UAE with kids: Three Emirates in three days.

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Dubai is always mentioned as a layover point (a bit like Singapore) and a sort of hub for a flight stop between Asia and Europe. To us though, the appeal of a desert skyline behind a megacity, and the ancient Arab culture sounded incredible. It all sounded like it couldn’t be much more different from little old New Zealand! We couldn’t wait to get the UAE with the kids, and wanted to see as much as possible.

Would three days be enough to get a glimpse of culture in the modern UAE? We decided to stay in Dubai, but with the goal of visiting two of the other Emirates while we were there.

Here are some tips and other information that will be useful when planning a trip to the UAE with kids, including how we visited Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

Contents


Quickly, about the UAE

Official Name: United Arab Emirates
Capital: Abu Dhabi
Largest city: Dubai
Official language: Arabic
Religion: Islam (majority Sunni)
Population: 9,890,400
Currency: UAE Dirham
Climate: Arid desert

The UAE consists of seven emirates which were historically known as the Trucial States; hence the name United Arab Emirates.

Map showing the seven Emirates of the UAE. Map from Wikimedia Commons.

Dubai

Arriving in the Middle East felt like a fresh start to a whole new travel leg of our adventure. Dubai is a beautiful city to fly into; over desert, sea, and sky rises .

We were intrigued by the mixture of cultures that have made Dubai home. And likewise, people were friendly and curious to introduce themselves and find out where we were from.

Walking around Dubai is an interesting outing in itself. It isn’t like Asia where sometimes the requests for selfies get too much for the kids. The vibe of the UAE is a different feeling.

Seeing the boys shaking hands with locals who applauded their efforts to be dressed in kandura was definitely a highlight of visiting the UAE with the kids. It was an uplifting feeling of mutual respect for the effort the boys had gone to and how much they were enjoying the robes and ghutrah!

Exploring the UAE with kids.
Exploring the old alley ways behind the souk in Old Dubai.

Walking around Old Dubai and along the riverfront is a good choice to start out with. Interestingly, it is the oldest residential quarter in Dubai, though is comparatively young by Middle Eastern standards; only dating back at far as the 19th century.

The vendors in the souk definitely aren’t shy, but once we found our feet it turned out to be an awesome experience. We fast lost count how many high-fives and hand-shakes the boys received! 

Abu Dhabi

We hired a car and drove to Abu Dhabi to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This was a last minute decision as we were initially going to get a bus from Dubai (in lieu of the price for a taxi of about $80USD one way!). It turned out to be a cool one-day road trip. It was amazing to see the enormous highways and spaghetti-like junctions that seemingly rise out of the desert! 

The huge courtyard of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque was beautiful, and of course – enormous and grand in scale. But phew – it was HOT! [Obviously it’s hot every day in the desert in summer, but seriously!].

It's HOT in the UAE with kids!
A moment in the shaded side at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

We didn’t linger too long at the mosque, as it was fairly busy and felt very touristy. (That was possibly compared to where we had just come from in Central Asia). Regardless, it was definitely worth a visit. AND, we now have some very precious photos of us all looking lovely and sweaty, though perhaps not thoroughly impressed… We knew I would have to put on an abaya, but Gavin had to put on a long sleeve SWEATER!

Hours: Open to visitors everyday from 9 am to 10 pm, except for Friday mornings. On Fridays, opening hours are from 4:30 pm to 10 pm. Note that during the month of Ramadan daily visiting hours are from 9 am to 2 pm.
Cost: Entry is free.


Sharjah

Taking the ferry to Sharjah is a different kind of outing and a chance to check out one of the other Emirates. The ferry only takes 40 minutes to Sharjah and it is a nice journey along the river from Old Dubai.

Departing the dock in Dubai by boat headed for Sharjah.

It was VERY hot by the time we arrived. We were excited to see people swimming at nearby Al Khan Beach and went straight to check it out.

The boys walking on to the beach at Sharjah in their robes. Exploring the UAE with kids.
Walking from the ferry terminal in Sharjah to Al Khan Beach.

We were all assuming the beach swim would be the perfect way to cool off. But not so. The boys came out pinker than they went in. The shoreline is quite literally like a tepid bath!! 

Swimming at the beach in Sharjah. Visiting the UAE with kids.
The (tepid) water at Al Khan Beach, Sharjah.

Temperature aside, a boat trip and a chance to see more of the Emirates is a great day out. I would recommend it as a fun way to explore a bit more of the UAE with kids.

Cost: Ferry tickets are 15AED ($6.30NZD) one way. Children under 5 are free.


When is the best time to visit the UAE?

The UAE is a hot, desert country close to the equator. In peak summer, temperatures can reach 50°C making it almost unbearable to be outside. Winter is the best time to visit; from November through to April.

We visited in September, and the average daytime temperature was between 30°C – 40°C. In this heat, the mall is a good choice for an air conditioned day time attraction. Even a daytime swim is not particularly refreshing at this temperature!

It’s hot in the UAE! A fast-melting ice cream was a quick relief from the heat in the Old City.

Note: The Holy Month of Ramadan is strictly observed in the UAE. You can find out exactly when it will fall here. It is important to note that it can impact on your visit due to daytime fasting and the ban of eating in public during daylight hours. Options are available for tourists during this time but it pays to plan ahead.

What to wear in the UAE

As soon as you arrive at Dubai airport you can see Emirati traditional dress everywhere. Every male worker at immigration is dressed in a white kandora and ghutra. It is an awesome welcome and a reminder that you are indeed somewhere new and different!

The Emirates is a Muslim country and there are minimum standards of dress expected by tourists. However this does depend on the situation you are in.

The dress code is modest, however women are non-Muslim women are not expected to cover their head. Dress modestly. You should look to be covered from your shoulders to blow the knees. Avoid wearing anything that is too clingy or revealing. It is a good idea to carry a scarf or pashmina with you to cover up if you feel uncomfortable, or if entering a religious building. On visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi you will be required to rent a full length abaya.

For men, despite the heat you will see most men in full length trousers (if not in traditional dress).

What are children expected to wear?

Small children and pre-pubescent children are free to wear whatever they like. From puberty, children are expected to adhere to the same dress code as adults.

I ended up with some serious hand washing to do at our hotel in Dubai. The boys had their robes on since stepping out in them at the Old Souk and didn’t want to take them off. We only planned to buy a scarf, but the men at the souk gave the boys a guthra and they were so excited. (Previous travel clothes selection was carefully chosen NOT to include white for kids!).

General travel tips for visiting the UAE

  • Laws state that children under the age of four years old need an infant seat. However, by law you will not need one to travel with children in a taxi.
  • Public displays of affection are very offensive in the UAE. Penalties for breaking local laws are severe. To be safe, refrain from public displays of affection such as holding hands or kissing your significant other while in public.
  • Certain medicines are not permitted in UAE (including Codeine). Check ahead to make sure you are not carrying anything that is not permitted.
  • Swimwear is acceptable in your hotel and at the beach. However as you are in a public place, be respectful and cover yourself modestly.

Getting around

We walked, taxi’ed, trained, metro’d and drove in the UAE. It is a well set up to navigate. We found people to be very friendly and helpful as we found our bearings with train timetables and directions.

Visiting the UAE with kids.
On the subway in Dubai off to find the big mall and Burj Khalifa.

To get to Abu Dhabi from Dubai we hired a rental car. Rental and pick-up was easy through rentalcars.com from Dubai Airport arrivals.

Where we stayed

We really enjoyed our stay here and would recommend Gateway Hotel for accommodation in the UAE with kids. The hotel pool was a very welcomed sight. Perfect to counter the 40°C heat by late afternoon. The breakfast buffet was enormous and staff were lovely.

We hadn’t initially realised how good the location of the hotel was. I actually went downstairs to ask how to get to ‘Old Dubai’ only to be told we were already IN Old Dubai!

One challenge in the UAE with kids

The heat in UAE with kids was massive for us. We had spent the last couple of months in the dry heat of Central Asia and it felt like a humid heat wave to be back by the ocean again. This isn’t a huge problem as the hotel, rooms, malls, and shops are well air-conditioned. But, it did see us making a few hurried decisions about where to eat, and in doing so, we wound up in touristy-restaurants that lacked soul (in a rush to get the kids and ourselves out of the heat).

We felt like we ‘wasted’ a few chances for experiences just because we felt so desperately hot.

If we went again we would…

Stay in the same place in Dubai, but hire the car for a few days and do some more road tripping around the whole country. Visiting the UAE with kids far exceeded our expectations.

A walk at sunset on the waterfront in Old Dubai.

It felt like a whole new world to explore!

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