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Back in 2003, during a round trip flight from New York to Bali, I had layovers in the Dubai International Airport in both directions. Located in the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula, it’s a convenient stop between the East Coast of the U.S. (or Europe) and Southeast Asia.

Even then, the airport had a kind of fantasy-land feel to it, with the latest technologies and striking decor. It has since become the world’s busiest airport for international travelers, having served well over a billion passengers on more than 7 million flights.

Now, though, many of the passengers are leaving the airport to enjoy a vacation or long stopover in Dubai itself, which has taken the fantasy-land feel to new heights (literally). It’s become kind of a cross between Las Vegas (without the “sin city” element) and Disney World (without the humidity and mandatory high prices, though you can drop plenty of dirhams there as well) — but with its own distinctive vibe found nowhere else in the world.

Our reporter in Dubai, Neha Singh, brings you this wrap-up of what’s new, old, and what to do and expect in this remarkable city:

By Neha Singh

Whether you are art and culture buffs, science and technology geeks, adventurists, or just someone who loves to celebrate life, Dubai — the Middle East’s most popular city — offers something for every preference.

You’ll find soaring skyscrapers, prestigious architecture, intriguing museums, historical spots, mind-boggling malls, and amazing food.

Here is my list of the top 12 attractions in Dubai, comprising everything from the newest to most iconic. But don’t be surprised if by the time you get here something even newer will have come along — and that’s all part of the experience.

The oblong-shaped Museum of the Future is here now, in Dubai

Step into the Future

Opened in February 2022, the Museum of the Future made it onto the list of the world’s most beautiful museums even before its launch — thanks to its avant-garde architecture that stands like a massive oblong ring in the heart of the city.

As its apt name says, you can expect cutting-edge exhibits across its movie-set-like floors and galleries. Note that it’s both very popular and very pricey — book tickets well in advance and choose an available time slot.

Location: Near Trade Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road

Timing: Open daily, 10:00 hrs to 18:00 hrs (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)

Admission Fee: AED 145 (about US$40) for visitors three years and older; entry is free for selected visitors.

The preserved Al Bastakiya Quarter will take you back to Dubai’s roots

Go Back in Time at Al Bastakiya Quarter

Now that you’ve seen the future, it’s time to explore the past, going back to Dubai’s roots.

Officially known as Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, this preserved quarter will carry you back in time, with its unequaled old world atmosphere, narrow alleys, and traditional structures (with barjeels or wooden wind towers) that date back to the 19th century. This is one of the best spots to learn about Emirati culture, heritage and ancient architecture within the super-modern city.

Location: Al Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai, Near Dubai Creek  

Timing: 07:00 hrs to 20:00 hrs (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

Admission Fee: Free; however, a nominal charge of not more than AED 3 (less than US$1) applies for visiting some of its museums, monuments etc.

The huge Ain Dubai Ferris wheel takes 48 minutes for one full rotation

Enjoy a Rotation on Ain Dubai

After a long work in progress, Ain Dubai (“Dubai Eye”) — the largest and tallest observation wheel in the world at 250 meters (820 feet) — opened on Bluewaters Island in October 2021. A 48-minute revolution in one of its shared or private cabins treats you to exquisite 360-degree views over some of Dubai’s most celebrated sights.

Each of its 48 cabins holds up to 40 people and is fully enclosed and air-conditioned.

Location: Bluewaters Island

Timing: 11:00 hrs to 21:00 hrs (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; sunset options are available)

Admission Fee: AED 130 (US$35) per person for shared cabin; ages 3-12, AED 100 (US$27); family passes range from AED 370 (US$100) to AED 450 (US$122).

Dubai boasts the first Madame Tussauds in the Middle East

Strike a Pose with Celebs

You may wish to combine a ride on Ain Dubai with a visit to Madame Tussauds Dubai at Bluewaters Island. It’s the first-of-its-kind museum in the Middle East, where the life-like wax figures of celebrities and other personalities from the Arabian, Asian, and Western worlds will have you doing double-takes.

Strike up a conversation with Queen Elizabeth or take a selfie with Jackie Chan or the well-known Emirati singer Balqees.

Location: Bluewaters Island

Timing: 12:00 hrs to 20:00 hrs (noon to 8 p.m., Sunday to Thursday) and 10:00 hrs to 20:00 hrs (10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday & Saturday)

Admission Fee: AED 135 (US$36) per person

Shop at Traditional Souks

From authentic Arabic merchandise to intricate jewelry and colorful cuisines, Dubai’s souks or traditional bazaars are an exuberant blend of bargain goods, scrumptious foods, and unmatched effervescence.

Whether you love to shop or not, you’re almost sure to enjoy browsing (and breathing in the aromas of) the Spice Souk, and marveling at the Gold Souk, which is packed with stores selling jewelry finished in silver, gold, platinum and other precious metals.

Location: Across Bur Dubai and Deira areas 

Timing: Mostly from 10:00 hrs to 22:00 hrs (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)

Admission Fee: Free ( but bring money for purchases!)

The recently opened View at the Palm offers just that

Get the Most Unhindered Views over Palm Jumeirah

The views over the man-made island of Palm Jumeirah are superb at the “View at the Palm,” located on the 52nd floor of Palm Tower. Before the View opened in 2021, the only way to catch this vantage point was on an aerial tour or activity such as sky diving or a helicopter tour.

Timing: 09:00 hrs to 22:00 hrs (9a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday) and 10:00 hrs to 24:00 hrs (10 a.m. to midnight Friday to Sunday)

Admission Fee: AED 100 (US$27) per person

Dubai has added the world’s largest fountain to its list of superlatives

Watch Palm Fountain Show

One of the most splendid recently launched sights in Dubai is the Palm Fountain at Palm Jumeirah’s Pointe.

Placed against the imposing backdrop of Atlantis, The Palm, resort, it’s now the world’s largest fountain. The highlight is its choreographed performance in which water jets out in a seamless sync of music, light and vibrant colors.

Location: Pointe, Palm Jumeirah

Timing: The show takes place every 30 minutes between sunset and midnight.

Admission Fee: Free

The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building

Elevate Your Day at Burj Khalifa

You will never get bored visiting this mighty, cloud-piercing structure — at a height of 828 meters (2717 feet), it’s the world’s tallest building. To take advantage of the views, buy tickets to its ‘At The Top’ observatory on the 124th level or the 148th level.

Besides treating you to a marvelous panorama over Dubai, your trip allows you to experience one of the world’s fastest elevator rides — and even watch an enlightening presentation on Dubai’s journey from a modest fishing village to a city of groundbreaking sights.  

Location: 1 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Blvd – Downtown Dubai

Timing: 10:00 hrs to 23:00 hrs

Admission Fee: from AED 159 (US$43)

There’s more than shopping at the Dubai Mall

Spend a Day at the Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest malls and the region’s ultimate shopping and entertainment spot.

Situated next to Burj Khalifa, it is so massive that it has over 1,200 retail outlets and some 200-plus dining choices, complemented by a smorgasbord of amusement and entertainment choices.

Action lovers and thrill seekers can head to VR Park Dubai — the world’s largest Virtual Reality Park — and Ekart Zabeel, a perfect place to ride high-end, environment-friendly go-karts.

If you are up for some cool refreshing experiences, make your way to Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and the Dubai Ice Rink, which features indoor ice skating. There are also exclusive segments for kids, such as KidZania Dubai.

Location: Financial Center Street, Along Sheikh Zayed Road, Next to Burj Khalifa

Timing: 10:00 hrs to 1:00 hrs (10 a.m to 1 a.m.)

Admission Fee: Free (but charges apply for visiting its amusement and entertainment attractions)

Dune adventures await on a desert safari

Ride a Camel or Dune Buggy on a Desert Safari

A desert safari will take you on a guided excursion to the region’s isolated sand dunes, where you can enjoy a mix of tranquility, heart-racing adventure, and intriguing cultural activities on a single trip. There are many companies that arrange all-inclusive desert safaris — just be sure the one you choose is experienced and offers quality packages.

Your chosen package may include a taking a camel ride or an adventurous trip over the dunes aboard a 4X4 vehicle, dune buggy, or quad bike; dining on local barbecue; watching traditional entertainment (such as Tanoura, a whirling folk dance); and even camping overnight in the dunes.

Location: Al Avir or Al Lahbab area

Timing: Pick from morning, evening, or overnight desert safari

Admission Fee: Depends on the desert safari package you pick

Tour Dubai by water on a wooden vessel

Take a Dhow Cruise

Would you like to soak in Dubai’s famous views from a traditional setting on water? Go on a Dhow Cruise Dubai to experience it for yourself.

This traditional Arabian rustic wooden vessel sails along Dubai Marina or Dubai Creek and includes traditional entertainment and buffet dining onboard.

Location: Dubai Marina or Dubai Creek

Timing: After sunset (each cruise lasts for no more than two hours)

Admission Fee: Depends on the dhow cruise package you pick

The Rajmahal Theatre at Bollywood Parks Dubai

Hit a Theme Park

If you like theme parks, you’ve come to the right place, with plenty of choices.

Get the real feel of snow and winter at Ski Dubai, or try the rides and attractions themed around Marvel superheroes, cartoon characters and dinosaurs at IMG Worlds of Adventure, the largest of its kind.

For a whole day of theme park fun, nothing can beat Dubai Parks and Resorts, where you’ll find four parks — Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, LEGOLAND Dubai and LEGOLAND Water Park — along with several accommodations and dining choices.

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO DUBAI

While Dubai is a friendly place, it expects its visitors to respect its cultural and traditional values that are influenced by Islamic religion and beliefs.

Take care of what you wear; modest dress is the rule. Men must not go shirtless or wear tank tops, open vests, or the like in public places, while women must wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees, particularly in conservative places of interest.

Consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs in public are strictly prohibited in Dubai. It is a serious offence which can lead to fines and sometimes even imprisonment.  

Avoid any kind of PDAs, including holding hands.

Don’t smoke in public places.

Be cautious while taking pictures; be sure to get prior permission for photographing important government structures and locals (including Emirati women).

Author Bio:

Neha, an expat in Dubai, is a writer by passion and profession. She has visited five countries and 32 cities across various cultures and landscapes. She enjoys meeting locals and hearing stories about the places from them. In her free time, she loves singing, painting, and playing tennis.

Top photo caption: Bollywood Parks Dubai takes its inspiration from India’s “Hollywood”

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
  • Roughly half the consumer spending money in the U.S.--more than $2 trillion--is in the hands of leading-edge baby boomers and seniors.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) travel more than any other age group.
  • When asked what they would most like to spend their money on, baby boomers answered “travel” more than any other category, including improving their health or finances.

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