Glitzy Dubai is the United Arab Emirates’ vacation hot spot. This city of high-rises and shopping malls has transformed itself from a desert outpost to a destination du-jour, where people flock for sales bargains, sunshine and family fun. There are many amazing places to visit in Dubai which 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 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 realise there’s more to this city than its flashy veneer.
1 Burj Khalifa
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, modelled on Las Vegas’ famous Fountains of Bellagio.
2 Dubai Museum
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 lifestyle (including pearl fishing and Bedouin desert life) as well as artifacts from the 3,000-4,000 year old graves at Al Qusais archaeological site.
Location: Al-Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai
3 Bastakia (Old Dubai)
Lined with distinct Arabian architecture, 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 XVA Gallery with a contemporary art collection (located in one of the historic buildings).
4 Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House
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. Nearby is the Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House, restored with displays of traditional interiors. Hours: Sat-Thu 8:30am-8:30pm, Fri 3-8:30pm … Admission: Adults 2AED, children 1AED
5 Dubai Creek
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.
6 Jumeirah Mosque
Jumeirah Mosque is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Dubai’s mosques. An exact copy of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque that 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 organises guided tours of the mosque designed to try to foster a better understanding of the Muslim faith. Tours begin at 10am daily, except Fridays.
7 Deira Souks
Deira is located 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 for 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 Souq is world-renowned as the largest gold bazaar in the world and the reason that Dubai has received the name “City of Gold”. Jewellery of all kinds is available in a variety of designs from traditional to modern and plenty of options to customise your own design.
The Deira Spice Souq 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 market was established in the 1830s and features restored wooden archways and wind-towers. For a much less touristy experience, head to the fish market where you’ll find loads of local action.
8 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 highrises along its length. Main attractions are along, or just off, the strip between the roundabout and the first intersection. The Courtyard Gallery (6A Street) has an excellent permanent collection focused on contemporary art from Arab artists. Dubai World Trade Tower(Sheikh Zayed Road) has an observation deck on its top floor that offers visitors panoramic views.
The Gold and Diamond Park and Museum (Sheikh Zayed Road) is a one-stop shop for jewellery lovers with 118 manufacturers and 30 retailers all under one roof. The complex’s museum presents the history of Arabic jewellery production and also offers short tours of the manufacturing plant.
9 Bastakia Mosque
The Bastakia Mosque may not be the largest or most glitzy mosque in the United Arab Emirates but it has to be one of the most photogenic. This lovely little mosque has exquisite lattice-work detailing made more beautiful by the blindingly white facade. Nearby you can see the last remnants of Dubai’s city walls, built in the mid-19th century from gypsum and coral.
10 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.
11 Dubai Aquarium
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.
There are a myriad of activities where you can 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. Hours: Mon-Fri 10am-10pm, Sat-Sun 10am-midnight
Admission: Adults 70AED, Children 55AED … Location: Dubai Mall, Sheikh Zayed Road
12 Dubai Mall
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.
Location: Doha Road, just off Sheikh Zayed Road
13 Burj al-Arab
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, book afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar (a minimum spend is required) on the 27th floor with its amazing panoramic views of the city.
14 Jumeirah Beach
15 Mall of the Emirates
Mall of the Emirates is one of the city’s most famous malls with the spectacular (and surreal) Ski Dubai facility inside. The indoor ski slope is complete with chairlifts and a penguin enclosure, all at a continuous temperature of -4 degrees Celsius. There’s also a cinema complex and a family entertainment centre with a whole host of rides aimed at both the big and small. The shopping opportunities are boundless as are the eating options, offering every conceivable world cuisine.
Hours: Sat-Wed 10am-1am, Thu-Fri 10am-2am … Location: Sheikh Zayed Road