While Abu Dhabi and Dubai lure with marquee museums and big-name starchitects, Sharjah is taking a more subtle — but no less impactful — approach.

By Sara Hamdan
May 31, 2019
An installation by Cevdet Erek at Sharjah Art Foundation.
| Credit: Iain Masterton/Getty Images

You don’t usually go to the desert looking for rain. But Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is full of surprises.

At Sharjah Art Foundation, in the emirate’s capital city, I recently visited "Rain Room," a 2012 installation by the collective Random International that has previously stopped in London and New York. A heavy downpour fell inside a darkened space, but thanks to motion detectors it left me untouched, allowing me to walk slowly and cinematically under a single, moving spotlight. The work, which raises questions about technology, sensation, and climate change, has more than a little in common with Sharjah itself. With its traditional culture and thriving gallery scene, Sharjah challenges assumptions about what an emirate can be.

I took the 30-minute drive northeast from Dubai to experience the peninsula nation’s quieter side. My visit coincided with the Sharjah Biennial, a renowned festival (running through June 10) that sprinkles dozens of projects throughout the emirate. The art foundation, occupying a series of gray concrete-and-glass cubes in a quiet neighborhood, is its home base. Biennial highlights included Tracey Rose’s feminist performance art and Carlos Martiel’s meditations on the African diaspora. In addition to the Biennial, the foundation has staged exhibitions by the likes of James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama, as well as spotlighting modern art from the Arab world. That’s a focus of many of the city’s galleries, too, including Maraya Art Centre, which has a sculpture garden on the nearby Al Majaz Waterfront. This November will bring the first edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial (November 9–February 8, 2020), which hopes to raise the profile of contemporary designs of the U.A.E.

But let’s be clear: most of the art and design in Sharjah is not new. The emirate is more conservative than Dubai — no alcohol, more modest dress — and prides itself on preserving its deep-rooted culture. Wander past waterfront souks and striking blue-and-white-tiled buildings. Stop by the Ottoman-style Al Noor Mosque, the first in the emirate to offer guided tours to non-Muslims. Explore the Heart of Sharjah historic district, which preserves the town as it existed before the development of the oil industry. Wrap up a city walk with a sandwich from Falafel Frayha, a street-food favorite open since 1983.

The pool at Al Bait Sharjah, the first luxury hotel in the emirate's capital city.
| Credit: Courtesy Al Bait Sharjah

For years, visitors were hard-pressed to find a decent place to stay. That’s changing with the new Al Bait Sharjah (doubles from $460), a member of Leading Hotels of the World, which has views of gently rocking dhows docked on Sharjah Creek. The 53 guest rooms — spread across four historic houses once owned by prominent local families — come with four-poster beds, goblets brimming with Arabian dates, and access to a custom Mercedes available for chauffeured outings. Follow the alleyways between the interconnected residences to the on-site library and museum of Sharjah history. The hotel’s main restaurant serves dishes like camel, slow-braised for 24 hours. For more local specialties, another restaurant at the hotel serves Emirati fare family style — but the spiced prawns are so good you may not want to share.

Western Sharjah is heavily built up, but the emirate also includes a few less-developed exclaves. Those craving a seaside break should head 90 minutes east to Khor Kalba, a mangrove forest on the Gulf of Oman that was once part of the Portuguese empire. Here, the newly opened eco-resort Kingfisher Lodge (doubles from $463) offers 20 ocean-facing tents in sandy hues and sea blues, plus kayak tours of the nature reserve and excursions to watch sea turtles hatch. It’s a perfect example of the many delights the U.A.E. has to offer beyond its shiny cities.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Cultural Player Emerges in the Gulf.