The UAE’s third most populated city is set to surprise.
You’d be forgiven if you haven’t yet heard of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates’ third largest and third most populated city. Bordering Dubai in the south, Umm Al Quwain in the north, and Ras Al Khaimah in the east, Sharjah is an important economic, political, legal, and military base for the country. Spanning an area of 235.5 square kilometers and a population of approximately 1.4 million, there’s more than meets the eye to this often overlooked city. Next door neighbor Dubai has historically garnered the shine, but Sharjah is slowly getting heads to turn with its variety of nuanced attractions.
Named by UNESCO as the ‘World Book Capital’ in 2019, Sharjah offers visitors many unexpected delights. From its fascinating history, interesting landmarks, and a strong sense of culture, Sharjah is a textured destination with a lot to explore.
History of Sharjah
Sharjah’s origins started a long way back, possibly stretching to over 5000 years ago. An early account of Sharjah by English traveler James Silk Buckingham was written in 1829, and describes the UAE city as a “small town, on a sandy beach, containing from five to six hundred inhabitants”. By the early 20th century, Sharjah’s population had expanded to about 15,000 people.
Famously, Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitic rhetoric took over Sharjah during World War II. During this chaotic time, even the Sheikh of Sharjah’s palace would transmit pro-Hitler speeches. Sharjah’s town center would be filled with similar messages as well. However, the people of Sharjah did not resonate with such messages, and the propaganda backfired – with the British gaining support and sympathy from the Sharjah population instead.
The 2nd of December 1971 was an important day in both Sharjah’s and United Arab Emirates history. It was on this day that Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah joined forces to form what is now known as the United Arab Emirates.
Fast forward to today, modern-day Sharjah is now a bustling, contemporary city filled with both historical landmarks and new points of interest.
Economy of Sharjah
The economy of Sharjah finds its success in a few different industries. Notably, Sharjah has evolved itself to become something of a transportation hub in the UAE. For example, Air Arabia’s headquarters are located in Sharjah. Furthermore, the Sharjah Airport International Free Zone (‘SAIF Zone’) is one of the most famous free-trade zones in the UAE. It is here that some 6000 businesses operate, taking advantage of low set-up costs and administrative fees. Thanks to these developments, Sharjah has become into a true commercial center of the UAE.
Culture of Sharjah
Truly an Islamic and traditionally Arab city, Sharjah’s culture reflects this in the very fabric of its identity. Sharjah’s people are expected to pray five times every day – which means that walking through Sharjah, visitors will really get a feel of the strong sense of Muslim culture here.
UNESCO notably named Sharjah the ‘Cultural Capital of the Arab World’ in 1998, and the city has lived up to its billing, with multiple cultural restoration projects underway. The ‘Heart of Sharjah’ heritage project aims to restore the old town of Sharjah and intends to do this by 2025 with the involvement of the Sharjah Museums Department, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah Investment and Development Authority and more cultural organizations.
Similarly, the Sharjah International Book Fair, a widely celebrated 11-day international book fair held every year in Sharjah, continues to run as one of the world’s most recognized and successful publishing events in the Arab world.
Museums such as the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah Maritime Museum, Sharjah Archaeology Museum, Sharjah Calligraphy and Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization are also actively promoting and preserving Sharjah’s important culture, and sharing their values with international visitors.
Things to do in Sharjah
Visitors passing through Sharjah won’t be disappointed with this city’s collection of visually striking, fascinating attractions. Approximately located only an hour away by car, holidaymakers will also be able to visit Sharjah on a day trip from Dubai.
1. Sharjah Heritage Area
Beautiful, busy, and mysterious, the Sharjah Heritage Area is the perfect place for visitors to get acquainted with Sharjah’s emanating Islamic culture. It’s here that you’ll walk through old town walls and ornately decorated structures to learn more about Sharjah’s heritage at institutions such as the Sharjah Heritage Museum, Bait Al Naboodah and Calligraphy Museum.
Visitors will also be treated to traditional souks, such as the Souk Al Arsah, which features countless colorful handicrafts, garments, jewelry, and souvenirs on display. Keen to learn more about these chaotic marketplaces? Head to Sharjah’s crazy Souk Al-Jubail, which boasts a busy mix of noise, smells, and sights, as well as local delicacies like dates and honey that tourists can enjoy.
2. Sharjah Fort
The imposing Sharjah Fort is an impressive building that was both a defense facility for Sharjah city, as well as a place of residence for Sharjah’s ruling family. Astonishingly, Sharjah Fort’s sandy beige structure was built approximately 200 years ago but still stands strong today. A look inside will take visitors on an interesting journey through Sharjah’s history.
3. Central Market (Blue Souk)
This huge, beige building with a curved blue dome roof is one of Sharjah’s most famous, enduring symbols. Hailed for its intricate blue tiling, as well as being home to over 600 stores and stalls inside, visitors might find themselves going through sensory overload at Sharjah’s Central Market (Blue Souk). With an array of gold, perfume, clothing, electronics, handicrafts, and souvenirs on display for shoppers to marvel at, this is one Arabian bazaar you won’t want to miss.
4. Al Noor Island
One of the city’s most scenic attractions, Al Noor Island is a peaceful, public park with sweeping views of the beautiful water. This is the perfect place to take a break between bazaar shopping and absorbing all that information from Sharjah’s prominent museums. It’s here that you’ll find unique pleasant surprises such as a butterfly house, modern art sculptures, and artwork, which are all scattered around the park grounds.
5. Al Noor Mosque
No visit to Sharjah would be complete without visiting one of its iconic mosques. The only mosque that can be visited by people of all religions, Al Noor Mosque is a stunning, multi-dome structure that is as much interesting as it is visually breathtaking. Here, visitors will be able to embark on a tour around the Mosque, learning more about Islamic and Emirati heritage, customs, and traditions.
The city of Sharjah may not be on everyone’s bucket lists just yet, but with high-quality emerging attractions on the rise, perceptions of the city are bound to change.