United Arab Emirates
For most people, the United Arab Emirates means just one place: Dubai, the sci-fi-esque city of iconic skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands, city-sized malls, indoor ski slopes and palatial beach resorts. But beyond the glitter awaits a diverse mosaic of six more emirates, each with its own character and allure.
Oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the UAE's capital, is positioning itself as a culture and leisure hub. Beyond looms the vast Al Dhafra region, home to the northern reaches of the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert's rippling dunes. Its magical silence is interrupted only by the whisper of shifting sands rolling towards Saudi Arabia.
North of Dubai, Sharjah is the UAE's art and heritage centre while Ras Al Khaimah is all about the beach – with a dash of adventure-activities thrown in. Head east into the jagged embrace of the Hajar Mountains to experience a side of the UAE far removed from Dubai's gloss.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout United Arab Emirates.
The Burj Al Arab's graceful silhouette – meant to evoke the sail of a dhow (a traditional wooden cargo vessel) – is to Dubai what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Completed in 1999, this iconic landmark hotel sits on an artificial island and comes with its own helipad and a fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce limousines. Beyond the striking lobby, with its gold-leaf opulence and attention-grabbing fountain, lie 202 suites with more trimmings than a Christmas turkey. The Burj Al Arab is worth visiting if only to gawk at an interior that’s every bit as garish as the exterior is gorgeous. The mood is set in the 590ft-high lobby, which is decorated in a red, blue and green color scheme and accented with pillars draped in gold leaf. The lobby atrium is tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty within it. If you’re not checking into the Burj Al Arab, you need to make a reservation for cocktails, afternoon tea or a meal to get past lobby security. A minimum spend applies; check the Burj's website for details. Architecture of the Burj Al Arab The Burj Al Arab has 60 floors spread over 1053ft (321m) and was the world's tallest hotel at the time of its opening. British architect Tom Wright came up with the iconic design and signature translucent fiberglass facade that serves as a shield from the desert sun during the day and as a screen for the impressive illumination at night. The Burj Al Arab's interior by British-Chinese designer Khuan Chew is every bit as over-the-top as the exterior is simple and elegant. The moment you step into the lofty lobby, a crescendo of gold-leaf, crystal chandeliers, hand-knotted carpets, water elements, pillars and other design elements put you into sensory overload. Some of the 258,333 sq feet (24,000 sq meters) of marble hail from the same quarry where Michelangelo got his material. The white metal crosspieces at the top of the Burj Al Arab form what is said to be the largest cross in the Middle East – but it’s only visible from the sea. By the time this unexpected feature was discovered, it was too late to redesign the tower – the hotel had already put Dubai on the map and become the icon for the city. See the cross on a boat charter and decide for yourself. The scale is amazing. Bars and restaurants in Burj Al Arab The cobalt-blue and emerald-green color scheme may not exactly project class and exclusivity, but all is forgotten when enjoying the dreamy views of the Gulf and Dubai skyline from the Skyview Bar. A cocktail or afternoon tea in this capsule-shaped lounge sticking out from the main building on the 27th floor is high on the to-do list of many Dubai visitors despite the steep minimum spends. Reservations are essential. If you've got a hankering for unusual cocktails, book a perch in gold-leaf-drenched Gold on 27, on the same floor as Skyview. Drinks are inspired by Dubai's past, present and future and include many nonalcoholic choices. A Ghaf, A Goat and A Camel, for instance, is not the beginning of a joke but a delicious potion blending Cascara milk, bourbon vanilla, white peach nectar and sweet goat-cheese meringue. Book ahead. Beaches near the Burj Al Arab For the quintessential Instagrammable photo of you and the Burj Al Arab, take a stroll on nearby Jumeirah Public Beach as the sun dips into the Gulf and then upload the picture via one of the Smart Palms that provide free waterfront wi-fi. This wide, clean band of sand is actually an attractive place to spread your towel any time of day. In fact, now there's even a floodlit section for nighttime swimming. When the surf's up, it's fun to watch the boarders, although waves are only small to medium. Top 7 beaches in Dubai Where to stay near the Burj Al Arab The Burj Al Arab regularly hosts pop stars, royalty, billionaires and the merely moneyed. The lobby with its eye-catching waterfall and opulent decor is the overture to the 202 richly decorated suites. The North Deck adds two huge pools and 400 sunloungers. Suites are bi-level, and even the smallest measure 1829 sq ft (170 sq meters) and come with a personal butler. The decor is lush, with moiré silk walls, mirrored ceilings over the beds, curlicue high-backed velvet chairs and inlaid bathroom tiles displaying scenes of Venice. And all that gold? Yes, it’s the real 24-karat thing. For less luxurious options, the cluster of midrange hotels and hotel-apartments next to the Mall of Emirates offer great value for money. Where to eat near the Burj Al Arab For a surreal dining experience at the Burj Al Arab, book a table at Al Mahara to nosh on fish and seafood while seated before a giant, round aquarium. An elevator posing as a submarine drops you into a gold-leaf-clad tunnel spilling into one of Dubai's most extravagant restaurants. Tables orbit a circular floor-to-ceiling aquarium where clownfish flit and baby sharks dart as their turbot and monkfish cousins are being devoured. Only the finest seafood imported from the UK – and prepared with deft simplicity – makes it onto plates here. A dress code is enforced, and no children under 12 for dinner. For spots with a view of the Burj Al Arab, head to the bars in Madinat Jumeirah, such as Folly by Nick & Scott, for romantic views of the tower. How to get to the Burj Al Arab The nearest Dubai Metro station is Mall of the Emirates, but a taxi or bus ride is required from there. Buses 8, 81 and 88 pass by the Burj Al Arab.
The Burj Khalifa is a stunning feat of architecture and engineering, with two observation decks on the 124th and 148th floors and a restaurant-bar on the 122nd. The world’s tallest building pierces the sky at 2715ft (828m) and opened in January 2010, six years after excavations began. Up to 13,000 workers toiled day and night, putting up a new floor in as little as three days. How to get tickets to visit the Burj Khalifa To avoid wait times or expensive fast-track admission, book tickets online as far as 30 days in advance. Timed tickets are available at the ticket counter and often sell out quickly. Book especially early if you want to go up at sunset. Prices go up during prime hours (around sunset), and closing times may vary depending on demand and the season. Budget at least two hours for your visit. For a more in-depth experience, you can rent audio guides for Dhs25 ($6.80). High humidity often cloaks Dubai in a dense haze, making views less than breathtaking. On hazy days, it’s better to visit at night. No refunds or rain checks are given if the outdoor viewing terrace is closed for bad weather. At the Top Observation Deck Taking in the views from the world's tallest building is a deservedly crave-worthy experience and a trip to the "At the Top" observation deck on the 124th floor (1483ft) is the most popular way to do it. Once you get to the platform, you can seek out high-powered "viewfinders" that help bring even distant developments into focus (at least on clear days) and cleverly simulate the same view at night and in the 1980s. There are also six digital telescopes that use HD cameras with a high zoom to zero in on places outside the cityscape. Getting to the deck means passing various multimedia exhibits until a double-decker elevator zips you up at 32ft per second. At the Top Sky To truly be on the world's highest observation platform, you need to buy tickets to "At the Top Sky" on the 148th floor (1820ft). A visit here is set up like a hosted VIP experience with refreshments, a guided tour and an interactive screen where you "fly" to different city landmarks by hovering your hands over high-tech sensors. Afterwards, you're escorted to the 125th floor to be showered with Burj trivia and to take in another attraction called "A Falcon's Eye View" that lets you take a virtual flight over the emirate by soaring over key attractions like a bird. Restaurants and bars at the Burj Khalifa The food may not be out of this world, but the views are certainly stellar from At.mosphere, the world's highest restaurant, on the 122nd floor (1450ft). Richly decorated in warm mahogany, limestone and thick carpets, the dining room oozes a sophisticated ambience while the compact menu lets quality meats and seafood shine. There's also a lounge one floor up if you just want a drink. Reservations are essential, minimum spends apply, a dress code is in effect and no children under 10 are allowed. To get there, you need to take the elevator from the foyer of the Armani Hotel. Burj Khalifa construction and architecture Engineers and the Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) had to pull out all the stops in the construction of the Burj Khalifa. Pouring the 11.5ft-thick foundation alone required 16,350 cubic yards (12,500 cubic meters) of reinforced concrete. The design was inspired by the Hymenocallis desert lily. Burj Khalifa's superlative statistics The Burj Khalifa is not only the world's tallest building (for now) but also flaunts other records and impressive figures, including the following: tallest free-standing structure highest outdoor observation deck (1820ft) highest occupied floor (160th floor, at 1920ft) longest elevator (1653ft) highest number of floors (211) highest restaurant (122nd floor, at 1483ft) weight of concrete used is equivalent to 100,000 elephants the service elevator has a carrying capacity of 6 tons the facade is made of 28,261 glass panels it takes three to four months to clean the facade in 2011 French climber Alain Robert scaled the Burj in just over six hours in April 2014 two other Frenchmen (Vincent Reffet and Frédéric Fugen) set the world record base jump from the Burj the largest light-and-sound show on a single building on New Year's Eve 2017 Where to stay near the Burj Khalifa The Burj Khalifa is located in Downtown Dubai, and the Armani Hotel occupies 15 of the lower floors of the Burj Khalifa. Staying in Downtown Dubai puts you smack dab in the city's vortex of vibrancy. Aside from the big international chains, you'll also find a few home-grown players imbued with a local sense of place. With few exceptions, you'll need to shell out top dirham. Where to eat near the Burj Khalifa If you don't want to shell out for a meal in the world's highest restaurant, there are plenty of other options nearby. For fresh organic salads and mains with a view of the Burj and the lake, head to Baker & Spice. Majlis in the Dubai Mall's Souk section serves refreshments made with camel milk, including a creamy camelccino (cappuccino with camel milk). How to get to the Burj Khalifa Take the Dubai Metro to Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall.
One of Dubai’s most attractive developments, Madinat Jumeirah is a contemporary interpretation of a traditional Arab village, complete with a souq (market), palm-fringed waterways and desert-colored hotels and villas festooned with wind towers. It’s especially enchanting at night, when the gardens are romantically lit and the Burj Al Arab gleams in the background. There are exquisite details throughout, so if you see some stairs, take them – they might lead you to a hidden terrace with a mesmerising vista of the sprawling complex. Architecture of Madinat Jumeirah The architects of this luxurious resort village at the foot of the Burj Al Arab looked to Dubai's original creekside settlement in Bur Dubai for inspiration. Wind towers, traditional wooden boats used as water taxis, waterways and even a market create modern Arabian flair in this complex that comprises three palatial hotels and dozens of private villas set in a richly landscaped garden. Shopping at Souk Madinat Jumeirah At the heart of the complex lies Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a maze-like bazaar with around 75 shops lining wood-framed walkways. Although the ambience is too contrived to feel like an authentic Arab market, the quality of some of the crafts, art and souvenirs is actually quite high. For a bit of Western culture, see what’s playing at the Madinat Theatre. There are numerous cafes, bars and restaurants, the nicest of which overlook the waterways and the Burj Al Arab. Riding an abra at Madinat Jumeirah Explore Madinat Jumeirah's 2.5-mile-long network of winding waterways on a leisurely 20-minute cruise aboard a traditional-style abra (a motorized wooden boat) with cushioned benches. The desert seems far away as you glide past enchanting gardens of billowing bougainvillea, bushy banana trees and soaring palms, all set against the dramatic Burj Al Arab backdrop. Tours leave from the Souk Madinat waterfront (near Trader Vic's). No reservations are necessary. If you are staying at a Madinat hotel or eating at one of the restaurants, your abra shuttle is free. Where to get Friday brunch at Madinat Jumeirah At the start of the weekend in the United Arab Emirates, Friday brunch in Dubai is a time-honored tradition, especially among Western expats. The Madinat hotels Al Qasr and Mina A'Salam are famous for putting on some of the most most opulent spreads in town. Both dish up an unbelievable cornucopia of delectables – roast lamb, sushi, cooked-to-order seafood, beautiful salads, mezze and all sorts of hot dishes, plus there are cheese and dessert rooms. Make dinner or brunch reservations at least one week ahead for most of the restaurants. Turtle watching The Jumeirah Al Naseem resort is the latest addition to Madinat Jumeirah and the home of the nonprofit Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. It has nursed more than 560 injured or sick sea turtles back to health and released them into the Gulf. The turtles spend the last weeks before their release in the hotel's sea-fed lagoon. The enclosure is open to the public daily for free, and feedings take place at 11am on Wednesdays. Access is via the hotel. Keep an eye out for specimens of the endemic hawksbill turtle that limped onto the list of critically endangered species, with only 8000 nesting females known to exist worldwide. Yoga on the beach Downward dog and sun salutation with a view of the Burj Al Arab? Just sign up for the daily sunset yoga sessions for Dhs90 ($24.50) organized by the on-site Talise Spa and on Madinat Jumeirah's private beach. An even more spiritual journey awaits during Full Moon Yoga – if you can get the timing right. Where to stay near Madinat Jumeirah Madinat Jumeirah is located in the Jumeirah neighborhood of Dubai. Luxury lovers should steer towards the Burj Al Arab or the hotels at Madinat Jumeirah. The cluster of midrange hotels and hotel-apartments next to the Mall of Emirates offer great value for money. Where to eat near Madinat Jumeirah Take advantage of happy-hour deals offered at many Madinat bars. For sunset drinks with a view of the Burj Al Arab, the rug-lined terrace of the Bahri Bar is a perfect vantage point. Book early for delicious seafood with Madinat and Burj Al Arab views at chic and sophisticated Pierchic. How to get to Madinat Jumeirah The nearest Dubai Metro station is Mall of the Emirates, but you'll need to take a taxi or bus from there. Buses 8, 81 and 88 pass by Madinat Jumeirah.
All that glitters is gold (and occasionally silver) along this covered arcade where dozens of shops overflow with every kind of jewelry imaginable, from delicate pearl earrings to lavish golden wedding necklaces. Simply watching the goings-on is a treat. Settle down on a bench and take in the lively street theater of hard-working Afghan men dragging heavy carts of goods, African women in colorful kaftans and local women out on a shopping spree. The best time to visit is in the bustling evenings. Mornings are busy with tour groups, and the afternoons are sleepy. Gold has been big business in Dubai since the 1940s. Today, the emirate is one of the world's largest gold markets, accounting for roughly 25% of the global trade. Central Arcade Dozens of jewelry shops spilling over with gold, diamonds, pearls, silver and platinum line the souq's car-free, wooden-latticed central axis. From stud earrings to intricate wedding necklaces, it's a dazzling display and a must-see, even if you're not part of the bling brigade. Most shops are run by Indian merchants, while customers are mostly Indian or Arab, which helps explain the deep yellow tint of the gold and the often extremely elaborate designs, as is preferred in those parts of the world. Record-breaking gold ring Dubai being the capital of superlatives, the Gold Souq is naturally home to a record-breaking piece of jewelry. Stop at Kanz Jewellers just past the main souq entrance (off Old Baladiya St) to snap a selfie with the world's largest and heaviest gold ring, as certified by Guinness World Records. Called the Najmat Taiba (Star of Taiba), the 21-karat beauty weighs in at nearly 140 pounds (64kg) and is studded with 11 pounds (5.1kg) of diamonds and precious stones. It is worth a hefty US$3 million. What to look for when buying at Dubai's Gold Souq There's no need to worry about fakes at the Gold Souq (unless you're in the market for a knock-off Rolex watch or Prada bag from one of the touts trying to tempt you). The quality of gold is regulated by the Dubai government, so you can be fairly confident that the piece of jewelry you've got your eye on is genuine. Price is determined by two factors: weight based on the official daily international rate and the artistry of the item. The latest gold rates are posted throughout the souq and online. Most pieces for sale here are 14 or 18 karat. If you don’t see anything you like, don’t panic. Most shops will make something to your own design. Haggling is expected, and vendors build in price buffers accordingly. Since the price of gold itself is fixed, focus on the intricacy of the artisanship as a point of discussion. Buying more than one item should also net you a discount, as does paying in cash, though credit cards are almost always accepted. Sharp bargaining skills usually make merchants drop the initial asking price by 20% to 30%. Don’t rush! Remember, you don’t have to make a decision on the spot. Compare carefully before you buy and be prepared to haggle. Where to stay near the Gold Souq Dubai's Gold Souq is in the Deira neighborhood, which is close to the airport and therefore popular with visitors on stopovers. There are plenty of older, smaller, budget places in and around the souqs, although some can be quite – how shall we say? – shady. Nicer properties can be found along the Creek as far south as Dubai Festival City. Where to eat near the Gold Souq A classic pit stop in this area is Ashwaq Cafeteria, whose shawarma rocks the palate. Wash it down with a freshly squeezed fruit juice. How to get to the Gold Souq Take the Dubai Metro to Al Ras, or ride an abra (a traditional boat) to Deira Old Souk abra station.
This long, pristine stretch of white sand, a little way north of Jumeirah Public Beach, is a major draw for sporty types, with a range of activities on offer, including kitesurfing, beach tennis, beach volleyball and kayaking. There's also a jogging track and a shaded skatepark nearby. The sand here is super clean and there are showers, wi-fi, toilets and changing facilities, plus lots of food trucks and cafes. The beach also boasts great views of the Burj Al Arab, one of Dubai's prime landmarks. It gets very busy on Friday and Saturday when a seaside market with crafts and gifts sets up. To reach the beach head along Jumeirah Rd; the strip of sand is located behind Saga World shopping centre. Parking is available, with a large lot next to Al Manara Mosque. There's no entrance fee to access the beach. Restaurants near Kite Beach There's a decent smattering of restaurants right next to Kite Beach that'll suit most tastes. Options include Circle Café, serving breakfast, brunch, coffee and smoothies; popular burger and steak joint X Factor; and Italian-themed Tomato & Basilico. There are also a number of food trucks (notably the excellent Salt, which serves up scrumptious sliders), ice cream places and takeaway coffee spots mere steps from the sand. Hotels near Kite Beach Jumeirah offers a great selection of accommodation options. Luxury lovers should steer towards the Burj Al Arab or the hotels at Madinat Jumeirah. The cluster of midrange hotels and hotel-apartments next to the Mall of Emirates offer great value for money. For proximity to Kite Beach, however, Beach Walk Hotel and Park Regis Boutique Jumeirah are two good options, both a 25 to 30 minute walk away.
Rising majestically from manicured gardens and visible from the bridges joining Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an impressive welcome to the city. With more than 80 marble domes on a roof-line held aloft by 1000 pillars and punctuated by four 107m-high minarets, it's a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture and design. Conceived by Sheikh Zayed, and marking his final resting-place, the mosque is one of the few in the region open to non-Muslims.
Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Jean Nouvel, the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi finally arrived in late 2017. Through 12 galleries, the world-class collection traces humanity's artistic achievements from the Neolithic up to the present day, all the while breaking all norms of traditional museum curation. Here, artworks are grouped by theme and time-frame rather than country or specific civilisation. The result is a globe-trotting journey through human heritage that highlights the universal threads of all cultures.
Standing outside Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, watching anxious owners from across the region delivering their hooded 'patients' in person, you will quickly realise that this is a much-needed and much-loved facility. Falcons are an integral part of traditional Gulf culture, and no expense is spared in restoring these magnificent birds to full health. Tours include visits to the falcon museum, the examination room – including intimate glimpses into coping procedures – and the free-flight aviary. Tour reservations (bookable online) are mandatory.
Sharjah's heritage and arts areas are anchored by one of the region's most dynamic art museums, a treat for committed art-lovers and casual visitors alike. Downstairs, two galleries present rotating temporary exhibits of international calibre. Upstairs, the permanent collection offers a comprehensive survey of art created in the Arab world from the late 19th century onward. Its importance, as one of the few spaces in the world where you can view such a vast collection of Arab art, is indisputable.
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