11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Al Ain
The oasis city of Al Ain has a dramatic setting, overlooked by the craggy mountain range of Jebel Hafeet. It's a pretty and ordered town that is easy to get around and is popular with visiting families for its zoo (the city's main sightseeing attraction), and the many relaxing public parks. Historically, Al Ain has been settled since at least 3000 BC and the museum here does a good job of tracing that long history. It's this history that has made the Al Ain area the only site in the United Arab Emirates to be inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
This is also an excellent destination for travelers interested in local culture, with the top tourist highlights being the camel market and regular camel racing events. Those with an adventurous streak will enjoy a four-wheel-drive trip up to Jebel Hafeet's summit, while the surrounding area also offers opportunities for desert dune buggy rides and hang-gliding.
1 Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum
Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum (also called Al Ain Palace Museum) is the former residence of Sheikh Zayed, who went on to become the first president of the United Arab Emirates. The interior has been finely restored to reflect what the palace would have looked like when the Sheikh called it home. Unfortunately, information throughout the rooms is sparse for those who don't speak Arabic. Nevertheless, the interior decoration really does give you a good idea of the style of life that was led here. The building is also the birthplace of the current Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
2 Al-Jahili Fort
This interesting fortress is a gloriously bulky building housing a wealth of information about Al Ain and Emirati history. Of particular note is the focus on the photography of British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, who captured Bedouin life in his images.
3 Jebel Hafeet
The craggy form of Jebel Hafeet (Hafeet Mountain) rises up inland from Al Ain. If you're looking for panoramic photos over the city and surrounding desert then a trip to the summit should be at the top of your sightseeing list. The drive up here, following a winding mountain road, has plenty of scenic viewpoints. From the summit, the entire region is spread out beneath you.
4 Al Ain Zoo
Opened in 1969, Al Ain Zoo is one of the United Arab Emirates' largest animal enclosures. Endemic mammals such as the Arabian antelope and Oryx can be seen, as well as African gazelles and eland. The big cat enclosures feature lions, tigers, pumas, black and spotted leopards, and jaguars. There is also a monkey compound, aviary section and reptile house. The zoo is famous for its research facilities, particularly the breeding program for endangered native animals.
5 Al Ain National Museum
The Al Ain National Museum has a particularly interesting ethnographic section reflecting the daily life of the region's people. Highlights include a reconstructed traditional majilis and exhibits of traditional garments and jewellery. There is also the restored Grand Hili tomb unearthed at Hili Archaeological Park. The archaeological section displays discoveries dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, including pendants and an important coin collection.
6 Camel Racing
Camel racing has taken place in the United Arab Emirates for centuries, and the large 10 km track at Al Ain hosts regular races. Watching the racing is a great chance to see Emirati culture and shouldn't be missed if you're in town when the racing is on. Certain breeds of camel are used for racing due to their slender size, including the white or golden "Anafi" breed and the brown or black "Boushari" breed.
7 Public Gardens
Nicknamed "garden city", Al Ain lives up to its reputation. Throughout the area you'll find lush greenery, which contrasts vibrantly with the dry and parched desert surroundings. There are many public gardens and parks offering welcome shade on long, hot summer days. Many are endowed with weird (and slightly over-the-top) landscaping elements, impressive fountains with lighting displays at night and playground facilities for children. The Central Public Garden in the centre of town is one of the best for a stroll.
8 Hili Archaeological Park
Amid the oasis of Al Ain is Hili Archaeological Park, where archaeologists have excavated finds dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages. Although many casual visitors will struggle to comprehend the site, archaeology-fiends will enjoy the vast sense of history here. It is mostly because of the important discoveries that Al Ain has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The park is amid a protected area and surrounded by a palm tree oasis. Most of the finds from the site are on display at Al Ain National Museum, which does a good job of putting the site into context.
9 Mubazzarah Park
Just below Jebel Hafeet, Mubazzarah Park is an isolated spot of green amid the rocky and dry landscape. This natural oasis has mineral hot springs to soak in and is a favourite spot with picnicking families on the weekends.
10 Hili Fun City
Hili Fun City is one of the largest and most popular theme parks in the United Arab Emirates. The park features over 40 rides including a roller coaster and an elevated sky-flyer. An annual festival, celebrating the culture and history of the Emirates, attracts thousands of visitors from across the region. As with most of the theme parks in the country, Hili Fun City has excellent facilities and caters for families extremely well. Just adjacent to the theme park is the Al Ain Ice Rink, an Olympic sized facility offering skating and numerous children's games.
11 Camel Market
Al Ain's camel market is an excellent chance for travellers to experience local culture. It's a bit stinky, but if you can handle the smell a visit here is a truly fascinating experience that has yet to be trussed up for the tourists. This is the last remaining camel market in the United Arab Emirates and people from across the region head here to buy and sell.
Where to Stay in Al Ain for Sightseeing
For first-time visitors to Al Ain, the best place to stay is in the city center, close to top attractions such as the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, the Al Jahili Fort, and the Al Ain Zoo. The main sights are spread out over a large area, so it's best to explore the city by car. Here are some highly-rated hotels in convenient and central locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Close to the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum and the Al Jahili Fort, the family-friendly Al Ain Rotana Hotel is one of the city's top hotels, with a spa, swimming pool, fitness club, and on-site restaurants. Other popular upscale options are the Ayla Hotel, in the center of Al Ain, four minutes by car to Al Jahili Fort, and the Hili Rayhaan by Rotana, in a quiet location next to the Hili Mall, about 12 minutes drive to the fort.
- Mid-Range Hotels: At the top end of the mid-range hotels, the Hilton Al Ain is packed with facilities, about five minutes by car from Al Ain Mall and a short drive from other top attractions. Across from the new Safeer Mall, about 11 minutes' drive north of Al Jahili Fort, Asfar Resorts Al Ain is a popular mid-range option - especially for families, thanks to its contemporary one- and two-bedroom villas with full kitchens. Dana Al Ain Resort is also in a central location, about a 13-minute drive from the zoo and around the same distance to the camel souk. Shoppers can drive to Al Ain Mall from here in about eight minutes.
- Budget Hotels: Al Ain has limited budget options, but two hotels offer relatively cheaper rates that reflect their basic facilities. About ten minutes from Al Ain Zoo and the same distance from Jebel Hafeet Mountain, Ain Al Faida One to One Hotel and Resort offers hotel rooms as well as single and double villas, while the Al Massa Hotel lies in the heart of the city, a nine-minute drive from the camel souk.