Things to see and do in Al Ain – a green city set in the desert just over an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi or Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – range from exploring splendid forts to strolling shady date palm oases.
Al Ain’s locals like to boast that they live in the Garden of the Arabian Gulf. And what’s most arresting about arriving here – especially after the road trip from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain – is the gorgeous greenery.
Here’s our guide as to how to experience the green desert city and the array of things to see and do in Al Ain. And if you get inspired to explore more see our guide to Dubai’s dreamy desert escapes.
Things to See and Do in Al Ain
Palm trees line the wide roads, decorative flowerbeds flourish at roundabouts, and where there aren’t verdant date plantations, there are lush landscaped parks. Low-rise whitewashed villas and townhouses, squat apartment and commercial buildings, and ramshackle old souqs, pop their heads up out of the foliage in between. Al Ain must be one of the greenest cities in the Gulf, if not the Middle East.
The source of all this greenery is a natural water supply – unlike Abu Dhabi and Dubai where recycled water is used to create artificial green spaces. ‘Al Ain’ means ‘the spring’ in Arabic and the city possesses impressive underground water channels and the falaj, an irrigation system dating to 1,000BC.
The invention of the pioneering irrigation system is one of the things that earned the city its UNESCO World Heritage List as a place of Outstanding Universal Value. The others: the date palm oases; Jebel Hafeet, the monumental mountain that watches Al Ain; Al Hili archaeological park; and the round tombs of Bidaa Bint Saud.
Our Guide to Things to See and Do in Al Ain
The Oases of Al Ain
Still in use, the way for visitors to see the falaj is at one of the city’s seven verdant oases. The largest is Al Ain Oasis, the smallest Al Jahili Oasis, and there’s also Al Hili, Al Jimi, Al Muaiji, Al Mutaredh, and Qattara oases.
Al Ain locals love their oases. “The cool, shady oases walkways transport you from the heat of the city to a tranquil haven,” local girl Lama El Khalil of Al Ain’s Falconry and Al Dhafra Festivals tells me.
Indeed, a saunter along the labyrinth of dirt paths that wind through the palm plantations of Al Ain Oasis, in the centre of town, should top your list of things to see and do in Al Ain.
While tourists are allowed to drive along the lanes, it seems a crime to bring vehicle noise here and disrupt the tranquillity of the place. We tried it and we were uncomfortable doing it.
A stroll through the maze-like plantation is much more enjoyable. Under the shade of the towering palms, the temperature seems several degrees lower than out on the streets, and you can inhale the fragrant scent of palm oil.
Peek over the mud-baked walls or peer through an open wooden gate and you will see the simple yet ingenious falaj structure, made of ancient stone, that moves water from the boreholes across the small date farms.
Al Ain has the falaj to thank for its verdant oases and flourishing date growing industry.
Al Ain Souq
Visit Al Ain’s modest fresh fruit and vegetable souk and you will see more stalls selling dates than any other produce. Al Ain’s fresh produce souk may not be as large or as frenetic as Dubai’s, but it’s still worth a wander especially on a busy Saturday morning.
Vendors sit cross-legged on the ground selling fresh vegetables and fruits, many grown at farms around Al Ain, while other vendors are hidden by their pyramid-shaped displays of different types of dates.
Ask a stallholder and they will tell you that dates are more important to Emiratis than oil. Emiratis use any excuse to make a gift of them, just as we might present a box of chocolates or bunch of flowers. When someone gets married or a relative has a baby, Emiratis take huge platters of wrapped dates to work to share with their friends and celebrate. (When I taught at the women’s colleges in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, my students frequently brought them in when their older sisters had babies.)
Locals will also tell you that Al Ain’s dates are even more delicious than those from Saudi Arabia, the largest date grower on the Arabian Peninsula. Al Ain produces over 100 varieties of dates, which you can buy from the souk stalls. Or in the supermarkets, where you’ll also find date jam, chocolate covered dates, date-flavoured milk, and even a fizzy date soft drink.
Al Ain Livestock Souk
The livestock souk warrants a look, especially on a weekend morning when Bedouin farmers come to buy and sell livestock from the backs of their pick-up vehicles in a dusty lot just outside the walls of the oasis.
Craggy-faced old guys in long dishdashas, with khanjars (daggers) hanging from their belts and checked gutras and agals flowing from their heads, walk about the place nonchalantly with a goat or a sheep slung over their shoulders.
A visit to the livestock market can be a little intimidating for females – it’s best for women to wear a long skirt and cover their hair with a scarf or shawl.
Al Ain Camel Souk
Modest dress is advisable for the camel souk also, behind Bawadi Mall, otherwise you can expect the Pakistani and Afghani handlers, squatting at the front of the market in their checked shalwar kameez, their gutra and agals piled high on their heads, to get up and take you by the hand to show you around the animal pens.
All the same, an informal tour is a must to see the handsome long-lashed beasts, so beloved by Emiratis to this day, despite the bitumen highways now connecting Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The camel handlers will tell you that the leggy taupe camels with the big hips are best for racing and that the big-bellied camels are with milk and expecting.
If you’re lucky, you might even see a cute baby camel, still wobbly on its feet, staying close to its mother’s legs so it doesn’t topple over. The breeding bulls are enormous, and the best of all are big and black, and worth a small fortune.
A warning: there’s no shade at the camel market, so you’ll want to cool off afterwards, no matter what time of year you visit.
The Green Mubazarrah
You can see the source of the water that keeps Al Ain fertile at the hot springs of the Green Mubazarrah, where there are a series of streams, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, and even a lake, in a park at the base of colossal Jebel Hafeet.
Families like to picnic and barbecue here on weekends, and you are welcome to join them for a swim in one of the pools or to splash under a fountain, but you’ll have to do as the locals do and stay fully clothed.
From here, you should do the drive up to the top of Jebel Hafeet, something of a local weekend ritual.
Formed some 25 million years ago – although marine fossils found at the base of Jebel Hafeet (Hafeet Mountain) are far older, dating to 70-135 million years ago – the colossal limestone monolith is 1,200m high and 13 kilometres from north to south, and is honeycombed with ancient cave passages.
While the rock mountain looks barren, it’s teeming with life: 118 plant species, 18 mammals, including the Arabian tahr, an endangered wild mountain goat, 140 bird species, including the threatened Egyptian vulture, and ten different reptiles.
Relics found at Bronze Age tombs in its foothills have revealed Al Ain’s strategic position on the crossroads of Mesopotamian trade routes. Al Ain was the main supplier of copper to Mesopotamia and it’s the iron oxide deposits that give the surrounding desert its rust-red colour.
It was in the Iron Age that followed that Al Ain’s inhabitants introduced the falaj, enabling water to be transported from the mountain to the plains.
From the top of Jebel Hafeet, you can appreciate how lush Al Ain’s oases really are. These days, a smooth three-lane road, brightly illuminated at night, snakes to the very top of the mountain, a popular spot to watch the sun set, with sweeping views over the vast desert.
Al Jahili Fort
At the restored Al Jahili Fort, there is a separate round tower consisting of four concentric tiers, inspired by a ruined ancient tower at Al Hili. Al Ain is dotted with many old fortresses, built sturdily to withstand attack from other tribes, but the most impressive in Al Ain is Al Jahili Fort, one of the UAE’s largest.
Built in the 1890s by Shaikh Zayed Bin Khalifa, also known as Sheikh Zayed The First, Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1855-1909, the majestic building served as his summer residence.
Restored in recent years by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which has a major fort restoration programme, the square fortress is now home to a visitor centre and superb exhibition on intrepid traveller, photographer and writer Wilfred Thesiger.
Thesiger, who was a close friend of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s, spent much of his life exploring Arabia, crossing the vast Empty Quarter desert twice in the 1940s.
When you visit, don’t miss the documentary on Thesiger and his Bedouin companions Salim Bin Kabina and Salim Bin Gabaisha, as well as a fascinating film on Al Ain’s history. Both feature beautiful black and white archival footage of the country.
These days, Al Jahili Fort is a focal point for cultural activities, hosting heritage festivals and traditional performances. It has also hosted classical music concert series and international events like WOMAD.
Al Ain’s residents pride themselves on continuing to practise old traditions and social customs – Bedouin hospitability, wedding celebrations, falconry, camel races, and handicrafts – in ways that have changed little, especially compared to the more rapidly-developed cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. That Al Ain retains the essence of a centuries-old culture is something that was also recognised by UNESCO.
While the fort is enchanting when illuminated at night, it’s a delight to wander around in the late afternoon, when the light is golden and the circular tower is the colour of the desert.
Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum
Nearby, Al Ain’s other standout sight is the splendid Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, pictured above, established in the former residence of the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Beloved by all Emiratis, and considered ‘the father of the nation’, Sheikh Zayed is credited with gaining independence from Great Britain in 1971 and unifying the seven Trucial States to form the United Arab Emirates.
Built on the western side of Al Ain Oasis in 1937, it remained the Sheikh’s home until 1966 when he moved to the capital Abu Dhabi, becoming a museum in 2011 on his orders.
Most rooms remain as they were – the majlis (meeting room), kitchen, store rooms, school room, and prayer rooms – and Sheikh Zayed’s Land Rover, which he drove into the desert to visit Bedouin tribes, is parked in the courtyard.
There has been little renovation, because Sheikh Zayed decreed the residence stay as it was to provide an insight into the simple life lived before oil was discovered.
With its austere rooms, minimal furnishings and floor cushions for seating, it’s a far cry from the ornate, monumental Sheikhs’ palaces in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The tower at the main entrance tips a hat to Al Jahili Fort’s concentric tower, while small yet exquisite architectural details, such as the decorative screens and carved stonework, are similar to those in the historic buildings in Dubai’s Bastakiya quarter.
Details aside, the cool rooms, wide verandas, breezy courtyards, and peaceful gardens make the museum a pleasure to visit. Just like the rest of Al Ain.
As Al Ain-born Muna Obaid Al Dhaheri, who works as an education centre manager at the impressive Al Ain Zoo, told me: “Al Ain is the only place to feel the real UAE”.
Given that Dubai already has an indoor ski resort, it only makes sense that a wave park would follow somewhere in the UAE. This new attraction is currently the largest wave pool in the world and has attracted some of the best surfers in the world to try its waves.
There are other activities on-site as well, such as rafting and kayaking and for surfers passing through Dubai on a stopover, it’s worth the drive.
How to Explore Al Ain
Al Ain, with its fresh air and clear blue skies is simply a delight to explore. A car is essential to get between oasis and mountain, museum and fort, but once there, wandering about on foot is fun. Walking is the best way to experience each individual oasis also.
Have you been to this garden city in the desert? Are there any things to see and do in Al Ain that we’ve missed that you recommend?