This is how I always reply, when people ask.
It is rare to use the formal name of this country, The United Arab Emirates. It seems long and difficult to pronounce. A bit formal, too. And everybody knows the city of Dubai, but not necessarily the country of The United Arab Emirates.
That does not come as a surprise. Dubai is promoted in all possible ways as the ultra modern Arabian 1001 Nights Tales. It is all about the lifestyle, the opportunities and the endless possibilities of Dubai – and not about the country as a tourist destination, or what the other 6 Emirates have to offer.
And there is no doubt about it: Dubai really is all that the images present it to be. As glitzy, wild, impressive, excessive and decadent as you can imagine. This is just one of the many things that I find so fantastic and fascinating about this city.
But Dubai is also a lot of other things, that are significantly different to the typical tourist-hot-spots of The Burj Khalifa, Jumeirah Beach, Dubai Marina, Burj Al Arab and DownTown. There are parts of the city that do not look like the places you see on websites selling holidays to Dubai. Places where Pakistani, Filipino and Indian workers live in tiny shared apartments. Places where you don’t see women in the street; where the grey smog clogs the streets with its dingy kiosks on street corners. Places where traffic jams are a constant and the trash cans are overflowing. Those places are not shown in brochures or online. It is nowhere near the image that Dubai wants to present through the media.
Personally, I enjoy the hustle and bustle of every day street life and the lively spirit of the “exotic” parts of Dubai, such as Deira, Garhoud, Bur Dubai, Satwa, Oud Metha and Mirdif. But I am not really sure that this is the kind of “exotism” or “charm”, you would be looking for on a holiday to Dubai. It requires a fair bit of persistence to really value the street markets and local flavors, and to appreciate the chaos of certain parts of the city.
In other words, you have to check carefully, when you are planning a trip to Dubai. Travel agencies and holiday websites are taking advantage of the fact that the majority of people have a very limited knowledge of Dubai and of The United Arab Emirates.
In this blog post, I will provide you with an overview of the most popular tourist areas in Dubai – and a couple of tips for less centrally located areas that are more budget-friendly. I will also offer you some insight into what the other 6 Emirates have to offer – or what they don’t offer! – so that it will be easier to make a decision on where to stay during your vacation.
The United Arab Emirates was founded in 1971. The country consists of 7 Emirates – each governed individually by their own Sheikh or Emir. This means that you will find significant differences between the Emirates in terms of rules and legislation – and even though it may look like a small geographical distance to select a hotel in Sharjah compared to a hotel in Dubai, you will find that there are major differences in many aspects!
Dubai is the most famous Emirate and the best known city on the country. To many, Dubai is The United Arab Emirates.
This is where you will find the most popular (and expensive) tourist-hot-spots, such as The Palm Jumeirah, Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), The Walk/Dubai Marina and DownTown Dubai. Here you will find those picture perfect sandy beaches and lagoons, the famous hotels, iconic buildings and landmarks. But this is also where you pay the most to stay.
If you are coming here to enjoy the ultimate luxury holiday, I can only recommend that you choose a hotel in one of the above mentioned areas. You will be close to the beach; you will have the best shopping destinations plus the greatest selection of high end restaurants and delightful eateries around the corner.
If you are looking towards a more budget-friendly alternative – or if you happen to be less interested in the beaches and shopping centers, there is a lot of money to be saved by finding a place a bit away from the Jumeirah districts. I can definitely recommend Al Barsha close to Mall of The Emirates; a bit further away lies Barsha Heights, which was previously known as Tecom – also an acceptable alternative; there are the lovely green business districts of Jumeirah Lakes Towers, Dubai Media City or perhaps even a bit further South in the area of Jabal Ali.
It will mean that you need to take a taxi to get to the beach, to the posh hotels, cultural centers and shopping destinations, but you will find plenty of small shops and kiosks, pharmacies, beauty salons and dining options within walking distance.
So – if it doesn’t bother you to spend 20 minutes in a taxi a couple of times a day, you will get a significant saving by booking a hotel in one of the above mentioned areas. And you get to experience more of Dubai this way, for sure.
I cannot recommend staying at hotels in the areas of Satwa, Dubai Investments Park (DIP), Bur Dubai, Deira, Karama, Festival City, Garhoud, Mirdif, around Dubai Airport or further North towards Al Qusais, Academic City or International City. It is not that the hotels are necessarily of poor quality – and this country is blessed by having hardly any crimes committed, but these are simply areas that will not offer you any of the charm that you would expect on a holiday in Dubai. A lot of the mentioned places are very busy mornings and evenings, and it is not easy to walk out and find cafés and shops that you would like.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the country and by far the largest Emirate. There is still ongoing oil exploration, but you will not really notice this as a tourist. This majestic capital city is more conservative and calm compared to its famous (and at times infamous!) little brother, Dubai.
If you are aiming for a purely relaxing family holiday, I can really recommend Abu Dhabi. Here you will find perfect salt water lagoons for swimming and kayaking; there are world-renowned art museums, the Formula 1 race track, Masdar City, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Qasr Al Hosn and a lot of other cultural offers and tourist attractions. Night clubs and bars are less of a buzz than in Dubai, and so is the restaurant scene. But – if you choose to stay in Abu Dhabi – you will be able to experience the amazing Rub Al Khali Desert, also known as The Empty Quarter. You can go on a day excursion in a 4×4; you can buy a “night in a tent” at a Desert Camp or choose to stay a couple of nights at a luxury resort in the middle of the sandy nothingness. The desert is indescribably beautiful outside of Abu Dhabi. I can also recommend that you do a combined Dubai-Abu Dhabi holiday. It is fun to experience the palpable difference in life style and rhythm between the two cities.
Ajman is a tiny Emirate just North of Dubai. Now we are talking value for money! The distance from Dubai Airport to the coastal luxury hotels of Ajman is insignificant – and you will be seriously impressed but the beach and the beautiful hotels. If you are looking for pure and utter relaxation by the pool or on the beach, and perhaps a day trip to the centre of Dubai to see the main tourist attractions, a holiday to Ajman is a good deal.
Sharjah is one of the main Emirates. Historically, it was the most developed place in the area and this is where you will still find the best universities, the most beautiful mosques, markets and cultural institutions in the country. But Sharjah is also a “dry” Emirate, which means that you will have to drive for at least an hour down South to Dubai to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail on your holiday. And who wants that? If you don’t drink alcohol at all, then it is a possibility to book a hotel along the coast of Sharjah, but the traffic between Sharjah and Dubai is most often hectic, so I really would not recommend this Emirate as a holiday destination.
Umm Al Quwain is a rather over-looked Emirate, when it comes to international tourists – with the exception of guests from the new Russian Republics, who have been sold a holiday to Umm Al Quwain as a “holiday to Dubai”. Those of us residing here in The United Arab Emirates do go there to explore the mangroves and swamp areas full of lively flocks of flamingoes, but it is definitely not a place that I would recommend to any tourists – not even if you are very interested in nature and wildlife. Nothing happens here – it is too far from Dubai – and the hotel standards could quickly disappoint you.
Ras Al Khaimah is an up-and-coming Emirate committed to snatching tourists from its brother Emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ajman. You will find a great selection of hotels placed as pearls on a string on the lovely Al Marjan Island, which is a man-made island just outside of the City of Ras Al Khaimah. If you feel the need for a combined beach-and-city-vacation, I can definitely recommend that you start out by spending a few days in Ras Al Khaimah and then finish off in Dubai. It is a 1.5 hours drive from Dubai Airport – and the reward will be the picture perfect turquoise ocean. Please note that the City Centre of Ras Al Khaimah is dull and uninspiring, so do prioritize a hotel located on Al Marjan Island. This way, you get to see parts of the Hajjar mountain range and the desert en route – and you get a feel for both Sharjah and Ajman, too. However, I feel that it would be a slightly isolated experience of this fantastic country, if you don’t spend a few days in Dubai in conjunction with Ras Al Khaimah, as this Emirate is a bit far for day trips to Dubai.
Fujairah is – as the only Emirate out of the 7 – located right on the Gulf of Oman.
The 6 other Emirates are located on the Western coast, inside The Persian Golf. Fujairah is spectacular with its dramatic grey and brown rock formations, as this Emirate is placed right in the middle of the Hajjar mountain range. The ocean is dark blue and great for both snorkeling and diving. The Emirate offers hotels of a good standard and significantly lower prices than Dubai – and if you are really into active holidays with kayaking, cycling, trekking etc. – Fujairah is just perfect for you! Those of us who reside here, love Fujairah for its laid-back ambience and its natural environment. The down-side to choosing Fujairah is that you can’t just go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi on a day excursion to experience some of the cultural offers, as you could do from Ras Al Khaimah or Ajman – and I do recommend that you combine Fujairah with either Dubai or Abu Dhabi to get a more varied holiday.
Apart from the 7 Emirates that you are now familiar with, I want you to know that there is an amazingly green and tranquil place in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi called Al Ain. Known for its agriculture, lush green terraces, date plantations, a live-and-kicking camel market, as well as the beautiful mountain Jabal Hafeet – this is the place to go, if you enjoy cycling or wish to drive around the countryside and explore on your own. This is the authentic Arabic homeland, and you will soon see how slow and calm life is here, compared to the hustle and bustle of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
There is also an absolutely amazing place called Musandam, which is part of Oman, although it rests “on top” of the peninsula of The United Arab Emirates. Just outside of the small sleepy town of Khassab, you will find wooden vessels that take you into the famous Fjords of Arabia. Right across from Khassab in the Strait of Hormuz, lies Iran in the distance. You can swim in the fjords and enjoy the sights of wild dolphins, so this is really a treat for nature and animal-lovers. At times, there are delays and a bit of hassle on the border between Oman and The United Arab Emirates, but if you purchase this trip as a tourist package from a travel agency at your hotel, you should be fine. You can choose between day excursions or afternoon excursions with an over-night stay onboard. This day trip is good if you are staying in Dubai, Ajman or Ras Al Khaimah. It would be a long journey from Abu Dhabi.
I hope that you find my descriptions of the 7 Emirates helpful in creating just the right mix for the holiday of your dreams.
Greetings from Dubai,
Greetings from Dubai, Tine