Our neighboring emirate of Sharjah seems to be a bit of an enigma for some, the undisputed source of Dubai’s relentless traffic for others. And then there are those, including we at Savoir Flair, who see Sharjah for what it truly is: a city packed to the brim with cultural and culinary experiences just waiting to be discovered. Here, we’ve put together a 12-hour itinerary – artistic institutions, hidden gems, new openings, and all – that proves why you should drop all your Dubai-based plans this weekend and head northeast instead.
Have a light dinner the night before and arrive hungry at the impossibly chic Fen Café & Restaurant. Located within the premises of Sharjah Art Foundation, this veritable hidden gem places as much emphasis on the presentation of food as it does on its taste – rather apt considering the word “fen” translates to “the art of”. Here, contemporary furnishings contrast beautifully against the traditional surroundings, but it’s the breakfast dishes that you’ll rave most about.
Eggs are cooked perfectly to your liking, the avocado toast is drizzled with truffle honey and a balsamic reduction, chia pudding is taken up a notch with yogurt flakes and chunks of Manuka honey, and lamb prosciutto with blackberries and grilled halloumi cheese makes for an unexpected combination that works. While the selection of tea and coffee is brilliant, the ‘Ube Latte’ is the one to try. Made with purple yam and condensed milk – which admittedly may not sound appetizing, but really is – the drink has a rich violet color and practically feels like dessert.
Burn off the breakfast calories by taking a stroll around the Sharjah Art Foundation neighborhood, where urban gardens, multiple exhibitions, and endless photographic opportunities await – particularly as the art and cultural institution is located within the Heart of Sharjah heritage area. Many of the buildings in this vicinity are former Emirati homes that have been restored over the years, so traditional courtyards, coral walls, narrow alleys, and hanging lanterns translate to a real sense of nostalgia.
Throwback vibes continue with a trip to Souq Al Arsah, which is located just minutes away. Considered one of the oldest souqs in the UAE – if not the oldest – it is home to old-fashioned little stores that sell antiques, handicrafts, herbs and spices, bridal chests, incense, and all manner of kitsch – all made easier to browse as the souq is now air-conditioned.
Especially popular is the discreetly located Al Omani Sweet Factory, which both produces and sells the beloved Omani halwa that pairs wonderfully with strong Arabic coffee, but be warned: it closes at about 2 p.m. unlike the rest of the souq, which is open until 9 p.m.
By now, you’ll want to cool off, and it just so happens that the UAE’s first ever soda is just a four-minute walk away. Dukan Namlet is the definitive stop at Souq Al Shanasiyah. For one, it’s one of the few places in the country where you can give Namlet a try. The drink – often unheard of by most residents – dates back to the 1920s, when trade between India and UAE flourished. It had just about disappeared by the 1980s, and has only recently returned. Not only are some of the flavors downright creative – pomegranate, kiwi-lemon, and blackberry included – but the quirky codd-neck bottle also makes Namlet a culinary experience on its own.
And if you’re the type to consider a city unexplored without a pit stop at a specialty café, the nearby Ratios Coffee is where it’s at. It overlooks Sharjah Creek and proudly features décor elements that have been reclaimed from a 60-year-old dhow that was used by traders moving merchandise between the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea – not a shabby spot in which to sip a cup of single-origin coffee.
For some, the name eL Seed needs no introduction. For others, here’s a brief one: the French-Tunisian artist uses his work to promote cross-cultural tolerance and specializes in what is known as “calligraffiti”. His larger-than-life murals can be seen everywhere from Cairo’s Garbage City to a bridge in Paris, a rooftop in Rio de Janeiro, and the minaret of a mosque in Tunisia – and Sharjah. An abandoned building serves as the canvas for the artist’s first piece of public art in the UAE.
His mural draws inspiration from a poem by 19th century Iraqi poet and calligrapher Ahmed Bu Sneeda, who spent most of his life in Sharjah. eL Seed has compared it to social media as the poem represents a one-sided conversation with a loved one. The building is located just next to Souq Al Shanasiyah, but enter Al Arabi Toys Centre into Google Maps if you get lost.
Sharjah hasn’t gotten nearly enough love as it deserves, but that’s slowly changing thanks to the recent opening of the Rain Room. A four-minute drive from eL Seed’s mural will get you to this site-specific installation that provides an immersive experience of continuous rainfall.
Getting drenched is not a concern though; your movements will trigger motion sensors to pause the rainfall as you walk through the room. You can buy your tickets once you get there, but the Rain Room is incredibly popular (read: usually fully booked), so we highly recommend buying them online here. There’s also a smaller branch of Fen Café here if you need a place to wait your turn.
Take the time to reflect on your somewhat surreal respite from the heat over lunch at Paper Fig, a trendy eatery that will introduce you to the always buzzing University City area. While it’s famed for its decadent desserts – and a signature French toast that is served with a “poppable” sphere of crème anglaise – the menu here is seasonal and inspired by a diverse array of cuisines, making it the ideal choice for a group with fussy diners. Paper Fig loyalists swear by the ‘Poached Chicken on Toast’, as do we.
As temperatures cool, it’s time to move back closer to the corniche and explore the 45,470-square-meter Al Noor Island. Art installations, lighting, literature, and nature collide at this leisure destination that is intended to nurture a sense of peace and serenity – and a rather unexpected discovery in a city as frenzied as Sharjah.
There’s quite literally something for everyone: the egg-shaped “OVO” sculpture offers a multi-sensory experience using water and light, the Butterfly House is home to nearly 500 different species of butterflies in an ornately designed building inspired by its inhabitants, while the Literature Pavilion provides a plush space adorned with calligraphy and cushions to the city’s bibliophiles. The island also hosts jazz performances, photography exhibitions, yoga sessions, and more, so keep an eye out on the upcoming events before your trip to Sharjah.
An eight-minute drive will bring you to Al Majaz Waterfront, the epicenter of entertainment in the city according to virtually every Sharjah resident. It’s here that you can hop aboard a City Sightseeing Sharjah tour bus, ride a water kart or traditional abra in Khaled Lagoon, dine to your heart’s content, visit a musical fountain, and experience a unique perspective through Wafaa Bilal’s The Hierarchy of Being sculpture. Located at Maraya Art Park, this interactive installation contains 15 windows featuring motorized irises and is designed to recreate the camera obscura effect.
Al Rawi, the new kid on the block at Al Majaz Waterfront, is also well worth a visit. Its name translates to “the one who tells stories”, so the multi-use space reflects Sharjah’s literary heritage to a T. Serving the city’s creative community as a restaurant, a retail space, and an events hub, Al Rawi is the definitive place to linger. Design enthusiasts, in particular, will appreciate the many details that accent the property: the woven texture of the handrails is based on the stitching that binds books, the bookshelves are in the center of the floor (and not against walls) to allow light and shade to enhance the space, and a sculptural installation suspended from the ceiling is made using wire-framed books.
A little culinary experimentation never hurt anyone, and the menu at Zushi – another foodie hotspot located in University City – is a prime example of that in Sharjah. Dinner at this contemporary sushi restaurant is not like you’d expect; the signature rolls are topped with the likes of melted cheese, alfredo sauce, Cheetos, Doritos, and Chips Oman – but they work. There are also plenty of conventional options such as the ‘Avocado Royal Tulip’ and ‘Fiery Lava Roll’ alongside. If your prefer your meal with a side of theatrics, the ‘Secret Maki Roll’ (complete with lock and key) is the one to beat. This one’s an instant crowd-pleaser.
And while the selection of sushi is overwhelming in the best possible way, everything else on the menu is just as palatable. Skip the more traditional appetizers in favor of the ‘Beef Tower’ and ‘Cheese Potato Balls’ for starters with a novelty factor, and go straight for the ‘Hakka-San Spicy Noodles’ if tongue-scorchingly spicy is your MO. Sweet relief comes in the form of the beloved ‘Cereal Milk Cake’ – complete with whipped cream and candied corn flakes – with alternatives like ‘Matcha Cheesecake’ and ‘Date Pudding’ giving you a reason (or two) to come back to the city.