Although glittering Dubai and Abu Dhabi may get most of the attention, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) actually offers seven other fascinating emirates. I recently had the chance to visit Sharjah, an absolute gem and perhaps the cultural heartland of the UAE. I spent an incredible four days getting to know the city, from the intriguing museums to bustling souq, and came away with a deep appreciation for this hidden jewel.
Where is Sharjah?
Sharjah is the third largest emirate (similar to a state, but ruled by a monarch), and borders Dubai. It is located on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, overlooking the Persian Gulf.
How to get to Sharjah
The proximity of Sharjah to Dubai means that it is very well-connected to the rest of the world. We caught a seven-hour direct flight from London Heathrow to Dubai with Emirates, and from there it was a 30-minute drive to our hotel in the heart of Sharjah.
The 4 Night Itinerary
Unfortunately, our flight out of London was delayed, which meant we arrived in the United Arab Emirates a little later than we’d planned. This meant it was about 9 pm by the time we reached our hotel, Al Bait Hotel in the heart of Sharjah.
Although we were a little later than intended, it gave me the chance to take in the sight of the dazzling city at night. Although Sharjah is smaller than Dubai, it is still an impressive metropolis with many glamourous buildings.
Soon, I had my first glimpse of the hotel, which immediately impressed me with its exterior which weaved traditional Emirati style with modern elegance. Immediately, the friendly staff appeared to help us with our bags and to offer us a traditional non-alcoholic drink (and chocolate with popping candy!) as we organised the formalities of checking in.
Immediately after checking in, we were escorted to the hotel restaurant where there was an incredible 5-course menu planned for us. Much like the hotel itself, the innovative menu offered traditional Emirati methods and flavours with a modern twist. All the food was utterly sumptuous, but I particularly loved the spiced cured salmon, and the thyme and garlic dish. Another highlight was that the menu itself was edible!
The incredible dinner was an excellent introduction to Sharjah. I then retreated to my room for a good night’s sleep (I will share more about the hotel later, at the end of this article!).
The next morning I woke early, totally rested after a good night’s sleep and excited for our city tour.
I first had a tasty breakfast from the hotel restaurant and then met our tour guide Ms Shada in the hotel lobby. Helpfully, our hotel couldn’t have been more conveniently located for our first stop – it was right behind the hotel, with a direct entrance!
This stop was to the ‘Heart of Sharjah’ area, which is currently undergoing the most massive restoration project in the UAE. Every effort is currently being made to carefully restore and revitalise the beautiful heritage district so that visitors can come by to enjoy the beauty and history. So far, it is certainly paying off; it has already been placed on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Part of the Heart of Sharjah are the bustling Souq Al Arsa and Souq Al Shinasiya, both traditional large marketplaces. While visiting, we met two wonderful local ladies who offered us Arabic coffee and dates, before sharing information about their culture and traditions.
They then led us around the Souq, showing us the lovely shops. One highlight was tasting halwai, a scrumptious traditional dessert, at a traditional sweet shop where it was made before our very eyes. We also had the chance to speak to some local people about Sharjah and its history, as well as the recent developments.
After a wonderful visit to the souqs, it was on to the Al Noor Mosque. There are over 600 mosques in Sharjah, however, the Al Noor Mosque is one of the most exquisite, and was also the first to open its doors to non muslim visitors. They take great pride in helping visitors to learn more about the local culture and religion.
The inside of the mosque was actually closed during our visit; however, the exterior was exquisite, with many beautiful details.
From here, we moved on to Al Noor Island. Even though it is so close to the Heart of Sharjah, it has a very different feeling about it. Deep blue waters lap at the shores, while inland is covered in lush foliage – all the while offering views out over the Sharjah skyline. Nestled around the Khalid Lagoon, Al Noor Island offers a maze, many artistic sculptures and (my favourite!) beautiful butterflies. It was a lovely place to stop and breathe in the unique atmosphere.
The next stop on our itinerary was the Rain Room. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, however, it ended up totally enthralling me and being the highlight of my time in Sharjah. It was truly spectacular.
The Rain Room is a fantastic art installation created by two German artists, which was exhibited in London, New York and Los Angeles before finally finding a permanent home in Sharjah. Amazingly, it allows you to walk through the pouring rain without getting wet!
Basically, by using motion sensors, the downpour stops in the exact area where you are, meaning you are surrounded by water, but totally dry. It makes for an incredible experience and absolutely stunning photographs!
By this time, it was time for lunch, and we’d all worked up quite the appetite. We headed for lunch at the Al-Fanar restaurant at the Al Majaz Waterfront, which is a traditional Emirati restaurant. I loved the warm ambience of the restaurant, and the views over the lagoon were stunning. It was a lovely setting to try different traditional dishes such as baby shark, biryani, halwa, falafel and chicken curry.
Following our lovely lunch, we returned back to our hotel to enjoy some downtime. After a tour of the hotel, I had some time to relax poolside before we got ready to visit the Sharjah Light Festival.
The Sharjah Light Festival was one of the main reasons why we were visiting Sharjah and having read about it; I was so looking forward to soaking it in. The festival began in 2010 and has been held every year since then. Every year, buildings and venues across the city become a kaleidoscope of incredible illuminated artworks, all around a common theme. In 2019, the 9th annual festival, the theme was culture and family.
I was totally dazzled by the show and its size and intricacy. As the artworks are held in 17 different locations around Sharjah, it is also an amazing opportunity to explore the city. The sight of stunning architectural wonders like the Al Noor Mosque illuminated with the beautiful artwork was truly beautiful. I particularly loved how the artists weaved elements of culture through their works, celebrating Sharjah’s history, culture and traditions in a very modern way.
We first stopped at The Municipality to see the incredible lights, before moving on to Palm Oasis, Carnival, Al Qasba and then the Al Noor Mosque. Each was so beautiful, and I was utterly dazzled. For dinner, we joined the Sharjah Light Festival Gala Dinner. It felt like New Year’s Eve in February, as we were thrilled with an incredible aquatic show featuring a 200-metre-long water parade. It was absolutely magical, with fairies, horses, fire, petals and more. It was so creative, and completely captivating. I felt so lucky to see the incredible show.
With amazing memories and photos of the Light Festival, it was time to return back to our hotel for the night.
On our third day in Sharjah, we checked out of our first hotel and then travelled to the Mleiha Archaeological Centre. There’s a modern visitor centre around one of the UAE’s most important archaeological sites which has a mind-bendingly long history. Much evidence has been found of human settlement in the area from at least 8000 BC, while scientists believe that it also suggests that modern(ish) humans were in the area between 130,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Items found at the site have helped scientists, historians and anthropologists to better understand humanity as a whole. I, too, got to learn more about this through our tour of the visitor centre and then the western and eastern zones of the archaeological sites, including the Valley of Caves trek.
After the fascinating visit to the archaeological centre, it was on to the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre. Located at the foot of the Hajar Mountains near Kalba, it is devoted to preserving the mountain habitat and the wildlife that lives amongst it.
Next, we headed to the desert region in Mleiha. We had such a fun tour of the area from a jeep, cruising over the Mleiha’s amazing red dunes. We even did some “dune bashing”, careering up the side of the dune and then flying down the other side. It was such exhilarating fun, especially as I love the desert!
Eventually, we arrived at the Fossil Rock, a massive rock formation that is visible from up to 25 km away. At the base of it, there are many different animals such as oryx and gazelle. We spent some time admiring the rock, before we headed to the visitor centre for a quick lunch, and then on to our new hotel, the Kingfisher Lodge.
The Kingfisher Lodge is situated along the East Coast of Sharjah, which is one of the most unique landscapes in the UAE. Sharjah is the only emirate that stretches along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, making it a unique view. This area is particularly famous for having unusual pale-pink pearls, which made the emirate extraordinarily wealthy in the 7th century. In fact, divers would risk life and limb to retrieve them from the shark and jellyfish infested waters!
Today, the main attraction is the beautiful landscape, offering dramatic mountains, mangroves and sandy white bays flanked with cerulean seas. It’s no wonder that it was selected as the sight for the UAE’s first ecotourism development, Kingfisher Lodge.
The lodge offers an ultra-luxurious “camping” experience in 20 beautiful, well-equipped tents. Nestled in the heart of the desert, it has such a beautiful atmosphere that is elegant and luxurious, yet so peaceful and relaxing.
Our dinner under the incredible sky, enjoying the warmth of the crackling bonfire and the excellent live entertainment, was another highlight.
On our final day in Sharjah, I woke up to see the sun rising up over the ocean, casting an almost magical glow over the surroundings. It made enjoying breakfast such a wonderful experience, and I felt so lucky to enjoy this spectacular landscape.
The lodge offers an amazing variety of activities, including Kayaking, Stand Up Paddle Boarding, and turtle watching. We were taken on a guided tour of the lodge and stopped to spot some turtles, which certainly didn’t disappoint. I was delighted to see a few turtles wandering over to the mangroves, and then swimming along. If you love turtles, you’re sure to enjoy this experience!
After the delight of seeing the turtles, it was time to check out of the lodge and head onto our next stop – the Sharjah Car Museum in Sharjah city. The museum has more than 100 types of vintage cars manufactured from the beginning of the 20th century. It was interesting to see the evolution of both cars, as well as the collection.
The next stop was lunch at the Sharjah Shooting Club. The lunch was really tasty, and I was also intrigued by how much there was to do at the club – rifle and pistol shooting, paintballing, tennis and basketball are some of the more active options, while there’s also a luxurious spa and heated outdoor pool as well.
Following our lunch, we stopped by the Al Manhatta Museum, which explores the history of flight from the first UAE built airport, which opened in 1932. We then visited the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. Since opening, the museum has welcomed guests to find out more about Islamic culture and history through a collection of more than 5,000 historical artefacts.
We then moved onto the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. The first Sharjah Islamic Museum opened its doors in the Heritage Area in 1996. Its extensive collections were moved to the impressive building of the traditional Souq Al Majarrah to be reinterpreted and redisplayed. The new Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization was opened on June 6, 2008. The museum covers Islamic culture with more than 5,000 artefacts from the Islamic world.
After learning fascinating facts about Islamic culture, it was time to visit the Sharjah Aquarium, which has 20 large tanks with all kinds of marine life including clownfish, seahorses, eagle rays and even reef sharks. There’s a lot of information about the animals themselves, as well as the habitats that they thrive in.
After our very full day, I was pleased to enjoy a wonderful dinner at Jones the Grocer on Flag Island. The island offers many attractions such as an open-air amphitheatre, while the restaurant offers western comfort foods. It was a nice little touch of home that I really enjoyed!
We finally checked into the Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort and Spa, before leaving early the next morning for London.
Where I stayed in Sharjah
Heart of the city to experience local culture
Al Bait Sharjah
This was my favourite hotel, as I just loved the way that it was very traditional yet luxurious, and modern yet charming. Also, the location was absolutely perfect for enjoying the best that Sharjah has to offer. I stayed in the Deluxe Patio Room, which was beautiful and cosy; I just loved the charming decor.
I loved this luxurious new ecolodge on the beautiful east coast, with its relaxing and peaceful atmosphere. I stayed in the Luxury Sea View Family Tent, sharing the bedrooms with three others, and it was incredible. The “tent” is so luxurious, just like a well-appointed hotel room, but with a unique approach. I especially loved the pool, which was perfect for cooling off after a day exploring the desert.
City Beach Location
Sheraton Beach Resort
For the final night, I stayed in a Deluxe City View Room which had a huge king-sized bed as well as a cute balcony. The hotel enjoys a fabulous beachfront location, and the decor is luxurious and opulent. It was another great hotel that is ideal if you want to make the most of Sharjah’s beach.
What to wear in Sharjah
Like in most of the UAE, people tend to dress quite modestly in Sharjah; think long, loosely fitting clothing, especially in public areas like shopping malls and the city. Not only does this respect the local culture, but it is also perfect for the warm temperatures that are common in Sharjah.
Within hotels and resorts, things are more relaxed and swimwear is acceptable at hotel pools, waterparks and private beach areas. Outside of this, nudity is strictly forbidden, and questionable pictures and slogans on clothing can also offend.
Women are not expected to wear Islamic attire such as headscarves, except when visiting mosques. Often hijabs and abayas (traditional robes) will be provided at the mosque.
Sharjah really is a true gem of the UAE, and it’s no wonder that there is so much investment underway in the stunning region. With jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes, fascinating history and a glamorous city, it’s sure to become a travel hotspot soon. In the meantime, I certainly recommend visiting before the secret gets out!
Disclaimer: This post has been created as a part of a press trip collaboration with Sharjah Tourism Board, but all opinions are 100% mine.