What’s the best museum in Dubai?
You could try the Dubai Museum, a display of historical bits and bobs in the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort. Pop into the fine old Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House, or the old Ahmadiya School across the Creek.
Or maybe even absorb Dubai’s history retail-style, thanks to the “edutainment” on offer in the Ibn Battuta Mall.
But it’s all a bit ho-hum.
In truth, the best museum in Dubai isn’t in Dubai at all. Instead, jump in a taxi for the short drive north (roughly Dh50/£8 on the meter) to the neighbouring city of Sharjah.
Desperately underrated and under-visited, Sharjah may be “dry” (you can’t buy or consume alcohol here) but it is crammed with interest.
Dominating the Corniche is the golden-domed Museum of Islamic Civilisations. It’s a strong contender for the ‘Best Museum’ gong, with its stunning interior and extensive displays on medieval science, as well as superb galleries of textiles and ceramics upstairs.
A short walk away, Sharjah’s pedestrianised Heritage Quarter holds a clutch of restored courtyard houses, each holding museum displays. Drop into the Naboodah House, built by a 19th-century merchant family, try the fineHeritage Museum, the three-floor contemporary Art Museum and the beautiful Calligraphy Museum, then roam the lanes of the fine old Souk Al-Arsa covered bazaar alongside.
But the best of the lot? Sharjah’s wonderful Al Mahatta Museum of aviation.
For most of its history, Sharjah was bigger and more important than Dubai. It had the Gulf’s largest port – and also its first airport, a desert airstrip built in 1932 as a staging-post for British Imperial Airways, which flew planes between London and Australia, stopping frequently to refuel along the way.
Have a look at the route map – with Sharjah marked – and think your way into what RTW flight meant back then. And take 15mins for this glorious 1937 newsreel film “Air Outpost” on life in Sharjah when a plane came in.
Those original 1930s airport buildings – once in open desert, now crammed into the roaring city centre streets – form the museum. You enter beside the glorious Art Deco-style control tower, crossing the courtyard where those early RTW passengers lodged.
But it’s the main display hall that will grab you – tall, white and echoing, with real, full-size vintage planes hanging from the ceiling. I won’t bore you with names and serial numbers, but just look at it! And again. It’s pure Indiana Jones. The most evocative room in the UAE.
Go and sniff the engine block of the 1953 Gypsy Queen. Get into the cockpit of the gleaming silver Comet. Gaze over the old maps and air charts. Press the button to start the working Pratt & Whitney engines, vintage 1941.
It’s a real link with a tangible past, firing imaginations, feeding knowledge. Pure catnip for travellers. I loved it.