Family holidays in the United Arab Emirates don’t begin and end with the spectacle of astounding Dubai.
There are seven emirates in all, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al-Kaimah top of the list for activities and general, all-round, kid-friendly excitement.
But transport’s excellent almost everywhere, so discovering an alternative – quieter – emirate, another style of beach or a completely different take on the ancient culture behind shiny, new UAE is very doable – even for a day or two.
Diret flights from major London airports to Dubai and Abu Dhabi put all seven emirates with easy reach.
Year round sunshine
Year round sunshine with summer temperatures climbing from 30-39˚C and average temperatures of 28˚C from November to March.
Home to the world’s biggest and tallest everything from indoor ski-slopes and hotels to shopping malls and manmade islands.
Ancient and modern
Glossy, modern cities with ancient and evocative historic quarters, old harbours and traditional souks.
A landscape of immense desert, dramatic mountains, white sand beaches edged by the warm, blue waters of the Persian Gulf.
Heritage festivals and local experiences combined with world-class theme parks, water sports, global festivals and events, designer shopping and internationally renowned restaurants.
One of the world’s greatest concentrations of luxury hotels, holiday apartments and villas and beach resorts.
Looking at opulent and glossy Abu Dhabi today it’s difficult to believe that, in the mid-1930s a mark of wealth here was a mud house instead of a palm frond hut. This is the capital of the UAE, where the all the extravagant development started in c.1967 and it’s thrilling. Spread across hundreds of Persian Gulf islands and dominated by impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi may not have any shabby homes left but its museums, historic markets and colourful local shops show heritage is far from forgotten. Surprisingly conservation conscious too, Abu Dhabi’s blissfully free of engine noise on its lovely beaches and one of the best emirates for wild desert adventure, hiking and guided treks.
If you want to stay in the world’s highest penthouse suite, it’s in Abu Dhabi. For the more modest family, all-inclusive beach resorts are fabulous here and the kid-friendly spa is a formula perfected by several superb city centre hotels.
Don’t miss Ferrari World (the biggest indoor theme park on earth), Marina Circuit Formula 1 race track, World Heritage Al Ain and Al Jahili Fort.
Visit the Empty Quarter, Rub al Khali, the world’s largest, unbroken expanse of dunes and one of the most remarkable place in Abu Dhabi for peaceful camel trekking or slightly rowdier sand boarding.
Dubai is the UAE’s transport hub, home to the country’s largest airport and the world’s tallest skyline studded with record breaking buildings and legendary modern design. It’s where you’ll find gorgeous beaches all along the Persian Gulf, glamorous shopping malls, huge waterparks and enough astounding kids activities to fill a lifetime of family holidays. But there’s plenty history, heritage, art and culture to balance out the new in this energetic city. Ancient souks and pretty, traditional districts are tucked in the shadow of skyscrapers. The immense Hajar Mountains and endless desert are as untouched and mesmerising by slow, gentle camel train as they are by car, mountain bike or on foot. And from magical festivals to spectacular theatre, new art and innovative events, Dubai does everything in its great powers to entertain too.
Dubai’s been building non-stop since 1967 and today the city has 60,000 hotel rooms, with more to come. Designer luxury is a trademark, but there are good value family hotels in the more historic east of the city and waterfront self-catering and stunning all-inclusive beach resorts.
Don’t miss Jumeirah Beach Park, Wild Wadi Waterpark, Dubai Mall (the world’s largest) and Ski Dubai (the world’s biggest indoor real snow slopes).
Falconry, camel trains, desert camps, off-roading, diving, trekking, hiking, cycling and sand boarding are just a hint of Dubai’s outdoor activities.
Ras Al-Khaimah is less than an hour’s drive north of Dubai, shares a border with Oman and is a favourite holiday for UAE residents. Greener than its neighbours, with quieter beaches, pretty parks and a strong sense of heritage, RAK’s great fun for kids and the perfect emirate for making the most of desert and mountain magnificence – Jabal Jais, the highest Hajar peak dominates the skyline here. Traditional culture is celebrated here like nowhere else in the country so if you’ve promised everyone a night under the stars at a Bedouin camp, you can come good on your word.
The four manmade islands of Al Marjan have some of RAK’s best family resort hotels designed around beaches and lush gardens but not far from the city centre.
Don’t miss Iceland Waterpark, Dhayah Fort, a tour of Awafi Desert, the 13th century Queen of Sheeba Palace and RAK Camel Race Track.
Visit Al Dhait North, RAK City’s evocative and colourful historic quarter.
What to do
Lost Chambers Aquarium, Dubai An interactive aquarium with sharks doesn’t sound like it should be on the must-do list, but this one is spectacular and completely harmless.
Al Jahili Fort, Abu Dhabi One of the loveliest historic buildings in the UAE this stunning 19th century fortress is now a museum surrounded by gorgeous gardens.
Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi The world’s biggest indoor theme park with the highest rollercoaster loop (52m).
Iceland Waterpark, Ras Al-Kaimah Thrilling and huge waterpark with enough terrors to keep teens happy and plenty for younger kids to love too.
National Museum of Ras Al-Kaimah The best national collection in UAE exhibited in historic Al Hisn Fort in the Al Dhait North quarter of RAK City.
Ski Dubai The longest indoor real ski-slopes in the world and a very cute Alpine atmosphere just to completely convince kids it’s not 39˚C outside.
Wild Wadi Waterpark, Dubai If you need another good reason to spend more time on and around Jumeirah Beach, this fantastic waterpark works.
Arabian Wildlife Park, Sir Bani Yis Island, Abu Dhabi With over 12,000 animals roaming free, a safari on this beautiful Persian Gulf island is an experience for kids.
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi World Heritage Al Ain is under an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi and one of the Emirate’s most historic sites. The museum is wonderful and the local Camel Market keeps things real.
Aquaventure, Dubai Right on the edge of the Palm, this is the biggest and splashiest waterpark in the entire Middle East.
Educational value for kids
From horse riding to kite surfing, there are very few outdoor activities kids can’t get good at in the UAE – the quality of schools is superb.
Get to know the desert and life beyond the city on guided camel tours or treks.
Guided climbs in the Hajar Mountain foothills are an unforgettable experience for older kids.
Visit the ruined villages and historic quarters of RAK to find out all about the ancient pearl fishing industry which thrived across UAE long before it was UAE.
Step away from the shiny malls and explore the souks, markets and traditional local shops – they’re much more fun for kids.
New art galleries, artists’ co-operatives and exhibitions in cultural quarters are an exciting look at the creative life of UAE beneath its glossy, touristy surface.
The country’s architecture represents some astonishing feats of engineering and ingenuity. Take kids for a close-up look at achievements like Abu Dhabi’s leaning Capital Gate Building (a reservoir on the 17th floor acts as a counterbalance) or Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest tower.
There isn’t an international restaurant brand without a presence in the UAE, but the best food is local and snacking round the historic districts is better than generic burgers any day.
Getting about with kids in The United Arab Emirates
No surprise to find almost everyone drives in the UAE and if you want to explore outside the cities, hiring a car is the best plan. Otherwise, taxis are inexpensive and most hotels and resorts will organise transport to attractions and airport transfers.