OK let’s be fair, the Middle East gets a pretty bad wrap in the media at times. It’s time to wipe all misconceptions you might have about this corner of the global and come explore it with your kids! As an Australian expatriate mum of three under 6 currently living in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), I believe you’ll be hard pressed to find a country more focused on developing tourist attractions with the family front of mind. Here is just a taste of 10 places you can easily visit in the capital (Abu Dhabi) and the country’s biggest city, Dubai, with kids of all ages.
What would a trip to Dubai be without visiting the world’s tallest tower? A visit to At the Top, located on Level 124 of the Burj Khalifa is a must stop for first time visitors to marvel not only at the amazing architecture and man power needed to create something so tall, but take in the fantastic vistas of the city and get your bearings across Dubai.
(Top Tip: Booking in advance is much cheaper than buying standby on the day and time slots book out, so plan this part of your adventure in advance. Peak times are sunrise and sunset. Children under 4 are free).
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Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi now has an observation deck of its own. Observation Deck at 300 in Jumeirah Hotel, Etihad Towers. You will see a refreshingly different landscape in Abu Dhabi, a lot more greenery, more spectacular palaces – including the megalithic new Presidential Palace – marinas and the stunning blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. More than just an observation deck, morning or afternoon teas is included in your ticket (under 3’s are free). While you’re sipping away, rest assured the kids will be entertained with the action down below and the staff are incredibly accommodating of little people being there despite the quite luxurious setting.
Venture outside of Abu Dhabi or Dubai and only an hour and a half away you will find Al Ain Zoo. It’s a 400-hectare wildlife park with more than 4,000 animals. Beautifully spaced out and with appropriate species you would expect to see in the hot climate (though the indoor penguin enclosure does come as a surprise), it is well worth the longer drive out of town where you can feed giraffes, catch the miniature train, admire the monkeys or watch the rhinos roam. Be warned it is big! You will definitely want to pack your strollers.
Dubai, of course, likes to do things bigger, better and more spectacular than anyone else. Inside Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest), why not visit the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. It’s currently home to King Croc – a 5m, 750kg visitor from Australia that has been wowing young fans. You can also walk through the giant aquarium (one of the world’s largest), watch feeding times and visit the Rocky Shore (more penguins!)
Older kids might be interested in cage snorkeling, shark walking or learning to dive (I will be sticking to the other side of the glass, thank you!) while younger children might be brave enough to touch animals in the rock pool (mine weren’t!)
A Little Culture?
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has recently been voted number one attraction not only in the UAE but the Middle East by TripAdvisor readers. It’s a truly spectacular structure and one of the first buildings you will pass on your welcome to The Capital.
There are no specific activities for kids but it’s not to be missed on your agenda. Hopefully they will be as awed as you are and enjoy seeing the grownups dressed in abayas or kanduras (local traditional dress that can be borrowed for free if you’re not fully covered, all the way to wrists and ankles).
Dubai itself is certainly not lacking in culture either (despite some visitors dismissing the city as being just concrete and sand; look deeper!) It is a very young country, having only just celebrated 43 years since unification in 1971, but there is a rich Bedouin culture beneath the glossy exterior. If your kids are history buffs, take them to the Dubai Museum, located in the Al Faidi Fort, one of the city’s oldest buildings.
You will see traditional dhows and housing, through interactive displays kids can get a taste of what desert life was like for a country that originally relied on pearl diving and its maritime ports before the discovery of oil.
Get Some Greenery
Miracle Gardens in Dubai is home to a reported 150 million flowers! It’s hard to believe such a beautiful place exists in amongst the concrete but it’s true. Children of all ages will love the floral clock and children’s play area, as well as a newly opened butterfly house. Wonderfully bizarre statues are draped in floral designs and the gardens continue to grow in size each winter – quite out of the ordinary!
The much anticipated Mushrif Central Park has also finally opened on Abu Dhabi main island. Included in this amazingly designed garden is a fabulous children’s play area where kids can splash about in a wadi as well as traditional play equipment (bring your towels!). There’s also a botanical garden with shade house, an animal barn, an evening garden that spectacularly lights up at night and an enormous amphitheatre. This will definitely be a favourite relaxation spot for us when the weather cools again.
Something a Bit More Out of the Ordinary?
The Emirates National Auto Museum, based less than an hour drive outside the capital (but basically the middle of nowhere in the desert!) sits inside a rather odd-looking pyramid. It houses Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamndan Al Nahyan’s personal motor collection – almost bordering on eccentric! You will see a Dodge Truck housing a four bedroom apartment, the world’s biggest caravan (see, I told you the UAE has the world’s biggest everything!), as well as a huge array of luxury vehicles, four wheel drives and even your every day cars in every color of the rainbow. A must see if you have some minature motor enthusiasts in your family!
During the cooler winter months on the outskirts of Dubai, Dubai Global Village comes to life in the late afternoons and evenings. A unique world show case of food, shopping and entertainment means you can visit and experience around 70 different countries and cultures all in one place.
We found it to be a bit too vast and crowded when navigating around three young tots in strollers, but slightly older kids will adore the colour and excitement of this global tasting session and love joining in with the live stage performances (all in English).
More to Come in the UAE
This really is the tip of the iceberg (well the sand dunes at least) for discovering the UAE. The UAE is constantly on the build – and on the grandest scale possible (what oil price crash?) On Saaydiat Island in Abu Dhabi they are building the world’s biggest cultural district which will house a Guggenheim Museum, The Louvre, a performing arts centre and the Zayed National Museum (phased in opening from 2016). Just up the road on the Dubai/Abu Dhabi border Dubai Parks & Resorts group are building a giant theme park complex that will include LEGOLAND Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai and Motiongate Dubai – looks like Orlando could be up for some international competition?
If you are planning your first trip to the Emirates, don’t forget to check out the visitors guide on Baby Globetrotters.net for some of the customs and etiquette, especially if you’re visiting during the holy month of Ramadan.
With so much to see and do spread across the Emirates, I would recommend overseas visitors spend at least a week in the UAE to experience just the highlights – and even longer if you are timing your journey around an event like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Yas Island.
The international Airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi also serve as major hubs for international travel – servicing six different continents! – so there are plenty of options for using the UAE as a stopover country for a few days or as a destination in itself.
This post was written by Keri Hedrick, an Australian expatriate mum of three under 6 currently living in the UAE.