Downtown city of Sharjah in the UAE with Al Noor island visible in Khalid lake

Who hasn’t heard of Dubai? Famous for city stopovers, ultra-luxe shopping, and a notable skyline, the glitzy city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is easily recognized. But, as the name suggests, there are several emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. Seven, in fact.

And each emirate brings something quite unique to the table. All can easily be visited by road, with the distances at most a 2.5 hour drive between the most southern and the most northern. Some are worth spending a few days in, others can easily be explored within a day.

Here is a look at all the emirates, from north to south, and what makes each one special.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi at dusk

Abu Dhabi

The capital of the UAE

The city of Abu Dhabi is both the capital of the emirate Abu Dhabi as well as the capital of the UAE. The city is famous for its grand architecture, from the Jean Nouvel-designed outpost of the Louvre Museum, the sleek Zaha Hadid-designed Sheikh Zayed Bridge, to the incredible 7-star star Emirates Palace hotel, and the utterly stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

A modern city spread across some 200-islands, the city offers skyscrapers, nature reserves, art, culture, and more, making for a fabulous city break perfect for families. Just think Ferrari World Yas Island, and the nearby Sir Bani Yas Nature Reserve, which will keep kids busy for a while.

Yet, step outside of the city limits, and within an hour’s drive you reach the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert, with its endless red sand dunes undulating to the horizon and beyond.

You can enjoy some dune-bashing, i.e., going up and down the dunes in a 4WD at adrenaline-pumping angles, or take it easier. Head for the oasis of Liwa for a unique experience, and a beautiful drive through the calm of the desert.

Stay at the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri with an infinity pool and private beach.

 Burj Khalifa skyscraper, Souk al Bahar and Dubai Mall in a sunny day


Record-breaking attractions

The best-known emirate of the lot, Dubai is famous for its record-breaking sights. From the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to the world’s largest shopping mall Dubai Mall, and the world’s largest dancing fountain, right outside the mall and stretching below Burj Khalifa, it is without doubt a city of superlatives.

Visiting Dubai is a bit like going to Disneyland, you have to get into the frame of mind, otherwise you’ll end up declaring it all too frivolous. It is a great city to have fun in, be awed by innovations, such as the truly unique Museum of the Future or the many man-made islands, go shopping, and enjoy the luxury beach resorts and world-class restaurants.

For a break from too much glitter, head to the creek, walk around the Bastakiya quarter, with its old wind towers, the world’s first air-conditioning system, and meander through the traditional souqs filled with spices, dried fruits, bales of shimmering cloths, and, yes, it is difficult to escape the bling,  plenty of gold.

Or get some thrills: there is the world’s deepest pool, where you can learn to scuba-dive and discover an underwater city, you can walk along the edge of a far-too-high tower, just hanging on by a harness, or sky-dive over the Palm Islands. Nothing is impossible in Dubai.

Stay at Manzil Downtown, walking distance from the Burj Kalifa and Dubai Fountains with a pool on-site

The exterior of the Blue Souk or market decorated with blue details in Sharjah, UAE


Art and culture

Sharjah, the third most populous emirate follows on from Dubai, and is the cultural and arty emirate. And, for what it’s worth, it's the only dry emirate, i.e., you won’t get any cocktails here, only mocktails.

With its expanse of stunning waterfront sights, this is a city where you can walk for hours along the coastal promenades, taking in the fresh produce market, and numerous galleries and museums along the way.

One thing few people know about Sharjah is that the modern King Abdulaziz Street, right in the heart of the city, and nothing special to look at, was in fact the UAE’s first airport. The famous Kangaroo Route connecting Australia with Europe in the 1930s stopped off at Sharjah, and this landing strip was in operation until the late 1970s.  

Not far from the end of the old runway lies the Al Majaz Waterfront, where you can find the Sharjah Aquarium, the Maraya Art Centre, the Sharjah Art Foundation and countless museums, ranging from science to maritime, Islamic art to the old royal fort.

With plenty of restaurants along the waterfront, a day in Sharjah is best spent strolling, and popping into the odd sight along the way.

Stay at the Chedi Al Bait with city views and an outdoor pool.

Sun umbrellas and loungers on the beach outside a hotel in Ajman, UAE.


The smallest emirate

Ajman, right next to Sharjah, is the UAE’s smallest emirate. Whilst it does have some skyscrapers and the Ajman Museum in the old fort, people come here for the long beach, and maybe the camel race track.

And the camel races are something worthwhile experiencing. The camels can get up to quite a speed, looking nearly elegant as they run, while being urged on by tiny robot jockeys, with the camels’ owners driving on an outside track alongside their animals. It’s unlike any other race, that’s for sure.

For more local immersion, head to the dhow building yard, where craftsmen still build the traditional boats by hand following ancient methods, creating beautiful wooden ships that sail the length of the Indian Ocean.

Stay at the Ajman Saray, a five-star, beachside resort with large rooms and multiple restaurants.

Panoramic view of Ras al Khaimah over mangrove forest in the UAE

Umm Al Quwain

Wetlands and wildlife

It is easy to drive through Umm al Quwain, not even noticing you’ve crossed another emirate, especially if you are traversing the UAE along the main highway.

The second smallest, Umm Al Quwain is one of the most traditional emirates, with the ubiquitous old fort turned museum, a small camel racing track, a falconry centre, and small dhow building yard.

But what makes this emirate worth stopping at are its natural wonders. Even hurtling past on the highway, you’d most likely see camels, but there is more.

The 5-mile long Sinniyah Island, best explored by kayaking, is a  nature reserve full of birds, ranging from cormorants to flamingos, and the mangrove beach offers both nature and water sports, and feels a million miles away from bustling Dubai, despite only being 70km up the road.

Stay at Siniya Island Resorts, a luxury campsite with sweeping views.

Ras Al Khaima

Outdoors and adventure

But if you want nature, adrenaline kicks, outdoor pursuits, and sporty activity, then the most southern emirate of Ras Al Khaima is for you. Located next to the Omani enclave of Musandam, Ras Al Khaima offers rugged mountain terrain perfect for climbing and hiking, or indeed a toboggan ride.

There are regular endurance races held here, but you can also explore the mountains by 4WD, and enjoy gentler pursuits. There is, for example, the Al Suwaidi pearl farm, where you can see how the gems are grown and harvested.

You can also visit a lovely historic fort high up in the mountains offering great views along the coastline. Or head to one of the luxury beach resorts which are perfect for a relaxing overnight, or a weeklong stay.

Stay at the Private Suites Al Hamra Palace for serviced apartments at the beach.

The historic Al Badiyah Mosque in Fujairah, UAE


In the Hajar Mountains

Fujairah is a bit of an outsider when it comes to the Emirates, quite literally. While all the other emirates string along the Arabian Gulf, Fujairah is tucked into the Hajar Mountains on the other side of the jutting Musandam Peninsula.

Its entire coastline faces the Gulf of Oman, south of the Strait of Hormuz. And Fujairah is not only more distant from any bustling centres of activity than the other emirates but it also offers very different experiences.

Here, you find the UAE’s oldest mosque, the tiny, mud-baked Al Bidya Mosque. There are other Omani enclaves, such as Dibba Al Hisn, and you have the more open waters of the Indian Ocean, teaming with dolphins, and perfect for scuba-diving and snorkelling.

A day trip to Snoopy Island (so called because it looks like Snoopy reclining on his hutch) gives you a very different experience to the waters of the Arabia Gulf. And, even better, this emirate is certainly not overrun by too many visitors, despite being only just over an hour’s drive from Dubai.

Stay at the Palace Beach Resort or visit on a day trip from Dubai.

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 Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

Author - Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

A serial expat and avid traveller, Ulrike has lived in Oman, UAE, Qatar, France, Germany, Australia, and the UK, and travelled to 100+ countries. When she is not busy (un-)packing her suitcase, then she writes for international publications such as CNN Travel, BBC Travel, various Conde Nast Travel(l)ers, Lonely Planet, Wanderlust, The Independent, Nat Geo and many more.

Last Updated 27 February 2024

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