Road-tripping in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offers an exciting blend of historic attractions, modern marvels, and breathtaking natural landscapes.
Embarking on a road trip through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an extraordinary journey that unveils a land of captivating contrasts. From the bustling metropolis of Dubai, where futuristic skyscrapers pierce the sky, to the timeless desert landscapes that stretch as far as the eye can see, the UAE offers a road tripper’s paradise. As you traverse the well-maintained highways and venture off the beaten path, you’ll discover a nation steeped in rich history, adorned with architectural marvels, and graced with natural wonders waiting to be explored. So, fasten your seatbelt and get ready for an exhilarating road trip adventure that will lead you through a tapestry of culture, luxury, and awe-inspiring scenery in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.
- Best Time to Visit the UAE
- How to Get Around in the UAE
- Best Road Trips in UAE
Best Time to Visit the UAE
Situated on the Arabian Peninsula, facing the Persian Gulf to the north and Oman Sea to the east, the United Arab Emirates has a hot, desert climate. With blistering hot summers, undoubtedly, the best time to take a road trip in the UAE is during the milder winter weather, broadly speaking November to April.
During the winter, it is usually clear, bright blue sky days and mild temperatures, rainfall is rare. Should you face thunderstorms or treacherous conditions in the UAE, however, it is best not to hit the roads as flash flooding can occur and many drivers are not used to such conditions, making it hazardous for everyone.
The busiest time of year for visiting the UAE is over the Christmas-New Year break and spring break time (around March and April ); plan accommodation in advance accordingly.
Also, take note of religious occasions such as Ramadan and Eid when planning your UAE visit dates. On public holiday weekends you’ll find the attractions we mention in this article exceptionally busier; if you’re visiting from overseas, Monday to Thursday will be much quieter days to take a road trip around the UAE.
How to Get Around in the UAE
With most public transport in the UAE limited to the big cities and Intercity buses, the best way to truly explore the United Arad Emirates is to hire a car and get out on the road.
We recommend DiscoverCars.Com to search across different providers for a hire car – give it a try here:
It’s important to bear in mind that city driving in Dubai especially can be tough. There are large multi-lane freeways that move FAST, multi-lane roundabouts, truck lanes and fast lanes to think about. Some top pointers for playing it safe on UAE roads:
- Driving in the UAE is on the right-hand side of the road, the steering wheel on the left.
- If your drivers licence is not in English or Arabic, you will need an International Drivers Permit.
- Road signs are all written in English and Arabic.
- The sign posted maximum speed limits have 20km leeway before you receive a fine, so you will find that traffic in the left-hand lanes will move faster than the posted limits; stick to the middle lane if you’re unsure (the right lanes are usually reserved for slow-moving heavy trucks and buses).
- Take on board these safety tips for driving in desert conditions if you’ll be leaving the major cities
- All the drives we explain here can be tackled in an ordinary 2WD vehicle; it’s not recommended to go off-roading into the desert or wadis in the UAE unless you’re with other experienced drivers or as part of a tour.
Best Road Trips in UAE
Although you can set out from anywhere in the UAE to commence your road trip, we will assume you are starting from Downtown Dubai when calculating time and distance.
From Dubai to Abu Dhabi: Modern Wonders
- Distance: 140 kms / 87 miles
- Time Needed: 4 hours to 2 days
Starting with the most popular and easy to reach day trip destination from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital city is home to stunning architecture and thrilling adventures.
The number one attraction in the UAE is visiting the impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Other architecturally brilliant buildings we would recommend include The Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island and Qasr Al Watan, the country’s Presidential Palace.
History buffs, make time in your road trip to see the city’s oldest building Qasr Al Hosn, and for nature lovers, the Jubail Mangrove Walk on Jubail Island is a must-see.
Outside of the city you’ll be glad to have your own wheels to see the more remote parts of the Emirate. Al Wathba Fossil Dunes are fascinating sand dune formations and nearby you’ll find the utterly instargammable Al Wathba Salt Lake – Google Map them for exact pin drops!
And not forgetting the kids, theme park buffs will love a day on Yas Island. With 4 family theme parks including SeaWorld, Ferrari World, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld, you will not run short of kid-friendly activities in Abu Dhabi.
Whilst a simple visit down the road to the Grand Mosque and back could be achieved in under 4 hours on a round trip from Dubai, we recommend you dedicate at least 2 to 3 days of your UAE itinerary to exploring Abu Dhabi if time will allow.
The Northern Emirates: Mountains, Forts, and Coastlines
- Distance: 113 kms / 70 miles
- Time Needed: 4 hours to 1-2 days
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), sitting to the northeast of Dubai has earned itself the reputation of the Adventure Emirate. From sea to sky-high mountains (yes, there’s a mountain range in this desert country!) you can enjoy many unique experiences on a trip to Ras al Khaimah.
Whilst perhaps more famous in recent years for its string of fancy waterfront resorts, Ras Al Khaimah is home to the tallest peak in the country Jebel Jais, in the Hajar Mountains which run the entire length of the country’s east coast and all through the east coast of Oman.
The spectacular 30-kilometer tarmacked mountain drive, full of switchbacks and steep inclines is one of the most spectacular scenic driving roads in the country.
Near the peak of Jebel Jais, this is an outdoor adventure lover’s paradise with the opportunity to take on the longest zipline in the world. There are additionally aerial ropes courses, Via Ferrata and many more adrenaline-pumping adventures.
Where to stay: If budget permits, The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah Al Wadi Desert is one of the best desert resorts in the UAE. Closer to the beach, you’ll find a great range of accommodation options on Marjan Island.
Al Ain: The Garden City and Historic Oasis
- Distance: 145 kms / 90 miles
- Time Needed: 6 hours to a full day
The historic Oasis City of Al Ain, also known as the Garden City has a reputation as the birth place of the UAE, where the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed was born.
The drive itself to Al Ain is a relatively straight forward freeway drive from Dubai in around 90 minutes; its the fascinating adventures that await when you arrive make it best to have your own car.
The centre of town is dominated by the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Al Ain Oasis, a 1,200 hectare shaded park with over 147,000 date palm trees and demonstrating the traditional falaj watering system. Other historic sites dating back to the bronze age are dotted around the city outskirts.
The Al Ain Zoo is also highly acclaimed as one of the cities best attractions. With the addition of a safari a few years ago this makes for a fascinating desert adventure that kids and adults alike will enjoy.
The Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre within the zoo is one of the best educational and history resources in the country if you want to learn about the ancient heritage and physical geography of the Arabian Peninsula.
Plenty of other museums also wait you in Al Ain; for history buffs the Al Ain Palace Museum and the Al Jahili Fort are must-stops. You can also check in to the the more modern Qasr al Mawaji, birth home of the former UAE President and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa.
The highlight for drivers, though, is the climb to the top of Jebel Hafeet, the tallest point in Abu Dhabi Emirate. The steep drive from Green Mubazzarah (a park with natural springs) at the mountain to the peak will take around 30 minutes each way, winding to the top and offering spectacular views over to Oman.
Where to stay: Although a little dated these days, the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet on top of Jebel Hafeet affords you some incredible scenic views. We like the Al Ain Rotana for a good city stay close to the Al Ain Oasis, or adventure seekers will love the glamping options at Jebel Hafit Desert Park.
The Desert Adventure: Liwa Oasis and the Empty Quarter
- Distance: 335 kilometres / 208 miles
- Time Needed: full day – overnight
If you’re up for an Arabian Nights style adventure into the desert dunes then this road trip into the Liwa Desert is for you.
It’s not called the Empty Quarter without reason, swathes of desert which make up the vast majority of the land mass of the UAE are only accessible via a few well maintained paved roads that take guests into a complete different side of the Emirates.
Those with a 4WD and the right equipment can take on the vast dunes or for a more sedate experience, try one of the luxury resorts of glamping options to experience the incredibly star lit nights and days.
If you feel that any of the landscape looks familiar, the Liwa desert is part of the backdrop for the planet Jakku in Star Wars: The Force Awakens!
NB it’s not recommended to drive in the Liwa Desert in the peak heat of the day, you should look to explore early morning and late afternoons/evenings. Off-roading is only for those who really know what they’re doing sand driving.
Where to stay: Unmissable is a night in Anantara Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, the ultimate of luxurious desert experiences in the UAE (or anywhere in he world, for that matter). Those on a smaller budget could try spending the night near Madinat Zayed in the Tilal Liwa Desert Retreat, or try the new glamping experience at Bab Al Nojoum Bateen Liwa.
Top Tip: Visiting the western region during the Al Dhafra Festival (dates vary annually but usually around December/January) you could get the opportunity to see a camel beauty pageant! No laughing matter, this is serious business and one for the most unique experiences in the UAE where you will see owners competing for millions In prize money at the coverted Al Mazayan. Watch camels being traded on Millionaires Row and soak in the atmosphere and this traditional Bedouin event
Finding Fjords in the Musandam Peninsula
- Distance:197 kms / 122 miles
- Time Needed: 6 hours to a full day
How do you fancy taking on a whole new country during your road trip from Dubai? The drive from Dubai to Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula sees you at the very tip of the Arabian peninsula, just 40 kms from Iran over the Strait of Hormuz!
Despite driving much of the way through the United Arab Emirates, Musandam is actually an exclave of Oman. You will be crossing an international border, so visas and passports will be required and proof of vehicle ownership with permission to cross the border is required (make sure if you’re hiring a car that this is included!)
Whilst the drive through northern Ras Al Khaimah can feel a little industrial, the moment you cross the Al Darah border, you enter the most incredible coastal journey. The highway winds its way around the rocky khors.
Once you are in Khasab, kick back and relax as life moves a lot slower here. The regional capital is very small, but the starting point of fabulous cruising into the khors (mountainous fjords). You can join a dolphin-watching tour or hire your own private dhow for a serene adventure out on the water, even find your own private beach.
Top Tip: Avoid heading out on this journey Friday afternoon and coming back on a Sunday night as you are you’ll likely encounter long queues at the border crossing when local residents also take to the road. Remember accommodation options are limited so its highly recommended to pre-book if you want to stay overnight in Khasab.
More Tips For Visiting the UAE
- Check you have the right visa for entering the UAE. Many nationalities can enter the UAE with a free Visa on arrival but don’t get caught out; equally if you’ll be crossing into Oman be aware most nationalities will require a Visa.
- With the fast-pace nature of construction in the UAE, roads can change quickly! Navigation apps are generally up to date, and you could get by with just Google Maps, though many locally prefer to use Waze as the best navigation app for the UAE (Google Play | App Store).
- Be mindful that you can lose mobile reception once you leave the big towns and major freeways, we recommend you keep an offline map on your phone.
- If heading beyond the cities, remember to fuel up when you can. Despite being an oil-rich country, you may be surprised there are no fuel stations when you need one in the more remote corners of the country!
This article was written by Keri, Editor of Family Travel in the Middle East. Check out her site for incredible guides to navigating your way across the Middle East with kids, from ‘how to’ and cultural guides to hotel and resort reviews.
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