The third largest emirate in the UAE, Sharjah fervently cherishes its culture and history, making it a great place to discover the country's storied roots
While Sharjah may forgo the glamour of its glitzier neighbours, its approach to its heritage makes the emirate stand out. It is unique in its vibe and spirit, which gives the city its distinct cultural identity. Going the extra mile to preserve its roots has proved rewarding as UNESCO declared Sharjah the cultural capital of the Arab World in 1998, with its status reaffirmed in 2014, when it became the capital of Islamic culture. An up-close look reveals some of the country's best museums, art galleries, archaeological sites and heritage districts that pay homage to the nation's humble past.
Read on to discover how you can make the most of your time in Sharjah.
Art and culture take the spotlight
To plunge right into Sharjah's thriving arts and culture scene, start with a visit to Sharjah Art Foundation. Nestled in the heart of the heritage district, it is home to the Sharjah Biennial, which, every two years, shines the spotlight on creative works by Arab and international artists. Throughout the year, the foundation hosts exhibitions, workshops, live cultural performances, film screenings, artist talks and more. The Rain Room, the surreal installation which sees people walk through a continuous downpour of rain without getting wet, can also be found here.
One of the venues belonging to the foundation, Bait Al Serkal serves as an art gallery for the Sharjah Biennial and recurring exhibitions. Making this space equally worthy of your attention is the beautifully restored structure. It was first built in the 19th century as a home to the British Commissioner for the Arabian Gulf, while, in the 1960s, it transformed into the first hospital in Sharjah, where many prominent residents of the city were born. In the early 90s, the building was fully restored along with other structures in the area, and it now comprises expansive halls and an inner courtyard.
A short walk from the foundation is the Sharjah Art Museum. Its permanent collection sees classic and modern Middle Eastern art take centre stage as it features masterpieces by Arab creatives who have made significant contributions to the region's art scene. When it opened in 1997, it became the emirate's first art museum, displaying a selection of paintings and sculptures. It now also contains a library that houses over 4,000 art-focused titles in English, Arabic and other languages.
A walk further up the Al Majarrah Waterfront reveals the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Under its golden dome, across seven galleries, 1,300 years of history come alive as the artefacts highlight the Islamic civilisation from the first century to the 14th century. Visitors can discover inventions made by Muslim scholars during this time period and learn more about the region's contribution to art, culture and the sciences.
If you're looking to dig deeper into the past, head to the Mleiha Archaeological Centre. It is home to fascinating finds unearthed by archaeologists who have been patiently sifting through the desert's shifting sands for over half a century. Some of the remains of civilisation found here date back to the Paleolithic period, while one of the highlights is a well-preserved Bronze Age tomb.
Visitors seeking a sense of adventure will be pleased to learn that the centre doubles as a launch pad for desert escapes. The experiences offered here give outdoor enthusiasts the chance to explore the dunes in a four-wheel drive, on a bicycle, on horseback or on foot. Guides will usher you through a historic route that covers a 2,000-year-old Iron Age Fort and an 8,000-year-old Stone Age necropolis.
Connect with nature
Natural gems are scattered all across Sharjah giving visitors the chance to truly immerse themselves in nature. On the border with Oman lies Kalba, an exclave of the emirate, which boasts the most pristine beaches and lush mangroves. These attractions lure both residents and visitors alike, who come seeking respite from the bustle of the city.
One of the best places to explore Sharjah's delicate mangrove ecosystem is the Khor Kalba Mangrove Centre, which serves as a breeding ground for native and rare species of birds. The visitor centre is built around a mangrove swamp which emerges from a natural creek and forms a lagoon that is home to turtles and other marine life, and often sees migratory birds along the water's edge. Visitors can walk along the mangrove trail and make pit stops at aviaries dotted around the park to view the natural habitats of these coastal birds.
If you're seeking a similar experience closer to the city, Wasit Nature Reserve is home to over 200 bird species and attracts a large number of bird watchers. It features a diverse ecosystem along coastal sand dunes, salt flats, ponds and a large lake in and around which indigenous flora and fauna thrive. The once-endangered Arabian oryx can also be spotted freely roaming around the reserve.
Back in the heart of the city, Al Noor Island combines nature, art and award-winning architecture into one mesmerising experience. Walking across the island's boardwalk reveals the Butterfly House – the island's top attraction that is home to more than 500 butterflies. Visitors can walk through this space as these winged creatures, in an array of shapes, colours and sizes, magically flutter around.
If you're looking to spend the afternoon peacefully, Al Noor Island also features a Literature Pavilion, where visitors can relax with a good book. Art lovers will be amazed by the stunning egg-shaped OVO installation that combines wood, LED lighting and water to create a stunning visual treat as you walk through the domed structure to take in its beauty from different angles. Finally, a stroll further down the boardwalk brings you to a tropical landscaped garden, which is home to over 70,000 trees and plants, including indigenous and endangered varieties as well as a 250-year-old olive tree.
Where to stay
Located in close proximity to Sharjah International Airport and the heart of the city, Centro Sharjah serves as the ideal base to explore the emirate. The hotel caters to both business and leisure guests, with 306 rooms and suites designed bearing in mind the needs of the modern traveller.
Centro Sharjah features an all-day dining restaurant, c.taste, which serves a wide array of international cuisines, as well as a 24-hour take-away dining concept, c.deli. Guests looking to maximise their leisure time can make the most of the gym or the outdoor, temperature-controlled swimming pool.
To learn more about Centro Sharjah, visit rotana.com.