The long holidays are stretching out in front of us and if you are staying local the thought of what to do is certainly high on your mind. We all know that Dubai offers a whole host of activities for families and children but we also know that this certainly comes as at a cost.
If you feel like doing something new and engaging I am going to suggest that you head into Sharjah where there is so much to do and explore at really reasonable costs. I will start with how to get there!
Sharjah is the adjacent emirate to Dubai and I am sure you hear horror stories of traffic and the fact that it is Islamic and strict! So let me start by knocking those myths down, yes there is traffic (but only at rush hour) and if you are going from Dubai into Sharjah in the morning you will be going against the traffic. As an example, from Mirdif City Centre to the beautiful Corniche, in the morning it takes no more than 20 minutes. As far as being strict, it may well be the case that Sharjah doesn’t feel as cosmopolitan as Dubai but this is definitely where its charm lies; as despite the traditional Arabic feel, you won’t face any problems during your visit unless you decide to parade up and down the main street in a skimpy bikini! So getting there is as simple as heading up the E311, the E611 or the E11.
I have broken down the activities into a few ideas for a full day out, but of course feel free to pick and mix as you think fits for you and your kids.
Day 1 – Sharjah Aquarium and Maritime Museum (lunch at Al Qasba) – Educational and Fun
This is a great day out for children from the ages of 3 to 10 years.
The Sharjah Aquarium and Maritime museum sits on Al Khan Lagoon (opposite Al Mamzar beach). They are open from 9am until 2pm (closed Sundays). A ticket to both of these attractions is AED 25 for adults and AED 15 for children, where the children are actively encouraged to ask questions with an emphasis on learning about the fish and mammals found in the local waters.
The maritime museum is full of information about UAE’s close history with the sea and is a great place to reinforce the information that your children are learning in their social studies lessons. You will need to allow about 2 hours for both of these attractions and then close by is Al Qasba where you can enjoy a relaxed coffee or lunch at a whole variety of international restaurants and cafes.
You will also find the “eye of the emirates” ferris wheel there and, if you feel brave – it has amazing views from the cars but is definitely not for people scared of heights as you will travel 60 meters in the air! The cost of this is AED 30 for adults and AED 15 for children and it is open from 10am until 1pm and from 4pm until midnight daily.
Also here there is a children’s “fun zone” which opens at 4pm and costs AED 15 per child; it has a musical fountain show where the water shoots out of the plaza and is really spectacular and is free to watch from 5pm every evening as well as there being an opportunity to ride on an Abra or water kart. From here getting home is very easy as you can literally slide onto the E11 and you should be back in the Garhoud area in under 20 minutes.
Opening times are Sunday to Thursday 9.00am to 17.30 and Saturday is 11am until 17.30pm.
The cost is AED 10 for adults and AED 5 for children.
Day 2 – A day of animals and discovery with 4 attractions in 1 location
This is suitable for children from 2 to 10 years.
Another activity to enjoy without actually heading into Sharjah itself is to head out to the Sharjah Desert Park on Sharjah Airport Road, which you can get to from the E611 fairly easily and is a really interesting place to visit.
It is really well laid out with lots of areas to explore from the Reptile & Insect House with its large number of local snakes including Saw-scaled Vipers, Puff Adders and Arabian Cobra are on display in their natural surroundings. In addition to the snakes there are lizards, freshwater fishes, amphibians and insects. The Aviary is a large walk through room with mountain, desert and aquatic habitats and is home to several species of indigenous birds including; weavers, partridges and Houbara Bustards.
The pathway through the aviary also leads you into a cave where Egyptian fruit bats and Omani blind cave fish can be seen and past three small carnivore enclosures there is a “Nocturnal House” and an area to view the large carnivores and primates which include the Hamadryas Baboon and the Arabian Leopard. There is a café (not too exciting but it has nice views of Gazelles and flamingoes etc) and the whole facility is indoor and pleasantly air conditioned. My kids love going here from the ages of 3 until about 9 years.
Sharjah History and Botanical Museum
Just across the car park is the Sharjah History and Botanical Museum, which has been well annotated and includes an over view on desert life, a journey through time displaying a meteor from outer space as well as some dinosaur bones. Further displays cover the living world and the living sea which contains exact replica of sea creatures from the bottom of the sea.
Sharjah Botanical Gardens
This garden gives you an opportunity to explore the study of plant life through interactive displays and to learn how important trees, bushes, grasses, herbs, algae and fungi are to us, in so many ways in everyday life.
The journey through time in which plants have evolved, adapted and survived to become not just part of our landscape but as essential elements of our existence. The Botanical Garden includes Native plants of the Emirate of Sharjah; which contains 91 species of Native plants that are distributed in pools representing different environments in the emirate.
You can familiarise yourself with local animals as the farm offers an interesting experience to interact with the animals and birds, under a supervision of guides who provide a detailed explanation. Such as dromedary camels, donkeys, an Arabian horse, ponies, cows, goats, sheep, and a number of different kinds of poultry; chickens, mallard and muscovy ducks, grey geese and Indian peafowl. (I have to say it probably is not worth travelling to, but is nice visit while you are here).
Children’s Discovery Center
Just down the Al Dhaid road follow signs for the Airport you will find the Childrens Discovery Centre.
If you have enjoyed your day so far and you are not quite ready to head home you can head down the airport road as though you are going to Sharjah (about 10 minutes away), and you can take your kids to the Children’s Discovery Centre. This was a favourite place for my kids from ages 3 to 8, as they can explore all kinds of activities from building to driving to how a body works, they can use “construction vehicles” to building a house and they can drive little battery cars round a “town” and there is a great soft play area for them to work off some energy while you enjoy a coffee in the café at the entrance.
It’s open Saturday to Thursday 9am to 2pm and costs AED 5 for children and AED 10 for adults. You can expect the children to not want to leave but when you finally drag them away, you can just zip up the E311 and you will be in Mirdif City Centre within 20 minutes.
Day 3 – A bit of Culture – head to the “Heart of Sharjah”
Opening hours are Saturday to Thursday 9am until 2pm and this is suitable for 11 to 16 year olds.
Sharjah is arguably the most engaging of all the emirates when it comes to the art scene. A great day out is to explore the art areas in the Heart of Sharjah, so you can visit a variety of art areas as well as explore some historical treasures.
The area winds its way through beautiful old coral walled buildings interspersed with some simply amazing cafes – both traditional and modern, and for something special head into the Sharjah Art Foundation building. The best option is to buy a “heritage ticket” which includes the Calligraphy museum, the Heritage Museum, Al Hisn Fort and El Eslah School for a cost of AED 10 for children and AED 20 for adults.
This would be suitable for older children who are maybe embarking on art in secondary school and who can appreciate the exhibits. The fort is however certainly something that all children will enjoy and from here you can explore the Souk al Shanisyia which ends at the Souk al Arsa and is one of the oldest trading markets in the UAE. It’s great for souvenirs and for enjoying the experience of an old fashioned souq.
Heart of Sharjah is the largest historical preservation and restoration project in the region. Planned over a 15 year period to be completed by 2025, it seeks to revitalize the heritage district as a vibrant cultural destination by unraveling a glorious past – restoring historical buildings, constructing new structures following traditional Sharjah architecture and transforming them into hotels, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and markets, where the current generations and the future generations can experience Sharjah’s cultural and social fabric.
There is still lots of work to do but even now it is a really lovely place to explore. (if you need fabric or craft supplies there is a great area that rivals Satwa just to top end of the development.
Day 4 – Head to the East Coast
Enjoy the slightly cooler weather than Dubai and a stay over night perhaps?
Sharjah is an emirate in a few parts and you may not know that there’s one part of Sharjah that sits on the east coast nestled between Oman and Fujairah.
The drive over is great as you travel through the mountains with amazing views and the sea seems cleaner and clearer on this side with a much greater variety of fish to spot too. Whenever we stay and have an early morning swim we have been lucky enough to enjoy it with turtles bobbing alongside us.
A great hotel to stop at is the family friendly hotel called the Oceanic with great pool and beach and deals from AED 250 per room (call 09 238 5111 or 09 208 4111 for the best available rate). (www.oceanichotel.com)
While here, take a drive down the coast and visit the birds of prey centre (check opening times as they can be a bit random) which is the first of its kind in the UAE and the Middle East, and considered as a dynamic and engaging facility in which visitors can see and experience the power of birds of prey in the Arabian Peninsula.
Using live demonstrations and displays, the centre introduces visitors to host native raptor species, highlighting this historical landscape and its importance to the population of both resident and migrating wild raptors, like the Barn Owl, Short Toad Snake Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, and Lappet Faced Vulture.
The Centre also provide an educational tour by the centre’s guides to discover the different species of Raptor on display, their characteristics and adaptations and the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Center which hosts over thirty different mountain species, offers unique viewing opportunities from within the centre out across large landscaped enclosures, and within indoor noncturnal habitats. (www.epaashj.ae).
Kalba has mangroves which, during the cooler months you can kayak through and it is also is home to several rare birds including the Arabian Kingfisher. The journey up to Khor Fakkan (literally translated as creek of two jaws) will take just under two hours from Dubai, although next year the new project of a road with over 13km of tunnels should be open reducing this drive time to around an hour.
There really is so much to do in Sharjah and it is so much cheaper to enjoy with your family than Dubai so it is really worth stepping outside your comfort zone and heading out. I haven’t even mentioned the Al Noor island project with its beautiful butter fly house or the fact that there is a cultural understanding enrichment programme and a tour of Al Noor mosque on a Monday morning – which is great for taking guests to.
Whatever you decide to do, Sharjah is certainly worth a visit. Check out www.sharjahmydestination.com
Written by British mum Heather Harries.
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