Closer to Dubai Airport than the famous tourist strip of Jumeriah Beach, Sharjah is the UAE’s third largest emirate. It might not be as well-known just yet, but here, the glitz and excesses of its neighbour are resisted in favour of Islamic heritage and tradition.
As we found out on a recent trip over, it means it’s a fascinating destination that welcomes respectful visitors, and rewards them with a wealth of unique attractions like the glassy lakeside area of the Al Majaz Waterfront and the fascinating Mlehia Archaeological Site.
With a contemporary side to its cultural offerings too, it’s a fast-changing emirate that deserves to be seen sooner rather than later. Here are our top recommendations for a trip over.
Step inside Al Noor Mosque
A nice way to settle into a visit is to enter the Al Noor Mosque, a waterside place of worship that, unusually, allows non-Muslims to look inside (though visits are restricted to Mondays and Thursdays at 10am only). Men should dress in T-shirts and calf-length trousers, and women need to cover up the same amount too. To go inside the mosque, ladies are given a black cloak and hair covering. It’s an odd feeling, wearing it. But travel is all about experiencing cultural differences, and so it’s only right that I try it out for size, while learning about the background and belief system of Islam.
Take a look around the Heart of Sharjah
Not too far away from Al Noor is an older part of town that’s currently being rejuvenated with a contemporary feel. Grandly known as the Heart of Sharjah, I can’t quite figure out if it’s better suited to tourists more than travellers, but either way, it’s still worth a stop-off. To start with, enjoy a (quite expensive) coffee or beautiful, pearlescent lavender soda at the Al Bait Hotel’s café. The drinks are nice but the ulterior motive is to take a closer look at its Unesco-protected Wind Tower, as well as wander around its tranquil grounds, which used to be a nobleman’s house and the first post office of Sharjah.
Also in the area is Sharjah’s first market (it’s 150 years old) Souk Al Arash, plus plenty of arts, craft and textile shops.
Enjoy a damn good juice
Sharjah is a dry emirate, so there’s no alcohol even in hotels and restaurants, like in Dubai. That might but off-putting for some, but as someone who likes a glass of wine on holiday, I found my sluggish feeling of holiday hangover and gluttony was drastically reduced the morning, replaced by a more energetic, virtuous spirit instead.
It helps that the drinks options are plentiful and inventive. I loved my mint and lemon juice at Shababeek, and opposite it, on the other side of the Venetian canal (which is surprising to see here, but we’ll roll with it), is London Dairy, an ice cream shop that makes thick, gloopy milkshakes that are more of an indulgence than a Pinot Gris.
Check out Sharjah Art Foundation
The locations of Sharjah Art Foundation are scattered across the city, but two of them stand out. Firstly, there’s the Rain Room at Al Majarrah. A touring installation that Londoners may have caught at the Barbican, it’s now on permanent display here. The immersive installation is a raining room in which one can walk (slowly) through the downpour without getting (too) wet. The drama of the monochrome lighting and silence bar the showers only adds to the etherealness of this experience.
Secondly, Al Mureijah Square location is a free to enjoy coral-walled area with contemporary exhibitions and outdoor screenings of both English and Arabic films. When I visited, in addition to the permanent art collection, it housed the first solo exhibition and fascinating retrospective of British-Guyanese artist Frank Bowling. Seeing the scale and detail of his abstract paintings, with a loose theme of the world map, was a sheer delight. After its run at the Sharjah Art Foundation, the exhibition is due to display at Tate Britain from 31 May 2019.
Relax on the Al Majaz Waterfront
Sharjah doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to the beautiful Khalid Lake, the epicentre of the emirate. While surrounded by skyscrapers and modern buildings, punctuated by ornate mosques, they’ve also made space for civic amenities like the promenade that runs from one side to the other (a perfect place to jog in the early morning) and the Al Majaz Waterfront, where families and friends congregate to hang out and enjoy outdoor life.
For starters, there’s a mini golf course, water park, picnic areas and an evening light and water show. Or hang out in contemporary restaurants and cafes like the traditional Emiriti Al Fanar that has an extensive menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also the hip, cultural hang-out is Al Rawi: part-bookshop part-restaurant/café, expect to find shelves with contemporary Arabic literature alongside Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
Take a wander around Al Noor Island
In a hectic city centre, Al Noor Island is a tranquil antidote. In the centre of Khalid Lake accessed by a footbridge, buy a dual ticket (50 dirhams, or around £5) to enjoy the butterfly house with 500 exotic butterflies who are particularly active in the morning. There’s also a landscaped garden trail around it, where you’ll come across a stone tree from Indonesia that’s 250 million years old, a trampoline walkway that’s way more fun than it should be for adults, plus art installations and lighting displays. Lady yoga enthusiasts might want to catch their sunrise yoga sessions (also 50 dirhams).
Get your avo fix at Jones the Grocer’s
When it comes to eating out in Sharjah, there’s no shortage of choice for delicious dining. Of course, Middle Eastern cuisine is predominant, but there are eclectic clusters of eateries in Al Majaz or Al Qasba. But if it a western-style meal you’re after, Jones the Grocer is a glass-fronted restaurant based on Flag Island, which makes full use of its gorgeous 270 views. Its extensive menu caters to most weird diets and features imported ingredients less readily available elsewhere, so there’s plenty of avo, butternut squash, chia seeds, truffle, wagyu and pesto. I went for the more traditional options: the saffron pearl couscous and chargrilled broccolini salad (with a delish juice of course), and the almond, pistachio and honey cake as a sweet. My, did it feel like a slice of heaven.
Visit Mlehia Archaeological Site
Located in the dusty desert about an hour away from the city, Mlehia is where excavations revealed the oldest evidence of human life outside of Africa. JK, our tour guide/font of all knowledge, explains that it means that all of the west’s ancestors came from this tribe of around 2000 early homo sapiens who left Africa and ventured north. Like, whoah. Coupled with a look at where they slept, stored their stone tools and their burial grounds, it’s easy to evoke images of this prehistoric time. Compelling stuff.
To make a day out of it, the site is also the base for more adventurous desert activities, like dune-bashing, a Bedouin-style dinner, and night time star gazing.
Bask in tented, deserty luxury at Kingfisher Lodge
While all the above takes place in the more developed west coast of Sharjah, the east, which faces the Gulf of Oman, is another draw. It takes over two hours to drive over, and while it’s not always aesthetically pleasing due to rows of oil tank farms along the coast, there’s a sanctuary of boutique isolation at Kingfisher Lodge. The hotel is a set of 20 tented villas accessed by boat, with golf carts driving up and down the paths to pick visitors up from their well-appointed villa and take them to the spa, pool or gorgeous restaurant – among the best food I had in Sharjah. Even the vegetables from the evening buffet were roasted to intense perfection and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
With most villas facing the beach on one side and the mountains on the other, it’s easy to spend the days basking in its luxury. But for those keen on exploring, they offer hikes into the mountains or copper mines, a cycle around cultural sites, or kayaking on gentle waters in nearby Kalba. If in luck, you’ll pass a river full of families of turtles on the short golf cart drive there. That’s Sharjah all over: even in one spot, there’s a remarkable range of activities.
For more information, see VisitSharjah.