10 of the best things to do in the Garden City of Al Ain
Have you ever been to Al Ain? We reckon that for the majority of Dubai residents, Al Ain has hardly blipped on radars for a weekend away. But it should. Especially now that the year-long Al Ain Cultural Programme has launched. Trust us, by the time you’re done reading our Al Ain guide, you’ll be chomping at the bit to programme the destination into your GPS for your next weekend drive…
Al Ain Oasis We’re starting with the big guns. A heritage site. And not just any heritage site – the Al Ain Oasis is the UAE’s first Unesco World Heritage Site. The Tourism and Culture Authority-run site holds a network of shaded walking trails that cut through 1,200 hectares of lush grounds. More than 147,000 date palm trees are scattered throughout, producing more than 100 varieties of the fruit that plays such a significant role in the region.
Walking along the trails provides great insight into the traditional practises of the oasis. The area is probably best-known for its amazing aflaj irrigation system – a grid of narrow waterways channel fresh spring water down from the Hajar Mountains and into the oasis. The practise dates back to more than 3,000 years ago, but was only modernised with the introduction of water pumps in the 20th century.
Recently, the TCA has spearheaded a host of developments for the protected site, such as the Eco-Centre, a drop-in educational centre where visitors can learn about the region’s self-sufficient eco-system, and conservation actions underway to protect the area’s natural beauty. The Al Ain Oasis Plaza, which includes restaurants and shops, and the Miniature Oasis, an interactive display that breaks down the workings of the oasis, are two new features that are now open to the public. With so much green space to explore, and the perfect weather to do so, it’s time to dust off your walking shoes and get exploring. Free entry. Open daily 9am-6pm (World Heritage Site), noon-9pm (shops and restaurants). Al Mutawaa, Al Ain.
Al Ain Zoo Another feather in the city’s cap is its well-maintained zoo. A couple of years off from celebrating its golden anniversary, the zoo is home to 180 different species – 30 percent of which are considered endangered – and more than 4,000 animals. From leopards wolves to monkeys, tigers, rhinos, gorillas and crocodiles, you’re sure to spot your favourite. Animal-lovers will be pleased to know that there’s an emphasis on safety, space and comfort for all the animals.
The zoo’s newly designed safari experience takes you out in a Jeep and brings you face-to-face with a host of native African animals – a variety of antelope, zebras and lions. Make sure to stop to feed the giraffes. It’s great fun (until your hand gets covered in their dribble).
But it isn’t just about having an up-close and personal experience with these majestic beasts. Al Ain Zoo runs various conservation programmes, workshops and volunteer experiences to educate the public. A trip to the zoo is a great learning experience, not just for the kids, but for us grown-ups, too. From Dhs30 (adult), Dhs10 (children aged three to 12), free entry for children under three. Open Sat-Tue 8am-9pm, Wed 8am-9pm (from 3pm is ladies only), Thu-Fri 9am-10pm. Nahyan The First Street, www.alainzoo.ae (800 966).
Al Jahili Fort Standing firm and overlooking the city since 1891 is the sandy-hued Al Jahili Fort. As one of Al Ain’s most recognisable landmarks, you’ve probably already seen it in picture postcards of the city. Built to defend the city from attacking forces, it also served as the headquarters of the Oman Trucial Scouts, who were saddled with maintaining internal-tribal peace for decades. Over the years, the fort has gone through a few restoration phases. (Understandably, seeing as it has been around for more than 125 years.) Visitors are free to explore the grounds at their leisure, and are even permitted to climb to the top for a great view of the surrounding palm groves.
History buffs should drop by the permanent exhibition dedicated to Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
An English explorer and travel writer, he traversed the vast Rub’ al Khali desert (The Empty Quarter) with a group of Bedouin people back in the 1940s, on his journey from Salalah (in the south of Oman), to Abu Dhabi. The exhibition includes the photographs that he took to document the journey and some of the treasured possessions that he travelled with. Open Sun-Sat, 9am-5pm, Fri, 3pm-5pm, closed on Mon. Al Mutawaa area, close to Al Ain Rotana.
Green Mubazzarah Park Located at the foothills of the grand Jebel Hafeet Mountain, Green Mubazzarah Park is just another reason why Al Ain deserves its title of The Garden City. Its sprawling lawns make it an ideal picnic and barbecue location. And if your feet need a little perk-up from the drive over, you could always dip your toes into the hot springs, as you breathe in the cool mountain air. Just make sure to test the water first, as temperatures can get quite hot. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, splash and soak the day away in one of the segregated pools nearby. You could even pitch a tent in the designated area and spend a night at the base of Jebel Hafeet. Free. Jebel Hafeet.
Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium Okay, so it isn’t Camp Nou or Wembley Stadium, but Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium is considered to be one of the most advanced and sophisticated sporting venues in the region, yet took just 17 months to complete.
The home of the mighty Al Ain FC, its tiers of seating can fit in about 25,000 cheering fans. Who, let’s face it, have plenty to cheer about at the moment. The team has won 33 titles, making them the most successful club in the UAE.
The stadium’s unique outer façade has been inspired by, you guessed it, the humble trunk of the palm tree. It’s fitted with LED lights that, when fully illuminated, provide quite the photo opportunity. But its architectural prowess doesn’t stop there. It’s the only stadium in the world with a roof that’s able to provide shelter to every spectator in it – something that is much-needed in this part of the world.
While Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium does not conduct regular tours, the venue is still open to organising company events, school trips and large-scale private visits on days when there aren’t matches scheduled. But we suggest you don the purple and white scarf and drive down for match day. Unless, of course, you root for Al Jazira FC or Al Wahda FC. Dhs10 (match ticket). Timings vary. Al Tawia, www.hbzstadium.ae.
Hili Fun City Affectionately referred to as the Disneyland of the region, Hili Fun City first opened its doors in 1985. The original theme park of the GCC, a quick flip through its guestbook will reveal many famous visitors – from royalty to local celebrities.
In 2009, it had a bit of a face-lift, re-opening with new and improved rides and plenty of activities for one and all. Its attractions can be split into three broad categories – kid-friendly, family-friendly and those for thrill-seekers.
The family theme park also includes an Olympic-sized skating rink, which allows hopefuls to live out their Michelle Kwan dreams. And when it’s time to refuel, you can head over to the various on-site eateries for a meal. Dhs50 per person (adults), free (kids under 0.89 metres). Fri and Sat 4pm-10pm; Mon-Thu 5pm-10pm. Wed (ladies only). Ardh Al Jaw Street, www.hilifuncity.ae (03 784 5542).
Jebel Hafeet The UAE isn’t all just desert and sandy dunes, you know. In addition to its many oases, it’s also home to some lofty peaks. Measuring in at 1,240 metres, Jebel Hafeet stands tall as the country’s second-highest peak, straddling the boundaries between the UAE and Oman, and accessible from both countries.
There are a few ways to reach the top of the mountain. The easiest and most common is to navigate the winding 11-kilometre road by car. The drive is smooth sailing, as long as you’re confident enough to steer around the curvy bends. Many fitness freaks have been known to cycle up the rocky limestone mountain.
(We, ahem, do not fall into that category.) Needless to say, the view from the top is simply breathtaking. And if you make it there in time for sunset, make sure your camera’s battery is fully charged. Then, stick around for a few moments and watch the zig-zagging road beneath light up. Free. Jebel Hafeet.
Qasr Al Muwaiji Qasr Al Muwaiji was built in 1946 and was the birth-home of the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first President of the UAE and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and his family. It was also the base from which he governed, as well as resided. After the family moved to Abu Dhabi in 1966, the condition of the empty building deteriorated. But, over the years, it was restored to its former glory, before being reopened for public tours. A permanent exhibition is now on display, telling the tale of life in the palace, and the stories behind its construction. It serves as great insight into the history of the founding family. Free. Open Tue-Thu 9am-7pm, Fri 3pm-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Mon closed. Qasr Al Muwaiji, E22 Road, Sharet Al Muwaiji area (03 767 4444).
Souq Al Qattara No visit to any Emirate would be complete without visiting a souk. Souq Al Qattara dates back to the mid-20th century, and although it was recently renovated, it has managed to successfully preserve UAE culture. Step into its weekend bazaars and watch local artisans spin away at their potter’s wheel or weave beautiful rugs. Be sure to browse the wide array of traditional items such as cooking tools, spices, incense, coffee and local dates. The souk is connected to the Al Qattara Arts Centre, which serves as a space for locals and tourists to learn about the country’s rich history and culture. Free. Open daily 8am-1pm, 4pm-10pm. Friday markets: Thu-Sat 10am-1pm, 4pm-10pm until May.
Wadi Adventure Everything is bigger and better in the UAE, with Wadi Adventure being testimony to that fact. The adrenaline-pumping waterpark boasts the world’s longest man-made white-water channels, as well as claiming the world’s largest surf pool. In addition to trying some record-breakers, visitors can also surf or wakeboard down the wave-river, paddle with your mates in a raft, or go solo in a kayak. The park has even packed in a family swimming pool and kids’ splash pool, which are heated in winter and cooled during the warmer months. Wadi Adventure has more than water activities on offer, too, with the Air Park seeing visitors sliding across a zip-line, rock-climbing and swinging through mid-air on Donâ, the giant swing over the lakes. We suggest you mark out a whole day to make the most of this fun centre. Dhs50 per adult, Dhs25 for kids under 1.2 metres. Open Sat-Thu 11am-8pm; Fri 10am-8pm. Select activities can be booked in advance. Jabel Al Hafeet Street, Jebel Hafeet. www.wadiadventure.ae (03 781 8422).
A calendar of culture
Our pick of upcoming events in Al Ain to mark the dates in your diaries for
World Heritage Day Mark the occasion of World Heritage Day with family workshops, seminars and talks to celebrate Emirati heritage. Free. Apr 20-21, 5pm. Al Ain Palace Museum.
Travel through our Traditions This event will bring different nationalities together and allow guests to experience Emirati culture first-hand. Visitors will spend time with Emirati women in their homes and on their farms to discuss their way of life. Free. May 3 and 10. Various locations across Al Ain.
Abu Dhabi classics Enjoy a classical recital from the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse with Tugan Sokhiev and Edgar Moreau. The inspiration for this show comes from the stories of 1001 Nights. The concerts will include pieces from French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Danish musician Carl Nielsen and Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. From Dhs30. May 3, 8pm. UAE University Great Hall, Crescent Building, Al Ain, www.ticketmaster.ae.
World museum week Fans of all things old will love this week-long event detailing the history of museums in the UAE, which is taking place in collaboration with museums from across the Emirates. Free. May 16-18. Various locations across Al Ain.
Comic Art Exhibition If you love illustrations, animation and pop art, this is your chance to have your work displayed at a community exhibition. Free. May 22-July 29, 5pm-9pm. Al Qattara Arts Centre.