Dubai has something of an otherworldly reputation. Is it really a luxurious retreat with towering buildings, impossibly clean streets, and infinite blue water horizons, as some publications paint? For the most part, yes. Architectural feats like the spiring Burj Khalifa; retail therapy destinations like the Dubai Mall; and local souks (markets) frame a city at once modern and layered with history. To help you navigate it all, we’ve assembled the top nine things to do in Dubai — with a few added tips on what not to do.
1: Tour the Burj Khalifa
Dubai boasts many inspiring buildings, but only one claims the title of the tallest building in the world; Burj Khalifa, at 2,716.5 feet (more than 160 stories) holds that honor, built between 2004 and 2009. It was constructed as part of a new development initiative dubbed “Downtown Dubai” and was designed to be a mixed-use residential and commercial building.
The architecture of Burj Khalifa mirrors what visitors will see throughout the region; Islamic structures like the Great Mosque of Samarra served as Ziggurat-esque inspiration, while the “Y” layout of each floor was designed to optimize internal space. Primarily formed of reinforced concrete, the building also has a central spire made of roughly 4,000 tons of steel. Additionally, exterior glass was designed to moderate heat with built-in anti-glare shielding to help fend off the brutal desert sun.
Inside, the building houses several lounges (complete with swimming pools), hundreds of private residences, corporate offices, a hotel, a restaurant, a museum, and observation decks. Prices for access to various lounges, sites, and levels vary, but range from $10 for a trip to the museum to upwards of $200 for entry to the top-level lounge. Our recommendation: Get a reservation for Friday brunch at The Burj Club (about $80) where you can enjoy a sumptuous buffet and inspiring views of the city.
2: Visit the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary
Nobody says “Dubai” and thinks animals — which is exactly why you should experience the bird-watching at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. This natural diversion includes a diversity of topographical features, including mudflats and lagoons that local birds use for nesting.
Area wetlands also serve as breeding grounds for crustaceans and mammals, though you’ll likely be most infatuated with the flamingoes. These pink-tinged birds can be found congregating en masse in the water or along beaches, and are best observed through binoculars. Speaking of, be sure to bring a bird-watching guide to make the most of your visit, and avoid veering off path or approaching wildlife. Brazen tourists have learned the hard way that they are not welcome additions to the flock.
Oh, and one of the best parts of this adventure? It’s free.
3: Shop and Play at The Dubai Mall
Yes, we know — a mall. But hear us out. Like much of Dubai, the mall is more than meets the eye: a place not only to shop but to admire dramatic design, people-watch, and even enjoy riveting entertainment. Located right next to Burj Khalifa, it’s a great place to meander before or after your trek up some 100 flights. Watch the Dubai Fountain’s choreographed shows, duck into the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo for marine fascinations, or simply soak in the retail glory of this 1,300-outlet mammoth shopping destination. If you have kids, this is a perfect stop — especially with the Dubai Ice Rink and KidZania edutainment complex onsite. Plus, if you get hungry, you’ve got more than 200 dining outlets to choose from — stretching from chocolate bars to wood-fired Italian trattorias and good ol’ fast food.
Our favorite (time-sucking) feature: VR Park Dubai, where 150 carnival and video games keep our eyes googly for hours.
4: Get Some Historical Perspective in Old Dubai (Bastakiya)
When you’re done marathon shopping and playing at the mall, consider making a stop at Bastakiya. This historic neighborhood in Dubai dates back to the late 19th century and features buildings built by immigrants from Persia. You can wander the area for free, but be sure to check out some of the center/exhibitions to get a deeper sense of the area’s history. Most notably, the Shaikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding regularly hosts meals, educational seminars, and tours to help both natives and visitors fully understand the historical context of Dubai. Similarly, the Alserkal Cultural Foundation sponsors expos that showcase talented local artists and designers. Keep an eye out for events and, if you have time, make a point to visit.
5: Wander the Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort
Housed inside a fort that dates back to the 1700s, the Dubai Museum is a beautiful, interactive rendering of the urban and rural lives of the Emirate peoples. An apt complement to an Old Dubai visit, a tour of the Dubai Museum opens up a world of understanding — not just of the culture and historical context of the UAE, but of the region’s natural challenges. You can tour wings devoted to home-building, ship-building, astronomy, marine life, market life, and more. Admission is less than a dollar, so don’t worry about tickets setting you back.
6: Grab Dinner at Al Dawaar Revolving Restaurant
If you’re not getting enough of those breathtaking views of the ocean (and desert), take some time to sit back, relax, and dine at Al Dawaar in Dubai’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. The allure here is the setting: a 360-degree revolving restaurant. The food is good, yes (and served buffet-style to suit a variety of palates), but the whopper is the view; take in the stretching coastline, the city’s incredible skyline, and the convergence of sand and sea. The only downside is the cost (as is true at many places in Dubai); a meal runs just over $100/person. Unlike many restaurants in the area, however, alcohol is available.
7: Savor Seafood at Pierchic Restaurant
Dubbed the “most romantic restaurant in Dubai,” Pierchic is a water-bound feast for the senses. Amble out on a protracted pier until you land meters from Burj Al Arab. Dock window-side for the best views and order seafood à la carte (yes to the tiger prawns and sea bass), or just let the chef do his thing and order the seven-course tasting menu (about $150/person without wine, $270 with wine). The ultimate goal: Float and feast in a sensory experience without equal.
8: Catch an Act at White Dubai
Seeking a bit more edge? Dubai has it — especially at White, the city’s buzzing outdoor club. Be sure to get tickets in advance, as acts sell out quickly. But if you’re ahead of the game, you can secure a spot for acts like Davido, URBN, Ty Dolla $ign, DJ Charlesy, and other big names. Celebrating? Make it an event with bottle service — although be sure to save up, because it will set you back at least $1,000 for eight guests.
9: Experience Bedouin Life at Al Khayma Desert Camp
There’s no better way to close out an epic trip to Dubai than by getting a taste of Bedouin life in the desert. Only a 40-minute drive outside of downtown Dubai, the camp offers experiences for every type of adventurer: Henna painting, Arabic makeovers, Shisha pipe smoking, dune bashing in SUVs, and camel riding. You can also book an evening red dunes safari tour through Ocean Air Travels — a seven-hour adventure that folds in dune bashing, a caravan ride, barbecue lunch, and belly dances. Tickets start at $60/person.
(Oh, and this is just a bonus: If you can, book a room at the Burj Al Arab, the most luxurious hotel in the world. It’s pricy, but worth the splurge.)
What NOT to do in Dubai
While teeming with adventures and rich with architectural, cultural, and natural wonders, Dubai is also strictly governed. Located within the United Arab Emirates, the city is heavily Islamic, guided by rules designed to maintain purity, formality, and civility. To ensure you don’t offend locals (or, worse yet, land in prison), be sure you avoid the following:
- Public displays of affection
- Taking photographs without permission
- Drinking alcohol or dancing in public
- Greeting anyone with your left hand (widely considered the “dirty” hand in Islamic culture)
- Make disparaging remarks about UAE royalty
- Travel during Ramadan (this is a period of fasting in Islam; eating indulgently is frowned upon)
- Carrying medicines (as these may be confiscated)
- Provocative dress
Finally, check out our piece on 9 of the hottest airport restaurants in the world, where we profile Dubai International Airport’s McGettigan’s restaurant. If you have some extra time on your way in or out of Dubai, a meal here could be just the ticket.