From culture and history to leisure and adventure – and not without a healthy dose of retail therapy – the Emirate of Sharjah promises its visitors a well-rounded experience any time of the year.
From the steadily rising tourist numbers to the numerous expansions taking hold in the emirate’s hospitality and tourism facilities, all signs point to promising growth for Sharjah’s travel sector. The emirate has carved out a niche for itself as a year-round, family friendly, culturally inclined destination.
A Capital for Culture
Holding its own as a cultural capital of the region, Sharjah continues to draw in culture enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of the civilisation of the Arab region – both traditional and contemporary – with its host of fairs, festivals, museums, and universities. The 10-day Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), for instance, attracted 1.2 million visitors and 1,547 exhibitors from 64 countries in 2015. This alone cements the emirate’s position as a cultural hub and a magnet for culture and literature enthusiasts. The emirate also holds the Sharjah Art Biennial once every two years (the 13th edition is set to take place in 2017), as well as the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial. Meanwhile, every April, Sharjah Heritage Days celebrates and preserves the customs and traditions of the UAE with a number of cultural activities, workshops, displays, and entertainment. The traditional Arabian and Islamic architecture that characterises much of Sharjah’s landmarks stand witness to the emirate’s resolve to preserve its culture. In an effort to shed light, quite literally, on that aspect, the emirate organises the now-world-famous Sharjah Light Festival, whereby landmarks across Sharjah bear three-dimensional light displays for nine days each February.
What is more, the Sharjah Art Museum presents itself as a three-storey exhibition space showing artworks and collections covering various mediums and techniques. The museum welcomes patrons every day from 8:00am to 8:00pm (4:00 to 8:00pm on Fridays) free of charge. Throughout the year, the museum houses several temporary exhibitions and art events. The Museum’s Art Library, meanwhile, is home to over 4,000 titles in Arabic, English, and other languages, along with visual and audio materials.
Steeped in History
Visitors seeking to go even further back in time would do well to head 50 kilometres east of the city, to the ancient and well-preserved Mleiha Fort, the crown jewel of the bounteous archaeological relics of the town of Mleiha. The excavation missions unearthed items estimated to date as far back as 130,000 years ago, suggesting that the Mleiha site has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. The fort houses monumental tombs, as well as multi-chambered subterranean graves where horses and camels were laid to rest beside their masters, reflecting the symbiotic relationship the region’s early inhabitants developed with the animals they domesticated.
Nevertheless, the Emirate of Sharjah has much more to offer than history and culture. The more outdoorsy and adventurous visitors can head to the dunes truly immerse themselves in their arid, sandy surroundings and Arabian setting.
Travellers can spend an exhilarating evening among the dunes and under the stars, as four-wheel-drive vehicles pick them up from their hotels anywhere in the emirate and whisk them away deep into the desolate plains of the emirate. After the unmatchable thrill of a dune-bashing excursion, travellers can stop and take in the breath-taking sunset from the highest dune, unhindered by ambient light or crowded city skylines. Visitors can truly experience the authentic Arabian lifestyle as they ride camels among the dunes or try their hand at henna painting. The journey then takes them to an Arabian desert encampment, where they can wind down and enjoy refreshments and shisha while they wait for the barbecue dinner buffet.
One of the emirate’s longest surviving traditions is its winding and traditional souks and bazaars. Although many of the markets operating today are only renovated with an authentic Arabian charm, many more are genuinely antique, allowing visitors to stroll down memory lane as they take in the traditional views and ambiance all the way down to the bargaining, the gahwa (traditional Arabic coffee), and the handicrafts. A trip to one of the souks – with their winding mazes and quaint kiosks – takes visitors back through history.
Home to the best selection of oriental carpets in the UAE, the sprawling Sharjah Central Souk offers travellers a chance to listen to knowledgeable carpet salesmen telling fascinating stories as they unroll piece after exquisite piece – all the while sipping on traditional Arabian gahwa. The 600-shop souk tells a thousand and one tales with its collections of handcrafted wooden furniture and authentic gold and precious-gem jewellery. Souk Al Arsah, meanwhile, is ideal for anyone looking to purchase new or antique handicrafts, wooden Arabic bridal and pearl chests, copper coffee pots, ethnic and hand-made jewellery, perfume bottles and incense, hand-woven garments, palm-leaf baskets, medicinal herbs, carpets, shawls and novelties. With its coral-brick walls, wooden doors, and hanging lanterns, Souk Al Arsah believed by many to be the oldest in the UAE.
Travellers looking for the ideal souvenir photos of their trip can take a stroll along the bustling waterfront, where Souk Al-Bahar, literally the ‘market of the sea’, runs parallel to the Sharjah creek. The Idyllic souk traditionally traded in clothes and gold; it now houses adjacent shops offering up spices and herbs, henna, clothes and textiles, perfumes and oils, spices and fragrances, palm-leaf baskets, shisha (water pipes) and flavoured tobaccos.
Those looking for a more modern retail experience would do well to head to the busy Dubai/Sharjah highway. There lies one of the emirate’s prominent landmarks: the Sahara Centre. With its ‘tented’ exterior, the mall boasts wide-open spaces with natural light and an open-air ambiance, ensuring a great shopping and entertainment experience, as well as an indoor family entertainment park – Adventureland. With its Aztec- and Mayan-inspired interior, Adventureland is equipped with electronic games and rides, including an indoor roller coaster.
Sahara Centre additionally offers a wide range of fashion items for the entire family along with sporting goods, toys, cosmetics, jewellery, books, home furnishings and electronics, while its food court offers a spectrum of international cuisine, from Italian, Chinese and Iranian to Arabic and Indian, as well as global fast food chains.
On a similar note, Sharjah City Centre – located right in the heart of the city on Al Wahda Road – covers an area of over 35,000 square metres offering shopping, leisure and entertainment for the whole family. The venue offers a plethora of more than 114 retail outlets covering fashion, sports, lifestyle, electronics, home accessories and children’s stores.
Sharjah’s image as a family-friendly destination par excellence has enabled the emirate to attract droves of families to its venues. Those travelling with children and seeking fun for the whole family need only head to Sharjah Mega Mall in Abu Shagara, and home to Antic's Land, a ‘distinctively themed’ family entertainment centre, comprising three mystical lands with unique rides, edutainment activities, a roller coaster, a monorail, 3D cinema and haunted house, and the latest video games.
All in the Family
Sharjah offers a variety of attractions for everyone in the family, from dazzling shows and carnivals to enchanting parks and stunning desert landscapes as well as scenic man-made lagoons and an array of cultural and edutainment locations.
Tourists also have the option to enjoy Sharjah’s pristine family-friendly beaches on the Arabian coast. When Europe is in the midst of its gloomy winter, Sharjah basks in warm 27 C, offering the perfect atmosphere for exploring outdoors. Sharjah’s outdoors have plenty of activities for families in charming locations such as Al Majaz Waterfront, Al Qasba, and Khalid Lagoon. Visitors can also choose to relax with their families in any of the nearly 55 parks, which offer the latest facilities and amenities.
For the adventurous, the emirate offers water sports, snorkelling and diving activities on its east coast, where families have the option to either camp on the beach or stay in any of the motels and hotels that line the coast.
The emirate’s latest destination for a family day out is the Al Montazah Park, a 126,000 square metre water themed park featuring eight pulsating rides. The park is also distinct for its massive green spaces and designated facilities for children. For adults and children seeking an extra bit of adventure, the park offers Al Montazah Adventures, which consists of a number of gladiator-inspired obstacle courses divided into different difficulty levels.
2016 and Beyond
Further diversifying its offerings, the Emirate of Sharjah also offers plenty of attractions for nature lovers and environmental enthusiasts. Sharjah boasts a rich and diverse ecosystem; protected areas form 4.6% of the area of Sharjah and are divided into eight conservation centres – namely, Jazirat Sir Bo Naair, Alqurm Wa Lehhfaiiah, Wasit Nature Reserve, Ed Dhelaimah, Wadil Helo, Mleiha Protected Area, Elebriddi, and Lemdynah. On the emirate’s east coast, the 12-square-kilometres Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre wildlife reserve now offers a home to the critically endangered and symbolic Arabian leopard (panthera pardus nimr).
The travel and tourism sector in the emirate shows no signs of slowing down. Sharjah has had a streak of achievements thus far in 2016. For one, the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) was named the second-best exhibitor from the Middle East at ITB Berlin 2016, while the emirate’s flagship Light Festival – now in its sixth year – had its best instalment yet, attracting more than 650,000 visitors during 10 days of the event. What is more, international cruise liner MS Europa 2 arrived at the Khorfakkan Port with more than 500 tourists on board, underlining Sharjah’s position as a key cruise tourism destination in the region.
Sharjah has seen growth in the number of visitors from several key markets. Bookings coming from China, for instance, witnessed a whopping 73.2% increase in numbers in H1 2016 – the number of Asian tourists, overall, grew by a whopping 12% to reach 207,645 during the same period, making Asia the second-largest source market for Sharjah. The GCC remained the largest source market for Sharjah r with 219,264 visitors in the first six months of 2016, while Europe – coming in third place – sent 180,768 tourists in H1 2016. This prompted authorities to further increase the offering in hospitality venues: adding to the already existing 105 hotels and hotel apartments offering up 10,000 rooms, the emirate has a number of new hotels in the pipeline – namely, the Four Points by Sheraton Sharjah, the Act Sharjah, Novotel Sharjah, Al Bait Hotel.
What is more, a new cruise terminal has been constructed in Khorfakkan port and is set to be a fully functioning terminal capable of receiving visiting cruise ships from all around the world. Meanwhile, Sharjah International Airport has been undergoing continuous expansion as part of a master plan to increase capacity. In fact, the airport saw a 12% increase in passenger traffic in the first quarter of 2016, marking its busiest three months ever.