Deserts and dunes, museums and mountains, history and heritage, culture and cuisine with a generous helping of sunshine and splash thrown in: Sharjah is one of very few destinations that ticks every single box in anyone’s list of holiday ‘must haves’
Sharjah, for me up until this year, has been a name on a motorway sign. Seven letters that I’ve whizzed under countless times while to-ing and fro-ing from Dubai Airport (which I’ve done a lot…loads…my passport has the UAE stamp x 14). A word on a green sign that I’ve never really turned my head up towards and given any thought to.
In my mind, Sharjah was a place you wouldn’t have much business going to, unless of course you were maybe on business. Perhaps a place you’d travel through rather than travel to. The stricter, more traditional emirate, a dry state, surely not a holiday destination for us Brits who work hard and save even harder for our annual ‘fly and flop’ in the sun with a cocktail?
On a scale of 1 – 10 where 10 is a ‘well done, that is the right answer’ and 1 is a ‘are you sure you heard the question?’, I was a zero in terms of my knowledge and understanding of Sharjah. Shamefully. How could I have known so little and assumed so much?
Sharjah is a vibrant metropolis that mixes tradition with modernity. Its bustling capital city sits on the Arabian Gulf surrounded by diverse landscapes; mystical deserts, rocky mountains, lush mangrove forests, calm coastal waters and pristine beaches, all of which present a wide and varied collection of sights and experiences for visitors to enjoy.
The emirate is 40-minute taxi journey from Dubai airport (depending on the traffic); during which you’ll get a quick burst of sensory stimulation as you fly past the neon lights and skyscrapers before travelling on to the coastal road.
Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort and Spa is my destination; a towering sandcastle rising from the shore situated right on the border of Sharjah and Ajman, (I’ve practically done three emirates in an hour…), my new Arabian home from home and every luxury I could wish for; a carpet you can sink your feet into, superking size bed, floor to ceiling windows with a view over the beach, huge bathroom with separate cubicles for wc and shower and a giant egg shaped bath. Luxury that is typical of quality hotels in the emirates, where attention to detail comes as high up the list of ‘must dos’ as impeccable customer service and warm hospitality. With the luxury stay box well and truly ticked, it was time to venture out and find out what Sharjah had to offer.
One of the first places I visited was the Al Majaz Waterfront, which blew all misconceptions I have of the emirate well and truly out of the water. I had imagined an ancient, dusty destination; not breathtaking landscapes, gleaming skyscrapers and a sparkling waterfront, surrounded by lots and lots of green space.
Located in the heart of the city of Sharjah, the waterfront covers an area of 231,000 square feet with stunning scenery overlooking the Khaled Lagoon. Attractions include the spectacular Sharjah Musical Fountain, over 25 international restaurants and cafés, a jogging track, snack and drink kiosks, the breathtaking Al Noor mosque, the Maraya Art Park, Splash Park for kids and a scattering of lush greeneries for relaxation.
Take a trip to the Butterfly House on Al Noor Island, a fairytale like dreamy experience where you’ll see over 500 exotic butterflies fluttering in their natural habitat inside an awe-inspiring structure.
Walk around the island and be transported into a magical state of calm by the sounds of the birdsong, the palm trees swaying in the breeze and the multi-sensory art installations. A 45,470 sq metre magical oasis of solace and tranquillity where art and culture meet nature, just 200 metres from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Step away from the glittering skyscrapers and go back in time as you walk through the doors of Al Fanar restaurant and experience a taste of authentic Emirati cuisine with the ambiance of Dubai in the 1960s, when it was a small creekside town surrounded by an oasis, tents and barasti huts; home to fishermen, pearl merchants and Bedouins.
The walls ooze history and tales from the past. Try the Machboos Deyay, chicken cooked with yellow rice simmered in chicken stock, special Arabic spices and dry lemon and the deliciously dreamy Luqaimat, golden and crisp fried dough balls coated with date syrup.
While you’re in the city, take a stroll along Sharjah’s Cornice St and watch the dhows and boats come and go while taking in the city’s dramatic skyline. Visit Flag Island, home to the world’s largest flag hoisted on a fixed flagpole (the 70 x 35 metre flag stands on a 123 metre pole) and be mesmerised by the gigantic slow motion ripple of the flag in the breeze while having lunch at the world famous Australian gourmet food emporium, Jones the Grocer.
The Flag Island eatery is the first of two sites in Sharjah, a relaxed, contemporary café serving artisan sandwiches, soups and salads, the most amazing cheese selection, pastries and selection of take away and retail items.
Al Qasba is another must see in your city list; a kilometre-long man-made canal which connects the Khalid and Al Khan lagoons, this popular landmark also houses a 60-metre high Ferris Wheel, the ‘Eye of the Emirates’.
Wind your way along the canal, criss-crossing over the brightly painted pedestrian bridges, take an Abra (traditional boat) tour of the canal and lagoons and make a point of stopping at Mediterranean-Lebanese restaurant, Shababeek for a bite to eat either indoors in the restaurant’s bright, airy surrounds; a fusion of Mediterranean landscapes and Arabesque detail, or grab a table on the terrace for a side portion of sunshine.
Inspired by a farm-to-table philosophy, Shababeek (Arabic for window) is known to be the best Lebanese restaurant in Sharjah, offering grill platters, hot and cold meze, kebabs and skewers plus the most delicious and beautifully presented trio of houmous I have ever had the pleasure of dipping a piece Arabic bread into!
For a slice of outdoors activity, visit the East Coast. Sharjah’s terrain makes it an ideal destination for all levels of outdoors enthusiast, whether you’re after something gently adventurous or you want full on adrenalin.
Head to the Al Qurm Nature Reserve, the most northern mangrove forest in the world to while away an hour or two kayaking past sea turtles, Arabian-collared Kingfishers and mud crabs.
Visit Mleiha, nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most important archaeological areas in the UAE and home to Bronze Age tombs, pre-Islamic forts and a wealth of artefacts. Take a trek or desert cycle to the sites or if you’re feeling adventurous, hop in a dune buggy or 4 x 4 for some dune bashing thrills. While you’re out in the mystical, magical red sands, take the opportunity to visit Fossil rock, a top spot for hiking, camping and fossil hunting and don’t forget to stop at Camel Rock for these sunset snaps.
If you’re more of a nocturnal creature, a desert bbq with some stargazing for dessert is an other worldly, unforgettable experience. Sitting on a ‘magic carpet’, surrounded by lanterns, campfires, sand, mountains and stars, the sound of the soothing breeze dancing around you and the warm red sands beneath your toes, you’ll be instantly transported to a chapter from Arabian Nights.
The icing on the cake (or your Luqaimat…) is being able to look through a telescopic lens and get a glimpse of what’s happening ‘up there’ – the blanket of stars and planets in the galaxies beyond. A truly magical interstellar experience – you’ll never look at the night sky the same way again.
Sharjah has a coastline on both the Arabian Coast and the Gulf of Oman, making it an ideal destination for watersports enthusiasts. Visit Khorfakkan on the East Coast for beach fun in the form of windsurfing, jet ski-ing, sea kayaking and sailing or take a deep dive or a shallow snorkel into the region’s clear waters, home to an array of marine species, coral life and even shipwrecks. Treat yourself to a dhow cruise at sunset and watch the dolphins and turtles as you sail past the steep cliffs and dramatic coastline.
Wildlife lovers are spoiled for choice with the many nature reserves, wildlife parks and opportunities to get closer to Arabian wildlife. Sitting in Sharjah’s Desert Park, Arabia’s Wildlife Centre is home to the largest collection of Arabian wildlife in the world such as Arabian leopards, flamingos, snakes, lizards, scorpions, cheetahs and baboons; many now extinct species have a home in the centre.
The Wasit Nature Reserve sits on the outskirts of Sharjah city where the land meets the sea, a landscape of extensive dunes, mud flats, salty lagoons, fresh water pools and over 350 species of resident and migratory birds. A haven for birdwatchers and researchers, visit towards the end of the day and capture the sun going down as you circle the lagoon in a buggy.
The falcon is the national bird of the UAE, a symbol of courage, determination and freedom and you’ll get to know these majestic creatures right up close (very close…) and personal at the Bird of Prey Centre in Kalba. Sitting in the centre’s amphitheatre, you’ll be introduced to trained birds of prey in an entertaining and occasionally heart-stopping spectacle; you can almost feel their feathers as the huge raptors swoop slowly over your head.
The number of museums, galleries and cultural institutions has blossomed in Sharjah in recent years; it’s no surprise that the emirate has been named Cultural Capital of the Arab World and World Book Capital 2019 by UNESCO. Sharjah has become a global hub of art and culture; must visit places include the Sharjah Art Foundation, a flourishing, inspiring arts space located in Sharjah’s historic Art and Heritage Area.
Exhibitions feature the work of Arab and international artists, performances, music, film screenings, and artist talks.
Turn back time as you walk through the magnificent and ornate halls of Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation which houses over 5000 artefacts from the Islamic world dedicated to faith, art, science and technology throughout its four large spaces.
The breathtaking showstopper is undoubtedly the 14-metre gilt central dome (the world’s most expensive dome) and the concave intricate mosaic depicting the zodiac signs and constellations against a night sky. It’s a celestial wonder captured best by lying on the floor beneath.
The Al Noor Mosque is a sight to behold. Standing proud on the Khaled Lagoon at the Buhaira Cornice, the Turkish Ottoman inspired structure is regarded as the most famous of Sharjah’s 600 mosques and undoubtedly the most impressive. Learn more about the Emirati culture and religion and gaze upwards at the intricate arabesque patterns and floral cornices inside the prayer hall on a tour of the mosque – open to the public every Monday at 10am.
Don’t miss visiting the historic old town, the birthplace of Sharjah, to get a glimpse of life in days gone by and see how the area is being restored and revitalised to give visitors the experience of what Sharjah was like more than half a century ago. Meandering through the coral stoned streets, souqs and alleyways of Sharjah’s Heritage Area at night, the smell of oud, rose petals and spices filling the air is the closest you’ll get to experiencing the magic of the past; another world from another time, a meeting point for merchants, captains, pearl divers, tribes and trade. The Heart of Sharjah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 15-year restoration project is the largest heritage project in the region.
Stay at the soon to open Al Bait, a luxury five star hotel which has been shaped and built from the traditional low rise houses in the area, even keeping the names of the original owners and rooms to preserve the past.
As far as the up and coming, new ‘must see, must visit’ destinations go, Sharjah is a fast moving rising star if the recently announced tourism stats are anything to go by. Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development (SCTDA) revealed at the Arabian Travel Market 2018, that last year’s occupancy rate in Sharjah hotels reached 70 per cent, evidence of exponential rise in the number of travellers visiting the emirate.
There’s something about Sharjah that feels entirely wholesome and good. It’s a state that is proud of its tradition, confident about its character and knows ‘who it is’. Sharjah will no doubt earn its well-deserved place in these all-important ‘Places to Visit’ features over the next couple of years.
Whether you’re a travel trailblazer, eager explorer, culture vulture, gastro guru or unashamed fly and flopper, you will get absolutely everything you could wish for in the UAE’s hottest (and coolest), most mystical and magical new holiday destination, and lots more.
Would I go back? My next magic carpet ride is already booked!
Find out more at Visit Sharjah.