Boasting fine food, fashion and highfalutin digs, the UAE’s shimmering megalopolis is fast emerging as a destination of choice for both leisure and corporate travellers.
Some say that Dubai is the most excessively decadent city in the world and we don’t think it’s an overstatement. The city is home to an array of luxury hotels, including the world’s only seven-star hotel—the Burj Al Arab, boasting obscenely luxurious duplex suites with guest amenities like 24-carat gold iPads and private butlers, a helipad, and more. And nowhere else in the world will you find local policemen patrolling around the city in supercars that most people can only dream of like the Aston Martin One-77, which reportedly costs around $1.79 million; the Ferrari FF (about half a million dollars); and the Lamborghini Aventador (about $397,000). So it’s somewhat hard to imagine Dubai as a barren desert. Before the oil boom in the late 1960s, this UAE city had nothing—there was no running water, electricity, air conditioning or public transport, and the population then was just under 60,000. People got around in horses and camels, and donkeys were used to transport wood, water and other commodities. Fast forward to present day and the awe-inspiring city bears no semblance to its humble past, featuring gleaming skyscrapers, modern high-rises and luxury mega malls.
Get a good introduction to this emirate state at At.mosphere, a fine dining restaurant located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Rising 442 metres from the ground, the restaurant offers a fantastic bird’s eye view of the city’s skyline, which is known to be ever-changing. If you look out of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, you’ll see that there is always some form of construction going on somewhere—cranes are everywhere and builders are constantly plowing ahead, constructing new highways, public transit systems and more buildings. In fact, we were told that the city’s taxi drivers themselves can’t even keep up with where everything is located. So don’t be too quick to say you’ve done Dubai just because you’ve seen the Burj Khalifa and managed to squeeze all 828 metres of the towering skyscraper into one photograph. You’ll likely be surprised the next time you visit as the city is always on a mission to outdo itself.
The capital’s rapid expansion over the last few decades can be attributed to its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who had a vision of making Dubai the global centre for finance, leisure and tourism. After oil was discovered in 1966, he utilised the oil revenues to spur infrastructure development, and since then the city has shown no signs of slowing down, as it gears up for Expo 2020.
If it’s your first time to Dubai, here are some of our top picks for great sights, culture and entertainment.
The biggest, highest and largest…
“Dubai is home to the biggest/largest/highest…” is a phrase you’ll often hear when you’re in Dubai. Indeed, the city-state along the Persian Gulf is home to the world’s highest building (the Burj Khalifa), the world’s tallest hotel (JW Marriott Marquis Dubai), the world’s largest artificial island (the Palm Jumeirah), the world’s biggest mall (Dubai Mall), and more.
Kick-start your trip with a visit to the marvellous Dubai Mall, spanning 5.9 million square feet. Housing more than 1,300 shops and 200 food and beverage outlets under one roof, including popular food joints like Shake Shack and New York’s famous Magnolia Bakery, this mall is where one can get some serious shopping done. We spent almost a full day here—shopping, eating, and checking out the mall’s numerous entertainment facilities like the Dubai Aquarium (the world’s largest indoor aquarium in a shopping mall), housing 33,000 marine creatures like sharks, rays, and octopus. The adventurous traveller can request to dive into the depths of the 10 million litre tank where they will come face-to-face with sand tiger sharks. Other fun things to do in the mall include ice skating at the Olympic-sized ice-skating rink, and of course heading right up to the top of the Burj Khalifa. If you dislike crowds, we recommend skipping the observation deck on levels 124 and 125 (from AED141-315/$56.40-$126), and go straight up to the Sky lounge on the 148th floor (from AED 370/$148) instead. While the entry fee is slightly more expensive, you don’t have to squeeze with throngs of tourists and you’ll get to enjoy complimentary refreshments.
As evening approaches, head outside to the Dubai Fountain, featuring the world’s largest choreographed fountain system. Expect huge crowds as people gather to watch one of the most spectacular water shows, where illuminated jets of water are projected high into the sky (about 150 metres), all to the beats of popular tunes, from Arabian classics to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
If you prefer to enjoy the show in utmost comfort, book a table at Logma Dubai Mall, offering excellent modern Emirati cuisine like Machbous chicken (AED64/$25.60) and Lugaimat or sweet dough balls (AED35/$14). Opt for the outdoor seating, where you’ll get unblocked views of the fountain. Shows take place every 30 minutes from 6pm onwards.
A slice of history
Escape the skyscrapers and catch a glimpse into how traditional life in old Dubai was like during the mid-19th century at Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, located along the Dubai Creek. A key heritage site, this district has preserved much of its original infrastructure, such as the traditional wind tower, which is constructed from stone, teak, gypsum, palm wood and sandalwood.
Follow the winding streets in this neighbourhood to discover a plethora of cultural activities, museums and art galleries—if you wish to have a better understanding of Arabic culture, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). Visitors can attend a cultural exchange session here where everyone present is allowed to ask any question they want, pertaining to Islam, politics and more. There are local Arab Emiratis around who will answer all the questions.
Next, take a walk through the alleyways of Dubai’s traditional markets or souqs to get a taste of the city’s trading history. Depending on what you are looking for, there are plenty of different souqs located close to the Dubai Creek—there’s the Spice Souk in Deira, where you can expect to find a curated selection of the world’s best spices, dried fruits and goods like premium quality dates, saffron, turmeric, indigo, sukkah, za’atar and more. One of the top things to look out for here is camel milk soaps, which are all made by hand. Produced by The Camel Soap Factory using 25 per cent camel milk, pure essential oils and fine olive oil, these soaps are all-natural and is said to help soften skin. There are a variety of fragrant scents to choose from including lemongrass, sweet orange, cinnamon, lavender, rosemary and peppermint.
For those who are obsessed with things that smell good, they definitely have to get a bottle or two of Oud and Bakhoor. Derived from resin and commonly worn by both Emirati men and women, Oud is a fragrant oil with a distinctive, mesmerising scent. Oud is also one of the most expensive natural resource in the world, fetching one and a half times the price of gold. If you appreciate a woody scent, grab sticks of Bakhoor, a woodchip submerged in perfumed oil and mixed with other natural concoctions and ingredients, including resin, sandalwood and essential oils. If you have time to spare, check out the Textile Souk, located just a short abra ride across the Dubai Creek. Located in the old trading centre of Bur Dubai, this souq features dozens of markets and stores selling textiles in all shades, prints, weaves and textures. Tourists often come here to purchase Pashmina scarves, and one-of-a-kind embroidered tops.
Have a sand-sational time
Thrill seekers looking for a quintessentially Arabian experience should definitely try dune bashing—think riding on a roller coaster but on sand, driving up sand dunes, and cresting along the edge before barreling down again—this action-packed desert activity is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The dunes formation in the desert is created by the winds, and drivers are always on the lookout for high dunes so they can slide and ‘sashay’ their way through the dunes for an exhilarating experience.
It is recommended to hire a tour company to take you on a desert safari—this way you will be in the safe hands of experienced desert drivers. Do not attempt dune bashing on your own, and never with a rented car. Halfway through the drive, the driver would usually make a pit stop in the middle of the desert so that you can take photographs and marvel at the majestic sight.
Other activities offered out in the desert include watching a falcon show, indulging in a traditional Arabic feast under the stars while watching a belly dance performance. Some trusted operators you can contact to book your experience include Platinum Heritage and Arabian Adventures.
Into the future
Before you leave, squeeze in some time to visit one of the latest additions to Dubai’s stunning skyline, the Dubai Frame, the world’s largest picture frame. Strategically located at Zabeel Park, the structure, which rises up to a height of 150 metres, features a state-of-the-art clear glass bridge, which connects two parallel vertical towers to create the shape of a picture frame. Designed to offer sweeping panoramic views of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Dubai, visitors gazing to the north will be able to witness old Dubai, consisting dhow-studded Dubai Creek and its surrounding souqs, while to the south, visitors will see the splendour of new Dubai, an awe-inspiring array of skyscrapers, marinas and other feats of modern engineering. You’ve seen old and new Dubai from the top floor, now head down to the mezzanine level where you’ll get a sneak peek of what the future of the city may look like. With the use of projections, audio and visual presentations, the immersive gallery offers a virtual reality display of Dubai’s continued evolution, and experts’ predictions of the city’s future growth.