Think of the United Arab Emirates and images of rolling deserts, Dubai’s gleaming skyscrapers, and a glitzy lifestyle likely come to mind. But in the east of the country, along the Omani border and about 90 minutes by car from the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, is a surprisingly laid-back place.
The oasis city of Al Ain doesn’t appear on the itineraries of most visitors to the UAE, but it wasn’t always like this. A key stopping point on ancient trade routes across the Arabian Peninsula, Al Ain’s lush oases and abundant water came as a welcome relief to travelers on long, grueling journeys by camel through the surrounding deserts. Archaeological findings around Al Ain show that trade caravans traversed the area as far back as 1300 B.C.E., during the Iron Age.
Today, those oases still exist, and the modern city has grown up around them. Filled with working farms that contain some 147,000 date palms and thousands of other fruit trees, Al Ain’s six oases provide a glimpse of a different way of life, one that predates the rapid urbanization that has taken over other cities in the country. While they don’t fit the storybook image of palm-fringed pools of water appearing like mirages in the dunes, the oases here are vast expanses of well-organized date palm plantations, separated by stone pathways and walls, with channels of water running through them. Look up into the tops of the trees and you’re likely to see farmers tending their crops, climbing barefoot up to the dates, using a rope and a thick belt for support, the same technique they’ve used for centuries.
The best way to explore is on one of the bikes that can be picked up at the rental station at the entrance to the main Al Ain oasis. It’s an easy ride along stone pathways dappled by sunlight filtering through the palm fronds, the air filled with the twittering of birds that make this lush setting home. When you need a break, pedal your way to the lovely Ethr café, an oasis within the oasis full of flowering plants and billowing drapes, for dates and sandalwood tea and a slice of saffron milk cake.
The farms of the oases are watered by the ancient falaj irrigation system, an ingenious network of underground and surface channels, parts of which have been in use for 3,000 years. But history here goes back even further. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of human life in Al Ain dating back to Neolithic times, 8,000 years ago.
One of the best places to get a sense of Al Ain’s ancient past—and one of the best places to spend the night—is the Jebel Hafit Desert Park. Located at the foot of Abu Dhabi’s only mountain, Jebel Hafit, and only 20 minutes by car from the center of town, this five-mile stretch of gravelly sand dotted with thorny acacia trees is home to more than 500 Bronze Age tombs, dating back 5,000 years. Nicknamed “beehive” tombs after their conical shape, some have been fully restored and returned to their original form, while others are little more than piles of rocks, still guarding their secrets. Within the park are Pura Jebel Hafit’s transparent-sided dome tents for overnight stays, each with its own bathroom and firepit. Bring your own barbecue items and firewood and you can cook dinner under the stars. In the early morning, head out for an easy hike to the tombs and you’re likely to have the whole site to yourself. An overnight stay with breakfast starts at 1,024 AED (around US$280) and includes entry to the tombs.
It wasn’t only ancient travelers who passed through Al Ain as they traversed the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1940s, English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger and his Bedouin guides stopped in Al Ain on their arduous expeditions by camel across the vast desert of the Rub’ al-Khali Empty Quarter. He made the journey twice and chronicled the experience in his book Arabian Sands. A permanent collection of fascinating photographs taken by Thesiger on his journeys is housed in a gallery in Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort, an elegant mud-brick structure with crenellated walls and circular watchtowers that dates back to the 1890s.
In the past, Al Ain was a place that travelers came to rest and restore their strength. While the city doesn’t have the variety of high-end restaurants found in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, there are still plenty of places to fuel your own journey. For traditional Emirati flavors, head to Al Fanar, part of a small chain of restaurants across the UAE specializing in high-quality, tasty local food. Ignore this branch’s rather uninspiring location next to the convention center—the food is reliably excellent. The setting inside is a nostalgic blend of traditional architectural details, with columns, arches and wooden mashrabiya screens surrounding an interior courtyard. Appetizers range from flavorful salads like the Salat Hamba Wa Jarjeer, a mix of peppery rocket leaves and tart green mango, while to seafood-based starters include the Hobool deep-fried fish roe. Mains focus on hearty Emirati sharing dishes, many of which have adopted characteristics from the UAE’s neighbors and historical trading partners. The beryanis here are fluffy heaps of rice topped with seafood, mutton, or chicken, and the machboos are similar in style, but with yellow rice simmered in stock, and dried lemon and Arabian spices packing an extra punch.
There’s more nostalgia to be found at the Bait Mohammed bin Khalifa. Built in 1958 and once a focal point of the community, this pastel-colored house opened as a cultural space in 2022 after extensive restoration, with exhibits about the building’s revival and Al Ain’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, spaces for the creative community to rent, and an onsite café. The building provides insights into a period of major transition in the UAE, when the discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi in 1958 led to a more robust economy and the beginning of urbanization. Its hybrid style of construction reflects this change, combining “new” materials like concrete, steel, and aluminum with a traditional layout featuring a central courtyard, communal meeting areas, and private family quarters. While the colors may look like the results of Instagram-friendly urban planning, they’re not. When the house was restored, conservationists scraped back layers of paint to discover the original shades. Pale blues, greens, and salmon pinks seem to have been the flavors of the day.
But it’s not only nostalgia that makes a trip to Al Ain worthwhile. Those looking for a burst of adrenaline can tackle the Middle East’s first man-made white-water rafting channels or surf artificial waves at the Al Ain Adventure water park. The road up the 4,000-foot Jebel Hafit mountain offers views over the deserts and into Oman. Don’t forget to look up as well as down—you might spot rare Egyptian vultures riding the thermals. Jebel Hafit is their only habitat in the country. On the edge of the mountain, the Mercure Grand hotel makes a worthy sundowner stop as the desert sky changes to shades of pink and orange, and lights come on across the city.
The ancient travelers who passed this way knew that Al Ain was a special place. For those wanting to feel a different pace of life in the UAE, it still is.