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In a city whose skyline is defined by super-size futuristic skyscrapers, the 163-floor Burj Khalifa, which opened in 2010, is distinctive for more than just being the world’s tallest building. Quietly modernist and reminiscent of the spiral minaret design in Islamic architecture, the precipitously high tower features a series of spiraling asymmetrical setbacks, tapering into a shimmering 800-foot-tall spire. The Burj has two observation decks: At the Top on the 124th floor and for the real daredevils, the open-roof At the Top SKY on the 148th. The best way to view this architectural marvel is from far away—or risk a new kind of whiplash from jerking your head back so far in order to take in all 2,717 feet.
At 13 million square feet (the equivalent of more than 50 American football fields), the Dubai Mall isn’t just the world’s largest shopping palace it’s also a huge family-friendly rec center. Opened in 2009, the mother of all malls boasts 1,200 stores plus a super video arcade/amusement park, Olympic-size ice rink, bi-level aquarium, 22-screen cinema, 120 food venues and a genuine “Dubai dinosaur” skeleton (don’t ask). Anchored with multinational department stores—Paris’ Galeries Lafayette, the UK’s Debenhams and Bloomingdale’s from the US—this shopoholics Shangri-la is open from 10 am to midnight, providing more than enough time to put a dent in some plastic.
With its illuminated sprays of many colors dancing to a rousing repertoire of pop tunes (both Arabic and Western), the Dubai Fountain is one dazzling spectacle for the senses. Set on the 30-acre manmade lake at the base of the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), the fountain covers 900 feet in length and features more than 6,000 lights and 25 color projectors illuminating five large circles, each comprised of dozens of jet sprays that can shoot water as high as a 50-story building. Created by the company responsible for the famous Bellagio Hotel fountains in Las Vegas, the Dubai Fountain performs an infinite combination of light-projected colors and, conceivably, dance moves. And this being Dubai, it should go without saying that this is the largest choreographed fountain system in the world. Performances are every half hour from 6 to 11pm. Prepare to be mesmerized.
With its captivating sail shape, the Burj al Arab totally distinguishes the Dubai skyline, even though the world’s third tallest hotel is located nowhere near the cluster of striking skyscrapers that command the horizon here. Opened in December 1999, the 1,053-foot building entered the 21st Century with a splash—vying to be the signature symbol of Dubai and the world’s most luxury-driven hotel. Over-the-top opulence reigns, but unless you’re a paying guest in one of the hotel’s 60 suites, the only way to see the inner sanctum is to have a reservation at one of its nine equally high-end restaurants.
Aquaventure is like the extreme sport of water parks, with a little Disneyworld thrown in. The 42-acre site is anchored by two towers, designed to look like ancient Mesopotamian temples, that serve as launching pads for the 12 water slides—including the aptly-named Leap of Faith, a near-vertical plunge that hurls guests riding in clear tubes into a shark-filled lagoon. Additional attractions: a wild river ride with tidal waves, rapids and waterfalls; an extensive zip-line circuit and access to a long and lovely stretch of private beach.
Dubai’s version of a regular city’s botanical garden, this well-named attraction (this is the middle of the desert, after all) is home to millions of flowers from all over the world—plus thousands of butterflies, too. The first butterfly garden in the Middle East consists of nine climate-controlled domes, each home to a different species of the winged beauties in various sizes and colors. But the floral garden might still be the main draw, especially for its colorful giant-size sculptures adorned in blooms. There are peacocks, a woman clothed head-to-toe in flowers and an extraordinary 59-foot-tall replica of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
Guided tours of historic neighborhoods and traditional Emirati meals are just two of the activities the Centre offers by way of introducing the rich culture and traditions that defined Dubai before all its 21st Century extravagance. Prior to the 1800s, Dubai was a small trading village settled by Bedouin tribes whose leaders were called “emirs.” Original homes and mosques still exist in the old quarter along Dubai Creek where the walking tours are conducted. The breakfast and lunch programs are served in an old wind tower also in the historic neighborhood. The Centre, founded in 1998, is dedicated to the enlightened concept of building bridges among cultures. Advance reservations are required, and these popular programs fill up fast.
Now famous for its beautiful beaches, shoreline developments and speedy water-taxi abras, the Dubai Creek was once a modest waterway, home to Dubai’s pearl-diving and fishing industries, which helped establish the emirate as a key commercial port of trade more than a century ago. Wending its way through the heart of Dubai, the seawater creek extends just over 8.5 miles from the Persian Gulf to the wildlife sanctuary on the desert’s edge. Dredged countless times between the 1950s and 1970s to accommodate larger (and larger) commercial vessels, the creek more recently has been extended to make room for more (and more) billion-dollar developments. Sightseeing cruises are popular on Dubai Creek, also known for catching some of the best sunsets around.
Because this is Dubai, neither an indoor ski resort nor an indoor ski resort in a shopping mall seems completely outrageous—and in fact, because this is Dubai, it’s pretty spectacular. Located in the humongous Mall of the Emirates, this man-made winter wonderland—created with the same faux snow made at major ski resorts—features five ski runs (including a black run with a 60-meter drop), a bobsled ride, tobogganing, two resident penguins, fantastic ice sculptures and hot chocolate in the onsite café. Ski lessons are available, ditto all the ski and snowboarding gear to fit the whole family. Could be the coolest selfies of any “desert vacation.”
One of the most compelling history museums around, the Dubai Museum chronicles the transformation of the emirate from Bedouin trading port to glitzy center of commerce and tourism—using a host of interactive displays and well-done dioramas depicting slices of ancient life, from a souk to a mosque to even pearl diving. Housed in the 1799 Al Fahidi Fort, the area’s oldest surviving building (and an entire exhibit in its own right), the museum includes real objects, such as bronze cannons, wooden sailing boats (called dhows) and traditional mud huts. Its last gallery features a remarkable collection of artifacts dating to 2000 BC, unearthed in archaeological digs over the decades.
This majestic stone mosque, built in the ancient Fatimid style, is the only one in Dubai open to non-Muslims (via guided tour). With its intricate detailing and pair of signature minarets, the iconic mosque looks to be centuries old, when in fact it was built in 1975, a few years after Dubai was incorporated into the UAE. The 75-minute tours, operated by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, are offered several times a week and followed by an often moving Q&A session.
As if shopping in the world’s largest mall isn’t special enough, the Dubai Mall is home to a magnificent world-class aquarium—a great deal of which can be viewed free of charge—and the aquatic zoo above. There are some 33,000 sea creatures in the aquarium, including more than 400 sharks and stingrays combined, and an underwater acrylic walkthrough tunnel makes for a fascinating up-close-and-personal encounter. In the underwater zoo one flight up, a giant Australian crocodile holds court, surrounded by a slew of impressive sea subjects, a whole colony of penguins and various replicated habitats from all over the world. You have to see it to believe it.
The Dolphinarium is the emirate’s first and only air-conditioned dolphin habitat—providing refuge to dolphins and endangered seals. Opened in 2008, the Dolphinarium is a 54,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility with stadium seating for about 1,250 people to watch these sleek mammals perform their mighty remarkable moves.
The Dubai Marina is, of course, famous for its collection of skyline-defining buildings and a topnotch marina, but its white sandy shoreline features one of the best public beaches. Large and family-friendly and accessible with a fee, the beach is full of convenient accoutrements, from plenty of lounge chairs and umbrellas to lots of restaurants and restrooms—and let’s not forget, possibly the best views in all of Dubai....day or night.
Housing some 65,000 aquatic creatures, the Lost Chambers is an open-air aquarium that takes full advantage of its location in the Atlantis the Palm resort. Maintaining that a series of ruins and passageways in its Ambassador Lagoon are the underwater “lost city” of Atlantis, the aquarium keeps up its back story by providing details of the history of Atlantis alongside information on all of its various marine life. And if viewing from dry land isn’t enough, you’re invited to scuba dive or snorkel and swim among these amazing fish, mammals and animals zipping around the lagoon.
If you can imagine a water park featuring an underwater roller coaster, two surfing-wave machines named Wipeout and Riptide Flowrider, a 59-foot waterfall and more than a dozen harrowing water slides, including Tantrum Alley and Burj Surj, then you’ve got the idea of Wild Wadi. On Jumeirah Beach, near the fantastical-looking Burj al Arab, the water park is delightfully themed around the exploits of Juha, a character from Arabian folktales, and his friend Sinbad the Sailor. But don’t let that fool you—this place is designed for serious thrill seekers.
Founded in 2003, XVA Gallery specializes in contemporary art from across the Gulf region, representing both established and emerging artists, and is one of the top Dubai galleries to participate in the noteworthy London Art Fair and Art Basel Hong Kong. Dubai’s art scene has been booming, thanks in no small part to Art Dubai, the region’s international art fair now entering its 10th year, and the fast-rising gallery district in the emirate’s historic quarter, which XVA Gallery helped establish.
A charter member of Dubai’s contemporary art scene, the Majlis Gallery opened its doors in 1989. Its two-pronged mission has always been to promote expressive Middle Eastern artists and provide a meeting place for all kinds of creative minds. As a result, the gallery was instrumental in helping the Dubai art scene take hold and take off. And Majlis, located in the trendy gallery district of the Al Fahidi Historic Quarter, has itself evolved into one of the region’s premier fine art spaces.
One of the least expensive places in the world to buy gold jewelry and decorative pieces, the Gold Souk across the Dubai Creek in Deira is worth a visit if just to see the sheer scale and variety of everything bling. The souk’s narrow lanes are lined with retailers, hundreds of them, all dealing in gold. They carry a range of colors (yellow, pink, white, even purple gold), carats (starting with 18) and styles (plain, filigree, adorned with jewels or not). And all that glitters here really is gold—the government oversees all the merchandise, making sure everything is genuine and top-notch. Bartering is welcomed, so get working on that game face now.
This wetland reserve situated between Dubai Creek and the desert is apparently on the flyway route between East Africa and West Asia, making it a popular stopover for quite an amazing selection of migratory birds. With something like 175 species on site at any one time, including 500 flamingos it’s famous for, the sanctuary has two accessible hides, or platforms, where visitors can go for catching close-ups of the various birds without disturbing them.
Home to the golf-world renowned Desert Classic and the Dubai Ladies Masters, the esteemed Emirates Golf Club is yet another one of those incongruous, yet incredible, attractions in the desert. Featuring two excellent 18-hole courses—one of which even offers night tee times—and a challenging par 3, this place gives new meaning to “sand shots.”
Located in the city-size Dubai Mall, this huge double-decker indoor amusement park/video arcade is possibly the greatest childcare invention for parents intent on getting in some serious mall shopping. Created in partnership with the Japanese video-game developer, SEGA, the arcade features a whopping 170 video games and virtual-experience simulators, plus 15 thrilling rides, including a roller coaster, free-fall tower and cool mechanical tornado.
This wonderful 150-acre urban park on the outskirts of Dubai boasts three lakes, lots of greens, a small forest that serves as home to hundreds of species of birds, a dramatic waterfall and a hill that provides lovely views of the park and downtown Dubai. Much of the park is currently closed until the end of 2016 or until the work on the Dubai Canal project is completed, whichever comes first.