Time Out takes a look at things to do in Al Ain, including car museums, Wadi Adventure, Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain Zoo, shooting clubs and more
Just under two hours’ drive from busy Dubai Marina lies the greenest place in the UAE – and one you’ve probably never even seen.
Not boasting the coastal location of the likes of Fujairah or Ras Al Khaimah, nor status as an emirate, the flourishing city of Al Ain is often forgotten by residents scanning the web in search of a staycation. Part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, this tranquil expanse of desert hosts an abundance of attractions beyond its pretty flowers and innumerable roundabouts. Dubbed The Garden City, Al Ain – which means “the spring” – is neatly filled with oases, gardens, amusement parks, exotic animals, museums and world-class sports facilities.
Here’s one for the petrolheads. Al Ain Classic Car Museum is home to a 2,000sqm air-conditioned unit that houses hundreds of vintage cars. These magnificent machines come from a wide range of manufacturers and previous owners have driven them across the world. When the collection first started in 2009, it was merely a tent with a handful of cars. Now, in its Al Fayda location, it features some incredible vehicles from Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Mercedes, Ford and much more. There is also a restoration workshop, while the venue is the HQ of the Abu Dhabi Classic Car Club. Dhs5 (adults), free (kids under five).
Since it opened in September 2007, Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club has provided Al Ain residents and visitors the chance to enjoy its equestrian lessons, shooting, rugby and 18-hole and nine-hole golf courses. But that’s not all. The club also offers many activities to keep the whole family entertained, including outdoor pools, a gym, football pitches, beauty salon, tennis and basketball courts and even a climbing wall. And if it’s the shooting that really appeals to you, you’ll be glad to know the club is considered one of the UAE’s best in terms of Olympic and International Shooting Sport Federation standards. It’s perfect for beginners, corporate groups and experienced shooters alike thanks to its wide range of facilities, including a 25m pistol range, 50m rifle range and 10m air pistol and rifle ranges. Each of these is equipped with an electronic scoring system so you can challenge your pals and see the scores rack up. There are also four ranges for the clay shooting disciplines of skeet, trap and double trap. Pull! Prices and times vary.
You may think the sweltering heat has caused a mirage, but the Al Ain Oasis is certainly not a trick of the eye. It is one of several in the city and is located centrally, with eight entrances dotted around the 3,000 acres of land. Inside, you’ll be able to saunter around the walkways that are pleasantly shaded thanks to the palm trees – all 147,000 of them. There are almost 100 different varieties of date palm in the oasis, which are set out among the falaj irrigation system – a 3,000-year-old technique employed by the local population. So let the rustle of the palm fronds and trickle of the falaj waters distract you from the buzz of the city centre. Free.
If you’re craving some culture, Al Ain will have that box ticked in no time. There are a couple of museums here, with Al Ain Palace being a major draw for any visitor. Why? Well, it used to be home to the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE, of course. The beautiful property, built in 1937, was once a political and social hub for local inhabitants. In 1998 it underwent renovations before finally becoming a museum in 2001. The venue is now open to the public and houses an impressive collection of material, giving visitors a greater insight into the ruling family’s history. You’ll be able to tour private gardens and even rooms that were once occupied by the ruling family. It’s a place you simply can’t afford to miss. Free.
Who’d have thought this peaceful city was ready to burn some rubber? Al Ain Raceway is a state-of-the-art karting facility with a fully floodlit circuit. It has several distinctive configurations, giving all drivers an exhilarating challenge, whatever your ability. The venue offers a range of experiences for both corporate and casual guests, including the Arrive and Drive experience, junior driving and tuition, as well as professional racing. If you’re really into this mini-motor madness, there are karts for sale if you fancy becoming the next world champ. The raceway is located about 20 minutes south east of the city centre and re-opens on Wednesday August 31 having closed for the summer.
Set near the base of Jebel Hafeet is where you’ll find a large collection of fascinating animals in enclosures that closely resemble their natural habitats. And when we say large, we’re talking more than 4,000 animals, with at least 30 percent of its 180 species considered endangered. Along with plenty of green space for picnics, there are playgrounds, a cafeteria and a train tour of the wildlife area, making it a perfect day out for the whole family. For those wanting a more interactive experience, you can enjoy feeding giraffes treats such as carrots and lettuce five times daily. Plus the Elezba petting zoo, designed in the style of a local farm, lets families feed and play with sheep, goats, camels, llamas (watch out for the spitting), chickens and ducks. You can even take a ride on one of the camels. However, this attraction is so much more than just a zoo. The park’s new Al Ain Safari experience is destined to be one of the world’s largest man-made African-style safaris, with a range of native African animals and plant species, all of which you can learn more about thanks to the expert guides who will join you during the experience. Dhs30 (adults), Dhs10 (kids three-12), more packages available.
Arguably the most iconic building in Al Ain is Al Jahili Fort. It’s definitely a spot for shutterbugs as the sunsets make the perfect backdrop in which to capture the structure, which was built back in 1891. Initially, it was designed to defend the city and protect the palm groves, which were a key export for the local people. The fort is also the former headquarters of the Oman Trucial Scouts, the force that protected the regional mountain passes and kept inter-tribal peace. Since then, it has undergone several restoration periods and now houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, affectionately referred to locally as Mubarak Bin London. Thesiger was known for crossing the Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter desert area) in the 1940s.
The UAE boasts some spectacular terrain, with Jebel Hafeet being one of the most popular landmarks in The Garden City. It is the second highest peak in the UAE, rising 1,240m and formed from craggy limestone. Most of its visitors take the drive up to its peak, although some fitness fans choose to cycle or even run up the 11km of winding road to reach the summit. But once you’re at the top, you’ll be breathless either way thanks to the stunning views of Al Ain city and Oman over the border. At the peak, you’ll find a small café that sells refreshments and light snacks to help you refuel before your descent. The area is also home to the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Hotel, an upmarket four-star venue 3km from the mountain itself. The silence and views go hand in hand, making this a peaceful stay for any family or couple. Archaeologists are also drawn to Jebel Hafeet and over the years they have discovered more than 500 burial tombs in its foothills, some of which date back 5,000 years or more, while the unearthing of fossils keeps adding to the area’s intrigue.
This amazing structure is both pleasing to the eye as well as having a history that makes it an enthralling place to visit. The birthplace of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, Qasr Al Muwaiji is now open to the public as a museum with a permanent exhibition. It was built in the early 20th century and originally used as a diwan (a council) and as a place for the community to gather. In 1946 the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founder of the UAE, converted the diwan into his family home. Today, an exhibition housed in a glass-walled construction in the Qasr’s courtyard tells visitors about the creation of the fort, its inhabitants and the restoration process that has returned it to its former glory. Tours are available for individuals and groups.
An amusement park with family rollercoasters and gentle rides for little ones, plus an amphitheatre, 3D action cinema and a range of attractions for teenagers. Dhs200 (annual pass per person) Dhs1,000 (annual family pass for six people) Dhs100 (lady’s annual pass – valid on Wednesdays only). Daily rates, Dhs50 (Wed-Sat) Dhs45 (Mon-Tues) and Wednesday is ladies only day.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has recognised Al Ain as a World Heritage Site. This means locations across the city, including the six oases, archaeological sites, buildings, palaces and tombs are to be preserved and maintained to a Unesco standard. For a taste of what to expect, you can take a 360-degree virtual tour around the Hafeet Tombs that date back to 2,500 BC at www.visitabudhabi.ae.
Water babies, listen up. One of our favourite days out in the whole of the UAE has to be a trip to Wadi Adventure. This was the first man-made white water rafting, kayaking and surfing facility in the Middle East. It is home to world-class facilities and activities. So what exactly is here? Let’s start off with a couple of world records, shall we? Wadi Adventure has the planet’s longest man-made white-water channels at a combined length of 1.2km. Then there’s the world’s largest surf pool, perfect for beginners and advanced surfers looking to ride the crest of a wave. If you’re after something slightly less extreme, check out the family swimming pool and kids’ splash area, which is heated in winter and chilled in summer. And if you’re looking to keep yourself dry, the venue also has an aerial obstacle course which includes a two-storey airpark, zipline, climbing wall and giant swing. It’s basically an adult-worthy climbing frame-meets-obstacle-course. A family-friendly, low ropes obstacle course has also been installed to make sure the little ones are entertained, too. And with all this energy being burnt off, you’ll no doubt need somewhere to refuel. Its variety of food and beverage outlets, serving freshly prepared food and drinks, will give any Wadi Adventure visitor plenty of options to set them up for more activities. Dhs50 (adults, entry), Dhs25 (kids, entry). Activities charged separately.
If you’re not planning a trip until later in the year, you’ll be able to experience an age-old shopping trip to Souq Al Qattara. This was essentially a mid-20th century shopping centre, founded by the late Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former Ruler of Abu Dhabi. It has been renovated and is open for business from October to May on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. This market was introduced to encourage local families to promote and preserve Abu Dhabi’s traditions. Expect to see plenty of handicrafts, artworks and more in the 30 internal and 20 external shops. The souk is connected to Al Qattara Fort, also known as the Al Qattara Arts Centre. Organised by TCA Abu Dhabi, the arts centre was originally designed to be a place for Emiratis to immerse themselves in cultural and creative studies, but has since become a space for all Al Ain residents and visitors to enjoy. There are also workshops, a café and a library to check out. Prices vary.