Perhaps not surprisingly, the city is often stereotyped as a consumerist extravagance, appealing only to those with more cash than culture, although this one-eyed cliché does absolutely no justice to Dubai’s beguiling contrasts and rich cultural makeup. There are plenty of museums to enjoy and fascinating wildlife spots - you’ll never be stuck for what to do in Dubai for free.
The Traditional Architecture Museum is one of the most interesting of the assortment of Shindagha museums. Located halfway between Shindagha Tower and Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House, it occupies a rather grand traditional house with the usual sandy courtyard, wind towers and elaborate latticed wall-panels decorated with geometrical and floral patterns. Inside, informative displays cover the story of architecture in the Emirates generally and Dubai in particular.
Some 8km inland, the Dubai Creek widens into the impressive Ras al Khor (“Head of the Creek”), forming an extensive inland lagoon dotted with mangroves and surrounded by intertidal salt and mud flats - a unique area of unspoilt nature close to the city centre. The southern end of the lagoon is home to the low-key Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary , best known for its aquatic birdlife. The sanctuary is an important stopover on winter migratory routes from East Africa to West Asia and almost seventy different species have been spotted here. It’s best known for the colourful flocks of bright pink flamingos which nest here - one of Dubai’s most surreal sights when seen perched against the smoggy outlines of the city skyscrapers beyond. You can’t actually go into the sanctuary, but you can birdwatch from one of two hides on its edge. Signage for the hides is minimal and you’ll need a car to reach them.
Celebrating Dubai’s formidable reputation for law and order, the modest Naif Museum lies tucked away in a corner of the imposing Naif Fort (originally built in 1939, but restored extensively in 1997). It has home to interesting exhibits on the history of law enforcement in the emirate from the foundation of the police force in 1956 (with just six officers under a British captain) up to the present day. Exhibits include assorted old weapons and uniforms, various old photos and a trio of short films including some interesting historical footage.
Occupying a large modern wind powered building, the Sharjah Art Museum is the major showpiece in Sharjah’s attempts to position itself as a serious player in the international art scene. Temporary exhibitions of varying quality feature on the ground floor. Upstairs, the museum’s permanent gallery of modern Arabian art holds a wide range of works created in the past four decades from countries across the region in an eclectic range of styles and media.
A dusty green wall of palms announces the beautiful Al Ain Oasis , with a mazy network of little walled lanes running between the densely planted thickets of trees including an estimated 150,000-odd date palms. There are eight entrances dotted around the perimeter of the oasis, although given the disorienting tangle of roads within, you’re unlikely to end up coming out where you entered. This is one of the best free things to do in Dubai for sure.
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