There is a delicate balance of old and new in Dubai, resulting in a smorgasbord of things to do. You can spend your mornings sprawled out along Jumeirah Beach and your afternoons shredding powder at Ski Dubai. Or you can start your day haggling at the traditional Gold and Spice Souks before exercising your credit card at the contemporary Dubai Mall. But first thing’s first: Get to know the city. Head straight to the top of the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) where you’ll find incredible views stretching into the Persian Gulf. And if you’re interested in a more traditional perspective, take an abra (water taxi) ride along Dubai Creek.
1- Burj Al Arab
Overlooking the Persian Gulf from its perch between Jumeirah Beach and the Palm Islands, this stunning building has wowed architecture buffs since it opened in 1999. Its curved glass façade – modeled after the sails that have graced Dubai’s waterways all these years – shelters a world-class, über-luxurious hotel located on its own man-made island. The hotel not only houses the tallest atrium in the world at nearly 600 feet high, but it is one of the tallest hotels in the world. Architecture aside, amenities include revolving beds in some suites, as well as a helipad, in case you thought arriving via a complimentary Rolls-Royce was too pedestrian.
But you don’t have to stay at the Burj Al Arab to enjoy it (and let’s face it, most can’t). Those who aren’t crashing at the hotel can gain entry by grabbing a bite at one of the on-site restaurants. Among them are Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara, which features floor-to-ceiling windows guarding a massive fish tank, and the sky-high Al Muntaha, located on the scenic 27th floor of the building.
Recent visitors were in complete awe of both the interior and exterior of Burj Al Arab, and strongly recommended that if you have the money, stay for at least a night. Those who didn’t book a room at the hotel found that grabbing afternoon tea was a great way to enjoy a slice of the property’s famous ambiance without forking over a ton of money (make sure to schedule your tea time well in advance).
To reach the Burj Al Arab, you can take a brief taxi ride from the Mall of the Emirates metro station. You’re welcome to eat at one of the tower’s restaurants at any time of day, although you should make reservations first. You can marvel at the tower for free as you walk along Jumeirah Beach. Better yet, come after sundown to see the tower lit up.
2- Dubai Mall
Skirting the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai is every shopper’s paradise. The massive Dubai Mall is one of the largest shopping centers in the world and houses more than 1,300 stores. Even if you aren’t interested in buying anything, a visit to this immense retail center is a must: The Dubai Mall also contains numerous entertainment facilities, such as an ice rink, a movie theater and several kid-friendly attractions, including an aquarium that houses thousands of underwater creatures. If you happen to be around at night, stop by the Dubai Fountain outside of the mall. Created by the team who designed the Bellagio‘s famous dancing fountains, the fountain features nightly shows set to a mix of western and eastern music.
Visitors were taken by how much was at the mall – everything you could possibly need can be found inside its sprawling square footage. A few visitors were keen to point out that you might not want to shop here after all. Because so much is imported, some reviewers found prices to be higher in comparison to what they’ve seen at home. Still, many said that shouldn’t stop you from popping in for a visit. Of course, if you’re on the hunt for a taste of Middle Eastern culture, this isn’t the place to experience it. It is, however, a great escape from the heat, according to travelers.
The best way to get here is to take the metro to Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station. There are also two bus routes that service the mall, including No. 27 and No. 29. The Dubai Mall (and everything within it) opens its doors from 10 a.m. to midnight daily. You don’t have to pay to wander about, but certain attractions in the mall will charge admission.
3- Jumeirah Beach
Within walking distance of the Burj Al Arab is arguably Dubai’s best strip of public sand. Sun-seekers come to this lively shoreline to revel in Dubai’s bright rays, while water sports enthusiasts take advantage of the calm, turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. Jumeirah Beach is also equipped with a children’s playground and plenty of barbecue and picnic areas. Just make sure you come early as the area grows steadily more crowded throughout the day.
Although recent travelers said that Jumeirah Beach is neat and clean, defined by white sands, the water itself feels like bathwater and doesn’t feel very refreshing on a hot day. The cafes that back the beach offer better spots to cool down.
Jumeirah Beach can be reached from Jumeirah Road and is open from 7 a.m. to 11 or 11:30 p.m., depending on the day. Access to the beach is free, but you’ll have to fork over a few dirhams to access the park. Before you hit the sand, make sure you’re armed with bottled water and sunscreen. The rays are at their strongest during the middle of the day, so you’ll want to seek shade to avoid dehydration or sun stroke.
4- Burj Khalifa
Although we don’t recommend experiencing it the way Tom Cruise did in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” the Burj Khalifa is a crucial item on any Dubai agenda. Rising 2,722 feet above the city (that’s a whopping 160 stories), the Burj Khalifa proudly holds the title of “world’s tallest building.” But that’s not the only title this tower’s got under its belt. The Burj Khalifa is also the tallest free-standing structure in the world and home to the highest outdoor observation deck in the world. You know what that means: gorgeous views. Visitors are invited to ride the elevator to the 124th floor for breathtaking city vistas extending all the way out to the Persian Gulf. Special telescopes also show scenes of the city from different points in time, allowing you to experience every stage of Dubai’s history. You can also travel higher to the 148th floor, the world’s highest observation deck, but it will cost you extra.
Traveler reviews were mixed for the world’s tallest building. On the one hand, visitors say it’s a must-see simply for its world-famous distinction, but on the other hand, some found the attraction to be overpriced with lackluster views. A few tips: If you to decide to take a trip to the top, book in advance because they sell out quickly. If you can, schedule your visit around sunset: According to travelers, the spectacular views more than make up for the long wait to the top.
The Burj Khalifa towers over downtown Dubai and is easily accessible from the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall metro station. You can visit the observation deck from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (last entry is 45 minutes before closing). Admission prices depend on the time you go, but general admission during off-peak hours is 135 dirhams (around $37) for adults and 100 dirhams (roughly $27) for children ages 4 to 12. To get to the 148th floor, tickets start at 370 dirhams (about $100) for both adults and children.
5- Bastakiya Quarter
Amid the towering skyscrapers of downtown Dubai lies the Bastakiya Quarter, the city’s historic district. This former fishing village earned its name from the numerous Bastak (Iranian) traders that settled here in the 19th century. The charming little neighborhood houses the popular outdoor café, the Arabian Tea House, and several art galleries that feature the work of local and international artists, among others. Some of the restored buildings also include wind towers, which was an early form of air conditioning. The Dubai Museum is also located here.
Recent visitors found the Bastakiya Quarter to be a nice respite from the glitz and glam of downtown Dubai, and enjoyed seeing what the city looked like before all of its developments came to fruition. Some recommend taking a quick and affordable abra (boat) ride across the Dubai Creek to a market, where trying the street vendor’s ice cream and purchasing Arabic perfume are musts.
You’ll find the Bastakiya Quarter near the Dubai Museum along the south bank of Dubai Creek in the Bur Dubai district. You can reach the area by waterbus from the Dubai Old Souk dock or by metro from the Al Fahidi station; to learn more, visit our guide to Getting Around Dubai. You can explore the Bastakiya Quarter at any time of day, free of charge. Keep in mind that temperatures are at their highest in the afternoon, so consider stopping by during the evening to save yourself from a sunburn.
6- Gold and Spice Souks
Dubai is and has been a titan of trade for centuries. To get a sense of what commerce was like back in the day, take a stroll through one of the city’s traditional souks, or bazaars. The Gold Souk, located on Dubai Creek’s south bank in the Deira, specializes in glitz and glamour. Featuring glittering displays of necklaces, bracelets and earrings from more than 300 retailers, the Gold Souk is one of the most renowned gold jewelry trading centers in the world. In fact, approximately 20 percent of the world’s gold passes through this market. But if you’re not one for gold, don’t fret. The souk also sells platinum, diamonds and silver. You’re also guaranteed to get what you’re paying for. The government tightly controls what is sold and by who in the souk, so you don’t have to walk away thinking there’s a chance you may be holding something counterfeit.
On the other side of the creek lies the pungent Spice Souk, where vendors hawk flavors from across the globe, including cinnamon, ginger and chili. This is also the place to stock up on saffron, as you’ll find this delectable spice at a much lower cost here than you would at home.
Recent visitors strongly suggested bargaining when visiting the souks in Dubai. The price vendors set tends to be high, and tourists found that after a little effort negotiating they were able to get what they wanted for a quarter, and sometimes half of the price. Although credit cards are accepted, you might be able to score an even lower price by paying cash. Even those who didn’t end up buying anything strongly suggested a trip to the market simply for its cultural value, not to mention it’s a feast for the eyes (and nose). Some tourists, however, found the vendor’s aggressive sale tactics uncomfortable. Travelers were keen to note that this is a more traditional area of Dubai, and clothing that would pass as normal around the hotels and more developed areas of the city garners unwelcome looks from locals (such as exposing one’s knees) here.
Most vendors are open for business every day between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., though some close for a few hours in the afternoon. You don’t have to pay to peruse, but should you be interested in buying, make sure you’re carrying some cash as credit cards aren’t widely accepted. You can reach the souks by hopping off in Deira at the Al Ras metro station. Some visitors suggested taking an abra across the creek to heighten your cultural experience. To do that, get off at the Al Ghubaiba metro station 2; docks with abras servicing the creek are located within walking distance.
7- Wild Wadi Waterpark
Located at the foot of the Burj Al Arab, the Wild Wadi Waterpark is a collection of 30 water rides and play areas designed for all ages. The entire park is modeled after Juha, a character often referenced in Arabian folklore and featured predominately among the park. Thrill-seekers can slide down Tantrum Alley or the Burj Surj, while those looking for a little more relaxation can glide along the lazy river. There are also multiple moderate slide options, as well as a water park just for the kiddos and the Wipeout and Riptide, a simulated surfing ride that’s one of only four of its kind in the world.
Travelers say Wild Wadi is a guaranteed hit with kids of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers. However, despite all the fun-filled things to do, some found the park to a bit too pricey.
Wild Wadi Water Park opens every day at 10 a.m. and closes at 6, 7, 8 or 10 p.m. depending on the month. Admission is determined by height and range between 336 dirhams (about $92) and 284 dirhams (around $77), though if you purchase your tickets online in advance you’ll save some serious cash. You can find Wild Wadi Waterpark next to Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach, about 2 miles north of the First Abu Dhabi Bank metro station.
8- Dubai Miracle Garden
9- Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
When the glitz and glam of urban Dubai grows tiresome, visitors strongly recommend escaping to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The UAE’s first national park sits on the outer edges of the city, and occupies about 87 square miles of the Arabian Desert. The reserve mainly acts as a research unit, but travelers are allowed to explore the area – with one caveat: visitors aren’t allowed to tour the reserve by themselves.
Luckily, the park offers many different types of activities that will cater to travelers with varying interests. Thrill-seekers can go sand boarding, dabble in archery or go dune driving on a luxury four-wheeler. Those looking for a more relaxed experience can soak up the spirit of the desert on low cushions in Bedu tents for a delectable Dune Dinner, or arrange a more intimate Private Desert Dinner. There’s also traditional camel treks available, as well as horseback rides, and even a class on falconry. Visitors can also camp on-site, or retreat to the luxurious Al Maha A Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa at the end of the day. The interesting flora and fauna, as well as all of the fun activities, including barbecues and camel rides, made the experience unforgettable for most travelers.
Past visitors described the experience as “unforgettable,” “fantastic” and “unique” and said it’s a must-do for Dubai travelers. Reviewers were keen to praise the staff, who they said made them feel comfortable and welcome.
You will need to rent a car to get to the reserve. There are nine tour operators allowed to run tours within the reserve. Prices for tours and activities vary depending on the provider and the length of the experience.