You could get dizzy with the amount of incredible things to do, see, and explore in the United Arab Emirates. From art galleries to amazing feats of architecture and world records to unique cultural experiences, it can be difficult to determine what is really worth your limited time when visiting. So amid the waterparks, dune bashing, and trips up the world’s tallest tower, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite hidden gems – one for each emirate, to be exact – so that you have the opportunity to see some of the more unexpected and unique sights that the UAE may be keeping secret.
Etihad Modern Art Gallery
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi are probably the most popular tourist destinations of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, however, Abu Dhabi is home to some unexpectedly unique spaces, like the Etihad Modern Art Gallery. There are not many places to see modern art in Abu Dhabi, but this gallery is definitely not to be missed. It is free – although you do have to book in advance because of COVID precautions – and shows some of the coolest pieces in the region. They often feature emerging artists, local talent, and even promising students, plus, the Art House Cafe – which is located right next door and run by the same people – is an experience in and of itself. Recycled materials like suitcases, billboards, and even gas cylinders were used to adorn the entire cafe from the decor to the lights and even the furniture.
Dubai’s iconic skyline is a thing of the future. Each building on its own would be a tourist destination if planted in any other city, but since it’s in Dubai and surrounded by so many unique, interesting, and avante-garde displays of architectural feats, sometimes a single building can be lost. That is why we highly recommend you take the time to visit Zaha Hadid‘s Opus. It is the only hotel that Hadid designed both the exterior and the interior herself, and it is an extraordinary exploration of “solid and void, opaque and transparent, interior and exterior.”
The Buried City
Perhaps the most mysterious thing on this list is The Buried City – also known as the Ghost Village – in Sharjah. Built at some point in the 70s, The Buried City is literally a village buried in the sands of the desert just outside of Madam in Sharjah. Allegedly the neat rows of blue and red houses, along with the mosque, were once inhabited by the Kutbi tribe. Although nobody really knows what happened to them, why they left, or even where they went, some locals say they left because the town was inhabited by a djinn. The desert has begun to claim the small town, and many of the houses – and the mosque – are filled up to the knees with sand. You do need a 4×4 to get there as it is in the middle of the desert, but once there, it is an enigmatic and erie find.
For a different view of the sand, steel, and beaches that the UAE is famous for, make your way to the Al Zorah Nature Reserve in Ajman for a rare and beautiful sight only seen from a kayak. Two kilometers of wetlands and home to over 100 different species of birds – including the resident pink flamingoes – Al Zorah Nature Reserve is covered with one of the region’s most prized natural mangroves. Through guided kayaking tours, visitors can explore the inland waterways and wildlife in one of the last remnants of the city’s forests.
Snoopy Island, appropriately named because it resembles the famous dog from the Peanuts comic strip as he lies on his doghouse, is the UAE’s best-kept secret for snorkelers and scuba divers. Whether you want to gain access to the island via the Sandy Beach Resort and Spa, or you drive up to the free beach next door and swim (or kayak, paddle board, or motor boat) across, the underwater beauty is well worth it. A long-time favorite destination for scuba divers in the UAE, Snoopy Island is home to parrotfish, turtles, sharks, and more.
RAS AL KHAIMAH
The Hot Springs
In many ways, Ras Al Khaimah is itself the hidden gem of the United Arab Emirates, and can often be overshadowed by its bigger, flashier brothers Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But when it comes to really enjoying the country for all it has to offer, RAK has it all: hiking up the UAE’s highest points, adventuring down the longest zipline in the world, beautiful secret beaches, resorts, spas, historical sites, and oh yes, hot springs. Once you’ve hiked through the Hajar mountains and worked your muscles hard, skip the spa and opt for a soothing soak in the mineral-rich and naturally regenerative hot springs at Khatt Springs. It is a popular location for archaeological expeditions (over 170 sites to be exact), so take a look around before jumping in for some rejuvenating fun. One thing is certain, it is well worth the effort to get there.
UMM AL QUWAIN
Look, you are in the UAE, you are going to visit a beach – we hope – at one point or another. However, a little-known fact is that the wide open beaches of Umm Al Quwain are hands down the most beautiful, and relatively untapped, beaches in the entire United Arab Emirates. Unobstructed views, incredible colors, and the best part, relatively no tourists. Kite Beach is probably the most common, as there is a beach hub and restaurant, however, you won’t go wrong pulling over and setting up your own beach tent literally anywhere either. Pro tip: stay till dark, because the lighting is out of this world.