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.
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.
It’s only fitting that a city as extravagant as Abu Dhabi has a theme park to match its extravagance, and in this case, that theme park is Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. The race car-themed park features 20 rides and attractions—everything from the toddler-friendly carousel of Ferrari prototype cars to cutting-edge racing simulators that will please older children and teens.
The largest indoor theme park in the world is also home to the world’s fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, a hydraulic-powered thrill ride where you’re strapped into a Ferrari Formula One-like coaster car and launched at speeds up to 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour).
Car enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the 1920s ode to Italian racing inside the Cinema Maranello or the Racing Legends, an exhibit featuring key moments in the history of Ferrari racing. Expect to dine on primarily Italian food if you choose to eat in the food court.
Located on the Corniche Breakwater, the Emirates Heritage Club runs a reconstructed traditional village demonstrating the lifestyles and traditions of the cultures native to the Arabian Peninsula. If you’ve ever wondered what Abu Dhabi was like before the discovery of oil transformed it into a pocket of extreme wealth, you’ll get a glimpse here. Come in the morning before it gets too hot to explore the open-air museum. Enter a traditional goats’ hair tent and learn about the ancient falaj irrigation system that allowed desert dwellers to begin cultivating crops. Local craftsworkers conduct workshops in traditional metalwork, pottery, spinning and weaving. The traditional mosque is a far cry from the palatial white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, demonstrating just how far the United Arab Emirates have come. Be sure to stop by the gift shop during your visit. You’ll be able to pick up local herbs and spices as well as items made by the local artisans working in the village.
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.
Opened in 2001, Marina Mall is Abu Dhabi’s biggest and best shopping complex, encompassing 1.3 million square feet (122,000 square meters) of retail space. A major destination for fans of luxe shopping, the complex houses more than 400 shops and 48 restaurants. Standouts include an IKEA, Carrefour supermarket and a Manchester City FC store.
For non-shopping travelers, the mall houses an ice rink, nine screen VOX Cinemas, a 32-lane bowling alley, Fun City arcade and family entertainment center, musical fountains and a viewing platform for people watching.
Not to be outdone by Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi opened its own seven-star hotel in 2005. The Emirates Palace, managed by the Kempinski Group, sits just outside the city on its own private stretch of white sand beach. The domed, sand-colored palace is dotted with verdant gardens, water fountains and sparkling pools.
The 302 rooms and 92 suites—many finished in gold and marble—feature state-of-the-art entertainment systems paired with Arabian furnishings fit for a sheik. Here’s an idea of just how extravagant the 3 billion dollar property really is: 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of pure edible gold gets incorporated into the hotel’s desserts each year—desserts made in 128 kitchens. The marble in the hotel comes from 13 different countries and 1,002 chandeliers provide the light. Visitors who don’t want to splurge on a room can experience the property with a meal at one of 10 restaurants, a drink at one of the four bars or a rejuvenating treatment at the Anantara Spa.
The Abu Dhabi Corniche stretches along the northwestern shore of the island city, a popular spot for beachside recreation. The 5-mile (8-kilometer) stretch of attractive waterfront includes walking paths, cafes, playgrounds and bicycle rentals, and no matter what you decide to do along the coast, you’ll have an excellent view of Abu Dhabi’s skyline. In the evenings, the promenade is the perfect place for a stroll.
The Corniche’s crowning jewel is its public white sand beach. With numerous lifeguards on duty during swimming hours and floating fences keeping swimmers within 130 feet (40 meters), the Corniche Beach is great for families traveling with children. Come on a weekday, and you’ll usually find an umbrella.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visit the former home and government seat of the ruling Al Maktoum family, Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum's House, built in 1894 for the present ruler’s grandfather and now preserved as a museum.
Inside you’ll see historic photographs, documents and furnishings, but the real thrill comes from stepping inside such a famous home, one of the oldest buildings in the city.
The building is a classic example of domestic Arabian architecture, complete with picturesque windtowers to catch the cooling breezes blowing in off the Gulf. From the top floor you can catch panoramic views of Dubai's Creek and skyscrapers.
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.
The Mall of the Emirates, Dubai’s second largest shopping complex after the Dubai Mall, houses 560 international retailers spread over 2,513,017 square feet (233,467 square meters) of retail space. Superlatives are plentiful — the mall houses the largest Carrefour supermarket in the city and five dozen stores made their Middle Eastern debut here.
While the shopping remains a huge draw to the Mall of the Emirates, even non-shoppers will find something to do. Ski Dubai (the first indoor ski slope in the region), multi-screen VOX Cinemas, Magic Planet arcade and family entertainment center, Peekaboo play area and the Dubai Community Theatre & Art Centre also make their home within the Mall of the Emirates. Two five-star hotels, the Kempinski Mall of the Emirates and the Sheraton Dubai Mall of the Emirates Hotel both adjoin the shopping mall.
Located in Diera, the Burjuman Centre is one of Dubai’s oldest malls, popular for its selection of high-street fashions. Built in 1991 and expanded in 2004, the shopping center now boasts more than 300 luxury and high end stores located across 2.8 million square feet of mixed-use space. Alongside the high-street brands, shoppers will find Saks Fifth Avenue, Dior, Versace, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Valentino, among others.
The mall is currently undergoing another round of upgrades that will bring a multiplex movie theater, Carrefour supermarket and an expanded food court to the complex.
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.