Day trips from Dubai: How to see the Emirates like a local

The allure of the UAE is its size. Like Israel, nothing is too far away, so in under two hours there is a whole other world of adventure waiting.

Qasr Al Watan, one of the capital’s most spectacular architectural landmarks (photo credit: ABU DHABI MEDIA OFFICE)
Qasr Al Watan, one of the capital’s most spectacular architectural landmarks
(photo credit: ABU DHABI MEDIA OFFICE)
As restaurants open up to the vaccinated, Israelis are also looking to the skies. Dreaming of the time they may travel freely again, many are casting their eyes toward the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai is an incredible city full of some of the world’s most spectacular modern architecture and feats of human endeavor, but there is much more to see in the UAE’s seven emirates beyond the sparkling skyscrapers.
From outdoor adventure to history and culture, it is when you step out of the city that the country’s Bedouin heritage and natural beauty truly come alive.
The allure of the UAE is its size. Like Israel, nothing is too far away, so in under two hours there is a whole other world of adventure waiting. Here are my top tips to seeing the UAE like a local, without breaking the bank.
Rent a car
Renting a car is always a good option in the UAE, where Emirates are not connected by public transport, with plenty of good deals to be had and petrol cheaper than Coke.
For a more authentic experience, skip the overpriced package tours and take a road trip.
The UAE is a safe and easy place to go independently and enjoy things at your own pace with good road networks and everything signposted in both English and Arabic.
Abu Dhabi’s protected mangrove forests are home to a wealth of wildlife (Photos: Abu Dhabi Media Office)Abu Dhabi’s protected mangrove forests are home to a wealth of wildlife (Photos: Abu Dhabi Media Office)
Ras Al Khaimah: The adventure capital of the Middle East
Home to the Hajar mountain range and the UAE’s highest peak, Jebel Jais, Ras Al Khaimah has become the Middle East’s adventure capital. In addition to hosting the world’s longest zipline, it has some spectacular hikes, from water hikes to more challenging climbs. The northernmost emirate is less than two-hours drive from Dubai and offers nature and adventure lovers the perfect escape from the razzmatazz of the city.
Adventurati Outdoor offer overnight camping trips as well as a range of hikes around the area for all levels, at competitive prices.
Al-Ain: The oasis town and UNESCO Heritage Site
The birthplace of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, Al-Ain is a lush green oasis town. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, its old forts and archaeological sites such as Qasr Al Muwaiji, Al Hili Archaeological Park, Bida Bint Saud and Jebel Hafeet tombs are a must-see for those looking for a little more of the cultural and historical sights. Once you’ve done the historical sites, sundowners at the Mercure Hotel atop Al-Ain’s Jebel Hafeet mountain on the Omani border are a perfect way to end the day, before the two-hour or so drive back to Dubai.
The oasis town of Al Ain hosts a number of UNESCO world heritage sites; Al Ain was the birthplace of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh ZayedThe oasis town of Al Ain hosts a number of UNESCO world heritage sites; Al Ain was the birthplace of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed
Abu Dhabi: More than just the economic and political capital
The economic and political capital of the UAE is also a big player in the tourism scene and worth a visit. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the country’s most magical architectural sights, while for thrill-seekers, Ferrari World on Yas Island boasts the world’s fastest roller coaster. The Jubail Mangrove Park is a national park and must-visit for nature lovers. The mangroves are home to hundreds of avian and marine species native to Abu Dhabi. An expansive boardwalk is available for those who prefer to experience it by foot, though kayaking is really the best option.
Night kayaking is also a splendid way to experience the architectural wonder that is the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Designed by Jean Nouvel, it can be explored from the water on which it is set, with organized trips booked locally. Of course, a trip to Abu Dhabi isn’t complete without seeing the famous Emirates Palace, a hotel of epic proportions where surreal gold-leaf cappuccinos and camel burgers are the order of the day.
Hatta: Where nature and adventure await
Part of the emirate of Dubai, Hatta has become an outdoor and nature destination of its own. Offering some amazing hiking, biking and water sports, this mountainous outpost just 90 minutes from the city is a great reason to leave town. From kayaking around the beautiful Hatta Dam to biking or hiking around the very well-signed routes of Hatta Wadi Hub, there is something for everyone, families or thrill-seekers alike.
FERRARI WORLD Theme Park offers thrill-seekers Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coasterFERRARI WORLD Theme Park offers thrill-seekers Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster
Fujairah: A scuba-diving escape
Scuba diving at Snoopy Island is worth a trip for diving fans. From reef sharks to turtles, there is a wealth of sea life around the area. Several operators are available to choose from, including Sandy Beach Dive Center. A lesser-known tradition in Fujairah is the Friday afternoon bullfighting on the Corniche. Free to attend, it is quite the show, and nothing like the traditional Spanish spectacle. It is a favorite among locals who pitch up to watch while picnicking in the backs of their 4x4s.
You can attend at 5 p.m. each week, but for the fullest experience, have someone translate the comedic commentary. Nearby is also the 16th-century Fujairah Fort which is also worth a trip while you’re in the eastern emirate, 90 minutes from Dubai.
Mleiha Archaeological Park: Dive into ancient history
Officially classed as the emirate of Sharjah, Mleiha is less than an hour from downtown Dubai and is set among some of the most breathtaking red dunes. The archaeological park traces the routes of the country’s Bedouin history dating as far back as the Paleolithic Age. Activities at the center include horse riding, historical desert treks and desert survival courses. 
The writer has lived and worked in the UAE for 13 years and has written extensively on travel in and around the country.