Discovering the Emirates: Things to do in Sharjah
Despite being within a camel’s spitting distance of the international metropolis of Dubai, the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah rarely gets a mention. But it deserves one: branching between the city of Dubai, and a few minor exclaves that remain scattered about the peninsula, Sharjah arguably has more miscellany and intrigue than any other region in the United Arab Emirates. Whether you’re after an authentic experience of local culture, or an intrepid adventure through the rugged Al Hajar Mountains, Sharjah has priority access to it all and is a must see destination if you are discovering the Emirates for the first time.
First things first, it’s important that you wrap your head around the fragmented geography of Sharjah, which is partly what makes it so interesting to explore. While the central region of Sharjah borders the Persian Gulf, Kalba, Dibba Al Hisn and Khor Fakkan are divided up along the eastern stretch of the peninsula. White sandy beaches and crystal waters abound on all sides, and inland roads trail up into rocky mountain passes.
The central seat and capital city of Sharjah is – you guessed it – Sharjah. With such close proximity to the city of Dubai, Sharjah is often overlooked as a commuter suburb and has been relatively untapped by tourists: leaving an unexploited goldmine of culture and local heritage to enjoy.
Downtown plays host to the vibrant Sharjah Heritage Area, which comprises a handful of interesting museums, marketplaces, and preserved historic buildings. Begin by exploring the tiled pedestrian streets, where you can enter authentic Bedouin village homes and restored public buildings. Highlights include the Souk Al Arsah, one of the oldest markets in the entire UAE. This place once buzzed with traders from all over India and Persia flogging their wares, and you can still pick up local handicrafts and souvenir trinkets here today.
If the hustle and bustle of the traditional souk has given you haggling fever, don’t miss out on a trip to the famous Blue Souk: an attractive structure of six uniform domed buildings, each dramatically embellished with geometric window patterns and blue tile mosaics. Otherwise known as the Central Souk, this huge indoor mall is a vision of Islamic art, and houses more than 600 shops selling everything from kitchen utensils to old Persian rugs and Yemeni antique jewellery.
Heading out of the city along the Sharjah-Kalba Road, towards the east-coast exclaves, will lead you through spectacular desertscapes of ruby sand. En route you’ll pass by the landmark Fossil Rock: a rust-red rocky outcrop that marks a popular spot for adrenaline junkies in the desert. Catch them tearing through the dunes on quad bikes and dune buggies – or try driving one of these vehicles for yourself, which are available to hire. The area is also famed for fossil hunting (hence the name) and is great for camping, so you can spend a night beneath the stars.
By the time you reach Kalba you’ll be feeling parched, so cool down in the shady mangroves of Khor Kalba. This mangrove swamp just south of Kalba is the oldest in Arabia, and is internationally recognised as an important wildlife conservation area and habitat for endangered species. Take to the waters in a canoe or kayak with a guided tour, and perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of two of the world’s rarest birds, the White-collared Kingfisher and Sykes’s Warbler, in among the dark green leaves.
When you’ve finished unwinding in the cool swamps, drive a little way up the coast to Khor Fakkan, the next exclave along. There the deluxe resort of Oceanic Khorfakkan Resort & Spa awaits, with its own private beach, luxury spa, and elegant outdoor pool. Guests are encouraged to explore the nearby coves and headlands, and enjoy barbeques on rocky outcrops beside the shore. The hotel also offers a range of water sports with equipment available, and underwater adventures with certified PADI instructors.
Shark Island, located just offshore from Khor Fakkan, is a great option for a daytrip if you want to venture away from the tourism of the mainland. The island’s tranquil white beaches and tropical shallows are ideal for snorkelling and swimming, and you’ll find some of the best dive spots in the UAE nearby. Don’t leave before you’ve taken a 20m hike to the top of the island, and enjoyed panoramic views of this secluded paradise.
The last of Sharjah’s exclaves to tick off your bucket list is also the most historically significant, as the site of one of the great battles of the Ridda wars. You can still visit the battleground on the outskirts today, where more than 10,000 rebels died in 633. Down in the sleepy fishing village of Dibba Al Hisn, there’s little trace of this violent historical conflict; instead, the ebb and flow of daily routine accentuates life’s small pleasures, and puts things in perspective. Watch the fleet of dhows come in late afternoon with their daily catch, while the sun disappears behind the Indian Ocean. The perfect conclusion to your Sharjah adventures.
Written by Elizabeth Gourd