Sharjah is rapidly making its mark as one of the rising tourism stars in the Middle East. The emirate, long a beacon of culture in the Arab world, has established itself as one of the most intriguing destinations in the region. In fact, Sharjah is winning kudos as an understated, intellectual alternative to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it’s neighbour and near-neighbour respectively. Although various elements mark it out as different, Sharjah shares with its brethren in the UAE and elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula the same climate. Winters by the Gulf are absolutely idyllic, with balmy days and breeze-cooled evenings supplying near-perfect conditions. The summertime heat can be slightly more of a challenge, at least when it comes to outdoor activities. Thankfully, some of Arabia’s most respectfully curated heritage sights, world-class museums, art galleries as well as pursuits like shopping and dining mean there are plenty of ways to appreciate Sharjah.
Home to everything from hip contemporary galleries to celebrations of traditional calligraphy, Sharjah has a well-founded claim to have the most rounded art scene in the UAE. Indeed, the emirate has been hosting its own Biennale since 1993, when the idea of franchising the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi would have been dismissed by most as a far-fetched fantasy. The upshot of this long-standing commitment to artistic mores is a febrile climate that will appeal equally to art connoisseurs and the merely curious. From Al Bait Sharjah, it’s a short hop to Sharjah Art Area, which is part of Heart of Sharjah, a far-reaching historic preservation and restoration project that has reinvigorated the cultural life of the emirate. Anchoring the area is the Sharjah Art Museum, which covers a range of bases including rotating exhibitions by contemporary Arab artists and winners of the Biennale as well as older works by (notably) European Orientalists. Equally compelling is the Maraya Art Centre. A social and artistic hub in the thick of Al Qasba – a canal-side complex packed with cafes, shops and restaurants – the institution hosts cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions and acts as a meeting point for local artists and creatives.
A sense of learnedness permeates the atmosphere in Sharjah. Cultural traditions play a
Eating, and eating heartily, is an integral part of the culture in Sharjah. The emirate is packed with prime places to fill up in and it takes the willpower and self-discipline of a Bedouin ascetic to avoid erring towards the cuddly side during a stay. Options are myriad. At Al Bait Sharjah gourmet choices range from the sumptuous Levantine fare served at the Arabic Restaurant in the new Al Bait Sharjah to international dishes at the hotel’s Restaurant and traditional and homemade camel milk ice cream at the Ice Cream Shop. There’s ample scope to broaden your horizons away from the hotel. Large migrant populations from Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent mean visitors can sample everything from fiery coconut-based curries from Kerala to richer Mughal creations from North India. A classic curry hit can be sampled at Gazebo, a mainstay that is renowned for its Hyderabad Biryani and creamy butter chicken masala. Also featuring prominently on menus in Sharjah is seafood hauled fresh from the gulf. At Sammach, a fish restaurant at Sharjah Aquarium, the process is simple. Just pick a fish from the display laid out on the ice and the expert chefs will cook it according to taste.
If Sharjah is a treasure trove, some of its most alluring gems can be found amidst its souqs, which are ideal places for both habitual browsers and for customers who are more inclined to put their hands in their pockets. These hubs of Arabian commerce have been given a new lease on life through the Heart of Sharjah project, which has restored life to traditional marketplaces such as Souq Al Shanasiya and Souq Saqr. Even better for those who prefer to get their retail therapy in comfort is the fact that the restoration work has bequeathed air-conditioning on these formerly sweltering mercantile mazes. The refined surrounds of Souq Al Arsah thought to be the oldest market in the UAE, the bazaar of Souq Saqr which majors in herbs and spices, textiles, furniture and perfumes, and the city’s Central Market – commonly known as the “blue souq” due to its beautiful Byzantine-inspired roof – are the best places to go for a typically Arabian retail fix. Less atmospheric, but more attuned to modern sensibilities are Sharjah’s array of modern malls. There’s nothing quite on the scale of the monolithic shrines to consumer culture in Dubai, but options such as Sahara Centre and Mega Mall offer international stores, regional chains and entertainment venues for the entire family.
5: AFTER DARK
Sharjah’s nightlife is quiet but that doesn’t mean it is non-existent. The emirate’s strict ban on alcohol means that those seeking bars and nightclubs will have to make for nearby Dubai. Nevertheless, the pleasant waterfront walkways and open spaces of Sharjah come alive after dark as families, couples and groups of friends make the most of pleasant evening temperatures. One of Sharjah’s most iconic attractions – the Eye of the Emirates Wheel – can be enjoyably sampled in the evenings. The wheel recently moved from its long-term site at Al Qasba to Al Montazah Parks. But the shift hasn’t dulled the impact of the view from its pinnacle, which takes in attractions like Al Noor mosque and the Blue Souq. Visitors will also spot Al Majaz Waterfront, a family-friendly enclave on the shores of Khalid Lagoon that encompasses diversions that include plentiful restaurants, cafes and recreation areas, and the spectacular Sharjah Fountain. A highlight here is a moonlit ride in a traditional abra (a type of wooden ferry) on the waters of the lagoon.
For an indulgent stay at Al Bait Sharjah, consider booking the Sharjah Untold package, valid from now through Sept. 30, 2019.
Text by Duncan Forgan for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: Dates trees, grassy lawns, playgrounds for kids, cafés and a walking path line the Khalid Lagoon. Coolest time for a visit is a half hour before sunset.