Glitzy Dubai is the United Arab Emirates’ holiday hot spot. This city of high-rises and shopping malls has transformed itself from a desert outpost to a destination du-jour, where tourists flock for sales bargains, sunshine, and family fun. Dubai is famous for sightseeing attractions such as the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) and shopping malls that come complete with mammoth aquariums and indoor ski slopes.
But this city has many cultural highlights and things to do, as well as all the glamorous modern add-ons. Take a wander around the Bastakia district, and you’ll discover the Dubai of old, then cruise along Dubai Creek in a traditional dhow, and you’ll soon realize there’s more to this city than its flashy veneer.
Dubai’s landmark building is the Burj Khalifa, which at 829.8 meters is the tallest building in the world and the most famous of the city’s points of interest. For most visitors, a trip to the observation deck on the 124th floor here is a must-do while in the city. The views across the city skyline from this bird’s-eye perspective are simply staggering. The slick observation deck experience includes a multimedia presentation on both Dubai and the building of the Burj Khalifa (completed in 2010) before a high-speed elevator whizzes you up to the observation deck for those 360-degree views out across the skyscrapers to the desert on one side and the ocean on the other.
Nighttime visits are particularly popular with photographers due to Dubai’s famous city-lights panoramas. Buy your Burj Khalifa “At the Top” Entrance Ticket in advance to avoid long line-ups, especially if you are planning to visit on a weekend.
Back on the ground, wrapping around the Burj Khalifa, are the building’s beautifully designed gardens, with winding walkways. There are plenty of water features including the Dubai Fountain, the world’s tallest performing fountain, modeled on the famous Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Dubai Mall is the city’s premier mall and provides entry to the Burj Khalifa, as well as the Dubai Aquarium. There is also an ice-skating rink, gaming zone, and cinema complex if you’re looking for more entertainment options. The shopping and eating is endless, and there are nearly always special events such as live music and fashion shows within the mall. The most famous of these are the annual Dubai Shopping Festival in January and February and the Dubai Summer Surprises Festival in July and August.
Dubai’s excellent museum is housed in the Al-Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 to defend Dubai Creek. The fort’s walls are built out of traditional coral-blocks and held together with lime. The upper floor is supported by wooden poles, and the ceiling is constructed from palm fronds, mud, and plaster.
In its history, the fort has served as a residence for the ruling family, a seat of government, garrison, and prison. Restored in 1971 (and again extensively in 1995), it is now the city’s premier museum. The entrance has a fascinating exhibition of old maps of the Emirates and Dubai, showing the mammoth expansion that hit the region after the oil boom.
The courtyard is home to several traditional boats and a palm-leaf house with an Emirati wind-tower. The right-hand hall features weaponry, and the left-hand hall showcases Emirati musical instruments. Below the ground floor are display halls with exhibits and dioramas covering various aspects of traditional Emirati life (including pearl fishing and Bedouin desert life), as well as artifacts from the 3,000- to 4,000-year-old graves at Al Qusais archaeological site.
Bastakia (Old Dubai)
The Bastakia Quarter (also known as the Al-Fahidi neighborhood) was built in the late 19th century to be the home of wealthy Persian merchants who dealt mainly in pearls and textiles and were lured to Dubai because of the tax-free trading and access to Dubai Creek.
Bastakia occupies the eastern portion of Bur Dubai along the creek, and the coral and limestone buildings here, many with walls topped with wind-towers, have been excellently preserved. Wind-towers provided the homes here with an early form of air conditioning — the wind trapped in the towers was funneled down into the houses. Persian merchants likely transplanted this architectural element (common in Iranian coastal houses) from their home country to the Gulf.
Lined with distinct Arabian architecture, the narrow lanes are highly evocative of a bygone, and much slower, age in Dubai’s history. Inside the district, you’ll find the Majlis Gallery, with its collection of traditional Arab ceramics and furniture (housed in a wind-tower) and the Al Serkal Cultural Foundation, with a shop, cafe, and rotating art exhibitions (located in one of the historic buildings).
Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House
Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum was the Ruler of Dubai from 1921 to 1958 and grandfather to the current ruler. His former residence has been rebuilt and restored as a museum that is a fine example of Arabian architecture.
The original house was built in 1896 by Sheikh Saeed’s father, so he could observe shipping activity from the balconies. It was demolished, but the current house was rebuilt next to the original site, staying true to the original model by incorporating carved teak doors, wooden lattice screens across the windows, and gypsum ventilation screens with floral and geometric designs. Thirty rooms are built around a central courtyard with wind-tower details on top.
Inside are the exhibits of the Dubai Museum of Historical Photographs and Documents, with many wonderful old photographs of Dubai from the period between 1948 and 1953. The marine wing of the museum has photos of fishing, pearling, and boat building. Throughout the building there are many letters, maps, coins, and stamps on display showing the development of the Emirate.
Dubai Creek separates the city into two towns, with Deira to the north and Bur Dubai to the south. The creek has been an influential element in the city’s growth, first attracting settlers here to fish and pearl dive. Small villages grew up alongside the creek as far back as 4,000 years ago, while the modern era began in the 1830s when the Bani Yas tribe settled in the area.
The Dhow Wharfage is located along Dubai Creek’s bank, north of Al-Maktoum Bridge. Still used by small traders from across the Gulf, some of the dhows anchored here are well over 100 years old. You can visit here, watching cargo being loaded and unloaded on and off the dhows. Dhow workers often invite visitors onto the vessels for a tour, where you can gain insight into the life of these traditional sailors. Many of the dhows here travel onward to Kuwait, Iran, Oman, India, and down to Africa’s horn. This tiny remnant of Dubai’s traditional economy is still a bustling and fascinating place to wander around.
On the Bur Dubai side of the creek, rubbing up against the Bastakia neighborhood, the waterfront has been regenerated as the Al Seef district, with a waterfront promenade backed by traditional coral-block and limestone buildings, a floating market, and shops selling crafts. It’s a great place for a stroll with excellent water views.
To travel across the creek, you can either take a trip on one of the many dhows that have been restored as tourist cruise boats or take an abra (small wooden ferry) between the ferry points on the creek’s Bur Dubai and Deira banks.
Jumeirah Mosque is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Dubai’s mosques. An exact copy of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, which is eight times its size, the Jumeirah Mosque is a fine example of Islamic architecture. This stone structure is built in the medieval Fatimid tradition, with two minarets that display the subtle details in the stonework. It is particularly attractive in the evening when lit with floodlights.
The Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding (which also runs a program of tours, lectures, Arabic classes, and cultural meals) organizes guided tours of the mosque designed to try to foster a better understanding of the Muslim faith. Tours begin at 10am daily, except Fridays.
Deira lies on the northern bank of Dubai Creek, and the winding streets here unveil the melting pot of different nationalities that have come to call Dubai home. On the shore, ancient dhows load and unload with modern banks, hotels, and office buildings as a backdrop.
For travelers, Deira is most famous for its traditional souks (markets), which bustle with shoppers at all times of the day. Deira Gold Souk is world-renowned as the largest gold bazaar in the world. The Deira Spice Souk sells every imaginable spice, with stalls overflowing with bags of frankincense, cumin, paprika, saffron, sumac, and thyme, as well as the fragrant oud wood, rose water, and incense. The fish market provides a much less touristy experience.
While in the district, culture lovers shouldn’t miss two of Deira’s finely restored architectural gems. Heritage House was built in 1890 as the home of a wealthy Iranian merchant and later became the home of Sheik Ahmed bin Dalmouk (a famous pearl merchant in Dubai). Today, it’s a great chance to see the interior of a traditional family home. The Al-Ahmadiya School, constructed in 1912, is the oldest school in Dubai and is now a museum of public education.
Sheikh Zayed Road
Sheikh Zayed Road is the main thoroughfare running through Dubai’s modern downtown business district. This wide, eight-lane highway is rimmed with towering glass, chrome, and steel high-rises along its entire length. It’s one of the best on-the-ground vantage points for Dubai’s famed skyscraper views.
Main attractions are along, or just off, the strip between the roundabout and the first intersection, and most of Dubai’s famous malls are located along the road’s route. The Dubai World Trade Tower has an observation deck on its top floor, which offers visitors panoramic views (a cheaper option than the Burj Khalifa), and the Gold and Diamond Park (Sheikh Zayed Road) is a one-stop shop for jewelry lovers, with 118 manufacturers and 30 retailers all under one roof.
Heritage and Diving Village
Dubai’s architectural, cultural, and maritime heritage is showcased at the Heritage and Diving Village, with displays related to pearl diving and dhow building — two of old Dubai’s historic economic mainstays. There are also recreations of traditional Bedouin and coastal village life, with Persian homes, a traditional coffeehouse, and a small souk where potters and weavers practice their handicrafts at the stalls. Local music and dance are performed from October to April, and visitors can get advice from practitioners of traditional medicine.
One of the city’s top tourist attractions, the Dubai Aquarium houses 140 species of sea life in the huge suspended tank on the ground floor of the Dubai Mall. As well as free viewing from the mall, if you enter the Underwater Zoo, you can walk through the aquarium tunnels.
Different activities help you get a closer look at the sea life. Glass bottom boat tours (on top of the tank) are particularly popular. Cage snorkeling and shark diving activities are also on offer.
The Burj Al-Arab is the world’s tallest hotel, standing 321 meters high on its own artificial island on the Dubai coastline. Designed to resemble a billowing dhow sail, the exterior of the building is lit up by a choreographed, colored lighting show at night. Decadent in every way possible, the Burj Al-Arab is one of the most expensive hotels in the world, with the most luxurious suites costing more than $15,000 for one night.
For those without unlimited credit, the way to experience the over-the-top opulence is to go for dinner at the underwater Al-Mahara restaurant, where floor-to-ceiling glass panels in the dining room walls allow you to view sea life while you eat, or you can enjoy lunch at California-style fusion restaurant Scape. For the ultimate panoramic views over the city, book afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar (a minimum spend is required) on the 27th floor.
This strip of sandy white bliss is the number one beach destination for Dubai visitors. Hotels are strung out all along its length, with this being one of the most popular places to stay for tourists. The beach has excellent facilities, with plenty of sun loungers, restaurants, and water sports operators offering jet skiing.
While in the area, brush off the sand for an hour and visit the Majlis Ghorfat Um Al-Sheef, just a short hop from the beach. Built in 1955, this was the summer residence of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum. The residence, made out of gypsum and coral-block, has been restored and maintains much of the original beautiful decor, giving you a better understanding of the opulent lifestyle of Dubai’s rulers. The Majlis Gardens feature a reproduction of an impressive Arab irrigation system and many shady date palms.
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary
You don’t have to go too far away from the skyscrapers to soak up a more natural vista. The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary incorporates the mangrove forests and wetlands of Dubai creek. An important stop-off on the migration routes, it’s a prime place to spot flamingos in winter when massive flocks of these majestic pink birds wade through the lagoons, backdropped by soaring high-rises. Various hides in prime spots have been set up within the park to allow bird-watchers good views of the bird life.