Glitzy Dubai is the hottest vacation spot in the United Arab Emirates. This city of skyscrapers and shopping centers has transformed from a desert outpost into a destination of the day, where tourists flock for bargains, sun and family fun. Dubai is famous for its tourist attractions such as the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and shopping centers which are equipped with gigantic aquariums and covered ski slopes.
But this city has many cultural highlights and things to do, as well as all of the modern glamor additions. Stroll through the Bastakia district and you will discover the Dubai of yesteryear, then cruise along the Dubai Creek in a traditional dhow, and you will quickly realize that there is more to this city than its flashy plating. Learn more about the best places to visit with our list of the best Dubai attractions.
1. Burj Khalifa
The iconic building of Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, which, at 829.8 meters, is the tallest building in the world and the most well-known landmark in the city. For most visitors, a visit to the observation deck on the 124th floor is a must in the city. The views over the city skyline from this bird’s-eye perspective are simply breathtaking. The viewing platform experience includes a multimedia presentation of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa building (completed in 2010) before a high-speed elevator takes you to the viewing deck for these views. 360 degrees on the desert skyscrapers on one side and the ocean on the other.
Night tours are particularly popular with photographers due to the famous panoramas of the city of Dubai. Purchase your Burj Khalifa “At the Top” entrance ticket in advance to avoid long queues, especially if you plan to visit for a weekend.
Back on the ground, surrounding the Burj Khalifa, are the building’s beautifully designed gardens, with winding paths. There are plenty of water features, including the Dubai Fountain, the tallest fountain in the world, inspired by the famous Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas.
2. Dubai Mall
Dubai Mall is the city’s first shopping center and provides access to the Burj Khalifa, as well as the Dubai Aquarium. There is also an ice rink, a play area and a cinema complex if you are looking for more entertainment options. Shopping and dining are endless, and there are almost always special events such as concerts and fashion shows in the mall. The most famous of these are the annual Dubai Shopping Festival in January and February and the Dubai Summer Surprises Festival in July and August.
3. Dubai Museum
The excellent Dubai Museum is located in Fort Al-Fahidi, built in 1787 to defend Dubai Creek. The fort walls are built of traditional coral blocks and held together with lime. The upper floor is supported by wooden poles and the ceiling is constructed from palm leaves, mud and plaster.
In its history, the fort served as a residence for the ruling family, a seat of government, a garrison and a prison. Restored in 1971 (and again in 1995), it is today the first museum in the city. The entrance presents a fascinating display of old maps of the Emirates and Dubai, showing the gigantic expansion that hit the region after the oil boom. The courtyard households several traditional boats and a palm tree house with an Emirati windmill. The right room presents weapons and the left room presents Emirati musical instruments. Below the ground floor are exhibition halls with exhibits and dioramas covering various aspects of traditional UAE life (including pearl fishing and life in the Bedouin desert), as well as artefacts from tombs from 3000 to 4000 years old at the archaeological site of Al Qusais.
4. Bastakia (Old Dubai)
The excellent Dubai Museum is located at Fort Al-Fahidi, built in 1787 to defend Dubai Creek. The fort walls are built of traditional coral blocks and held together with lime. The upper floor is supported by wooden poles and the ceiling is constructed from palm leaves, mud and plaster.
In its history, the fort served as a residence for the ruling family, a seat of government, a garrison and a prison. Restored in 1971 (then again in 1995), it is today the first museum in the city. The entrance presents a fascinating display of old maps of the Emirates and Dubai, showing the gigantic expansion that hit the region after the oil boom. The courtyard houses several traditional boats and a palm house with an Emirati windmill. The right room presents weapons and the left room presents Emirati musical instruments. Below the ground floor are exhibition halls with exhibits and dioramas covering various aspects of traditional UAE life (including pearl fishing and life in the Bedouin desert), as well as items from tombs from 3000 to 4000 years old at the archaeological site of Al Qusais.
5. Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House
Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum was the leader of Dubai from 1921 to 1958 and grandfather of the current ruler. Its former residence has been reconstructed and restored as a museum which is a fine example of Arab architecture.
The unique house was built in 1896 by Sheikh Saeed’s father, so that he could observe the shipping activity from the balconies. It was demolished, but the current house has been rebuilt next to the original site, remaining faithful to the original model by incorporating carved teak doors, wooden lattice screens through the windows and screens of gypsum ventilation with floral and geometric patterns. Thirty rooms are built around a central courtyard with wind tower details on the top.
Inside are the exhibitions of the Dubai Museum of Historical Photographs and Documents, with many wonderful old photographs of Dubai from the period between 1948 and 1953. The museum’s marine wing has pictures of fishing, pearl and boat building. Throughout the building, numerous letters, cards, coins and stamps are on display to show the development of the emirate.
6. Dubai Creek & Al Seef District
Dubai Creek splits the city into two cities, with Deira to the north and Bur Dubai to the south. The stream was an influential factor in the growth of the city, first attracting the settlers here to fish and dive in the pearls. Small villages grew up along the stream 4000 years ago, while the modern era began in the 1830s when the Bani Yas tribe settled in the area. The Dhow wharf is located along the shore of Dubai Creek, north of the Al-Maktoum Bridge. Still used by small traders in the Gulf, some of the dhows anchored here are over 100 years old. You can visit here, watch the loading and unloading of dhows. Dhow workers often invite visitors aboard ships for a tour, where you can experience the life of these traditional sailors. Many dhows here go to Kuwait, Iran, Oman, India and the Horn of Africa. This little remnant of the traditional economy of Dubai is still a lively and fascinating place to walk around. On the Bur Dubai side of the stream, rubbing against the Bastakia district, the waterfront has been regenerated as an Al Seef district, with a waterfront promenade supported by traditional buildings made of coral blocks and in limestone, a floating market and shops selling handicrafts. It is an ideal place for a walk with an excellent view of the water. To cross the stream, you can either take a trip on one of the many dhows that have been restored as tourist cruise ships or take an abra (small wooden ferry) between the ferry points on the banks of the Bur Dubai stream and Deira.
7. Jumeirah Mosque
The Jumeirah Mosque is considered by many to be the most beautiful mosque in Dubai. An careful copy of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, which is eight times its size, the Jumeirah Mosque is a fine example of Islamic architecture. This stone structure is built in the Fatimid medieval tradition, with two minarets which display the subtle details of the masonry. It is particularly attractive at night when it is lit by spotlights. The Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding (which also runs a program of tours, conferences, Arabic lessons and cultural meals) organizes guided tours of the mosque to promote a better understanding of the Muslim faith. Tours start at 10 a.m. every day, except Friday.
Deira is located on the north bank of the Dubai creek, and the winding streets reveal here the crucible of the different nationalities who have taken up residence in Dubai. On the shore, old dhows load and unload with banks, hotels and modern office buildings in the background. For travelers, Deira is best known for its traditional souks (markets), which are full of customers at any time of the day. Deira Gold Souk is world renowned as the biggest gold bazaar in the world. The Deira Spice Souk sells every imaginable spice, with stalls overflowing with bags of incense, cumin, paprika, saffron, sumac and thyme, as well as fragrant oud wood, rose water and incense. The fish market offers a much less touristy experience. Culture lovers in the neighborhood should not miss two of Deira’s finely restored architectural gems. Heritage House was constructed in 1890 as the home of a wealthy Iranian merchant and later became the home of Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk (a famous pearl merchant in Dubai). Today is a unlimited opportunity to see the interior of a traditional family home. Al-Ahmadiya School, erected in 1912, is the oldest school in Dubai and is now a museum of public education.
9. Dubai Frame
Sitting slamming between the oldest districts of Dubai grouped around the stream and the modern sprawl of the city, this gigantic 150-meter high photo frame is one of the last tourist sites in Dubai. Inside, a series of galleries takes you through the history of the city and explores the Emirati heritage before going to the Sky Deck, where there are fantastic panoramas of the old and new Dubai to photograph observe on.
10. Heritage and Diving Village
Dubai’s architectural, cultural, and maritime heritage is cabineted at the Heritage and Diving Village, with displays related to pearl diving and dhow building — two of old Dubai’s historic economic mainstays. There are also recreations of traditional Bedouin and coastal village life, with Persian homes, a traditional coffeehouse, and a small souk where potters and weavers practice their handicrafts at the stalls. Local music and dance are performed from October to April, and visitors can get information from practitioners of traditional medicine.