Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is an inland oasis city on the eastern border with Oman. It’s known as the Garden City for its palm groves and natural springs. It’s a pretty and ordered town that is easy to get around and is popular with visiting families for its zoo and many relaxing public parks. Historically, Al Ain has been settled since at least 3000 BC, and the museum here does a good job of tracing that long history. It’s this history that has made the Al Ain area the only site in the United Arab Emirates to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This is also an excellent destination for tourists interested in local culture. Top things to do include excursions to the camel market and regular camel racing events. Those with an adventurous streak will enjoy a four-wheel-drive trip up to Jebel Hafeet’s summit.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Al Ain would be in the months from October to April, when the temperature is pleasant and comfortable. One can also choose to visit Al Ain during the months of May to September, when the heat is manageable, and the humidity is low.
Top Places to Visit in Al Ain
1. Jebel Hafeet
The craggy form of Jebel Hafeet (Hafeet Mountain) rises up inland from Al Ain. If you’re looking for panoramic photos over the city and surrounding desert then a trip to the summit should be at the top of your sightseeing list. At 1,240 meters, this is the second highest peak in the United Arab Emirates, and the highest in Abu Dhabi. The drive up here, following a winding mountain road, has plenty of scenic viewpoints, and from the summit, the entire region is spread out beneath you.
2. Al Ain National Museum
The Al Ain National Museum, housed in the Sultan Bin Zayed Fort, does a good job of bringing the heritage, culture, and history of the United Arab Emirates alive. There is a particularly interesting ethnographic section reflecting the daily life of the region’s people, with a reconstructed traditional majlis and exhibits of traditional garments and Bedouin jewelry. In the archaeological section are displays of local artifact discoveries, which date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, including pendants and an important coin collection. The main attraction of this section, though, are the exhibits from the nearby Hili Archaeological Park, including the restored Grand Hili tomb unearthed at the site.
3. Al Ain Palace Museum
The Al Ain Palace Museum is the former residence of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan and his family, who went on to become the first ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The interior has been finely restored to reflect what the palace would have looked like when the Sheikh called it home. Unfortunately, information throughout the rooms is sparse for those who don’t speak Arabic. Nevertheless, the interior decoration really does give you a good idea of the style of life that was led here.
4. Al Ain Zoo
Opened in 1969, Al Ain Zoo is one of the United Arab Emirates’ largest animal enclosures. Endemic mammals such as the Arabian antelope and oryx can be seen, as well as African gazelles, giraffes, and eland. The big cat enclosures feature lions, tigers, pumas, black and spotted leopards, and jaguars. There is also a monkey compound, aviary section, and reptile house. The zoo is famous for its research facilities, particularly the breeding program for endangered native animals, with more than 30 percent of the species that can be seen here currently on the endangered list. The zoo’s latest venture is the Al Ain Safari – a 217-hectare extension where African and Arabian Gulf animals (including some critically endangered species) live in a more natural environment. Visiting this section of the zoo is by jeep or truck tour only. There are plenty of family-friendly features including a petting zoo; giraffe feeding activities; camel rides; and a children’s garden, which encourages biodiversity learning.
5. Al-Jahili Fort
This interesting fortress, surrounded by some tranquil, shaded gardens, dates back to 1891 and was once an important defensive feature protecting the town from attack. Today, it’s one of Al Ain’s major points of interest, and inside its stocky golden-bricked bulk, you’ll find an exhibit devoted to photographs depicting the life and work of British adventurer, desert explorer, and writer Wilfred Thesiger, with a particular focus on his journeys into the Empty Quarter during the 1940s. The fort’s ramparts and towers can be climbed for views, and a video explains all about the fort’s restoration in the information center.
6. Wadi Adventure Park
This surfing, kayaking, and white water rafting water park contains the world’s largest artificial surfing wave (measuring 3.3 meters), three levels of white water rafting rapids catering for absolute beginners as well as experienced rafters, and a long kayaking channel. As well as a fun day out for adventure seekers, this is the top spot in the UAE to learn how to surf, kayak, or white water raft. As well as the three main activities, there’s an Air Park with zip lines, balance beams and a giant swing, a climbing wall, wake boarding facilities, and a family pool area for when you just want to relax.
7. Camel Market
Al Ain’s camel market is an excellent chance for travelers to experience a taste of traditional local culture. The market is a little stinky (unsurprisingly), but if you can handle the smell, a visit here is a truly fascinating experience that has yet to be trussed up for the tourists. This is the last remaining camel market in the United Arab Emirates, and people from across the region head here to buy and sell. You are free to wander around at will and watch people bartering over the camels; don’t take any notice of men who may approach you on entering and insist that you need a guide.