Once a quiet fishing village known for pearl diving, fishing and trading, in just 50 years Dubai has evolved into a thriving metropolis with something to offer every visitor. From Deira, the heart of the old town, where dhow boats sail between the bustling souk and the historic Bastakia Quarter, and Bur Dubai, where you can visit the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort and taste affordable food from all corners of the world, to the famous Downtown Dubai, with its endless malls and skyscrapers to visit, the city’s neighbourhoods are as diverse as its population. Start your tour of the city by foot, car or even boat with this guide to things to do in Dubai.
There is no shortage of mosques in Dubai, with one of the most impressive being the Grand Mosque. Its towering minaret is the tallest in the city and is visible over the 50 or so other mosques in Dubai. The building is a replica of the original that was built in 1900 and is the home of Islam in the emirate. When the sun is high, the distinctive silhouette of the Grand Mosque casts shadows over the surrounding parks and apartment blocks. Entry is not permitted to non-Muslims, except on guided tours and in the minaret.
The twin-minaret Jumeirah Mosque is a hub of Sunni Islam in the emirate, and although the impressive building was only opened in 1979, it appears much older thanks to its Fatimid architectural style, which resembles buildings dating back to 1000 CE. The most photographed mosque in Dubai can hold 1,200 worshippers at a time and is built entirely from white stone, with 75-minute guided tours available every day at 10am, except on Fridays.
Pro tip: Visit the Jumeirah Mosque at dusk, when the intricate Islamic carvings are lit up and the minarets cast shadows over the surrounding gardens.
Workers from around the world have flocked to Dubai for decades, with over 200 nationalities represented here. Each nationality has brought its own national cuisine, so there is no shortage of food to discover when in the emirate. Indian and Pakistani workers form the majority of the immigrant population in Dubai, and there are restaurants serving food from the Indian subcontinent on every street corner. In the Al Jafiliya neighbourhood, the simple Ravi Restaurant sells some of the best and cheapest Pakistani food in Dubai. For less than AED 10 (£2) you can buy a filling dish of dhal and rice with naan and chicken tikka.
For something a little more local, camel milk is a delicacy rarely seen these days. Try some at the the Majlis Café, located inside the Jumeirah Mosque compound. Guests can lounge around on white couches as smartly dressed waiters bring traditional Emirati sweets and baklava to tables on silver platters. Try the signature drink here, the camelchino, a cappuccino served with camel milk foam and camel milk ice cream together with balateet or chibab pancakes.
Pro tip: For a taste of Middle Eastern street food, wander around the streets of Bur Dubai in search of mouthwatering shawarma, shish tawouk (skewers) or manakkish (cheese- or meat-topped dough) for just a few dirhams each.
The government of Dubai has invested heavily in art in recent years, both in its own right, and in cooperation with the federal government to attract galleries such as the Louvre to neighbouring Abu Dhabi.
Once a neglected industrial wasteland, the Alserkal Art District is now one of the hottest areas to visit in Dubai. Start your day at Carbon 12 Gallery and make your way around a series of former abandoned warehouses that have been transformed into modern-art galleries showcasing all kinds of visual and performance arts, food and fashion shows and workshop collectives. Alserkal has emerged as the launchpad for many of the Middle East’s most sought-after artists, including eL Seed, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Leila Heller.
It may surprise some to learn that the polished Dubai International Financial Centre area also has a thriving art scene. The ‘marketplace of ideas’ at Gate Village combines modern architecture with art, shopping, fine dining and interior design. Glass-fronted art galleries line the shaded streets between the ten uniquely designed office blocks in DIFC; the Empty Quarter Gallery is a must.
Pro tip: Visit Alserkal during the weekend when the galleries are bustling and stop off for a sweet snack at the artisanal Mirzam chocolate factory.
Dubai is more than just luxury hotels and historic souks. The Al Qudra Lakes, located past Arabian Farms at the edge of the emirate, bring you closer to nature than you might think possible. You can self-drive or take a guided tour to this area of artificial lakes and sandy desert, home to over 130 species of birds and countless endemic animals.
Leave the towering skyscrapers behind and lose yourself amidst the seemingly endless lakes reflecting the midday sun, to picnic with oryx, flamingos, Arabian foxes and endangered Steppe eagles.
Pro tip: For the best views, visit at night to watch the sun set over the sparse trees and sand dunes.
There is no shortage of places to spend some dirhams in Dubai. As the world’s second-largest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall is an attraction in its own right. Spread over 502,000 square metres (5,403 square feet), and visited by more than 750,000 shoppers each week, the mall is home to some 1,200 shops suited to all budgets, a 250-room hotel, 120 cafés and restaurants serving food from around the world, 22 cinema screens, an Olympic-size ice rink, an expansive aquarium, an indoor theme park and even an A380 aircraft simulator.
But shopping in Dubai isn’t just about glamorous malls. There are plenty of traditional souks (markets) to get lost in, including the sprawling gold souk, spice souk and perfume souk – but the textile souk, located on the opposite side of Dubai Creek to the others, is quieter and has a more local feel. In Dubai’s textile souk, generations of tailors sell a large range of handwoven cashmere, silk, wool and cotton suits, throws, dresses and shawls. Look out for the authentic Kashmiri shawls in bright colours, and make sure you haggle, as this is expected.
Pro tip: You could spend a full week in Dubai Mall, but if you visit after midnight (the mall closes at 2am) you will have the whole building almost to yourself.
Dubai has one of the world’s most diverse architectural scenes, ranging from skyscrapers to one-storey houses. Like many things in Dubai, the towering mega-skyscraper the Burj Khalifa pushes the boundaries, at 830 metres (2,723 feet) tall. The tallest building in the world is home to the luxurious three-floor The Lounge, a café and cocktail bar, two observation decks, the world’s fastest elevator and a bird’s-eye view of Dubai.
Wander through the DIFC district to see ten unique tower blocks, ranging from a replica of Big Ben to the arch-shaped Gate Building and the twin double-gherkin glass skyscrapers. From Jumeirah Open Beach you can admire the world-famous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel, even if you can’t quite afford a room for the night.
Billed as the world’s largest choreographed water, light and sound show, the Dubai Fountain truly is one of Dubai’s most impressive architectural feats. Located behind the Dubai Mall, the show takes place every 30 minutes between 1pm and 2pm and from 6pm to 11pm on weekdays, when water jets spray high into the air to the beat of changing music, and strobe lighting casts shadows on the facades of the surrounding Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall and Souk Al Bahar.
Pro tip: Crowds flock out of the mall to see the free fountain show, but if you visit at 11pm, there are few people, uninterrupted views and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Dubai may seem ultra-modern, but traders have lived along the waterways of the emirate for centuries, especially in the Bastakiya Quarter. Built in the late 19th century by Persian settlers, the restored iconic wind towers and narrow stone alleyways are an escape from the towering glass skyscrapers and mega malls. Hidden amidst the private homes of Bastakiya are a number of cultural attractions and teahouses. Book a room in advance at XVA, a small boutique guesthouse and art gallery with 15 uniquely styled rooms leading onto enclosed shaded courtyards, each room named after an icon of Dubai.
Dubai has the best nightlife scene in the Middle East, and that’s a fact! Acts from around the world flock to the bars and nightclubs located around Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Beach, but nowhere is quite like Cirque Le Soir, a nightclub combined with a circus. The best time to visit this nightclub, located inside the Fairmont Hotel, is midnight, when the party is in full swing. Snake charmers, sword swallowers, acrobats and contortionists join the likes of Lady Gaga, Usher and Rihanna on the main stage, while mixologists stimulate your senses as entertainers push boundaries.
There is, of course, a more conventional nightlife scene in Dubai that rivals that of many major cities in the world – although do bear in mind that alcohol can only be served in licensed hotel complexes, and most clubs only permit entry to people over 25. The Madinat Jumeirah area is where most glitzy nightclubs can be found, with the likes of Al Fayrooz Lounge, Bahri Bar and Koubba Bar offering a more sedate music scene.
Pro tip: Super-club Sky2.0 brings Beirut’s legendary nightlife to Dubai’s Design District. Each night is themed, so choose the night featuring your favourite music genre.