It’s the city of sand or the city of clouds, depending on which floor you’re on. Dubai has captured the world’s interest as one of the most international cities in the Middle East. It combines Arabic traditions with modern innovations, especially in architecture (and with the cars in its police force). The city has become a tourist hub, thanks to the many Dubai sites you need to see to believe. And yet a lot of people still don’t know the major Dubai points of interest.
Check out 11 of the most breathtaking Dubai tourist attractions to prepare you for your trip to the United Arab Emirates — or maybe to inspire you to take one.
1. Burj Khalifa
The perfect starting point among Dubai points of interest? The Burj Khalifa. Yes, that’s the big tower that shows up in every photo of Dubai. Just shy of 830 meters, the Burj Khalifa is at the moment the tallest building in the entire world. As the most famous of the Dubai points of interest, the Burj Khalifa is a lot like Dubai’s Eiffel Tower, except much taller.
If you feel more comfortable with imperial measurements versus metric, you should know that the tower measures 2,717 feet, or more than half a mile high. The building’s exact height was kept a secret until opening day. (And fortunately, nobody measured the shadow to steal the architect’s thunder.) In addition to ranking as the tallest building in the world, the Burj also features the highest observation deck, swimming pool, elevator, restaurant, and fountain.
You can enjoy the observation deck on the 124th floor. In fact, the sightseeing platform ranks as one of the most popular of the Dubai tourist attractions. Just make sure to buy your “At the Top” entrance ticket early to avoid the long lines. But if you’re acrophobic, you might want to avoid the elevator. It travels at about 40 miles per hour — which allows it to reach the observation deck in about two minutes.
If heights really make you squeamish and you decide that elevator ride isn’t for you, you can still enjoy yourself on the ground. The base of the Burj Khalifa is surrounded by beautiful garden walkways and the Dubai fountains, another of the Dubai points of interest you can check out in the coming pages.
2. Old Dubai (Bastakia)
The Bastakia Quarter, or the Al-Fahidi neighborhood, is the place to go if you want a glimpse of Dubai without its futuristic 21st century flair. Located between the Dubai Creek and the Bur Dubai district, this neighborhood recalls the quiet village Dubai once was.
Does that episode of Dubai’s history sound unfamiliar? It doesn’t seem obvious when you check out the more modern Dubai points of interest. But in the Bastakia Quarter, you’ll get a glimpse of the communities that made up Dubai before skyscrapers dominated the horizon. Textile and pearl traders from Bastak, Iran established the district at the end of the 19th century. They were drawn there by Dubai’s relaxed trade tariffs.
They left behind picturesque buildings of limestone and coral. Those buildings include restored merchants’ houses and buildings that now hold art galleries, cafes, and even boutique hotels. You can’t help but be reminded of Iranian architecture when you admire the Bastakia Quarter’s buildings. Many even have a traditional Persian architectural feature called a windcatcher or wind tower. They create natural ventilation to direct airflow and cool the buildings.
Some notable Dubai points of interest in the area? Stroll by the Old City Wall, which was constructed in 1800 from gypsum and coral. Check out Emirati, Iranian, and Middle Eastern art at the XVA Gallery, Ave Gallery, or Majlis Gallery. And enjoy a refreshing drink at one of the courtyard house cafes.
3. Burj al-Arab
Next on the itinerary? The Burj al-Arab Hotel. Yes, that’s the other building in the all the Dubai pictures. When the Burj al-Arab was designed in the late 1990s, those involved intended for it to become an icon in Dubai. And it has — even though on several counts, it differs from many of the other most famous Dubai points of interest.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the United Arab Emirates, had requested a grandiose luxury hotel. He wanted such a hotel to assist the economic transition from oil into tourism and grant Dubai global attention. And it worked — at least until 2008, when the Burj Khalifa overshadowed it (figuratively and literally).
Still, the Burj al-Arab remains one of the the most prominent Dubai points of interest. It also ranks as the fourth-largest hotel in the world. In a way, that makes it the black sheep among the Dubai tourist attractions because it hasn’t broken any world records. Still, it heralds itself as “the world’s most luxurious hotel.”
Does it live up to that tagline? Forbes reports that it does. At least “if you believe that what determines the degree of luxury is unapologetic opulence and indulgent personal service that spoils you rotten 24/7.” The Burj al-Arab has also been crowned the most powerful hotel on social media. (There’s its world record.)
4. Dubai Fountain
At the base of the Burj Khalifa you’ll find another of the popular Dubai tourist attractions, the Dubai Fountain. The city always wants to have the biggest and best of everything. And the origin story of the Dubai Fountain doesn’t sound like a departure from that strategy. The chairman of Emaar Properties, the developer behind the Burj Khalifa, wanted a water feature that would dwarf the renowned Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. And that’s what he got.
The Dubai Fountain was actually designed by the creators of the water and light show at the Bellagio Casino Hotel. It sits on the Burj Khalifa Lake, a 12-hectare attraction adjacent to the Dubai Mall. It ranks as the world’s largest “dancing fountain,” at more than 275 meters in length.
The fountain shoots 22,000 gallons of water as high as 150 meters in the air. Plus, it features daily music and light shows. The fountain has five rings of high-powered water jets. And the use of projected light enables the fountain to display “painted images” on the water. The shows are free. That means the waterfront promenade typically fills up quickly. You should get there early to secure a good view. Or you can watch the show from the bridge between the Dubai Mall and Souk Al Bahar.
Or if you really want to make the most of it, you can book a table at one of the restaurants that overlooks the lake and promenade. Open Table, for instance, has numerous recommendations for restaurants near the Dubai Fountain. Plus, you can see the Burj Khalifa as well as the noteworthy Dubai Mall. (That makes the next of our Dubai points of interest.)
5. Dubai Mall
The Dubai Mall serves as the commercial center of a city built on commerce. Aside from all the shopping options you’d expect from a modern-day marketplace — the compound houses some 1,200 shops — the mall also offers events and activities like an ice-skating rink, cinema complex, and an aquarium.
The mall, the biggest one in the world, cost $20 billion to build. And it employs about 20,000 people. It also attracts a whopping 75 million visitors a year. And it gets more foot traffic than the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, and Disney World combined. In addition to those 1,200 shops, the Dubai Mall houses 200 food and beverage outlets — and has 14,000 parking spaces.
But the Dubai Mall has a lot more than designer stores, a high-end food court, and a huge car park. You’ll also find not one but two theme parks within the mall. The first is the SEGA Republic. This indoor gaming theme park puts you in the world of Sonic the Hedgehog. Second up is KidZania. In this interactive education-themed park, children can role-play as adults in a child-sized city.
Plus, Dubai Mall has an Olympic-sized ice-skating rink. It has a 22-screen movie theater. Plus, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo call the mall home. (The aquarium makes such a great Dubai tourist attraction that we’ll tell you more about it on the next page.) You can visit the Dubai Mall any time of the year. But some of the best times to stop by? The Dubai Shopping Festival takes place during January and February. And Dubai Summer Surprises happens in July and August.
6. Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
Within the Dubai Mall, you’ll find the next of our Dubai points of interest: the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. This isn’t any ordinary aquarium. In fact, it houses more than 30,000 marine animals. That includes both sharks and rays.
One of the highlights, according to Expedia? The aquarium has a 157-foot transparent tunnel, which you can walk through to get close-up views of the marine life. The aquarium does charge an admission fee. However, you can actually see many of the underwater sights for free via a huge viewing window in the mall. But if you want to get up close and personal with this impressive aquarium and its colorful inhabitants, you might want to check out the myriad activities available.
You can take an underwater Shark Scooter to get face-to-face with a shark. Or go down in a diving cage to observe feeding time. You can also go cage snorkeling to view sharks and rays up close. Go diving to explore the aquarium and meet numerous marine species. Or take underwater photos to spice up your Instagram feed.
Above the aquarium you’ll find the Underwater Zoo, an educational exhibit that teaches about aquatic animals in three geographic zones: rain forests, rocky shores, and living oceans. In 2012, the Underwater Zoo actually won both TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence and the Images RetailME Award for “Most Admired Retailer of the Year — Leisure & Entertainment.” Pretty impressive.
7. Jumeirah Mosque
Ready to step away from the modern-day Dubai tourist attractions for a moment? Let’s return to its rich cultural heritage. The Jumeirah Mosque was built as an exact replica of the iconic Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. Except that it’s actually eight times as big. The building offers the perfect place to get up close and personal with some breathtaking Islamic architecture.
The medieval style also offers a welcome change of pace from the buildings you’ll see elsewhere in Dubai. The mosque can hold up to 1,200 worshippers. And it was constructed entirely of white stone in the medieval Fatimid tradition. It features twin minarets and a central dome. The best time to stop by? When the mosque gets lit up at dusk. Then, the intricate craftsmanship really shines.
This priceless example of medieval Fatimid architecture also makes one of the best Dubai points of interest for tourists who want to learn more about the Muslim faith. Unlike some of the other mosques in Dubai and in the United Arab Emirates, the Jumeirah Mosque welcomes non-Muslims during the six non-religious days of the week.
The Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding organizes tours. You should consider adding one to your itinerary if you want to learn about Emirati culture and religion. Just keep in mind you need to dress respectfully when you visit or else borrow traditional garb from the mosque. (And women should wear a scarf when visiting.)
8. Kite Beach
In a way, the name says it all. Dubai has a beach just for kite surfers. Kite Beach might not offer much in the way of cultural sightseeing. But it ranks as one of the best Dubai points of interest for water sports enthusiasts — or just for athletic tourists who want to try new things. In either case, this is the place to be if you want to make some thrilling memories on your trip to Dubai.
Travel + Leisure notes Dubai offers many opportune spots “for a leisurely dip in the Arabian Gulf.” But Kite Beach numbers among the most unique. Located in Umm Suqeim, between Jumeirah and the Palm, the beach feels unpretentious. It remains development-free and open to the public. And even if you don’t want to try kite surfing yourself, a visit makes for a great photo opportunity.
When should you stop by? Afternoons offer the best conditions for water sports. The winds pick up, and the waves of the Arabian Gulf get stronger. (Just avoid Fridays and Saturdays, if you can. Those days are busiest.) Businesses along the beach enable you to rent equipment to give kite surfing a try.
But if kite surfing isn’t for you, you can still enjoy a trip to the beach. On shore, you can enjoy games like beach volleyball, beach tennis, or soap football. Or venture into the water (and enjoy the chance to cool off) with some stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking.
9. Bur Dubai abra rides
Let’s start by explaining that “abra” means “boat.” So the Bur Dubai abra rides? They’re scenic boat tours along the Dubai creek. You’ll ride on a water taxi that nods to traditional boat designs from Dubai’s past. And you’ll travel along the creek that separates the Bur Dubai and Deira neighborhoods.
The creek served as the original center of Dubai’s commerce (back when the city attracted merchants with an entrepreneurial ambition for fishing and pearl diving). The creek still acts as a center for trade in a more modern fashion. But an abra ride offers one of the best ways to appreciate both the city’s history and its picturesque views. In fact, Time Out Dubai advises that these “tiny, noisy boats” offer the “quickest and most atmospheric way to enjoy the creek.”
An abra ride is also the fastest way to get from Bur Dubai to Deira, or vice versa. Each abra carries about 20 people across the water, stopping at various stations on each side of the creek. You can choose from two main routes. The first goes between the Bur Dubai Textile Souk and the Deira Old Souk. The second goes from the Bur Dubai Old Souk to the Tetxtile Souk to the Al Sabka station.
Boats typically run from 5 a.m. to midnight. But it’s after dark when the ride is at its most “atmospheric.” Just don’t expect to turn an abra ride into a romantic cruise with your partner. (Dubai’s prohibition of public displays of affection make it one of the least romantic getaway destinations.) However, you can charter an abra for longer tours up and down the creek.
10. Aquaventure Water Park
If you want the water but want to step away from the history and cultural appreciation for an afternoon, visit the Aquaventure Water Park. The park is located in Atlantis. That itself is located on the Palm, the crescent-shaped, man-made island that encircles the island called the Palm Jumeirah.
Need to take a moment to wrap your head around those man-made islands? They appear on just about every list of Dubai points of interest. And for good reason. Travel + Leisure reports that Dubai’s man-made archipelagos — all in various stages of completion — constitute massive projects meant to boost tourism and expand Dubai’s coastline. So far, they seem to be succeeding at both.
The process of making an island begins with dredging sand from the Persian and Arabian Gulfs’ floors. The sand then gets sprayed and “vibro-compacted” into shape, using precise GPS technology. Next, the sand is surrounded by millions of tons of rock. And an island is born.
Nakheel properties began work on The Palm in 2001. The Aquaventure Water Park offers a fun reason to hop on the monorail and visit from mainland Dubai. The water park boasts fun attractions for children of all ages (and even adults who still feel like kids at heart). Some of the highlights? Try the Leap of Faith, a nine-story slide. And don’t miss the Aquaconda, the world’s longest water slide. Wouldn’t want to miss another of Dubai’s world records, now would you?
11. Alserkal Art District
The Al Quoz industrial district is reinventing itself as the city’s main artistic hub. Among the factories and warehouses, the Alserkal Art District has emerged. It hosts respectable galleries, many designed by international names like Rem Koolhaas and OMA. Plus, smaller but equally ambitious galleries move in every day.
If you’re looking for art or fashion, music or stellar cuisine, or all of the above, this is the energetic neighborhood for you. Some galleries you don’t want to miss? Start with Ayyam Gallery, a Syrian-owned space that doesn’t shy away from exhibits that discuss the area’s tumultuous conflicts. Then, check out the Green Art Gallery, which serves as a launching pad for new and emerging artists. And don’t forget the Third Line, which is credited with raising the bar for Middle Eastern art. Other can’t-miss names? Carbon 12 Dubai and Isabelle Van den Eynde Gallery.
Dubai’s contemporary arts district will impress you even if you care more for architecture than art. Because internationally renowned architects have renovated numerous spaces on Alserkal Avenue, some say the area continues “the legacy of the Bauhaus — the modernist movement to emerge from early 20th century Germany.” Sure, Dubai might sound like an unlikely place for that movement to play out. But the “serious architecture” is there — and it’s helping Dubai’s art district to grow up.
Other Dubai points of interest
When you plan a visit to a major tourist city like Dubai, don’t limit your options to just a handful of tourist attractions. Here are some more of the Dubai points of interest worth checking out.
Jumeirah Beach: A main attraction on the Palm Jumeirah, these white sands offer the more traditional beach activities, such as lounging and sunbathing, that Kite Beach doesn’t provide. Just don’t forget your sunscreen.
Skydive Dubai: Want the best view of the Palm? Head to Skydive Dubai for a 60-second free fall over the man-made island. You’ll be harnessed to a professional instructor, so you can take in the views and enjoy the five-minute parachute ride down to solid ground again.
Dubai Internet City: A perfect example of Dubai’s business innovation, Dubai Internet City is a free technology park hosted by the government, with tax and custom benefits to attract companies. There, you’ll find regional branches of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and even LinkedIn.
Mall of the Emirates: A second famous mall in Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates features even more shopping options. Plus, it has the mind-boggling Ski Dubai, a fully operational indoor ski slope, complete with chairlifts, a penguin enclosure, and an atmospheric temperature of about 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Skyview Bar: Planning to stop by the Burj Al Arab? Take the time to relax over a drink at the Skyview Bar. Located on the 27th floor of the luxurious hotel, this bar will give you an amazing view of the city and the Dubai coastline.
Walk at JBR: Check out the Walk at JBR, a residential complex that attracts many expats. People of more than 200 nationalities call Dubai home. And if you want to people-watch, there’s nowhere better in the city than this mile-long strip of shops, plazas, and outdoor restaurants.
Dubai Restaurant Week: Hoping to sample a wide variety of Emirati foods (and drinks) when you’re in town? You can’t pick a better week to travel than Dubai Restaurant Week. You’ll get to choose among dishes from dozens of top restaurants around the city.
Talise Ottoman Spa: Travelers looking for some serious pampering should head to the Talise Ottoman Spa. It has the largest Middle Eastern hammam — plus cabanas, saunas, and a snow room.
Additional reporting by Matt Ellis.