- Mario Ng
Dubai Attractions - What to see and do in Dubai
Dubai is one of the most famous cities in the world. With so much reserves and knowing they cannot rely on oil revenue forever, the government embarked on a massive project to bring in tourism dollars. What happened next was a huge boom, with tourists from all over the world flocking to this Middle Eastern city. Dubai also became home to the tallest building in the world, along with other accolades, such as the largest mall in the world.
Visitors to Dubai will find that there is no lack of entertainment in this city. From the solo traveller to couples, to families, everyone is bound to be able to find something that suits them. Be sure to check out this review of the places we went to, and have fun planning your trip to Dubai!
For your convenience, refer to this list of attractions you should head to while in Dubai!
1. Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
2. Burj Khalifa
3. Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
4. Dubai Frame
5. Dubai Fountain and Lake Ride
6. Dubai Museum
7. Etihad Museum and Union House
8. The Dubai Mall
1. Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, also known as Al Bastakiya, was a neighbourhood first built in the 1890s. It was essentially a housing estate, and most buildings you see were actual homes of locals back in the days. During the fast-paced development of Dubai, there was a need to develop the city quickly and this neighbourhood was earmarked to be demolished to make way for new buildings. In fact, almost half of the neighbourhood was already demolished by the 1980s, with the rest scheduled to be torn down at a later date.
It was said that Rayner Otter, a British architect who was living in Dubai at that time, heard about the planned demolition and wrote a letter to HRH Prince Charles, imploring him to preserve this important piece of history. This was crucial as HRH Prince Charles was going to Dubai that year in 1989, and it was thought that he could persuade the Dubai authorities to reconsider. During his visit, HRH Prince Charles visited the neighbourhood together with Rayner and mentioned that the neighbourhood could be saved. This was how the historic neighbourhood came to be saved. An interesting piece of history!
Today, it is a vibrant neighbourhood with cafes, museums, and art galleries. Among the more important tenants is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The Center seeks to provide the public with a better understanding of the UAE and some of the cultural activities that locals do. It organises mosque visits, cultural meals, and walking tours. It is a crucial part of Dubai city and tourists should definitely book a tour with them to understand Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. President George Bush visited the Center and it is amazing to see how the Center does so much good for the city.
The highlight of the neighbourhood is really admiring the architecture of the buildings, and see how there is a wind tower of every building. Designed to trap wind from every direction into the house, this shows the history of the buildings and the age of those buildings when you compare them against the modern skyscrapers in the city.
Do keep a lookout for the original walls of Old Dubai, where for the most part have been torn down and can no longer be found. Instead, there is a small section, the foundations of the walls really, that was found and preserved. Only restored in 2001, these walls date back to the 1800s!
To really understand Old Dubai and how the locals used to live, be sure to head down to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood! At the same time, you might wish to get lunch at one of the cafes here!
P.S. Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is just a ten-minute walk from Dubai Museum, and is a good place to head to if you have chosen to visit this historic neighbourhood first!
2. Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is simply a must-visit if one is in Dubai. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty in New York, a visit to Dubai is simply not complete without a trip to Burj Khalifa.
Completed and opened to the public in 2010, it succeeded Taipei 101 as the tallest building in the world and has remained so since then. For those who are keen on building designs, you will be interested to know that the designers of Burj Khalifa also designed Willis Tower (formerly and affectionately known as Sears Tower) and One World Trade Center. Something equally interesting is that Burj Khalifa used to be named Burj Dubai until it was decided that this building would be renamed Burj Khalifa in honour of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This was after Abu Dhabi loaned Dubai crucial funds for its numerous construction projects. And so, it is now known all over the world as Burj Khalifa, or Khalifa Tower.
Entry to Burj Khalifa comes in many forms. While most will probably head to one of the observation decks to see Dubai from atop, others will book a stay at Armani Hotel Dubai, and enjoy a considerable amount of time looking down at people, quite literally!
For entry to the observation decks, they come with 2 choices. The standard option (At the Top) brings you to the 124th and 125th floors of Burj Khalifa. While the observation decks will not bring you right up to the top, they are still relatively high at 456 metres into the skies. For those feeling luxurious, you can go for the premium option (At the Top, Sky), which brings you to the 148th floor, in addition to the 124th and 125th floors. What is so special about Sky, is the outdoor terrace, where you can attempt to stare down into the ground from 555 metres above. You will also enjoy a personalised tour, while refreshments at their SKY lounge are included as well.
For us, we just want to be as high as possible. This means that we will not think twice to get the option to head up to the 148th floor. Although some may argue that one cannot really tell the difference that high up, we know we cannot lie to ourselves! To forgo the opportunity to be 23 floors higher than we could is simply unfathomable!
And still, those not satisfied with the mere visit of observation decks can head to the world’s highest lounge. Located 585 metres above ground, the lounge spans three floors (levels 152 to 154). Depending on the time of your visit, you can choose to have afternoon tea, catch the sunset, or party away while dancing to the resident DJ’s tunes and enjoy some champagne.
For most of us, the reasons to head to Burj Khalifa are quite simple. You want to step into history and check out the view from high above. In these aspects, Burj Khalifa does not disappoint. The views are amazing, especially on a clear day. Get to see Old Dubai and New Dubai, with so many skyscrapers continuously appearing all over the city. Dubai Fountain looks magnificent from above as well, and you get a sense of how big Dubai Mall really is. In fact, you begin to wonder just how small your country’s big malls are when you compare them with The Dubai Mall. If you have the chance, make sure you snap a picture with/of the sunset, as it is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Doing it from above makes it special when there is really nothing to block your view!
For those who wish to enjoy a meal while checking out the views from Burj Khalifa, check out our review of At.mosphere, the highest restaurant in the world! It promises great views, great food, and lots of time to enjoy the whole experience!
Opening hours: 9 am to 11 pm daily
At the Top (124th and 125th floors)
At the Top, Sky (124th, 125th, and 148th floors): Between AED 359.76 and AED 507.38
The Lounge (152nd to 154th floors): From AED 608 onwards
3. Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
Located within the comfort of the largest mall in the world, the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo is relatively easy to find when walking around The Dubai Mall. There are plenty of signs within the mall that directs you to the aquarium, where you also get to see the famous 10 million litre aquarium tank!
Most visitors should probably be going for the Explorer Experience, which consists of quite a few unique experiences for the visitor. Besides walking through the aquarium tunnel, you will also get to enjoy a behind the scenes tour, where staff will go through with you just what they do every day. In fact, we found that there were plenty of things to do on this tour, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves here, all three hours of it!
You will first spend some time in the aquarium tunnel, located at the ground level of Dubai Mall, where most tourists will be busy snapping pictures of/with the fishes. Take your time to enjoy the tunnel, as we know it is not so easy to take a good picture of Nemo! However, do realise that this is only the beginning of the tour! After you have completed the aquarium tunnel, you will be directed to head up to the second level of Dubai Mall, which is where the Underwater Zoo and most activities are located at.
As part of the Explorer Experience, you will be able to visit the Underwater Observatory, where staff will explain some of the day-to-day activities done by different scientists. Participate in feeding activities and see some of the menus for the different creatures.
The glass-bottom boat ride is just wonderful really. What happens is that you will board a glass-bottom boat, and you will travel around viewing the aquarium from above. This means you get an unobstructed view of all the different creatures swimming below. If you are a fan of sea animals, you will be in for a treat. The boat ride takes some 15 minutes and you can spend all your time looking down below, where huge stingrays and sharks swim around. Just for a moment, you might feel that you are amongst these majestic animals, swimming alongside them.
If you thought this is the end of the entire tour, you would be wrong. In fact, far from it. Now is really when you can take your time to explore the different creatures in the Underwater Zoo. Stored in various tanks, see different types of fishes and understand them a little better. In fact, it is really good for educating the little ones, as we do not think we have seen so many types of fishes before. It was good to learn more about our planet and understand Earth a little better.
For those who wish to take part in unique activities, you will be pleased to know that Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo offers just those types of adventures. Among some of the more interesting activities include a shark dive, where you will come face to face with multiple Sand Tiger sharks. Alternatively, take part in a cage snorkelling, where you will still come close to the different creatures in the aquarium, albeit in a more comforting secured cage. If you enjoy animals and sea creatures, you should definitely not miss this aquarium!
Location: Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, The Dubai Mall
Opening hours: 10 am to 12midnight
Cost: Explorer Experience - AED 195 per person (Sundays to Wednesdays); AED 225 per person (Thursdays to Saturdays, public holidays)
4. Dubai Frame
The Dubai Frame is one of the newer attractions in Dubai and is located just outside the main shopping area of Dubai Mall. The Dubai Frame itself is an architectural and engineering wonder, where the building is designed in the shape of a photo frame. While it might look relatively simple, there was a tremendous amount of engineering research to create The Dubai Frame.
Built to “frame” Dubai city, this unique design intended to frame up the entire city, much like snapping a picture of the city. Located in between New and Old Dubai, it is also perfectly placed where Old Dubai and New Dubai are located on either side of the frame.
Once you enter the frame proper, you will be guided through a small museum about Old Dubai, before queueing up for an elevator ride up 150m. It is a quick ride that brings you up to the top in no time.
It is quite amazing at the top, as there are no tall buildings in the vicinity of The Dubai Frame, and it allows you to see all the skyscrapers from a distance, and you get to admire New Dubai in its entirety. Even cooler is the fact that at the other side of the frame, you see Old Dubai in all its glory. Short buildings and houses highlight how the city looked before the modernisation of the city. Dubai Frame provides you with a view of both New and Old Dubai, which is spectacular, to say the least.
Adventure-seekers can get a thrill at Dubai Frame. At the top is a glass walkway, so you get to see what is right below as you walk across the top. For those afraid of heights, there is no need to worry as the sides provide more than enough space to walk on the hard ground comfortably.
Towards the end of your tour, be sure to remain at level 1 to take a read on how The Dubai Frame came to fruition. See how it was first designed, before the concept was tested in wind tunnels, to how it was eventually built. Quite amazing really.
The Dubai Frame is truly a beautiful attraction and you will be pleased to get a camera with a wide-angle lens. The sheer size of this building means the wide-angle lens is necessary to capture the entire building. It is simply beautiful!
Address: Zabeel Park, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Opening hours: 9 am to 9 pm daily
Cost: 52.50 AED
5. Dubai Fountain and Lake Ride
The Dubai Fountain is part of The Dubai Mall, and many visitors head out to catch the fountain show every evening. It is also a free attraction and is widely popular with tourists and locals alike.
Each show lasts for about 5 minutes and is held every half hour from 6 pm onwards, with the last show at 11 pm. For the best time to view the show, we found that there really is no perfect time. Not wanting to sound cliche, it does depend on your needs to choose the best time to view it. For us, we enjoyed both the evening and night shows. While you can see more clearly and snap pictures more easily between 6 pm and 7 pm, it does look more beautiful at night. Burj Khalifa lights up, the fountain’s lights can be seen more clearly, and the weather is cooler as well.
The fountain show comprises lights, music, and of course, the fountain. The way the show was choreographed was simply outstanding. The sound system was really good, and the way the fountain shoots up into the sky was mesmerising. For that 5 minutes, everyone’s eyes were fixed on the show. The fact that popular songs are played further added to the experience.
A great complement to Dubai Fountain is the accompanying lake ride, where visitors board an Abra (traditional boat used in Dubai) and sail around the lake where the fountain is located. A fantastic part of this ride is how they have timed the rides to perfection. Understanding the importance of the fountain show to visitors, each ride sets off at 15 minutes before the next fountain show and lasts for 30 minutes. This means there is no mad rush to the best timing for the boat rides, and everyone is guaranteed the best view of the fountain show.
The lake ride brings you around the lake, where you will sail past Souk Al-bahar, Palace Downtown hotel, and Burj Park. The pace is slow enough that visitors can take all the pictures they want of Burj Khalifa. Right when the show is about to start, the boat stops and everyone will look towards the fountain area for the show of a lifetime.
We managed to enjoy this experience and we recommend it. While we acknowledge that the boat ride might be a little pricey, do bear in mind that you are really paying for privacy and comfort, as well as having the best seats in the house to catch the fountain show. As there are throngs of tourists at The Dubai Mall every day, there are bound to be lots of people at the fountain area every day, all vying to get the best views. Not to mention the warm weather, especially during the summer, which may cause further discomfort for visitors. The boat ride really solves these issues, and we enjoyed the quietness and comfort of the abra.
Knowing that there are many shows to choose from, we decided to catch 2 shows. We first took the 6.45 pm lake ride to catch the golden time of the sunset in Dubai. It was also the best timing to snap the all-important pictures since our camera phones could not adequately capture night shots. After being awed for 5 and 30 minutes, we proceeded to have dinner at one of the restaurants in The Dubai Mall.
After dinner, we went for our second show. We realised that a good place to catch the fountain show would be the area nearest to Burj Khalifa. We found that it was relatively empty compared to the area near Souk Al-bahar, which was already packed with people at 6.30 pm. With no one crowding around us, we were able to enjoy the show peacefully and enjoyed the lights that shone brightly in the Middle Eastern night. The fact that Burj Khalifa was just behind us was noticed, and we turned back periodically to look at this beast, the tallest building in the world. By the time the show ended, we were actually tempted to catch it a third time! Alas, it was getting late and we had some shopping to do (not before the mandatory multiple night shots of Burj Khalifa)!
If you are in Dubai, be sure to head over to The Dubai Mall and catch the Dubai Fountain show. Better yet, try the lake ride, and enjoy the peacefulness while sailing around Palace Downtown hotel and Burj Park!
Cost of Dubai Fountain Lake Ride: AED 80 per person (Lakeside + Boardwalk)
Timings of Dubai Fountain Lake Ride: Every 30 minutes from 5.45 pm to 10.45 PM (both timings inclusive)
Timings of Dubai Fountain show: Every 30 minutes from 6 pm to 11 pm (both timings inclusive)
6. Dubai Museum
Dubai Museum is a key attraction in Dubai and is the main museum where many locals are proud of it. Opened in 1971 by the then ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid Bin Saed Al-Maktoum, the intent was to make sure that people remember the traditional way of life in Dubai. This is important as there have been many instances where, in a hurry to develop a nation, heritage buildings get torn down and traditional practices get forgotten. It is admirable that the exterior of the Dubai Museum look exactly how Dubai might have looked a few hundred years ago.
When one first enters the museum, we get to see the way of life for locals thousands of years ago. Feast your eyes on classic sea transport vehicles, where specific boats were used to transport people, the others for fishing. You will also get to see a summer home, known as an Al Arish, that was painstakingly re-created, and see and feel how the wind tower helps to cool the home down during summertime. The fact that the museum is housed within the compound of Al Fahidi Fort, first built in 1787, means that the old walls were kept intact, and wherever you walk in the museum, you are in actual fact walking in history!
The basement is where more modern exhibits are kept. It is also practical as the summer heat can cause the exhibits to be damaged, or even melt! In it, get to see how the different types of jobs available to locals in the past. Being a coastal city, fishing was a key contributor to the economy, and pearl merchants earned serious money during those times. Identify animals common in the desert, and learn how they hunted for food and escape from their predators.
Perhaps one of the most important exhibits in the Dubai Museum is the section on relics. Carefully preserved and cared for, pottery bowls dating back to the 9th century are kept here. Be amazed at some of the necklaces that were said to be from 3000BC. That is more than 5,000 years old! It is truly amazing how these artefacts have been so well-kept for such a long time.
To truly appreciate Dubai and understand how far it has come since thousands of years ago, be sure to head down to Dubai Museum.
P.S. Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is just a ten-minute walk away from Dubai Museum, and is a great place to head to after the air-conditioned comforts of this museum!
Address: Al Fahidi Street, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Opening hours: 8.30 am to 8.30 pm (Saturdays to Thursdays); 2.30 pm to 8.30 pm (Fridays)
Cost: AED 3 per person
7. Etihad Museum and Union House
Etihad Museum is a relatively new addition to the list of cultural attractions in Dubai. Designed in a sleek manner that looks futuristic, it is located in a historic place not just in Dubai, but in the United Arab Emirates as well.
If you know your history, you will know that the signing of the constitution of the United Arab Emirates, essentially when UAE became independent, was done at Union House. Situated within the same complex of Etihad Museum, visitors can visit Union House, where the historic agreement was signed. Just outside is also a huge flagpole with an even larger flag of the UAE flying gloriously in the wind.
Inside Etihad Museum, find out more about each emirate’s founding father, including Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, also known as the founding father of the UAE. Find out and understand what compelled the seven emirates to come together to form one united country, and how it has since allowed the country to prosper together.
Understand the culture of this country, and how locals used to travel around different cities. The museum invests a lot in technology, and its use in this museum is evident. Adults and children alike will enjoy using technology to understand the UAE. Besides new technology, traditional writing is also present, especially with a reproduction of the original constitution of the UAE. Check out various documents sent and received by the government, including one special document sent by the United Nations Security Council, recommending that the UAE be admitted into the UN. This is certainly a precious and historic document worth seeing.
Find out how UAE’s defence force has evolved throughout the years, and see the different types of weapons used since before its independence. Be sure to head outdoors after your visit to see the Union House, which is a historic artefact on its own. Take a peek from outside where the original tables have been kept in pristine condition. Look out towards the huge UAE flag outside and be amazed that you are actually standing on history!
Etihad Museum perfectly complements Dubai Museum, where the latter makes use of the original traditional structures to tell Dubai’s story, the former makes use of modern technology to share UAE’s story. You will definitely enjoy how both museums tell the same story in their own way.
Address: Jumeira Street. Cross of 2nd December St., Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Opening hours: 10 am to 8 pm daily
Cost: AED 25
8. The Dubai Mall
The Dubai Mall was the largest shopping mall in the world when it first opened in November 2008. Since surpassed by different malls all over the world, The Dubai Mall is still a loved icon of Dubai, where it is also ideally located in the city centre.
Due to its proximity to Burj Khalifa, many tourists will also head to Dubai Mall at least once while they are in Dubai. There are also so many things to do at this mall, that many times visitors simply rely on Dubai Mall for their shopping, entertainment, and dining needs.
To explain how huge this mall is, we simply need to state the different types of activities one can do here. You can certainly watch movies and ice skate at this mall, which is relatively common in most shopping malls around the world. You can also bring your children to KidZania, while you indulge in your shopping needs.
However, did you know that you can also fly an Emirates Airbus A380-800 here? Dubbed the Emirates A380 experience, aviation geeks can spend their time in this specialised simulator and fly the double-decker jet! Archaeologists wannabes will also be amazed at a 155 million-year-old fossil of a Diplodocus, where guests can stand in awe of this amazing dinosaur.
For those preferring more conventional animals, be sure to check out the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, where there are tons of activities to do. We did it and really enjoyed ourselves there.
There are also plenty of food options, whether you wish to have some local delicacies, a cheeseburger, or some Asian food. Most restaurants serve great food due to the fierce competition, so you are likely to be able to enjoy your food wherever you choose to head to (check out our food recommendations here, which includes many options in The Dubai Mall!).
Finally, gifts and souvenirs are a must when visiting a foreign country. The Dubai Mall understands this perfectly, and hence have many stores catering to tourists. A key export of Dubai is certainly its dates, and many tourists buy back this delicacy to enjoy. While many purchase pre-packed dates to bring home, we prefer getting fresh ones, even if they will not last as long. We highly recommend La Cure Gourmande, a store specialising in sweet treats. It has a section where it sells different types of dates, from the original one to those with fillings. You can really taste the freshness of the dates when you bite into them, and one is surely tempted to finish them even before you head back home! We only regret we did not buy more!
As we can all see, Dubai Mall is really more than just another shopping mall and is a place where it has suitable activities for people of all ages. It is almost like an attraction itself, where visitors to Dubai must visit. Make sure you plan your time well in this mall and spend at least a day here!
Address: Financial Center Road, Along Sheik Zayed Road, Dubai, UAE
Opening hours: 10 am to 12 am daily
Google Maps: List of attractions and food places in Dubai!
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