14m – both of which are harder and scarier than they look. Bear in mind the entrance fee only grants you access to a lap pool; activities are extra. Dhs50 adult entrance, Dhs25 kids’ entrance. Surfing Dhs100 for one-hour (no lesson), 55-minute surfing lesson Dhs150; 90-minute kayaking lesson Dhs150; obstacle course and zip line Dhs50; swing Dhs25; climbing wall Dhs40; adventure pass Dhs195 includes rafting, the swing, zip line and obstacle course. Directions on www.wadiadventure.ae (03 781 8422).
Head back into town for dinner at Al Ain Rotana’s traditional Lebanese restaurant, Min Zaman, which has a terrace overlooking the hotel’s pool and garden. You can smoke shisha there while listening to an Arabic band playing the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument. A belly dancer provides additional entertainment while you dine on mezze such as stuffed vine leaves, halloumi and zaatar salad. Mon-Fri 6.30pm-2am. Email firstname.lastname@example.org (03 754 5111).
Saturday Start your morning at Murabba Heritage Fort, on the corner opposite the bus station in the city centre. If the door is locked, knock and a man will open it and guide you around for free. He doesn’t speak English and there are no information boards, so it’s only worth visiting for 15 minutes – but kids will enjoy playing hide and seek in its empty rooms, and there’s a decent view of the city from the roof, with Jebel Hafeet in the distance.
Al Ain Museum is a five-minute walk away, next to Al Ain oasis. The museum displays interesting collections of Bedouin jewellery, musical instruments, weapons and archaeological artefacts, as well as a reconstruction of traditional majlis seating. Dhs3 adults, Dhs1 kids. Mon-Thu and Sat 8.30am-7.30pm’ Fri 3pm-7.30pm. (03 711 8331).
When the midday sun gets too much, nip inside Al Ain Oasis, which is free to explore. Thousands of date palms provide shade and block out noise from surrounding roads, making it a haven of tranquillity and a highlight of a trip to the city. Paths are well-maintained; wander around them for an hour or so or hop on a security guard’s golf buggy and leave a tip.
If you manage to walk straight through the oasis, you’ll exit close to Al Ain Palace Museum, the former home of the UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Built in 1910, the building became a museum in 1998; it is also known as Sheikh Zayed Museum. You can tour the grounds alone, imagining how the royals used to live as you pop into rooms decorated with traditional majlis seating and stroll shady hallways. You’ll come across a well, pond and Bedouin tent on the lawn and old Land Rovers in the courtyard. Free.Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun 8.30am-7.30pm, Fri 3pm-7.30pm. (03 751 7755).
Back on the same street as Murabba Heritage Fort, have a late lunch in Al Ain Mall, an extensive, modern shopping centre which is on a par with Abu Dhabi Mall. The food court is on the second floor; a branch of Shakespeare and Co is on the ground floor at the back. www.alainmall.net (Mall 03 766 0333, Shakespeare and Co 03 764 8316).
After lunch, visit Al Jahili Fort, close to Al Ain Palace Museum. You know the image on a bottle of Al Ain water? That’s Al Jahili Fort. Built in 1891 to defend the city’s people and palm groves, it was the former headquarters of the Oman Trucial Scouts, the force that protected the surrounding mountain passes. It also served as a residence for the local governor. The fort and its walls have been carefully restored and now house a permanent photography exhibition by the British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the desert of the Empty Quarter, or Rub Al Khali, in the 1940s. The fort is set in landscaped gardens, so if you arrive before it opens, you can relax under the shades of palm trees. Tue-Thu 9am-5pm, Fri 3pm-5pm; Sat 9am-5pm.
Worked up an appetite? Then head to Danat Al Ain Resort in the east of the city, on the same road as Hilton Al Ain, for an Italian dinner at Luce. Once everyone’s finished eating, the restaurant transforms into a night club with a popular dance floor. Sun-Thu 7pm-2am (11pm last orders), Fri-Sat 7pm-3am. www.alain.danathotels.com (03 704 6000).
Sunday Got a long weekend? Make the most of your extra day by spending the morning at Al Qattara Fort, in the north of the city. The fort has been redeveloped into a modern arts centre. You can browse its exhibitions and library or enrol in a workshop. Book ahead if you want to try a class; choose from oud and piano, photography; traditional crafts and calligraphy, or drawing, painting, sculpture and pottery. Hungry? The centre also has a cafe. At 8pm on September 26 it will also host a free instrumental and vocal music concert. Sat-Thu 9am-8pm, Fri 4-8pm. Email email@example.com (03 711 8280).
Hili Archaeological Park is in the same area as the fort. The park has remnants of a Bronze Age settlement dating back to 2,500-2,000 BC which was excavated and restored in 1995. Even if you’re not interested in archaeology, you can picnic by the fountains in the gardens around it while your kids run around in the children’s play area.
If that doesn’t satisfy the little nippers, then visit Hili Fun City nearby. The theme park is no Six Flags or Alton Towers, but it does have attractions for all ages such as a carousel, roller coasters and a 3D cinema. You can also hire three-seater bikes (Dhs30 an hour) and recumbent bikes suitable for up to six people (Dhs35 an hour). Sept Mon-Thu 5pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 4pm-10pm; Oct-May Mon-Thu 4pm-10pm, Fri-Sat noon-10pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. www.hilifuncity.ae (03 784 4481, 03 784 4505).
For more grown up fun, spend the afternoon at Al Ain Sportplex Club, the city’s answer to Abu Dhabi’s Al Forsan International Sports Resort. It’s in the east of the city, beyond Danat Al Ain Resort. Adrenaline seekers can attend occasional car drifting events, fans can have a go at remote control flying, and everyone can sign up for paintballing or go karting on its 1.6km track. Dhs10 all day remote control flying, Dhs120 for 5-minutes go karting, Dhs25 for 100 paintballs (30 minutes), Dhs185 for 300 (an hour), Dhs295 for 500 (90 minutes). www.alainsportplex.ae (03 768 8888).
Al Ain Golf Club is next door, and welcomes non members. The club is in the shadow of Jebel Hafeet and while it touts itself as the only sand golf club in Al Ain, in reality there’s very little sand – you mostly play on gravel. The 18-hole course and floodlit driving range are well maintained. You can also play snooker and attend regular barbecues and pizza nights around its outdoor wood-fired oven, while children will enjoy playing in the kid’s play area. Dhs50 for one round. Mon-Sat 1pm-8pm. Email email@example.com. www.alainsandgolfclub.blogspot.ae (050 330 8586).
Worked up an appetite? As you head back into town, you’ll pass Danat Al Ain Resort on the same road – so head to its Indian restaurant. Tucked behind an elaborate gold door, Tanjore is a hidden gem. Arrive early and you’ll be seated in a cosy waiting area decorated with embroidered cushions and tasselled rugs hanging from beams. The restaurant’s alcove seating is just as snug, as it’s lit by lanterns, candles and light from the open kitchen. There’s an intimate cellar feel, so at night it’s a suitable venue for a date. The extensive menu has no surprises but you’re guaranteed to enjoy your meal, as the staff are happy to recommend dishes – they might even bring a herb to the table to help you decide. Portions are generous and the menu has healthy, nut and spicy options. If you still have energy afterwards, have a drink in the English pub, the Horse and Jockey, next door, or hang out at Shooters, a pool and dart bar. Open daily 12.30pm-3pm, 7.30pm-11pm. Details above.
Monday If you want to extend your weekend, spend the morning at Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club in the west of the city. It has a number of shooting ranges, many of which are indoors – ideal for hot days. You can try your hand at clay pigeon shooting outdoors on the field, which is the size of several football pitches, or take aim with rifles and pistols indoors. Dhs40 for 50 bullets on the 10m rifle range, Dhs90 for 50 bullets on the 50m rifle range, Dhs120 for 50 bullets on the 15m pistol range, Dhs140 for 25 bullets for clay pigeon shooting. Al Maqam, near Tawam Hospital. www.aesgc.ae (03 768 4888).
The shooting club has a cafe overlooking its field, but if you want a proper meal then dine at Indian Curry, which is on the corner opposite the shooting entrance. If you end up there for dinner, you can’t miss its illuminated exterior. It’s most popular dish is the butter chicken, which is a steal at Dhs28. Daily noon-midnight (don’t arrive last minute as service ends before). (03 768 0400).
After your pit stop, swing by Book Oasis, a secondhand book shop that sells novels and nonfiction titles, most of which are in English. It’s near Tawam Hospital, the Palm Rugby Club and Abela supermarket. There’s a handy map on www.alainenthusiast.com Sun-Thu 10am-1pm, 4pm-8pm, Sat 1pm-6pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org (050 533 8743).
If you’re driving back to Abu Dhabi in your own car, swing by Al Agabiyya, the camel race track behind Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club before you head home.
A taxi costs around Dhs200; otherwise you can hop on the X90 bus, which leaves Abu Dhabi bus station next to Al Wahda Mall every half hour and costs Dhs25 one way – you pay when you get on. It takes two hours, 20 minutes and you will arrive at Al Ain bus station next to Al Ain oasis; you can get taxis from there to your hotel. Buses depart from Abu Dhabi Sat-Thu 4.30am-midnight, Fri 5am-12.30pm; Al Ain departure times are the same. Check the intercity bus timetable here: www.dot.abudhabi.ae (800 88888).