Ever since I moved to the United Arab Emirates seven years ago, I’ve loved Sharjah. It may not have the biggest/tallest/highest superlatives of Dubai or the epic palaces of Abu Dhabi, but understated Sharjah is home to some of the region’s most exciting cultural institutions. And 2023 is a big year for the emirate, with headline events showcasing two of its greatest draws: art and architecture.
The 15th Sharjah Biennial runs from February to June, presenting the creations of more than 150 artists from 70-plus countries. Thirty newly commissioned pieces, including works by Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj and British Palestinian multimedia artist Mona Hatoum, will be featured in a program that spans 16 venues and explores the theme “Thinking Historically in the Present.” The exhibition spaces are as intriguing as the art: from traditional coral-stone houses to the Sharjah Art Foundation’s recently acquired 1970s-era Flying Saucer, a UFO-shaped building that once housed a French patisserie and a fast-food chicken shop.
In November, the Sharjah Architecture Triennial (SAT) returns, curated by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo. It is part of a year-round lineup of workshops, talks, and guided walks devoted to architecture. Launched in 2022, SAT’s tours traverse the emirate’s lesser-known neighborhoods, delving into their history and visiting such projects as a modernist bus station.
Festivals aside, Sharjah rewards travelers who make the effort to get to know it more deeply. In the Souq Al Shanasiyah, hip coffeehouses sit alongside shops selling perfume and traditional clothing. Local families browse for fabric, sweets, and spices in Souq Al Bahar, a bazaar surrounded by century-old homes topped with wind towers, an ingenious form of early air-conditioning that captures the sea breezes and pulls them inside. Travelers can sift through ramshackle piles of antiques in Souq Al Arsa, where long-stemmed Arabian brass coffeepots line groaning shelves and semiprecious stones hang on strings from the rafters. The market’s 60-year-old Al Arsa Café is a welcoming spot for a cold drink and hot biryani.
The Al Mahatta Museum sits on the site of the UAE’s first airport. Dating to 1932, Al Mahatta was the Emirates’ hub of aviation decades before Dubai’s airport was even built. Now ringed by high-rise apartments, the museum is centered around what was the original control tower. Inside, visitors can see vintage aircraft—including planes you can enter—and old photographs from the airport’s heyday.
Just outside Souq Al Bahar, hidden behind pale yellow walls, stands one of Sharjah’s most atmospheric hotels, the 53-room Chedi Al Bait. The cluster of restored heritage buildings—the onetime home of the pearl-trading Al Midfa family—is now a peaceful sanctuary of courtyards and shady trees, water features, and hand-carved wooden doors. Two additional houses are being restored and will open in early 2023 with private swimming pools and 12 new rooms in total—yet another reason to opt for the laid-back alleyways of Sharjah.
Tips for planning your trip
- How to get there: A taxi from Dubai International Airport to Sharjah’s heritage district takes about 20 minutes.
- Best time of year to visit: Summer is very, very hot. Go between November and April for more comfortable temperatures.
- Required eating: The breakfast tray at the Arabian Tea House comes with eggs, olives, rose jam, za’atar, labneh, Halloumi, fresh cream, honey, and tandoor bread.
- Required reading: Building Sharjah (Birkhäuser, 2021), edited by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Todd Reisz, is filled with archival photography and accounts of the emirate’s development.