Whether it’s your first time in the desert kingdom or you’re a return visitor, Dubai’s the kind of place that’ll thrill, surprise, charm and overwhelm all who step foot on the sand – no matter how well you know the city, or how many preconceptions you may have. Most first-time visitors will want to tick off the main attractions, so we’ve pinpointed a few of our favorites, and recommended alternatives that’ll bring a fresh perspective on this fast-changing city of extremes, which always has one eye on the future and one on its past.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Discover the designers of The Dubai Mall
With 1,200 shops, more than 150 restaurants, a giant ice rink, an indoor theme park and an enormous aquarium, it’s like this mall at the foot of the Burj Khalifa has swallowed a small city. Given its scale, set aside at least half a day to explore the indoor avenues, and expect to find flagship stores from almost every major fashion, beauty, tech and homeware brand there is. thedubaimall.com
Insider tip: Be sure to download the dedicated app to avoid getting completely lost and to pinpoint your favorite stores.
Get lost in the souks
Before the oil-funded metropolis grew on the edge of the Persian Gulf), Dubai was a maze of sikkas (alleyways) running between clusters of low-rise sandstone buildings. A key port on the Spice Route and Incense Route, it was here that Iranian spice merchants and Indian silk sellers traded their wares. Today, the scene is a little different, but you can still find stalls creaking under the strain of spices, fabrics and crafts – simply follow your nose and venture into the labyrinth beyond the souks’ main drag.
Insider tip: Bring plenty of small change and get ready to haggle. The sellers have had generations of practice, so start your bids 50% lower than the asking price and you’ll get good value.
A LINE IN THE SAND
Scream down the Big Red sand dune
No trip to the desert city would be complete without getting sand between your toes – so head to Big Red for a spot of sandboarding. Known locally as Al Hamar, the 300ft sand dune to the east of the city got its nickname for the high iron oxide levels that give it its deep crimson hue – which is amplified in the setting sun. With sides as steep as alpine black runs, it’s become an adrenaline-fueled playground for sandboarding, quad biking and dune bashing (the art of skidding, sliding and jumping a 4x4 around the slopes). Many companies offer tours.
Make a day trip to Hatta
Built in the serrated shadows of the Hajar Mountains, this small enclave was once an important staging post on the overland route from Oman to Dubai. A journey that used to take two days on camelback now takes less than two hours by road, making it an easily accessible day trip from the city. The mountains form the backbone of activity in Hatta, an exclave of Dubai, with guided hikes to hilltop forts, downhill biking through the sheer-sided passes and kayaking tours along the emerald ravines.
Insider tip: At night, the sky is cloaked in an outstanding celestial display and there are plenty of glamping sites should you wish to gaze at the stars from the comfort of your sleeping bag.
Cross the creek aboard an abra
With the souks spanning either side of Dubai Creek, you’re going to need to cross it at some point, and there’s no better way than on board a traditional abra. Once rowed across the river, these now-motorized wooden boats leave the Deira Old Souk dock every few minutes for the short chug across the salty water. When you’ve reached the south side, make the short walk to Dubai Museum, which tracks Dubai’s turbo-charged evolution from a small fishing and pearling town to a global center for finance and tourism.
Insider tip: Cash is king on the waterways, and to pay for your crossing, you simply hand a small fare to the driver when you board.
Explore beneath the waves at Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
As with everything else in town, Dubai’s developers have thought big with this gargantuan aquarium at The Dubai Mall, with 400 sharks and rays alone in its 10-million-liter tank. There’s more than 140 species, ranging from sand tiger sharks to giant groupers, and some memorable experiences on offer, including cage dives and glass-bottomed boat trips. thedubaiaquarium.com
Insider tip: The aquarium is open until 10pm on weekdays, and until midnight on weekends, giving the option of a serene underwater wander after dinner in one of the mall’s restaurants.
Glimpse a new perspective at the Dubai Frame
Nearly a decade after it was first proposed, this enormous picture frame brought yet another astonishing structure to the skyline in 2018. Rising 492ft from Zabeel Park and sitting between historic and modern Dubai, the giant rectangle manages to bring borders to this fast-expanding city. Once inside, galleries on the ground floor tell the history of Dubai, but most people skip this to whisk straight to the 305ft-long viewing bridge, which features a glass-floored walkway and views across the old city of Deira to the north and the towering skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road in the south. A neon tunnel will then lure you into an augmented-reality exhibition covering future visions for this madcap city. thedubaiframe.com
Insider tip: To linger longer in the area, spend time strolling through Zabeel Park with its shady picnic areas, boating lakes and hidden sculptures.
Dip into the thriving contemporary art scene
With more than 200 nationalities currently living and working in the country, the fusion of cultural perspectives has created an art scene that’s as progressive as it is diverse. The Jameel Arts Centre in Jaddaf Waterfront champions contemporary work from every walk of life. You can expect to see pieces made by Dubai’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi laborers hanging next to prized pieces from India, Iran and beyond. More modern art from local talent can be viewed in the cluster of galleries in Alserkal Avenue, a regenerated industrial area that has a packed events program.
Insider tip: From poetry nights and expert-led talks to special artist previews, keep up to date with the calendar by visiting alserkal.online/events.