Fujairah's stunning coastline bustles with dolphins, whale sharks and manta rays. (Photo: Creative Family)

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are so dazzling, and represent such a large swathe of the UAE, that it’s easy to overlook the country’s other emirates. But for rich culture and authentic experiences, Sharjah, Ajman and Fujairah are undoubtedly the UAE's rising stars. What's more, they're easily accessible. If you're travelling by car or bus, these three emirates, nestled in the UAE's north-east corner, lie just 1–2 hours from Dubai – and bear in mind that road-tripping this region is an epic adventure in itself, with smooth highways weaving through stark desert-scapes, steep mountain valleys and bustling cities.

From scuba diving with turtles and whale sharks to mountaintop fortresses and treasure-filled museums, here are just some of the reasons to explore the lesser-visited emirates of Ajman, Sharjah and Fujairah.

Culture, history and festivals in Sharjah

Front facade of Sharjah Mosque in the United Arab Emirates

A marvel of symmetry and intricate murals, Sharjah Mosque is open to all (Photo: Sarath Maroli)

Thanks to its plentiful museums, galleries and festivals, Sharjah is arguably the United Arab Emirates' most traditional, heritage-focused emirate, and was designated the UNESCO Capital of Islamic Culture in 2014. If you’re flying into Dubai, keep a look out as the plane descends: arriving flights often have a bird’s-eye view of Sharjah, which sits just to the north of the airport and extends all the way to the border with Oman. It’s a tantalising first glimpse of this under-explored emirate.

Start in the city, exploring the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, whose ceramics, artworks and inventions – including the first clocks and astrolabes (astrology instruments) devised by Muslim scholars – reveal the impressive intellectual advancements of the early Arab world. Before the UAE’s oil riches were discovered, locals used date trees to make everything from honey to houses, and the nearby Emirates Handcraft Centre, set in a 19th-century pearl merchant’s villa, offers a captivating insight into life as it was. A 10-minute drive south brings you to the Sharjah Maritime Museum, where you can delve into the emirate’s seafaring and pearl-diving roots.

Sharjah has a vibrant arts scene, too, with the likes of Maraya Art Centre and Sharjah Art Museum exhibiting both big names and new talents alike, while the Sharjah Art Foundation represents galleries and studios throughout the region. Every two years, art aficionados gather for the Sharjah Biennial, one of the Middle East’s most important cultural events (next in 2023), but the emirate hosts many more spectacular festivals: from illuminated trails at the Sharjah Light Festival (February), to traditional music and dance at Sharjah Heritage Days (March).

With its spellbinding symmetry and intricate murals, meanwhile, Sharjah Mosque is a work of art in itself. It welcomes all faiths, and has a rich library for those wishing to learn about Islam.

Where to stay in Sharjah

Designed in the style of an Arabian palace, complete with soaring archways and ornate wind towers, Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort & Spa is a vision of opulence – and just a few minutes’ drive from the city centre. Inside, luxurious rooms and suites await, many featuring balconies overlooking the two pools or golden beach. As well as the indulgent Shine Spa, there are six restaurants and bars to choose from, many of which are inspired by Sharjah’s maritime roots – such as beach grill Al Qubtan (Arabic for ‘The Captain’), and seafood specialist Marasea – while Arjwan restaurant serves local delicacies galore. Alternatively check in at the Four Points by Sheraton Sharjah, which enjoys a super convenient location downtown.

Hiking, biking and wildlife in Ajman

The UAE's Ajman city is a short drive from Dubai International Airport

In Ajman, you're never far from both big city attractions and pristine beaches (Photo: trabantos)

Though it's tiny in size, Ajman is seriously big on adventure. At just 259 square kilometres, Ajman is the smallest of the seven emirates, yet is jam-packed with opportunities to try water sports and other outdoor activities. It sits on the coast to the north of Dubai, surrounded by Sharjah, and has two tiny enclaves further inland: Masfout and Al Manama. Maybe you’ll kayak through the mangroves of Al Zorah Nature Reserve, spotting flamingos and herons in the wild – or explore the peaks of Masfout, whose valleys and wadis (riverbeds) are perfect for picnics, hiking and adventurous road trips. Masfout is located near the border with Oman, while Al Manama is further north, with a Ajman-focused museum inside its White Fort.

Note that all of the UAE emirates' borders are 'soft', so you won't have to flash your passport or get a new visa as you move between them – and just 40 minutes' drive from Dubai International Airport lies Ajman city, where the ocean hugs a glorious stretch of pristine beaches. With soft sand and sapphire shallows, this coastline is a sun-seeker's dream, yet the city’s attractions and malls are just a short taxi ride away. That’s the joy of exploring this little emirate: you never have to travel far, whether you’re discovering Emirati heritage at the Al Jarah Cultural Centre, wakeboarding at Al Zorah's Wake Park, or watching camels compete in races and beauty pageants (yes, really!) at Al Tallah Camel Racecourse.

Where to stay in Ajman

The perfect blend of nature and indulgence, the Ajman Saray, a Luxury Collection Resort sits on the city’s coast, overlooking a pristine private beach. Mere steps from the shore you’ll find two swimming pools, flanked by statuesque palm trees and parasol-shaded sunloungers, alongside toes-in-the-sand dining at Bab Al Bahr Beach Bar & Grill. This is a popular spot for locals, who love its sea-view sunsets, all-balcony accommodation and sumptuous treatments at ZIHN Spa Ajman. With six bars and restaurants on your doorstep, and lavish décor at every turn, this is the perfect base while exploring Ajman and beyond.

Diving, climbing and ziplining in Fujairah

The UAE's Hajar Mountains are a Fujairah highlight

The mighty Hajar Mountains invite you on hiking, biking or 4x4 adventures (Photo: ZambeziShark)

Want to swim with turtles and stingrays? Laze on beautiful white-sand beaches? And hike, bike and drive through the mighty Hajar Mountains? Look no further than Fujairah. Occupying the majority of the UAE’s east coast, this is one of the wildest emirates: it’s a two-hour drive from Dubai, but is well worth the journey, its coast bustling with dolphins, whale sharks and mantas, especially in the calm blue waters around Dibba Rock.

To discover the emirate's historical treasures, visit Fujairah Fort and the neighbouring Fujairah Museum, which holds 3,000 years-worth of artefacts – including Bronze Age arrowheads and pre-Islamic coins. For superlative hiking, the Hajar range offers routes for all abilities, with cool valley rambles and leg-pumping ascents alike – so hire a local guide to find your perfect route. On your journey into the mountains, stop for an epic picnic at Al Bithnah Fort or Al Hayl Castle: designed for intimidating (and spotting) invaders, these mighty, stone-built strongholds have panoramic views of the peaks.

Where to stay in Fujairah

If you love the great outdoors, you’ll adore Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujairah. In one direction, the Hajar Mountains promise breathtaking hiking; in the other, the glittering sea meets the hotel’s soft sandy beach. There’s a huge array of on-site activities to enjoy here: maybe you’ll try fly fishing, crazy golf, or abseiling, climbing and ziplining on the adrenaline-packed Al Aqah Ropes Course? There's even a PADI-certified scuba school, offering dive trips to nearby reefs and wrecks. After all that adventure, you'll deserve a little me-time at the vast swimming pool, or a restorative massage at Spa Al Aqah – while the eight restaurants and bars include sea-breezy steakhouse Gonu Bar and Grill, and rooftop cocktails at Astro’s.

Published: September 09, 2022

Last Updated: October 04, 2022

Article Tags:  Sharjah , Fujairah , Ajman , United Arab Emirates

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