I’m tagging this as a travel post, but if you live in Dubai, you don’t have to go far to discover Sharjah – an emirate of contrasts with some prized assets and great-value family attractions.
After moving to the UAE in 2008, it was a couple of years before I stepped foot in Sharjah. My only knowledge of the UAE’s third-largest emirate was gleaned from the traffic reports on the radio, and I couldn’t imagine tackling the congestion myself.
Not only that, but I knew it was dry (as in, no booze), conservative and nothing fancy. Why bother? Better to stay put in Dubai, where the decency laws aren’t so strict and there’s more than enough to do.
Now I know better. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that Sharjah is a gold mine when it comes to entertaining a family. The city’s varied attractions are hidden gems that not only provide inexpensive days out, but are much quieter and more low-key than Dubai’s top tourist spots.
Sharjah might not dazzle with glitz like its neighbour Dubai, but it more than makes up for this with its authenticity.
There are cultural footprints all over the emirate, in the picturesque outdoor gardens, architectural spaces and nature reserves, and at the prominent festivals, such as the Sharjah Biennal art fair and the Sharjah International Book Fair, that draw worldwide attention.
The restored central Arts and Heritage Areas are among the most fascinating neighbourhoods in the UAE, and preserved historical sites abound, from the Bait al-Naboodah museum, a fine example of a traditional Emirati house, to the Al-Eslah School museum, the first formal school in the emirate.
Sharjah’s rich history is also evident in the numerous museums covering Islamic art and culture, archaeology, heritage, science, marine life and the civilization of Sharjah and the region. Among these is the Sharjah Art Museum, the largest art museum in the Gulf housing both temporary exhibitions and permanent collections by renowned artists.
Add to all this some lively traditional souks, the numerous child-friendly attractions and popular corniche and it’s easy to see why Sharjah is a destination that’s worth braving the traffic for (and even that’s not bad at all, if you go the quiet way).
Our top spots
This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of our favourite places to visit in Sharjah. One caveat: Check the opening times of everything mentioned before setting out.
Al-Mahatta Museum: You might also be interested to learn that the UAE’s first airport was opened in Sharjah in 1932, and used as a staging post for commercial flights en route from Britain to India. Built on the site of the airport, the Al Mahatta Museum provides a unique glimpse into what air travel was like in the 1930s – a highlight for my boys being the four fully restored propeller planes displayed in the hangar alongside the original refuelling tanker.
Eye of the Emirates: For panoramic, birds-eye views of both Sharjah and Dubai, take a whirl on the Eye of the Emirates, a 60m-high Ferris wheel with 42 fully air-conditioned gondolas (open in the late afternoon and at night). This landmark observatory wheel is situated in Al-Qasba, which offers car-free strolling opportunities and is particularly busy on Friday night and Saturday. Set along the banks of a canal linked by a twinkling bridge, there’s an upbeat mix of restaurants, cafes and family-friendly fun. You’ll also find a superb contemporary art gallery, the Maraya Art Centre.
Sharjah Discovery Centre: Packed with hands-on gadgets and educational exhibits, this interactive facility comprises seven colourful, themed areas, designed to teach children that science and technology are part of our daily lives. Youngsters can also learn to drive, become a TV star and climb a wall.
Sharjah Classic Car Museum: We love this museum – the iconic exhibits, from the 1915 Dodge straight out of a period drama to the 1969 Mercedes Pullman Limousine (belonging to the Ruler of Sharjah), are truly impressive. In total, there are more than 100 vintage cars, manufactured between 1917 and the 1960s. A fun game to play with the kids is ‘find the petrol tank cap’ – hint, look behind the licence plate (who knew!).
Sharjah Aquarium: Step into an ‘abandoned dhow’ to get up-close and personal with marine-life from the UAE’s west and east coasts. The clown fish, seahorses, moray eels, rays, reef sharks and jellyfish are sure to delight.
Arabia’s Wildlife Centre: Last but not least is this excellent facility at Sharjah Desert Park, showcasing animals found in the Arabian Peninsula. There’s also a children’s petting farm, where the kids can ride ponies and camels at the weekend.