Celebrated on 2 December each year, UAE National Day marks the union day between the seven emirates and the formal nationalisation of the UAE. While there's always fireworks and flags aplenty for all residents to enjoy, we've gathered together some of the fun activities you can do with your little ones all year round to help them appreciate some of the proud culture and traditional values of their home country's Emirati heritage.
Watch the camels run
Al Marmoum Racetrack
The popularity of camel racing took off soon after the formation of the UAE where racing was seen as way of uniting the Emirates. While in its beginnings the prizes were small, such as a basket of dates for the winner, now camel owners compete for large amounts of cash and the sport has become a favourite pastime of royalty, earning its nickname as the ‘sport of sheikhs’.
At Al Marmoum on Dubai-Al Ain Road the jockeys are all electronic and remote controlled, but this doesn’t diminish the excitement of seeing the ships of the desert thundering along the track. From the shaded grandstand you can comfortably watch swathes of camels take off from the gates as trainers and owners follow their animals in 4x4s.
Races take place between 6.30am-8.30am on Thursdays and Fridays (and 2pm – 3pm in cooler months).
Ring ahead first to confirm that the races are happening as they can get cancelled last minute.
Contact: 04 832 6526
Image by Dubai Camel Racing Club
Dhow cruises and racing
The legacy of the dhow is integral to UAE culture and the traditional wooden boats have become symbols of the nation’s connection to the sea as well as a means by which it's trading economy could flourish and thrive. For centuries dhows were essential for crossing the trade routes between the Gulf and East Africa, India and Pakistan, and it’s said that up until the 1960s their sails were a more common sight than cars in the UAE.
Dhow cruises in the Emirates these days can tend towards the touristy, but there’s still plenty of joy to be found in an evening’s meal experienced on the water. The vessels, often strung with glittering lights, also typically offer some family-friendly entertainment in the form of dancing or magic shows, so this is a bonus for any easily-bored little ones. A quick google will find you plenty of options.
Something a bit different, but more subject to the seasons, is catching one of the famous dhow races that take place in the UAE. You’ll have to wait until after the summer, but then taking a picnic to the beach and watching the boats riding the waves will be well worth it. Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club have a few Dhow races planned for later this year and keep an eye out on the Dubai International Marine Club website too for updates to their calendar at the beginning of the race season (September to May).
Image by Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club
Explore Dubai beyond the skyscrapers
Al Fahidi Historical District
While Dubai Heritage Village is a nice spot to visit to witness what life was like in historical Dubai and to get an introduction to traditional customs and local craftsmanship, the village is currently under renovation.
Instead visit Al Fahidi Historical District, the small neighbourhood near Bastakia, where restored houses display Dubai architecture popular from the early 1900s to 1970. The buildings, with high air towers and built with traditional building materials such as stone, teak, sandal wood and palm fronds, create a picturesque walk among the small alleyways and streets of the area. Due to its proximity to the creek the district once played an important role in managing Dubai and organising its commercial relations overseas and there is even a short section of the old city wall from 1800.
The area is full of celebrations of UAE history as well as a hub for the arts that are flourishing in the country today. There are several galleries and museums here, including the Coffee Museum and Coin Museum, most of which are free of charge to enjoy.
Open all day every day, taking into account the normal operating hours of the museums and galleries.
Contact: 04 515 5000
Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort
In addition to this, the area also boasts the Dubai Museum situated in Al Fahidi Fort. The fort was built back in 1787, as a premises for monarchs and a fort of defence. Later on it was repurposed as an arsenal for artillery and as a prison for outlaws. It was renovated during the reign of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and opened in 1971 (the year the federation was formed), to be an official museum that displays the history of Dubai and its heritage.
The museum itself offers a close look at the different environments of urban and rural lives in Dubai and exhibits rare authentic monuments, original samples, drawings and diagrams, audio and visual media as well as recreations of market places and homes as they would have been in Dubai’s early days.
Open from 8.30am - 8.30pm Saturday to Thursday and 2.30pm - 8.30pm on Fridays.
Ramadan timings are 9.00am - 4.30pm Saturday to Thursday and the site is closed on Fridays.
Cost: Dh1 for children under six and Dh3 for adults.
Contact: 04 353 1862 and 04 515 5000
Image by Visit Dubai
Cultivate pearls and practice calligraphy
Heritage Village at KidZania
If you’re not already familiar with KidZania, it’s an impressive play park where children can pick and roleplay jobs in an imitation of a real-world environment without the need for parental supervision* (although parents are welcome to follow them around the ‘city’ and watch all the fun they have!). From shops to film sets and hospitals, they have all the typical set-ups that kids like to get involved in, but specific to the UAE is their Heritage Village section. There’s a pearl cultivation farm here where little ones can learn about the pearl diving culture of the UAE, experiencing how to search for pearls inside real oysters (ages 4+), a pottery activity that teaches why pottery making is an integral handicraft in UAE culture (ages 4+) and the opportunity to try their hand at Arabic calligraphy. Plus, during Ramadan KidZania are celebrating the Year of Zayed by asking children to consider the value of tolerance, coming up with quotations that encourage kindness to be written on a leaf on the ‘tree of tolerance’.
Open Sunday to Wednesday 10:00am - 8:00pm and Thursday to Saturday 10:00am - 11:00pm on level 2 of Dubai Mall.
Cost: Economy child tickets are Dh180 while tickets for toddlers under four are Dh105. Adult tickets cost Dh75 and babies go free.
Contact: 04 448 5222
*According to KidZania policy, children under 120cm in height must always be accompanied by an adult.
Get close to local nature
Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre
While Al Ain zoo itself can be an eye-opening experience for little ones, the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre located within it is a great edutainment venue specifically focused on the geology, flora, fauna and natural history of the Emirates. Across five interactive galleries visitors move on a journey through time as stories and movies take them through the past, present and future of the UAE. The building itself is an impressive feat of architecture, having won awards for its modern and sustainable design. Guests describe the centre as very kid-oriented, with a 15 minute feature film playing on Fridays and Saturdays and guided tours in English available.
During the summer the zoo and centre are open Friday and Saturday 5:00pm - 11.00pm.
Cost: Free entry for children under three, tickets for children aged three to 12 are Dh10 and Dh30 for adults and include entry to the zoo.
Contact: 800 555
Image by Visit Abu Dhabi
Visit a mosque
In Dubai, for slightly older children (5+) the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers guided tours of Jumeirah Mosque as part of its ‘Open Doors, Open Minds’ policy, designed to bring different nationalities together. It’s unusual for mosques to be open to non-Muslims so this is a good opportunity to expand little ones’ understanding of Emirati and Islamic culture where they can ask all the questions they want during the Q&A session at the end of the tour. The mosque is one of the most picturesque in the city of Dubai, with snow white minarets and intricate details built in the medieval Fatimid tradition. The tour lasts 1 ½ hours and photography is allowed. Modest clothing is required for both men and women.
The tour runs every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 10am and no prior booking is needed.
Cost: Dh20 per person
Contact: 04 353 6666
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
As a resident of the UAE you’re probably well aware of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – but this also counts as a key visit on our tour of Emirati culture. One of the world’s largest mosques, it’s hailed as a stunning work of art and architecture, as well as being a key part of UAE history: The mosque's first ceremony was the funeral of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, who is buried at the site.
Tours of the Mosque's passageways and halls with qualified Emirati guides are available. Here kids can learn about its artistic elements, architecture and the history behind its construction.
Open daily to visitors 9am to 10pm Saturday to Thursday and 4.30pm to 10pm on Fridays. Complimentary one hour guided tours run 10am, 11am and 5pm Sunday to Thursday, 5pm and 7pm on Friday and 10am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 7pm on Saturday, no prior booking is required.
During Ramadan the mosque is open 9am to 2pm, Saturday to Thursday from and is closed on Fridays.
Contact: 02 419 1919
Images by Gulf News
Live like the Bedouin
Few kids can resist the novelty of camping so teaming it up with the opportunity to experience a slice of Bedouin culture is a guaranteed way to have fun and expand young minds. The traditions of the Bedouin are one of the founding pillars of UAE society and still play a very important role within the Emirates’ national identity as locals today continue to nurture the values and practices of hospitality, music, food and poetry that all originated from the Bedouin way of life.
While with proper preparation you can take yourselves off for a night among the dunes, there’s a huge number of tour packages that include overnight camping and/or a focus on learning more about Bedouin culture, such as Platinum Heritage, who offer a specific Heritage Collection of packages including a Bedouin Life, Falconry and Wildlife Drive and an Overnight Desert Safari.
Image by Platinum Heritage
Experience the sport of falconry
Although not native to the UAE, the history of Arabs and falconry can be traced back to 2000BC and falconry has long been a key part of desert life where birds of prey were trained to hunt so that desert dwellers could supplement their diets. Since then it has developed into a sport enjoyed by all sectors of society and now the upkeep of falcons is a traditional and highly valued custom in the UAE. Due to the popularity of this sport, the UAE's falconers are even famous for having developed specialized techniques and methods for trapping and training falcons in readiness for the hunting season.
As with other desert activities here in the UAE there’s a long list of tours and experiences that offer you a live falconry demonstration (see Desert Camping above) and will even allow the family to get involved, such as providing a perch for the birds to land on.
Dubai Falcon and Heritage Sports Centre
For a different, more in-depth (and less pricey) way for the little ones to learn about the sport you can visit the Dubai Falcon and Heritage Sports Centre. Located a little way out in Al Marqadh near the Meydan Racetrack, the off-beat museum displays stuffed birds and exhibitions on the anatomy of a falcon as well as how to train them. The highlight for many is the falcon souk on site, where you can explore pet shops selling falconry equipment, a veterinary clinic for the birds and sometimes even see falcons for sale themselves. At busy times the centre is often full of locals bringing their falcons to be checked up - so keep an eye out!
Open from 7.00am to 6.00pm, Sunday to Thursday and 8.00am to 7.00pm during Ramadan. Tour guides are available from 8.00am to 2.00pm.
Contact: 04 327 2854
Image by Unsplash
Dine Emirati style
Al Fanar restaurant
Getting an authentic taste of Emirati culture doesn’t need to be more complicated than tucking into dinner. Al Fanar Restaurant has branches in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Sharjah, RAK and Dubai but it is the latter emirate to which it owes its ambience, focused on conjuring up the city of Dubai as it was in the 1960s. A series of tableaus are dotted around the traditionally decorated eatery, from a vintage jeep ready to be unloaded to almost life-size models of camels and their keepers - sure to fascinate little ones. Relics from Dubai’s history line the recessed shelves while in some branches streets signs and bicycles add to the sense that you’ve traveled back in time to when Dubai was a small town on the shore of the Arabian Gulf.
The food, of course, is focused on providing a true taste of Emirati cuisine, serving up lamb and beef stews in traditional one-pot recipes, grilled fish and rice, and uses the core Emirati ingredients of saffron, cardamom, turmeric and thyme.
Open daily 8.30am-11.30pm
Cost: Their 'Tourism' set menu offers a four course meal with Arabic tea or coffee starting at Dh80 each with a helpful glossary of terms included.
Contact: Specific branch contact details can be found at alfanarrestaurant.com
Roam an oasis full of date palms
Al Ain Oasis
If you’re looking to cast your family back to simpler times before the glossy malls and glinting skyscrapers of the UAE’s modern cities, look no further than a trip to Al Ain Oasis. This tranquil spot sits in the Al-Mutawa'a District in central Al-Ain, east of Al-Jahili Distr, and is the UAE’s first curated UNESCO World Heritage site visitor experience. Here little ones can stretch their legs among the shaded walkways of the oasis, where the rustling of the palm trees and birdsong fill the air. Covering 3,000 acres, the site is filled with 147,000 date palms with many of the palm plantations still functioning as working farms. The significance of the oasis harks back to the origins of the emirate, which boasts a delicate eco-system shaped by a complex shared water supply based on both wells and ‘aflaj’, the UAE’s traditional irrigation system.
The oasis has plenty of working examples of the falaj which have been used for centuries to tap into underground wells and also has an Eco-Centre experience at the oasis entrance, which can teach kids about significance of the site to Abu Dhabi’s development and emphasises the invaluable contribution of Al Ain’s oasis farmers through a series of immersive interactive exhibit.
The oasis also features a number of food and beverage outlets, cultural retailers, plenty of free parking and connectivity to neighbouring visitor sites, including the Al Ain Palace and Al Ain National Museums. Most visitors recommend scheduling these other heritage spots into your visit, as soaking up the peaceful atmosphere and visiting the centre is unlikely to take more than a couple of hours. Some of the shorter routes through the oasis take as little as 30 minutes or you can bring bikes and cycle around if your little ones can’t manage the whole trip on foot.
Open daily 8am-5pm with restaurants, cafes and shops open from 12pm-9pm
Contact: 05 995 438
Image by Visit Abu Dhabi