Amidst the sands of the United Arab Emirates, contrasting sharply against the modern structures of its principal cities, you will find a place unlike any other. Dubbed the ‘Garden City of the Gulf,’ Al Ain, which translates as ‘the spring,’ has long been a welcoming sight for travellers who venture inland. In fact, it is considered by many as one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. Here the desert gives way to the verdant green of seven large oases and numerous date plantations.
Al Ain is a cultural gem for the country. It is the birthplace of UAE’s founding father and late ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. For many years, the city has been a summer favourite for the royalty, where they and other visitors escape the heat and humidity of the coastal cities.
Up until the 1900s Al Jahili Fort was the official summer royal residence. Completed in 1898, the fort is one of the oldest in the nation. Its unique design features a square plan, a circular tower with four concentric tiers, and a small mosque. During the cool months many open-air concerts are held in this fortress. It has recently undergone restoration and is now open to visitors.
We recommend a visit as it also houses an interesting exhibition dedicated to British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, affectionately known in the Emirates as Mubarak bin London.
To continue your journey into the country’s past you should visit the nearby Al Ain National Museum and the Al Ain Palace Museum. The first is located behind Al Jahili fort and is said to be the oldest museum in the UAE. Here you will enjoy an overview of Al Ain's history, from its first inhabitants over 7,500 years ago to a detailed look at the pre-oil era. The Al Ain Palace Museum, the former Sheikh's residence, offers a glimpse into the royal family's daily life. Covering 1,200 hectares, the Al Ain oasis is the city’s largest and is located between these two museums. It is a great place to enjoy a stroll or picnic, and one of its highlights consists of the many canals that form part of the impressive 'falaj' irrigation system.
At a height of 1,240 metres Jebel Hafeet dominates the landscape to the south of the city. This mountain is the second highest point in the country and is the source of the natural spring that feeds Al Ain's oasis. Weather permitting (when it's not boiling), visitors can follow one of the numerous hiking trails to the top of the mountain. Tour guides are available and they are highly recommended to locate the most scenic routes. If hiking isn’t your thing, don't worry, because the twisting road makes for a thrilling drive. Enjoy the view of the entire city and across to Oman, while also enjoying some very welcome refreshments or a dip at the pool at the nearby Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Hotel.
If you have youngsters in tow, the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort is a great option. This 900-hectare park at the foot of Jebel Hafeet is home to over 4,300 animals, including the Arabian Orynx and Sand Gazelles, native to the area, as well as giraffes, rhinoceros, white lions and of course, the majestic falcon. Tip: beat the heat and go early in the morning or late in the evening to enjoy the weather and sights.
Al Ain provides a welcome contrast to the glitz and glamour of modern Abu Dhabi or Dubai and offers a fascinating glimpse back in time in this interesting country.