Top Things to Do in the UAE for the Culture Curious

Al Ain Camel Market

The U.A.E. is perhaps most well known for the cosmopolitan metropolis of Dubai, the home of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure. While the ultra-modern skyscraper rich cityscapes of Dubai and neighboring Abu Dhabi may be the country’s biggest claim to fame, many travelers come with a sense of cultural curiosity looking to delve a little deeper into Emirati heritage than the average tourist.

As the world sits up and takes notice of the Middle East, the U.A.E., it’s most modern and forward thinking country is only too keen to welcome visitors with open arms and introduce them to the warm and hospitable culture of the region. If you’re willing to explore the U.A.E beyond sunny beaches, raving nightlife, plush shopping malls and luxury hotels, here’s a list to get you started on your cultural exploration of the country. The only things you’ll need to bring are a respectful attitude and an open mind.

Visit a Mosque

Religion is an important part of culture and the U.A.E. is both open and welcoming when it comes to satisfying the curiosity of visitors about the religion of Islam. Take a tour of one of the tourist-friendly mosques in the country that encourage visitors to take a guided tour of the mosque during certain hours of the day. At the end of the tour, a Q&A session is the perfect opportunity to get your questions about the religion and ideology answered by a local culture guide. Both men and women must dress modestly with covered shoulders and knees. Men may be asked wear a kandora and women will need to wear a shayla and abaya over their clothes to enter the mosque.

Top things to do UAE for culture

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is an example of striking architecture and design that combine influences and materials from Iran, Morocco, France and Turkey among other countries. With a tranquil white marble exterior, 82 domes, the biggest of which is the largest in the world and columns adorned with amethyst and lapis lazuli, the mosque is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The interior is just as grand with Swarovski crystal chandeliers and the world’s largest handmade carpet made in Iran. Guided tours are available daily at 10.00am, 11.00am and 5.00pm with additional tours on Fridays and Saturdays.

In Dubai, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding organizes cultural tours for non-Muslim visitors at the Grand Jumeirah Mosque. The mosque is built in the medieval Fatimid style with white domes and minarets, and an interior roof that rests on several columns. Tours are held from Saturday to Thursday at 10.00am and don’t require prior reservation.

The Al Noor Mosque in Sharjah is the first mosque in the emirate that welcomes non-Muslims. With a picture-perfect setting by the Khalid Lagoon, the Ottoman inspired mosque is an iconic structure with cascading domes and slender minarets, reminiscent of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It is open to tourists on Mondays only with guided one-hour tours at 10.00am, followed by a Q&A session.

Photography is permitted during the tours.

Shop in a Local Market

You might’ve spent hours admiring the shiny window displays and spending your cash in Dubai Mall, but you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve got wonderfully lost in a traditional souk or a neighborhood market. Follow locals, longtime residents and other tourists from the Middle East and Africa and they’ll lead you to bargains and plenty of market ambience in the narrow lanes of Deira and Bur Dubai, once the heart of Dubai and now often referred to as ‘Old Dubai’.

Deira’s Gold Souk is wildly popular with tourists and residents from India, Africa and the Middle East looking to buy gold and silver jewelry. Even if you’re not looking to take home any of it, it’s worth a visit just to see the glittering displays of opulent traditional Arabic and Indian wedding jewelry.

Top things to do UAE for culture

Spice souk

photo credit: lam_chihang
Right next door, the Spice Souk is hard to miss with its aromas of cardamom, turmeric, dried chilies, cinnamon, cloves and traditional Henna inviting curious visitors to take a closer look. Once, the main marketplace for spices from Iran, Yemen, India and Africa, frequented by residents, today the souk attracts crowds of tourists and locals living in the area. Interesting market finds that make great gifts are Dead Sea salt from Jordan, rose water, dates, dry fruits, nuts, traditional soaps and incense burners.

On a Friday, take a long drive through the dramatic scenery of the Hajjar Mountains to arrive at the Friday Masafi Market in Fujairah, bustling with weekend crowds. You’ll find fresh produce, date honey, palm syrup and other farm products made locally and in neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia. If you fancy a souvenir, consider a traditional Iranian carpet but don’t forget to haggle on the price; it’s expected.

Experience Camel Culture

The role of the camel in Emirati culture isn’t just limited to taking visitors for a ten-minute ride on a desert safari. The love for the mighty beast of the desert runs generations deep to a time when nomadic Bedu desert tribes used them for transportation, milk and meat to survive in the unforgiving conditions of the Arabian desert. Though you can’t join a camel-led desert caravan through the Empty Quarter anymore, there are other experiences to help you understand the ‘camel culture’ in the U.A.E.

Between October and March, rise early one morning and experience the palpable energy at the Al Marmoum Racetrack. Camel racing is a huge sport in the U.A.E and crowds of enthusiastic locals gather at the racetrack as early as 6.30am to support their beloved racing camels from all over the Middle East. Dressed in shiny camel jewelry, the beasts, fitted with robotic jockeys, gallop towards the finish line leaving behind clouds of dust, nervous owners and excited onlookers. The stakes are high with the fastest camels winning cash prizes, luxury SUVs and a whole lot of prestige for their owners.

Top things to do UAE for culture

Al Ain Camel Market

For a market experience like no other, take a day trip to the Al Ain Camel Market. You’ll get invited to take photos with newborns and race-bred studs by eager sellers. Some expect a tip while others are just plain proud to show you around and won’t take your money.

If you’re visiting the U.A.E in December, don’t miss the annual Al Dhafra Festival, held in celebration of Bedouin heritage in the desert region over an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi. One of the most important events is the Mazayna, the world’s only beauty contest for camels that attracts the light skinned Assayel and black Majahim breeds from neighboring Oman to as far as Jordan and Yemen. The camels are judged on physical attributes such as length of the neck, shape of the nose and gap between the toes and total prize money of over $12 million is awarded over the two-week duration of the festival. A camel auction is also held during the festival, with sturdy, winning and race-bred camels commanding the highest bids.

Camel meat has always been a part of traditional Emirati cuisine and there’s no better place to try it than in the heritage district of Al Bastakiya, by the Bur Dubai creek. Head to the Local House Restaurant and choose from their camel biryani or kabsa, a traditional rice dish prepared with camel meat and dry fruits. Also on the menu are a variety of camel burgers that you can choose to wash down with a camel milkshake.

Visiting Dubai? Here’s your guide to dressing right in Dubai.

For general information to help you plan your trip to the UAE or Dubai in particular, including money-saving advice and recommendations for off-the-beaten-path day trips from Dubai, culture in Abu Dhabi, cool hotels, or popular places of interest such as the Dubai Miracle Garden, check out my UAE Travel Blog.

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Top Things To Do in the UAE for the Culture Curious

32 Comments

  • falak says:

    This was really enjoyable to read. Having read this there seem to be some wonderful places to visit.Had a quick look at your blog and love it already. Have subscribed. Looks like you’ve spent time in many of the places listed in this post.

  • Ayeaha says:

    Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is so beautiful Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
    Amazing looks of traditional markets in U.A.E. And share good photo collection.

  • Vanessa says:

    Are those whole nutmegs in the spice market? Spices are one of my favourite things to pick up when I travel – they’re easy to carry, usually pretty affordable, and give me happiness for months after the trip is over.

  • Mallory says:

    That is one great picture of the camel! I absolutely love visiting local markets when I’m travelling and that one looks divine!

  • I think visiting the markets would be a lot of fun. All the loud noise, people, and chaos would make it very exciting to me. Hopefully I wouldn’t get too lost though.

  • What perfect timing as I just got back from Istanbul! Yep, had to wear those things in all the mosques,which I found fascinating! The spice, meat, and seafood markets, oh my! And experiencing the Grand Bazaar was certainly something I think everyone should do in their life! 😉

  • Meg Jerrard says:

    Fab list of cultural activities, thanks Natasha! I loved spending time in Duabi, and you’re right – the Mall of Dubai had nothing on the souks and markets throughout Old Dubai! It felt like much more of a cultural visit than when I was exploring the Mall, and I loved interacting with locals and the atmosphere and aroma of the different stalls. There are plenty of fantastic modern attractions around the UAE which really don’t make you feel like you’ve left home at all, so I think it’s really important to make sure you’re putting yourself out there and experiencing some culture too 🙂

    • Natasha Amar says:

      Though it can be hard to come across when you’re visiting for a couple of days only, you can definitely find it. Thanks for the comment Meg!

  • James Kelley says:

    Touring a mosque and playing with camels sounds like they should be on any UAE itinerary.. I’ll pass on the camel milkshake though 😮

  • I have to admit I visited Dubai and was hassled in the Gold Souk so that did put me off. It is a lovely place though. I had afternoon tea in the Burj Al Arab and it was stupendous!

  • Hugo says:

    I’ve been very close to visiting the UAE a couple of times already and for some reason it didn’t happen. Really nice architecture and culture.

  • Mar says:

    I lived in dubai for 5 years! Didn’t realise you live there – how long there? I left in 2011 but I saw it go from barren desert to sky scrapers – what an incredible transformation…

  • Thank you so much for showing what is there to see in the UAE! I’m not sure we’ll ever get to visit this fascinating place, so it’s great to at least be able to see the photos and read your descriptions! The photo of the mosque is stunning.

  • Sophie says:

    Great post and shows that there’s loads more to do than just shopping and staying in the resorts. I personally would love to make friends with a camel even if they have bad breath! And I would love to see the mosque – when I was in Kuala Lumpur I visited a mosque there and was taken away with how intricate and beautiful the details are.

  • Victor says:

    Amazing! Great tips!! I will follow this when I visit!

  • jan says:

    I’ve always wanted to go to a market in the UAE and that photo of the spices and nuts only confirmed my desire to go! They all look so bright and vibrant

  • I have a friend that used to live in Dubai. I think I will contact him soon and plan a visit! 🙂

  • evankristine says:

    I so did all of what you have mentioned above and I can’t wait for my return to UAE! It is one of my favortie destinations, it is so beautiful as well! <3

  • Bilna says:

    Unlike other GCC Nations, UAE has so many options to do… nice round up and picks ☺

  • Rutavi Mehta says:

    Natasha , Loved your eye for detail..Lovely website and I must say I love Dubai.. I haven’t visited Dubai for long time to explore.. Maybe Ill connect soon! Have you been to India ? Remember to ping me when you here.. Check out tip for India on my blog 🙂

    • Natasha Amar says:

      Thanks Rutavi! Yes I have been to India (lived in Mumbai for a while) and look forward to exploring more of it 🙂

  • Maja says:

    Honestly, shopping in Dubai markets was a real hustle for me, the vendors are just too pushy and too loud, what a European like me don’t like. I really loved the mosque though, it is magnificent, but much more beautiful and imposing from outside.

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