United Arab Emirates travel guide

It may boast the tallest building in the world, but the amazing thing about the United Arab Emirates is that, within living memory, there was little here beyond small fishing harbours strung along the coast, and vast, empty desert behind them. But while the discovery of oil put the rocket boosters under the emirates’ economy, the country’s leaders are aware that it won’t last forever, and that the fossil fuel era is almost up. That’s why they’re building all those hotels.
The mega-luxury and unbridled capitalism of Dubai and Abu Dhabi need little introduction, but there’s much more to these seven unique emirates than that.
Vacations to the United Arab Emirates shouldn’t be about flaunting designer shopping bags and zipping to the top of the Burj Khalifa. The emirates share an enthralling cultural heritage, as well as many superb wildlife reserves and plenty of activities that benefit both the environment and local communities here.

Find out more in our guide to responsible United Arab Emirates vacations.

The United Arab Emirates is…

not just Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but seven distinct states each with their own unique character and cultural heritage.

The United Arab Emirates isn’t…

somewhere to visit in summer, or if you’d rather not have to adhere to strict religious customs.

Where to go in the United Arab Emirates

Sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Oman, the United Arab Emirates overlooks the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, which are vital for the passage of the oil and gas which give the country its incredible wealth. There are seven emirates, all connected by road – it’s just 250km from the westernmost and by far the largest emirate Abu Dhabi, to the easternmost, Fujairah. Ajman, the smallest emirate, is just 260 square kilometers, with the others being Dubai – its skyline thronged with glittering skyscrapers; Sharjah; Ras Al Khaimah, and Umm Al Quwain. Beyond the cities there is vast, mysterious desert, dotted with oases where biodiversity flourishes. Our United Arab Emirates map and highlights has more details…
Abu Dhabi

1. Abu Dhabi

What do the Arabic outpost of the Louvre Museum, a gigantic sculpture of a coffee pot, and one of the world’s largest mosques have in common? They’re all likely to feature on a cultural tour of Abu Dhabi. The capital of the UAE sits on an island in the Persian Gulf, sustained by the immense oil and gas reserves that have led to architectural feats rivalling those of Dubai.

2. Ajman

The smallest of the emirates, Ajman is surrounded almost entirely by Sharjah. Despite the fact that you could drive across it in an afternoon – and some UAE vacations do – Ajman has several notable cultural attractions, including the world’s largest dhow-building yard. You can see craftspeople at work here shaping these handsome wooden vessels that have sailed the Persian Gulf for centuries.
Al Ain

3. Al Ain

Al Ain in Abu Dhabi is the Emirates’ ‘Garden City’, its lush greenery watered by seven oases and an ancient underground irrigation system known as aflaj which has earned it a place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, the streets of Al Ain with their low-roofed buildings feel a world apart from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Burj Khalifa

4. Burj Khalifa

At 828 metres and over 160 storeys, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. But if you were to pop up to the observation deck on the 124th floor, the lift ride would take just one minute. Dizzy, much? It’s an icon to the worst excesses of capitalism and its carbon footprint is probably on a par with NASA’s for the whole of the 20th century. But still – wow.

5. Dubai

High-end shopping from the world’s biggest luxury brands; influencers posing with their supercars; a ski resort in the desert and a vast artificial island whose boardwalks spell out an Arabic poem – Dubai is a bastion of excess. But there’s more to Dubai than gaudy opulence. Wander the streets of districts such as Al Bastakiya and get a feel for ‘old Dubai’ before the oil money started flowing.

6. Fujairah

Market day in Fujairah, the east coast emirate, is a big deal, drawing stallholders from across the region as well as curious visitors looking to explore one of the UAE’s more authentic souks. Another popular attraction is the 16th-century fort, reputedly the oldest and largest in the country. Imposing on its rocky outcrop, the fort was rebuilt after the British navy destroyed much of it in 1915.
Ras Al Khaimah

7. Ras Al Khaimah

The northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah is just 100km from Dubai, so often serves as a daytrip from that city. A popular base for families, there are many exciting activities in the surrounding desert to enjoy, as well as gorgeous sandy beaches. How does a ride on the world’s longest zip line sound, scaling a mountain face on a via ferrata, or spending the night at a desert encampment?

8. Sharjah

Sharjah is the UAE’s cultural capital, and one of the most interesting parts of the country, where you can stay in traditional heritage hotels the antithesis of Dubai’s luxurious baubles. The Heart of Sharjah is a 15-year preservation and restoration project, repurposing historic buildings in a central neighbourhood to give them contemporary functions such as restaurants, shops and art galleries.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about United Arab Emirates or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Lulian Lambermon] [Is/Isn't: Saj Shafique] [Abu Dhabi: David Rodrigo] [Ajman: Richard Mortel] [Al Ain: trolvag] [Burj Khalifa: ZQ Lee] [Dubai: Surprise Tourism] [Fujairah: Bahnfrend] [Ras Al Khaimah: Surprise Tourism] [Sharjah: yeowatzup]