Is Dubai the city of gold and glamour, or is it an exotic desert outpost? The majority of visitors to Dubai don’t know the answer to this question before they arrive, and some never delve deep enough into the culture to ever find out. The success of Dubai’s international airline, Emirates, and their extensive route network means that most visitors are simply stopping through. A bit of research will prepare you for many days, even weeks in Dubai. Think white-sand beaches, eternal heat, Bedouin culture, austere natural beauty, bustling souks, space-age architecture, international cuisine, theme parks of almost every nature, shopping, and more.
POINTS OF INTEREST
CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION MUSEUM
Travel through the ages at this intimate museum. Interesting displays showcase a world-class array of largely Middle Eastern artifacts, which range from ancient Mesopotamia through to the Ottoman era. Highlights include Egyptian mummy masks, priceless Sumerian sculptures, and a beautiful section of kiswa (a cloth used to drape the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque at Mecca), which was donated by legendary Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in 1543.
DUBAI MUSEUM AND AL FAHIDI FORT
Once Dubai’s main defense outpost, the imposing sand-colored Al Fahidi Fort was built in 1788 and has also served as a jail and the ruler’s residence. Renovated in 1970, it is now the city museum and worth a look for an informative overview of the Emirates’ history. It makes an entertaining visit for all ages: you can walk through a souk from the 1950s, visit an oasis with a falaj (irrigation channel), learn about the desert at night and visit a traditional barasti.
RULER’S COURT (DIWAN)
A cream building with imposing wind towers sits beside the Creek next to the Grand Mosque. The striking gold-topped wrought-iron gates give a clue to its importance: it is the seat of power and the Ruler’s Court or Diwan, (Persian for couch). Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s offices are here.
This is one of the oldest and most atmospheric heritage areas in Dubai. Here you can wander the alleyways between original, restored courtyard houses. Many are crowned with tall wind towers, which were the earliest forms of air conditioning. Late afternoon is the best time to spend a couple of hours here when the light throws the architecture into golden relief. The area has become a cultural hub for the city with many buildings converted to art galleries and courtyard cafés.
HERITAGE VILLAGE AND DIVING VILLAGE
A microcosm of Dubai’s cultural and historic past, located near the mouth of the creek in the old Shindagha conservation area, this traditional complex is a living museum staffed by potters and weavers practicing crafts as they have for centuries. There’s a tented Bedouin village, armory displays, handicraft shops, camel rides, and an exhibition of Emirati cooking techniques. The Diving Village focuses on Dubai’s sea-faring and pearl-diving history, with displays of dhows and black and white photographs.
At the heart of Bur Dubai, the Textile Souk begins at the water’s edge by the Dubai Old Souk Abra Station. Since the souk’s renovation, it is now housed under an imposing arcaded wooden roof, keeping it cool even during the most consuming heat. It’s a mix of old and new – here you’ll find moneychangers, textiles, bargain clothes, glittery Arabian slippers, and curios. The souk (sometimes referred to as the “Old Souk”) is great fun to explore – be on the look out for the tailors working on old-fashioned sewing machines. Lanes off the main drag are dotted with examples of local traditional architecture, including long wooden balconies, latticed windows, and the occasional wind tower.
Buried away at the back of the Textile Souk, this truly delightful “Hindi Lane” (as it is known locally) is one of Dubai’s best-hidden secrets. Walking into this narrow little lane is like stepping into India itself, with its colorful shops selling religious posters, garlands of flowers and bindis, and other subcontinental paraphernalia. There is even a tiny Sikh temple tucked away above the shops.
SHEIKH SAEED AL-MAKTOUM HOUSE
Built in 1896 from coral stone covered in lime and sand plaster, this was the home of Dubai’s former ruler until his death in 1958. Opened as a museum in 1986, it contains photographs, coins, stamps, and documents. The building itself has four wind towers and verandas. Photographs from the 1950s to the 1980s show seaplanes landing in the creek and reveal the extraordinary pace of development. Copies of early oil prospecting agreements with international companies make fascinating reading on the Trucial Coast “oil rush”.
TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE MUSEUM
Housed in the beautiful old mansion of Sheikh Juma, this truly excellent museum has absorbing displays on the architecture of Dubai and the UAE. Displays cover the different building materials used – stone, mud, coral stone, and gypsum – and traditional construction techniques. There are also exhibits of old tools and life-size mannequins of builders at work.
This beautifully restored airy courtyard house dates back to the 1890s. Unusually, this 10-room building does not have a wind tower, but the upper floor is designed with open doors and windows to draw in the creek breezes. Now a museum giving an insight into Emirati history (with dioramas and touch screens), you can explore the different rooms, all with 19th-century furnishings.
The sights and smells of a traditional food market provide an enthralling insight into the shopping and eating habits of the locals. On the north side of Deira, this large warehouse-like complex is the old city’s major source of fresh food. The colorful fruit and vegetable selection has dozens of stalls piled high with produce, as well as a section specializing in dates from the local area. The gory meat section is for dedicated carnivores only, but the salty-smelling fish section is well worth exploring, with ocean-fresh prawns, and sharks laid out on display
NATIONAL BANK OF DUBAI
Another architectural achievement is the building housing the National Bank of Dubai – one of the city’s first iconic buildings. Built in the mid- 1990s by Carlos Ott, the architect of the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris, it is inspired by the dhow. Its curved curtain glass wall symbolizes the billowing sail. The base of the building is clad in green glass, representing water, and its roof is cast in aluminum (denoting the hull of the boat). It is most striking at sunset when the mirror reflects its gold and silver lights.
Immediately east of the Gold Souk, Sikkat al Khail Rd is home to an array of shops popularly known as the Perfume Souk – although there’s no actual souk building. Dozens of small shops line the street, selling a mix of international brands and local perfumes. The best are made using the aromatic oud (derived from aloe wood) and come in ornate cutglass bottles. Most shops also allow you to create your own scents from their selection of perfume oils.
Moody and atmospheric, the Spice Souk is a sensory trip into the past, where you can wander through a maze of narrow alleyways of shops piled high with aromatic spices. You’ll find sacks of cinnamon sticks, frankincense, cumin, coriander seed, and oud. Some great souvenir buys include frankincense (sold with a charcoal burner), henna kits (for hand and body decoration), saffron, and fragrant rose water.
You are unlikely to have ever seen so much gleaming gold as in Dubai’s historic Gold Souk. The souk is still dominated by Indian and Iranian craftsmen and traders, as it has been for close to a century. It has been restored with a traditional Arabic arcade and an arching wooden roof. You’ll find jewelry in both Arabic and western styles.
DEIRA COVERED SOUK
This is where you get a real taste of the melting pot of cultures that is Dubai. The souk is frequented by both Emiratis and ex-pats and sells everything from bright Indian clothing to colorful kitchenware. There are even household appliances and pirated CDs. It is a fascinating area to wander around
Filling the space between the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, and Souk al Bahar is the spectacular Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest, featuring an extraordinary array of jets illuminated with 6,000 lights and capable of firing plumes of water 492 ft into the air. Set in the middle of a lake, the fountain puts on an amazing show after dusk when colorful sprays of water erupt dancing in time to an accompanying musical soundtrack.
DUBAI WORLD TRADE CENTRE
Hard to believe today when you see it dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Rd, but back in 1979 the DWTC was the tallest building in the city, opened with great pomp by Sheikh Rashid and Queen Elizabeth II of England. It has played an important role in the city’s develop ment, a fact reflected by the continued use of its image on the AED 100 note. Today, it also comprises 14 huge exhibition halls. The Dubai International Convention Centre next door can accommodate more than 10,000.
DIFC AND THE GATE
Behind Emirates Towers is the Gate, the striking 15-story architectural signature of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). This “city within a city” is now a global financial hub with its own civil and commercial laws. The Gate is shaped like a bridge – DIFC is designed to bridge the gap between the financial centers of London and New York in the West and Hong Kong and Tokyo in the East. The attached Gate Village is stuffed with upmarket galleries.
THE DUBAI MALL
The ultimate shrine to consumerism, this mall has a vast array of shops and other attractions, including the Dubai Aquarium, an ice rink, and a skeleton of a 150-million-year-old diplodocus dinosaur. Highlights include the Arabian-themed souk section and the ultra-chic Fashion Avenue. The selection of places to eat include some nice alfresco places overlooking the Dubai Fountain.
Named after the UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Burj Khalifa is one of the tallest man-made structure on the planet. Most of the tower is residential but a pair of observation decks are open to visitors and the base of the building houses the world’s first Armani Hotel.
BURJ AL ARAB JUMEIRAH
Visible from almost anywhere in Jumeirah, the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, an iconic luxury hotel, is a symbol for the city itself and is distinguished by its unusual shape mirroring the billowing sail of a dhow. Reservations are needed to visit the interior of this opulent hotel. For a great close-up view of the exterior, drop into the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and take the super-fast glass elevator to the top floor.
Rising proudly above Jumeirah Road, the imposing Fatimid-style Jumeirah Mosque is one of the city’s most impressive and attractive mosques.
SKI DUBAI SNOW PARK
You can’t miss Ski Dubai from the Sheikh Zayed Road, jutting out like a giant space-age tube. Filled with over 6,000 tonnes of snow, it offers five slopes, linked by chairlifts and tow lifts, to cater to all ski levels, including the longest black indoor run in the world. There’s also a snow park for little ones, plus the chance to meet the resident Gentoo penguins.
A ride on the giant Ferris wheel here offers the best views of this huge landscaped green park stretching from Al Wasl Road to Sheikh Zayed Road (although construction work on the Dubai Canal has reduced the size). It is hugely popular with local residents, many of whom make the most of its specially-sprung perimeter jogging track. It’s great for kids to run free and there’s lots of entertainment, including a mini-train, a merry-go-round, and a lake with rowing boats.
WILD WADI WATER PARK
This world-class water park offers a great day out to suit all ages and bravery levels with 30 water-fuelled rides and attractions. Thrill-seekers will not be disappointed by its most challenging ride, the Jumeirah Sceirah – the tallest and fastest freefall water slide outside the US. Well staffed by lifeguards and with plenty of food outlets, it makes a fun day out.
JUMEIRAH BEACH PARK
This lovely green park (closed for renovation until late 2017), backs onto a beautiful white-sand beach. You can access the beach from the park along wooden walkways and there is plenty of shade on the sand under the palm trees. It’s equipped with lifeguards and has good facilities and some small cafés.
The centerpiece of the Dubai Marina development is the expansive marina itself, lined with millionaires’ boats and surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides. It is particularly impressive when illuminated after dark. Created out of a man-made sea inlet running parallel to the ocean, the marina is the best part of 2 miles long. Disoriented sharks and even whales have been known to swim into it from time to time.
ATLANTIS, THE PALM
Dominating the far end of the Palm Jumeirah is the vast Atlantis, The Palm resort. This is one of Dubai’s most distinctive landmarks, a soaring pink colossus arranged around a vast Arabian-style archway. The lavish interior is a riot of gold columns and marble floors. Attractions include the Lost Chambers, Aquaventure and Dolphin Bay, and a vast swathe of beach property.
The only place you really get a proper view of the Palm Jumeirah is from the air. If your budget can’t quite stretch to a helicopter ride, the Palm Monorail offers the best overview of the development, running on a raised track across the island and offering great views of the Palm and the skyscrapers of Dubai Marina behind.
One of the marina’s top draws is its superb swathe of white sand – the best free beach in the city. The size of the beach means that there’s usually plenty of space to lounge on (although it does get busy, particularly at weekends) and there are various facilities including showers and changing rooms, plus loungers for hire. This is also the best place in Dubai to arrange water sports, with a wide selection of activities available, including sailing, waterskiing, kayaking, and banana boats.