Landmark tourist attractions, such as Dubai's towering Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Mosque and Louvre museum offer sightseeing within easy reach of the city sand. You also can enjoy these places by getting an emirates transit visa.
A host of massive malls have made both cities renowned among shoppers as the best places to visit, and both offer vacationing families plenty of purely fun things to do, with an impressive list of major theme parks.
There's more to the UAE than the contemporary glitz of its two major cities, though.
The country's interior of desert and the Hajar Mountains are all about big-sky scenery and adventure activities, from 4WD trips across a landscape of rippling dunes to taking on the world's longest zipline over the jagged contours of Jebel Jais.
There's also much more history here than those modern skyscrapers would have you believe. Sharjah and Al Ain are two cities dedicated to promoting Emirati heritage.
For ideas on the best places to visit, see our list of the top attractions and things to do in the United Arab Emirates.
1. Take a Beach Break
For many visitors, a UAE vacation centers around the beach.
Late October to May, while temperatures plummet over Europe and North America, is high season here as the UAE's punishing summer heat gives way to winter's beach weather.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the more obvious beach choices, offering city sightseeing, shopping, and theme parks in easy reach of the sand.
For sun-and-sand vacations in Dubai, luxury resorts are focused along the coast west of the central city. In particular, the beaches around Jumeirah and Dubai Marina offer plenty of family-oriented, five-star resorts dedicated to beach time.
Abu Dhabi's luxury resorts rim the shoreline of the city's various islands, so resort areas are more scattered across the city than in Dubai. Saadiyat Island, Marina Breakwater, and Khor Al Maqta are the areas offering some of the best beach-focused resorts in town.
Away from these two destinations, though, there are more beach options.
The beach resorts of Ras Al-Khaimah and Ajman in particular are favorite city getaways, while on the UAE's eastern coast, Al Aqah beach in the Emirate of Fujairah is a popular option for beachgoers who want to head away from the crowds.
2. Zoom Up Dubai's Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is one of the United Arab Emirates' most famous buildings and the soaring sky-high landmark of Dubai.
Not only is it the world's tallest building (at 828 meters high) it also lays claim to the titles of tallest freestanding structure in the world, the highest observation deck in the world, and the elevator with the longest travel distance in the world.
A trip up to the observation deck with its panoramic views across Dubai, is on most visitor itineraries, both to marvel at this modern engineering and architectural feat and to admire the dizzying views of Dubai laid out below you.
3. Admire Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a mammoth modern mosque of incredible beauty.
Fusing contemporary design with traditional craftsmanship, the mosque harmoniously blends modern and ancient styles and techniques to create a new interpretation of Islamic architecture.
Both its exterior and interior utilize lavish amounts of gold, mosaic tiles, and glasswork to decorate the mosque's white marble stonework, while the architecture itself blends the various mosque designs of multiple Islamic empires.
Inside, the prayer hall is laid with the world's largest hand-knotted carpet (5,700 square meters) and illuminated by chandeliers made from 24-karat gold and crystals. While outside, the vast marble courtyard incorporates a mammoth swirling floral floor mosaic of semi-precious stones.
4. Get Active on Jebel Jais in Ras Al-Khaimah
The highest peak in the United Arab Emirates, Jebel Jais in the emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah is a major activity center.
You could come here simply to admire the vista of rugged Hajar Mountain peaks rippling down to the coastline plateau from the viewing platform terrace near the summit, or you can choose to match those views with some adventure activities.
The most popular mountain experience here is the Jebel Jais Flight, the world's longest zipline, which runs down the side of the peak for over two kilometers, reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour.
For fewer speed thrills and more mountain time, Jebel Jais's Via Ferrata climbing route offers guided tours during the cooler months, while independent hikers can choose from six marked trails on the lower reaches of the mountain.
5. Visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi
The newest and most spectacular museum in the United Arab Emirates, the Louvre Abu Dhabi takes visitors on a journey through human history.
The collection has been sourced from across the globe and through the ages, beginning from the earliest human settlements to works by the major names in today's contemporary art scene, to demonstrate the links between cultures and civilizations that have threaded through humanity's narrative.
Whether you're interested in world history or art, the museum is a major draw, while the stark and ultra-modern architecture of the complex, designed by prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, is an attraction in itself.
6. Experience the UAE's Desert Landscapes
For those with an adventurous streak, make a beeline for the UAE's desert reaches that stretch across the country's southern interior.
There are plenty of adventure activities on offer, from 4WD trips across the desert dunes to camel trekking, sandboarding, and dune buggy trips.
Popular desert day trips from Dubai or Abu Dhabi usually include dinner at a desert camp after a 4WD journey into the dunes, and offer time at camp for other activities such as sandboarding or short camel rides.
Other desert tours allow more scope for wildlife spotting and specialized desert operators also offer overnight camping amid the dunes.
The desert interiors of the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ras Al-Khaimah are also home to several luxury desert resorts, where stays are all about soaking up the dune scenery and heading out on desert activities.
7. Family Fun at the Theme Parks
In Dubai, Dubai Parks Resorts offers four major theme parks rolled into one: Motiongate, dedicated to rides themed around Hollywood films; Bollywood Parks; Legoland Dubai; and Legoland Water Park.
The city is also home to IMG Worlds of Adventure with rides, roller coasters, and experiences themed around both Marvel storylines and characters for older kids, and the Cartoon Network for little ones.
If you just want to splash about for the day, though, Dubai's Wild Wadi Water Park is your best bet in town.
The best water park for older kids and teenagers wanting something more than simply slides is Wadi Adventure in Al Ain.
Here, it's all about white water kayaking, surfing, and wakeboarding, though there are swimming pools here, too, for when you need a rest from all the activities.
Abu Dhabi is home to two of the country's most famous branded theme parks both on Yas Island.
Ferrari World is a thrill-seeker's dream come true, with the world's fastest roller coaster as its landmark ride, while Warner Bros World offers six worlds to explore, from Cartoon Junction for small children to Metropolis and Gotham City with rides and attractions themed around DC Comic storylines.
8. Explore Dubai's Al Fahidi Quarter
The Al Fahidi quarter of Dubai (also known as Bastakia) is the last remaining fragment of Old Dubai and shouldn't be missed. This small heritage area really evokes the simpler, gentler past of the city before skyscrapers took over the skyline.
The narrow lanes within the neighborhood are lined with carefully restored traditional buildings in typical Arabian architectural styles, many with the wind tower features, which kept houses cool before air-conditioning became common.
Many of the buildings now house small museums, art galleries, and craft shops, allowing you to enter the houses and see typical Arabian interiors.
The Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding is also based within the quarter and offers walking tours focused on the Al Fahidi quarter along with on-site traditional meals for visitors who want to experience local culinary heritage.
9. View Sharjah Art Museum's Renowned Art Collection
Sharjah Art Museum is home to one of the world's most renowned collections of work by Arab artists and art hailing from the Middle East.
Its permanent collection includes both pieces by the biggest names in contemporary Arab art from throughout the 20th century to the present, displayed in the Barjeel Collection Wing, and art from the 18th and 19th centuries created by both Arab artists and European artists who focused on the Middle East in their work.
The museum is noted for its program of temporary exhibitions, which bring exhibits from both prominent and up-and-coming artists to the museum's lower-floor galleries throughout the year.
10. Take a Road Trip up Jebel Hafeet
Jebel Hafeet, on the edge of the oasis city of Al Ain is one of the most popular destinations for a quick and easy nature break out of Abu Dhabi city.
The cool mountain air on the summit also offers a respite from the coastal heat during summer.
This is the second-highest peak in the United Arab Emirates, and far-reaching, sumptuous panoramas across the mountain's reaches and down to Al Ain greet you all the way up to the top on the winding road.
At the top of the twisting switchback mountain road, you are rewarded with being able to see across the area's vast sweep of desert stretching out in all directions.
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