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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the United Arab Emirates and eighth largest in the world, rises majestically from Abu Dhabi and serves as the central place of worship for citizens of the emirate. The massive white structure can accommodate around 40,000 people and is home to the world’s largest marble mosaic in the courtyard and the world’s largest carpet which is within the main prayer hall.
Thousands of workers from three dozen design companies worked to make the mosque a reality, resulting in the most expensive mosque on earth. White marble was imported from 28 different countries to complete the mosque, as well as chandeliers from Europe—the world’s most valuable—and carpets from Iran.
The mosque offers free admission. Visitors should wear loose-fitting clothing, including a long skirt or pants and long-sleeved shirts. Women must wear a head scarf within the mosque, so please bring your own as they are not provided at the mosque.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dubai Parks and Resorts has grown to become the region’s first integrated resort destination, comprising three theme parks, a waterpark, entertainment district and a Polynesian-style family resort. For many visitors, the highlight of the resort are the twin parks LEGOLAND Dubai and LEGOLAND Water Park, each with its own set of rides, water features and LEGO building experiences.
Motiongate Dubai takes visitors on a cinematic journey into the worlds of their favorite films, like Ghostbusters, The Smurfs and Kung Fu Panda. Bollywood Parks Dubai is the first amusement park on the planet dedicated to the iconic Indian movie industry. Riverland Dubai, the gateway into the parks, features shops and restaurants divided into four themed zones: a French village from the 1600s, America in the 1950s, the British Raj of the 1930s and early 19th century Europe.
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.
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.
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.