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.
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.
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.
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).
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!)
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
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
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)
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
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).
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”