Located about an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi, the oasis city of Al Ain evokes images of a desert enchantment. Its lush oases were once welcome respites for caravans traveling across the Arabian Peninsula on arduous journeys that took days to complete. Today, it’s a destination where well-heeled locals and curious travelers alike can take a breath of fresh air, delve into its rich heritage, and reclaim the sense of wonder that once came with wandering these dusty plains.
In a world where the desert is often portrayed as a harsh, hostile environment, this oasis city is an affirmation that it’s not. Its serene beauty and rich cultural legacy make it a place that deserves to be celebrated.
The most famous of Al Ain’s six oases is Al Ain Oasis, an emerald green oasis that offers an enchanting glimpse into a life that predates the rapid urbanization found in many cities around the UAE. It’s filled with 147,000 palm trees, miles of wide narrated walkways, and a historic irrigation system known as aflaj.
A free-to-enter Eco-Centre here provides curated exhibits that provide an added dimension to the oasis’s history, including an ingenious falaj exhibition and a miniature version of the actual oasis. There’s also a restaurant that serves traditional Emirati fare and a mud-brick tower and house built in the style of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the late founder of the United Arab Emirates).
The oasis’s most iconic feature is its sand-dune-surrounded oasis pool and spa. Its organic edge softens the arid landscape, and its waters are fed by a series of spouting waterfalls that are arranged in an abstract pattern. Ringed by variegated agave, slipper plants and totem pole cacti, the pool and spa give the impression of a natural spring bubbling up from beneath the dunes.
Other highlights of the UNESCO World Heritage Site are Hili Archaeological Park, which displays ancient tombs excavated from the area and is also home to a herd of Arabian oryx, one of the region’s most endangered animals. The park is also a great place for hiking, biking and other outdoor activities.
A day at the Al Ain Zoo will introduce visitors to the more exotic inhabitants of the region. Here they’ll encounter a diverse collection of animals ranging from giraffes to monkeys, from zebras to a rare white lion. The zoo is a good spot for family-friendly entertainment in the city as well, and there’s also a museum that’s open daily.
Those seeking to dig deeper into the culture of Al Ain can visit the city’s historic buildings and museums, like Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Museum, which houses artifacts such as the Etihad from the UAE’s past. It’s a beautiful space, and its courtyard is shaded by low two-story mud and stucco buildings that reflect the region’s traditional architectural style. Afterward, head to the Al Ain Palace Museum, where Sheikh Zayed lived as a boy. This opulent, beautifully-maintained palace is a gorgeous and serene property that features a low two-story mud and stucco building with a large courtyard, arches and wooden mashrabiya screens.