Things to Do in Dubai
When to Visit:
The best times to visit Dubai are late fall through early spring—anytime from November to March—when average temperatures range between the high 70s and high 80s Fahrenheit and you can enjoy the outdoors (provided you’re armed with sunscreen). Summer temperatures hover around 100°F and come with high humidity, making Dubai something of a sauna from May until September, but hotel rates also plunge by up to 75 percent, and you can simply hop from one air-conditioned attraction to another.
Arriving and Departing:
You have several options for reaching Dubai from its airport: metro, taxi, or bus. Take a metro train from Terminal 1 or 3 for key areas such as Deira, Downtown, and Dubai Marina—the trains operate roughly every 10 minutes from around 6am to midnight, but don’t run Friday mornings. Otherwise, taxis leave from each of the three terminals: Expect a 25-dirham standing charge, plus a metered fare of about two dirhams per kilometer. If you’re on a budget, buses are your cheapest option. Catch them at all terminals, but do your homework beforehand—the route network can be daunting for newcomers.
Dubai’s heat and highways work against walking, although it’s easier to go by foot in Deira and other older districts. The easiest alternative is a taxi, with plenty to flag down and reasonable rates—think about $1 to $2 per kilometer, plus an initial standing charge. For longer distances, use the Dubai Metro, which runs between Dubai Airport and the Creek, and on to Jumeirah, Dubai Marina, and Downtown. To save hassle, buy a Nol card, and pre-load it to avoid the often-long ticket lines at stations. You can also use your Nol on Dubai’s buses, trams, and waterbuses.
Hotels and restaurants automatically add a 10- to 20-percent service charge to bills, and sometimes an extra tourism levy of around six percent. That’s quite a sting, but it’s still customary to leave a 10- to 15-percent tip at restaurants, and to give porters and hotel room cleaners a few dirhams. Bear in mind that service charges don’t usually get to waiters and that hospitality worker earnings in Dubai are usually low. In taxis, it’s customary to round up fares to the nearest five dirhams at least.
What the Locals Know: If you’re after cheap souvenirs away from Dubai’s upscale shops, the Karama Market in the old town is the go-to of savvy locals, and does a roaring trade in low-cost clothes, gifts, and accessories. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited into backrooms filled with replica designer handbags and watches, and brace yourself for lots of elbow-tugging and pleading from the vendors. One rule: There’s no point in shopping here unless you haggle—and haggle hard.
Skyscrapers don’t get any taller than Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure on the planet. Soaring 828 meters (2,717 ft), with more than 160 stories, the building has a stepped design that narrows as it climbs syringe-like to the sky.
Burj Khalifa is part of the massive Downtown Dubai complex of offices, hotels, shopping malls, entertainment precincts and apartment buildings. Ride the elevator to the 124th-floor Observation Deck for astounding views over Dubai and the Arabian Gulf, or take a wander through the gardens and fountains of Burj Khalifa Park. Shop till you drop in Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall. Along with a huge variety of shops – including Galeries Lafayette, Bloomingdale's, and Marks & Spencer – the mall includes an aquarium, ice rink, Sega theme park and cinemas.
The self-proclaimed “most luxurious man-made marine in the world” is also the largest; the Dubai Marina is a 50-million-square-foot mega-development that began in 2003 as part of the wave of projects that transformed (and continues to transform) the desert landscape into a forest of skyscrapers.Home to a large concentration of Western expats, the Dubai Marina also houses attractions like the Wild Wadi Water Park with its 30 different water attractions, Gravity Zone Bungee Jump, Dolphin Bay and the Dubai Marina Walk, a beachfront promenade lined with more than 300 shops and restaurants. As home to some of Dubai’s poshest hotels and hippest nightclubs, it’s a neighborhood where many a visitor comes to stay or play.
Dubai’s signature landmark is the Burj Al-Arab, the famous sail-shaped hotel facing the Arabian Gulf. The world’s only seven-star hotel, it’s truly the stuff of James Bond movies and superstars.
Packed with bars and restaurants, the hotel is a world within a world, with guests enjoying every luxury service you can imagine in their opulent suites.
For most of us, catching that iconic shot of the hotel jutting out to sea is the closest we’ll get to the Burj Al-Arab. Mere mortals can visit, but before you can even reach the front door you have to make a booking in advance and a hefty fee is charged to sightsee.
A better way to visit is by making a reservation at one of the hotel’s many bars or restaurants. Al Muntaha restaurant and the adjacent Skyview Bar are the venues to choose for soaring panoramic views.
Palm Jumeirah juts out from the Dubai shoreline into the Persian Gulf, resembling from above a palm tree sprouting from the beach. Construction on the manmade island began in 2001, and it remains the world’s largest artificial island, with its 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) trunk and 17 fronds, all surrounded by a crescent. It is the smallest of three planned artificial islands collectively called the Palm Islands.
Since the opening of the Palm Jumeirah’s first residences in 2006, numerous luxury hotels and resorts have opened up on the islands, including the Fairmont Palm Hotel & Resort, Kempinski Hotel, Atlantis The Palm, One & Only The Palm and a Waldorf Astoria. Designer shops line the island’s Golden Mile, while an ever-expanding array of restaurants and bars keep visitors sated. Most of the island’s visitor-centric attractions can be found in and around the Atlantis, where Aquaventure Waterpark, the Lost Chambers Aquarium, Dolphin Bay and Sea Lion Point.
Dubai Museum is housed in Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787. It’s a terrific example of a desert fort, complete with cannons and battlements. Dubai’s entertaining museum brings the city’s past and present together in a series of life-size dioramas and archaeological exhibits from desert excavations.
Meet the pearl fishers who first settled the banks of the Creek, the desert Bedouins who roamed the heartland, and the date farmers who irrigated the land. You’ll also see representations of a busy souq, a mosque and inside a traditional home, revealing life in the Emirate before the coming of oil.
Unlike anything you have seen in the world, Dubai’s Gold Souk is a market that showcases seemingly endless amounts of gold jewelry. With over 300 jewelers on site to accommodate all your gold related needs, the streets during the day are swarming with visitors from all around the world enjoying the spectacle of wall-to-wall gold, and course, the souk’s phenomenal prices.
Whether you are looking to buy or just peruse, the Dubai Souk is certainly worth your visit. With an average of 10 tons of gold available on the premises at any given time, you are sure to be impressed with the glimmering displays, with gold makes in virtually any style you could imagine—and even available in an array of colors including white, yellow and pink.
If you are feeling so inclined to make a purchase at the Souk, make sure you bring your haggling pants with you. It is entirely expected that you negotiate the price for any wanted goods.
Cutting through the heart of Dubai, the seawater Dubai Creek winds its way from the trading port on the Gulf to the Ras al Khor bird sanctuary on the desert edge of Dubai.
Old-fashioned boats called dhows criss-cross the water from Bur Dubai on the left bank to Deira on the right. Catch a water taxi dhow, called an abra, to get from A to B, or sign up for a romantic sunset dhow cruise traveling further upstream.
A cruise reveals the glittering high-rise buildings lining the Creek, passing under several bridges to reach the Creekside gardens. Or take a stroll along the paved promenade lining the Creek on the Bur Dubai side of the waterway.
The Lost Chambers Aquarium in Atlantis, The Palm takes visitors through a series of mazes and tunnels as they explore the underwater ruins of Atlantis. This imaginative aquarium houses some 65,000 aquatic animals, including 12 species of rays and sharks.
Unlike most aquariums, The Lost Chambers has a complete backstory, adding a cinematic quality to the visit. According to the hotel’s “myth,” a series of passages and ruins were uncovered as the resort was being built -- ruins that were later determined to be the Lost City of Atlantis. As you walk through the different marine exhibits, you’ll not only read information on the marine life but on Atlantean history and culture as well.
To write off the Dubai Mall as simply a shopping destination would be a huge mistake. This entertainment complex -- one of the largest in the world -- is more like a small city, housing some 1,200 retailers, 200 food and beverage outlets and a whole lineup of entertainment options.
Even when summer temperatures scorch outside, visitors to the Dubai Mall can lace up their skates and glide across an Olympic-sized ice rink. The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, located on the ground floor, is the world’s largest suspended aquarium with 2.6 million gallons (10 million liters) of tank space. The entertainment complex also houses a 22-screen movie theater, SEGA Republic indoor theme park and KidZania edutainment center.
That’s not to say the shopping isn’t a draw. Nearly every major fashion brand out there is represented in Dubai Mall, including five major department stores and brands like Burberry, Diesel, H&M, Juicy Couture and Forever 21.
The most famous ride at Dubai’s Aquaventure Waterpark has to be the Tower of Neptune. First, you’ll scale a Maya pyramid before plunging 60 feet down a clear tunnel through a lagoon filled with real sharks. Seriously, real sharks. With 40 acres’ worth of water slides and swimming pools, Atlantis The Palm’s Aquaventure Waterpark is huge.
Home to the world’s largest slide tube, the world’s first dual slide within a slide, and the Middle East’s longest zip-line circuit, you can even go swimming with the lagoon sharks if you’re feeling brave.
Among the palm trees there are 11 swimming pools, a six-person raft adventure, and a play area for little kids on Splashers Island. There’s also 700 meters of private beach to enjoy, and a mile-long lazy river ride which you can float along in a tube. Keep a lookout for tunnels, rolling rapids, and wave surges along the way.
More Things to Do in Dubai
Dubai Miracle Garden is a unique park featuring more than 45 million flowers across 72,000 square meters. Located in Al Barsha South, this spectacular garden showcases a wide range of different flowers arranged into various shapes, such as hearts, stars, and pyramids. The floral patterns change with the seasons, so it’s a different experience on every visit.
Marvel at this unique garden in the middle of the desert by taking a stroll through the vibrant display of flowers and even beneath a ceiling of multi-colored umbrellas. With its dramatic style and sheer flamboyance, the Miracle Garden can often feel more like an art exhibition than a tourist attraction.
Visiting Dubai Miracle Garden is best combined with a trip to the Butterfly Garden and Global Village, and there are various tours leaving from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi that include round trip transfers and entrance fees.
Bur Dubai Village, located near the mouth of Dubai Creek, takes visitors back in time through a series of heritage villages complete with recreated architecture and local artisans practicing their crafts using traditional techniques. For shoppers, the village is a great place to find unique, handmade items to take home as souvenirs or gifts.
Long before the skyscrapers and palm-shaped islands, Dubai’s economy relied heavily on pearling. Teams of men would spend months at a time at sea diving for the rose-colored pearls produced in the Persian Gulf. One of the most unique experiences at the Bur Dubai Village is the opportunity to learn more about the city’s pearl diving culture and watch a demonstration of how it’s done.
Bur Dubai Village is open every day of the week, but Friday hours are limited and many of the shop will be closed. After you’ve toured the heritage village, set aside some time for a meal or drink by the waterside.
The first national park in the UAE, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is the biggest area of land to ever be dedicated to a single project by the Dubai government. This land of shifting dunes and desert fauna was once a huge camel farm, but it was bought by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1993, who, inspired by the national parks of South Africa, decided that Dubai needed its own reserve.
About 5 percent of Dubai's land area (225 square kilometers) were fenced off as a way of protecting indigenous species. Since then, over 6,000 trees have been planted in order to replace the ones that were trodden over and chomped on by the camels, and indigenous grasses and shrubs have been regenerated in order to promote biodiversity.
But the true success story of the national park is that of the Arabian oryx. Before the park was established in 2003, the Arabian oryx was close to extinction. Today, well over 100 live in the national park.
To enter the only mosque in the UAE open to non-Muslim visitors, make your way to Jumeirah Mosque.
Designed to provide a better understanding of Islam, the tour is followed by a relaxed Q&A session. All visitors need to be accompanied by a registered guide from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.
The extremely photogenic mosque is a modern-day tribute to medieval Fatimid architecture, complete with pure-white minarets and domes.
Dubai may have the world’s largest shopping mall, but for many visitors, the best shopping is found in the city’s traditional souks, or markets. Each of these historic markets specializes in one product or category of products, and one of Dubai’s most famous (and most pungent) souks is the Spice Souk.
Located in the eastern part of Dubai next to the Gold Souk, the Spice Souk includes a small area of narrow lanes lined by small shops selling almost any spice you can imagine. Huge bags and bins of colorful and fragrant spices -- everything from frankincense and saffron to dried chillies -- overflow into the streets. You’ll also find shops selling incense and sheesha, a type of tobacco smoked in a water pipe. If you come to buy spices, be prepared to haggle; knowing your basic numbers in Arabic will help.
Chances are, if you’re visiting Dubai, you’ll want to spend some time at the beach. While many of the big resorts limit beach access to guests only, the city has a handful of public beaches, and Jumeirah Beach Park is by far the best of them.
Jumeirah Beach Park opened in 1989 as the first beach park in Dubai. Today, the 30-acre (12-hectare) beachfront green space features volleyball courts, showers, playgrounds, picnic tables, food kiosks, barbecue areas and lifeguards monitoring the sandy stretch of beach. The facilities are the best you’ll find on pretty much any public beach.
When you think of the word ‘souk,’ you probably picture a sprawling outdoor marketplace brimming with tightly packed stalls selling spices, jewelry, colorful clothing, produce and a whole host of other goods. In true Dubai fashion, the Madinat Jumeirah Resort has taken the traditional Arabian bazaar and cranked up the luxury factor, resulting in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah.
This recreation of a traditional souk, complete with winding streets and open-shuttered shops where goods spill out into the walkway, but this souk also features waterfront cafes and bars, art galleries and designer boutiques. Most of the vendors are independent, and wares include traditional crafts, carpets, jewelry and clothing. Street artists and musicians perform regularly, and visitors can even hop on a canal boat to get from one part of the property to another.
E 11, also known as Sheikh Zayed Road, is the main artery passing through the city of Dubai, running north to south parallel to the coast. Named after the beloved first president of the United Arab Emirates, the road exits Dubai and runs all the way to Abu Dhabi, but the segment stretching between the Emirates Towers and the Dusit Thani Hotel serves as the main access point to almost everything in the city.
Lined with towering skyscrapers and prestigious hotels (World Trade Centre, The Fairmont Dubai, Shangri-La Hotel and Millennium Tower to name a few), the road has six lanes running in each direction, with the Red Line of the Dubai Metro running parallel for most of its length through the city.
Dubai is not a place for small scale structures, and the Dubai Aquarium is no exception. With one of the world’s largest acrylic panel viewing platforms, as well as the world’s largest collection of sand sharks, its largest tank allows for clear visibility of over 33,000 marine animals. The main tank measures 51 meters long and 20 meters deep, bringing the marvel of the ocean to land. At 10 million liters of water in total, it is the largest suspended aquarium in the world.
Visitors can be surrounded by sea life in a massive underwater tunnel, a 270 degree view leading to the underwater zoo. The underwater zoo features several marine habitats, with impressive species such as piranhas, crocodiles, otters, and archerfish. The aquarium also offers a number of immersive experiences from scuba and cage diving to glass bottom boat rides and shark encounters.
In the past year some 5 million people visited Dubai’s Global Village—a bright lights entertainment hub with games, rides, food and fun. Travelers can find world-class shopping, a wide array of restaurants and live shows that range from cultural dance to daredevil stuntmen at this amusement park place in the heart of UAE.
Global Village highlights not only what makes Dubai’s culture and traditions so unique, but the UAE’s love of glitter and glam, too. Still, visitors agree that entertainment options here stretch far beyond the local flavor. Kid-friendly shows cater to a younger set, while international concerts and street performers offer something for the adults in the crowd, too. And for those who want to ride the rides, dozens of amusement park-style options are available for children, families and thrill-seekers.
Only in Dubai can a hotel be considered a top tourist attraction, and such is the case with the extravagant Atlantis Palm Hotel. The 1,539 room ocean-themed resort occupies the top portion of the crescent of land surrounding the man-made Palm Island, just off the coast of Dubai and included 42 acres (17 hectares) of amusement and entertainment space.
Even if you’re not a guest of the resort, it’s worth while to spend a day enjoying everything it has to offer. In sticking with the theme of the resort, many of the attractions are aquatic in nature. Aquaventure Waterpark houses 42 rides and attractions, including a near vertical body slide. Dolphin Bay brings guests face to face with some of the ocean’s most endearing and intelligent creatures, while The Lost Chambers Aquarium involves a journey through the Lost City of Atlantis, surrounding by thousands of marine animals.
The Palm Islands is an audacious trio of palm-shaped offshore developments in Dubai. Home to a mix of leisure, residential, marina and commercial constructions, the islands form the shape of date palms linked to the mainland by causeways.
The most complete of these artificial island developments is Palm Jumeirah, near Dubai Marina in Jumeirah. Construction began in 2001, and the first residents moved into their new island homes in 2007. The glitzy Atlantis resort opened in 2008, and further construction of beaches, shopping malls, hotel resorts and theme parks is under way. Palm Jebel Ali will be constructed further west, near the Abu Dahbi border. The third development, Palm Deira, is under way on the other side of the Creek in Deira.
The World is an equally ambitious project taking place in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, 4 km (2.5 miles) offshore.
Everything’s bigger in Dubai, and that includes the Dubai Fountain on Burj Khalifa Lake in the heart of downtown. Designed by WET, the people behind the famous Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas, the Dubai Fountain holds the record for the world’s largest dancing fountain system.
The fountains extend 900 feet (275 meters) along the manmade lake, and during the dozen daily shows, high-powered water jets propel water up to 500 feet (150 meters) into the air -- the same height as a 50-story building. During a performance, as much as 22,000 gallons of water will be airborne. The sheer amount of water isn’t the only impressive feature of the fountains; the system uses 6,600 incandescent fountain lights and 25 projectors to paint images on the dancing water.
Performances take place every 30 minutes each evening, and each “dance” is different from the last, with different Arabic and world music.
The Bedouin people are a desert-dwelling ethnic group found throughout the Arabian peninsula. While rapid modernization throughout the region has led a majority of these former herders and nomadic traders to seek new livelihoods in the cities, it’s still possible for visitors to experience a night in a traditional Bedouin camp.
Located in the dunes of the Dubai Desert far from any signs of permanent human habitation, these camps offer visitors a glimpse into what it might have been like for a Bedouin family trying to survive in the harsh desert landscape. A typical evening will include a barbecue dinner, shared while seated on Arabian rugs, a belly dancer and time to chat over a hookah -- a type of water pipe used to smoke shisha.
The experience could end there, or you can opt to spend the night at this desert camp beneath the stars. To make the most of your time in the desert, combine your Bedouin camp experience with a camel safari or sand boarding excursion.
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