If you're planning to visit Dubai, you'll find a stirring mix of profound traditions and futuristic vision wrapped into starkly evocative desert splendour.
You won't be short of things to do in the sci-fi-esque land of iconic skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands, city-sized malls and palatial beach resorts. Dubai embraces sunshine, innovation and cultural dynamism, and is known as a shopping haven with a vibrant nightlife and entertainment scene. Here are some great things to do to make the most from your trip.
Dubai is famous for its dramatic skyscrapers, and above them all looms the Burj Khalifa, shaped like a deep-space rocket and, at 828m, the world's tallest building. It's a stunning feat of architecture and engineering, and a trip to the observation deck on the 124th floor (1483ft) is the most popular way to take in the amazing views it offers. You can also buy tickets for "At the Top Sky" on the 148th floor, which is the world's highest outdoor observation deck at 1820ft.
Clad in 28,000 glass panels, the Burj Khalifa also lays claim to several more superlatives, including the highest occupied floor and an elevator with the longest travel distance. On hazy days, it’s better to visit at night.
Al Fahidi Historic District
Wandering around this restored heritage area in Bur Dubai provides a tangible sense of historic Middle Eastern architecture and culture. Low-lying traditional courtyard buildings flank this quiet labyrinth of lanes in Al Fahidi Historic District, many of them featuring arabesque windows, decorative gypsum screens and wind towers.
Some contain craft shops, small heritage museums, art galleries, artsy guesthouses or cafés serving local fare, including Middle Eastern breakfasts and camel milk smoothies. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding leads guided tours of the quarter.
Dubai Miracle Garden
Covering some 2000 sq metres and touted as the largest natural flower garden in the world, there’s a sense of Alice in Wonderland–esque surrealism when entering Dubai Miracle Garden. Wander past quirky bloom-covered peacocks, clocks and castles, or alternatively, chill out in a cabana with billowing drapes and floor cushions.
Home to 100 million flowers, and adjacent to the enormous nine-dome Dubai Butterfly Garden, it is incredibly popular, attracting 55,000 visitors a week. There are food outlets on site as well as a souvenir shop and small trampoline park.
Shop 'til you drop
Shopping malls represent an integral part of the culture and lifestyle in Dubai. Not merely places for maxing out your credit cards on fashion, electronics or gourmet foods, malls are also where locals go to socialize in cafés and restaurants, to catch a movie in a state-of-the-art multiplex or to get adrenaline kicks in an indoor theme park or game arcade. The best and biggest of the bunch is Dubai Mall, which features not only 1300 stores but also a giant aquarium, an indoor ice rink and a genuine dinosaur skeleton.
Serious shoppers can check out the Dubai Shopping Festival, which lures bargain-hunters from around the world. It takes place in January each year, and there are huge discounts in the souqs and malls. The city is abuzz with activities during the festival, ranging from live concerts to fashion shows and nightly fireworks.
Mushrif National Park
One of the oldest parks in Dubai, Mushrif National Park covers more than 5 sq km of natural ghaf forest. Mushrif is located around 15km east of the city centre, and is a haven for birds, including owls, Orphean warblers, hoopoes and black redstarts. Dating from 1974, the park has plenty of manmade attractions as well, including walking trails and bicycle tracks, a large children's playground, a swimming pool and barbecue pits.
Read more: The 9 best parks in Dubai
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
On the outskirts of Sharjah, the 225 sq km Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve accounts for 5% of the Emirate of Dubai's total land. The reserve was established in 1999 and has been involved in projects to reintroduce mountain gazelles, sand gazelles and Arabian oryx.
It's possible to stay inside the reserve at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, which was designed for superluxe ecotourism. The reserve is divided into four zones, the third of which is only open to resort guests and the fourth to a small number of desert tour operators, including Arabian Adventures, offering a less costly admission than overnighting at the resort.
IMG Worlds of Adventure
In 2016, Dubai added four theme parks to its stable of attractions, including IMG Worlds of Adventure, the world's largest indoor theme park. Housed in an air-conditioned hangar the size of 28 football fields, the park is truly impressive, with more than 20 rides and attractions split across four themed zones – Marvel, Cartoon Network, Lost Valley Dinosaur Adventure and IMG Boulevard. You won't go hungry as there are 28 dining outlets to choose from.
Opened in 2017, the striking Etihad Museum engagingly chronicles the birth of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, spurred by the discovery of oil in the 1950s and the withdrawal of the British in 1968.
Documentary films, photographs, artifacts, timelines and interactive displays zero in on historic milestones in the years leading up to and immediately following this momentous occasion, and they pay homage to the country's seven founding fathers. Free tours of the adjacent circular Union House are available, which is where the historic signing of the Constitution of the United Arab Emirates took place.
For a dose of Arabian Nights flair, head to Dubai's historic core and plunge headlong into its charmingly chaotic warren of markets. The famed headliner is the dazzling Gold Souq. Even if you don't have a thing for bling, a walk through here will feel like you've entered a giant Aladdin's Cave. It's fun to just watch the action, especially in the evening. If you're buying, sharpen your haggling skills, no matter whether shopping for teensy earrings, an engagement ring or a dowry-worthy necklace.
Dazzling rooftop bars, chill beachfront lounges, classic pubs, cool karaoke joints, speakeasy-style nightclubs, live-music venues – with such variety, finding a party location to suit your mood is hardly a tall order in Dubai. One of the biggest draws for nocturnal action is White Dubai. The mega-venue with its impressive light and sound systems sits smack dab on top of the grandstand of the Meydan Racecourse.
The Arabian desert, with its weathered mountains, undulating sand dunes and wide open spaces, exudes a special mystique that can easily be savored on a day trip from urbanized Dubai. There are numerous tour operators to set you up with everything from camel treks to sandboarding or overnight safaris. The best ones offer an authentic look at local culture through encounters with Bedouins and traditional meals. Alternatively, consider hiring a 4WD and staying at a desert resort, so you can appreciate the magnificent scenery on your own schedule.
Read more: Top 9 day trips from Dubai
Housed in Bur Dubai's Al Fahidi Fort, the city's oldest surviving structure, Dubai Museum, provides a well-laid-out introduction to the history of the emirate. Marvel at its turbo-evolution from simple desert settlement to futuristic metropolis in just a third of a century. Dioramas recreate traditional scenes in a market, at home and in the mosque, while other galleries focus on life at sea and in the desert. An archaeological exhibition illustrates the ancient history of the region with a display of items unearthed during excavations at local digs.
Dubai Design District
This hub for creatives lures visitors with its edgy architecture, contemporary restaurants, public art, galleries and calendar of cultural events. Visitors to Dubai Design District can tap into this laboratory of tastemakers by browsing showrooms and pop-ups, eavesdropping on bearded hipsters in sleek cafés, checking out art exhibits in building lobbies, or attending free screenings and workshops. The week-long Dubai Design Week is held there in November, with an extensive offering of talks, workshops, masterclasses and kids' activities.
Dubai Butterfly Garden
If you want to deepen your knowledge of these pretty flying insects, pop into the Dubai Butterfly Museum, located next to the Dubai Miracle Garden. Some 15,000 butterflies flutter around nine indoor domed gardens, and you can see for yourself how they begin as caterpillars and evolve into their flying adaptations. Don’t miss the Butterfly and Insect Museum, which features in-depth analysis and information about thousands of colorful butterfly species from around the world.
Museum of Illusions
It opened in 2018 and the Museum of Illusions in the Al Seef district is fast becoming a favorite for families and Instagram fans. Kids will love the 150-plus illusions, including the rooms of mirrors, distorted perspective and various other optical illusions, while parents can take memorably wacky photos. Avoid visiting at weekends if possible, as visitors are restricted by number and you may have to wait your turn.
Snowy white and intricately detailed, Jumeirah is Dubai's most beautiful mosque and one of only a handful in the United Arab Emirates open to non-Muslims. It's particularly beautiful at dusk and visitors are allowed in six days a week. One-hour guided tours are operated by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, and while modest dress is preferred, traditional clothing can be borrowed for free.
The dancing Dubai Fountain is spectacularly set in the middle of a giant lake against the backdrop of the glittering Burj Khalifa. Water undulates as gracefully as a belly dancer, arcs like a dolphin and surges as high as 140m, all synced to stirring classical, Arabic and world music soundtracks played on speakers. There are plenty of great vantage points, including a 272m-long floating boardwalk, which takes you just 9m away from the fountain.
Other good viewing spots include some of the restaurants at Souk Al Bahar, the bridge linking Souk Al Bahar with Dubai Mall, the Dubai Mall waterfront terrace, or aboard a 25-minute Dubai Fountain Lake Ride on a traditional wooden abra boat.
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
The long-running annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature brings authors and thousands of book fans together to celebrate all things reading and writing. Held over nine days in March, the festival hosts talks, discussions, panels and a special program just for children, with many activities free to attend. It offers attendees a chance to meet local and world-famous authors, attend literary debates and workshops, participate in competitions and be inspired by their literary heroes.
The carnival-like Global Village is a bit like a ‘world fair’ for shoppers, and you'll find it on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road (E311). Each of the 30-something pavilions showcases a specific nation’s culture and products. Aside from shopping, there's also lots of entertainment – from Chinese opera to Turkish whirling dervishes – as well as a funfair with dozens of rides from tame to terrifying.
Burj Al Arab
This landmark luxe hotel, with its dramatic design that mimics the billowing sail of a ship, floats on its own artificial island and has become the iconic symbol of Dubai’s boom years. The Burj Al Arab's interior is all about impact, drama and unapologetic bling, with dancing fountains, gold fittings, shiny marble and whirlpool baths your butler can fill with champagne if you so wish. If a stay exceeds your budget, you can still partake in the opulence by making reservations for cocktails, afternoon tea or dinner in the underwater restaurant.
Opened in January 2018, this 150m rectangular 'picture frame' sits in Zabeel Park, right between historic and modern Dubai, and provides grand views of both parts of the city. Galleries on the ground floor of Dubai Frame tell the story of Dubai (the past) before visitors are whisked up to a viewing platform at roof level (the present). The final stop is another gallery depicting a vision of Dubai 50 years from now (the future).
Al Qudra Lake
One for the nature lovers, Al Qudra Lake is a series of man-made lakes set amidst the rolling dunes of the Saih Al Salam desert on Dubai’s southern outskirts. Part of the Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, the surrounding area is unspoiled. Swap skyscrapers for wide open dunes and oasis-like pools where you can spot plenty of free-roaming wildlife, more than 100 species of birds and several desert plants.
This long, pristine stretch of white sand, off Jumeirah Road and next to a mosque, is superclean and has lots of activities, including kitesurfing, beach tennis, beach volleyball and kayaking. There are showers, wi-fi, toilets and changing facilities on Kite Beach, plus lots of food trucks and cafés. It offers great views of the Burj Al Arab, and gets very busy on Friday and Saturday when a seaside market with crafts and gifts sets up.
The waterfront Perfume Museum is part of the Al Shindagha Museum restoration project and is the former home of a Dubai sheikha who loved all things perfume. The old building has been restored and its interactive exhibits are based around scent, smells and fragrance. Keep your entry ticket and you’ll get free access to the nearby Dubai Creek House.
Steps from the Deira Old Souk abra station, the sound of Arabic chatter bounces around the lanes of this covered market. Dubai's famous Spice Souk is filled with intoxicating sights and smells. Its vendors work hard to unload cardamom, saffron and other aromatic herbs photogenically stored in burlap sacks alongside nuts, incense burners, henna kits, shishas and dried limes. Away from the tourist-oriented main thoroughfare, tiny shops also sell groceries and other household goods.
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