Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Middle East & Africa
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.
Located in a fashionable part of the city on the eastern side of Dubai Marina, the Marina Mall offers more than 130 retail outlets across four levels. It’s a modern and convenient shopping and leisure destination for residents and visitors of the marina, although by Dubai standards it certainly isn’t the largest of malls.
In terms of retail outlets, Marina Mall features a mix of high street and designer brands, with a number of boutique fashion offerings thrown in too. It is also a place to visit for al fresco dining, with a promenade that extends onto the waterfront. There are a variety of other food and drink options throughout the complex, and it also features a cinema, a supermarket, and a children’s play area. The five-star Address Dubai Marina Hotel also links directly to the mall.
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.
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.
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 sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'
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.
Consecrated in 1969, the Church of the Annunciation is the largest church in the Middle East and one of the most important religious sites in Nazareth. The Roman Catholic Basilica was built on the spot where, according to Christian belief, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. The modernist structure stands in stark contrast to other churches in Israel. The upper basilica serves as the parish church for the Roman Catholic community and features concrete pillars showing the Stations of the Cross, Italian ceramic reliefs and a series of wall panels donated by Catholic communities from around the world. This upper portion of the church also offers interior views of the church’s cupola. Below lies a sunken enclosure, called the Grotto of the Annunciation, where visitors can see remnants of older churches from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, as well as the believed site of Mary’s house.
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.
More Things to Do in Middle East & Africa
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.
Located at the top of Victoria Falls on Livingstone Island, Devil’s Pool offers visitors a chance to swim to the edge—literally—of one of the world’s tallest waterfalls. Slippery, submerged rocks provide the only protection between adventurous travelers and a 328-foot (100-meter) drop into thundering waters, making it a thrilling adventure.
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 harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.
Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.
Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.
The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.
Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.
In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.
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.
The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.
Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.
Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.
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.
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.
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.