After living in the United Arab Emirates for 2,5 years, we have spent a fair share of time in the golden city of Dubai. We were living in Abu Dhabi, just about an hour away, so the first couple of months we were basically on staycation every weekend.
This post gives our thoughts on the 14 main things not to miss if you ever find yourself with time to spare and money to spend in Dubai. You can read through each of them to see what you might find most interesting before deciding on your itinerary. Remember, this is just our humble opinion. Although we did live here like locals, you may have different tastes or preferences – Don’t be hesitant to visit other sights just because they didn’t make our list!
- Dubai Marina
- The Walk at JBR and SkyDive Dubai
- Drift Beach Club
- The Boardwalk of Palm Jumeirah
- Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa
- Dubai Frame
- Experience the desert
- Dubai Creek
- Dubai Miracle Garden
- Last Exit and Mad Exit
- Burj Al Arab and Umm Suqeim Beach
- Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
- Dubai’s deserted road
- Meydan Golf- and Racecourse
1. Dubai Marina
Dubai Marina is man-made and built on artificial land. The foundation must be pretty solid because some massive skyscrapers are resting on it. Some of them are amongst the highest in the world. There are actually not many places in the world, where buildings this tall rise so close to the marina and the sea. It’s only possible when it has been artificially made.
There is a walkway around the whole marina, which is perfect for a short stroll. At least during the winter months. Otherwise, there are also plenty of cafes to choose from, should you need a break from the scorching sun. We didn’t keep count, but according to their website they have 69 restaurants to keep you full and 305 outlets to keep you entertained. The walkway is 7 km long, so it will probably not keep you busy for a full day unless you stop for a lot of lattes!
You can drop in at Dubai Marina Mall, which is a “smaller” mall compared to many equivalents in the UAE. It will definitely have everything you are looking for anyway.
While the area seems perfect for a visit during the day, it is really something else when night falls, and the buildings light up. You should plan a dinner in the area, perhaps at the hip Pier 7 or next door at our personal favourite: Shades Restaurant at the Address Hotel. It is a bit easier on the wallet, and have an intimate setting next to the pool with great views of the surrounding skyscrapers. Happy hour is from 6 to 8pm – You are welcome.
2. The Walk at JBR and SkyDive Dubai
Right next to Dubai Marina, you’ll find The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residences. It is basically a walkway along Jumeirah Beach, where the residences refer to the nearby skyscrapers. As you will most likely be a visitor, the beach walk should be your main focus in this area. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops along the walk, most of which boasts a sea view.
Compared to other areas of Dubai, the prices do not seem unreasonably high, so when hunger hits, it should be easy to satisfy.
The beach is for public use; however, bring your own towel, and preferably an umbrella. It’s also possible to pay for sunbed rentals. The showers also require some sort of payment, it isn’t too much though, and luckily the toilets are free. Besides the public beach, plenty of hotels and resorts are located in this area, many of which are right on the beach. These resorts will offer a more luxurious stay and beach experience and should give you that 5-star Dubai feeling.
At one end of Jumeirah Beach, you find not only the entrance to the Dubai Palm Island but also SkyDive Dubai! This is the primary place for skydiving in the UAE, and it’s a memorable experience. You can read our blog post about the whole thing right here.
At the other end, you will soon find the new Ferris wheel Ain Dubai, meaning, of course, Dubai Eye. It will open in time for the 2020 World Expo and is sure to be the largest Ferris wheel in the world. Standing 250m tall, it is double the height of the famous London Eye. That will surely be an attraction worth a visit, from where you can also observe the cool shape of the Palm Island.
3. Drift Beach Club
As mentioned above, there are plenty of resorts and hotels located at Jumeirah Beach. But a different technique that we like to employ is to book a cheap hotel and splurge on spending a day in a beach club instead. We never spend much time at the hotel, and we want a better pool and beach experience than what most hotels can offer. So naturally, we’ll share with you our favourite beach club in the UAE.
Drift Beach Club – located at the One&Only Resort by the end of Jumeirah Beach.
It is not cheap, but a day here is destined to be awesome! You should pre-book a sunlounger online, and the price is usually 70 USD on weekdays and 80 USD on weekends. They might have some offers on specific days, such as half price for ladies, two for one, special summer prices, or the like, so remember to look out for that. No need to pay more than you have to! This is a very “instagrammable” place, and it will surely fulfil your luxurious pool and beach cravings for a bit.
The food and drinks are surprisingly good. Prices on those are of course not for the faint of heart, but we noticed that full wine bottles were priced relatively competitively. Remember to check that out if you spend an entire day. In the afternoon they usually have a DJ coming, and the whole place liven up a bit. It never gets to the party level of Nikki Beach and the like, but if that’s your thing you will have plenty of other beach clubs to choose from in Dubai.
4. The Boardwalk of Palm Jumeirah
The famed Palm Island in Dubai is one of the largest artificial islands in the world. To see it from above, you either need to be lucky with your plane seat on arrival, book a heli flight or do like we did and take the leap on a tandem skydive jump!
Of course, it is a bit simpler to see it from ground level. You can take a tram or drive down the centre of the island, straight towards the Atlantis Hotel, where you will find a boardwalk that surrounds the entire Palm. It’s 6 meters wide and continues for 11 kilometres. You can walk it in its entirety, but especially on warm summer days, it might be easier just to drive around.
Naturally, some parts of it are more interesting than others. Our favourite is the far left (west) side where you can enjoy spectacular views of the Marina. The picture above is taken on one of those walks, making the Marina look mighty impressive.
We don’t suggest going here in the middle of the day when the sun is too aggressive, especially during summer, at least not if you want to be able to enjoy the walk properly. This little excursion can also serve as a way to save some of your hard-earned wonga. It’s a cheap way to experience waterfront views of Dubai, instead of spending big money on a dhow cruise. From there you will also see the plane take off with aspiring skydivers, as well as the parachutes spiralling down. Maybe this will inspire you to take the leap yourself?
5. Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa
The most famous tourist attractions in Dubai are found downtown. Here you can spend countless hours exploring the biggest mall in the world, Dubai Mall. You can also experience the world’s largest coordinated fountain and the world’s tallest building. Quite a few records for one small area. Most people will probably not feel like they have truly been to Dubai without experiencing these sights. And they are indeed impressive.
Burj Khalifa is insanely tall – when you view it from the base, it almost doesn’t look real. It only gets better when the water of Dubai Fountain starts dancing directly in front of it. Rising with the speedy elevator up to the 125th floor (or 148th if you are even more flushed with cash) gives you a chance to see Dubai from the sky – most notably how empty it actually is and how much construction is still going on. The view is not as good as the Empire State Building or the like, because the skyline of Downtown Dubai is not as impressive. But if you are in the neighbourhood, we would still argue it’s worth the entry fee of about 40 USD.
Dubai Mall has some fun things as well. There’s a full-size ice rink, super large fountain walls, dinosaur skeletons, a gold souq and of course all the shops, cafes and restaurants that you would expect. Most impressive is the massive aquarium, in which even beginners can dive with colourful fish, manta rays and various sharks. We would recommend you bring a jacket or a sweater for your stroll around the mall – not because you need to cover up in Dubai, but because they are quite aggressive with the air-conditioning. That’s a general “problem” in the country, particularly so in malls and restaurants for some reason. If you decide to wander about in shorts and a t-shirt – don’t tell us we didn’t warn you!
The fountain goes off every half hour during the evening and is best experienced by having dinner or a snack in the area outside. Note that no alcohol is available there, but you might be able to find a nearby hotel with an outside terrace. There are also two shows during lunch at 12.30 and 1pm every day. It is definitely an experience, and the whole set-up is quite impressive. If you can, you should find a spot from where you can see Burj Khalifa as well, as it will flicker with light in connection to the fountain show.
6. Dubai Frame
Dubai Frame is one of the newest large-scale attractions in Dubai. With its 150m tall gold-plated exterior glittering in the sun, it is hard to overlook. It’s a mix of an art installation, a museum and an observation deck and the building itself is quite impressive.
Looking at it up close, you wonder how the top is held up. The entrance fee is smaller than many others in Dubai, and at 14 USD (half for kids) we definitely think it is worth it. You should plan your arrival relatively early to avoid the main tourist hordes, as the elevators can cause some queuing. Early morning is generally a good time to explore anywhere in Dubai, as people tend to sleep in.
The idea of the frame is to illustrate the heritage of Dubai and how things used to be. It should then be compared to “New Dubai” and their vision for the future. From the top, you have the view of old Dubai on one side, and on the other side the view of new Dubai. As you step in, you get introduced to the heritage of the city and country in general. Then you get stuffed inside an elevator with a great view on the way up. The theme at the top is a bit futuristic, and the biggest gimmick is definitely the glass floors, which caught a few people by surprise when we visited. That’s the best part.
After getting stuffed inside another elevator, you descend down to the vision for the future. There is a very ambitious video, which, without revealing too much, actually turned out to be worth a watch. All in all, a great airconditioned place to spend a bit of time in Dubai.
7. Experience the desert
Most people would say that if you visit Dubai, you should go on a desert safari. We have, of course, tried one, and we would not recommend it. For starters, it is fake culture, the food is not great, and the entertainment is mediocre at best. Most importantly, there is a significant environmental impact on the surrounding desert.
Don’t get us wrong though – we highly recommend experiencing the desert! It is, without a doubt, our favourite place in the UAE. The country does not have much raw nature, but the desert makes up for that with the vast wildness and deep sense of serenity it offers.
The most significant environmental factor on a classic desert safari is the dune bashing. Then comes the question of animal tourism and whether you should jump on a camel or not (we have covered that topic extensively on our Egypt page). The dune bashing, fun as it may sound, is actually messing up the delicate ecosystem of the desert quite severely. It is much, much better to simply hike around the desert. So, just take a car or taxi there, and walk out into the wild. It is a great workout too, with the deep sand really challenging your leg muscles.
When living in the UAE, going to the desert was our favourite thing to do on the weekends. We would drive out there, watch the sunset over the dunes, start a bonfire, have a BBQ and then camp under the stars. You haven’t truly experienced the desert until you have been sleeping under the stars and woken up by a noisy sand-buggy at 2am…
8. Dubai Creek
Dubai Creek and the famous Gold Souq is located in an area called Bur Dubai – also known as “Old Dubai”. The boat ride from one side of the creek to the Gold Souq costs 1 dirham per person (20 cents). It’s dirt cheap, and the short boat ride was the part we liked the most in the area. The trip can be a bit chaotic, but just jump on and go with the flow. It offers a bit of genuine culture and shows the real Dubai heritage in a single 2-minute boat ride. What’s not to like?
The Gold Souq is apparently the place on Earth where the most gold is exchanged. Being Dubai, you can, of course, also experience the world’s largest gold ring. It is pretty easy to find – just go for the one shop with most people outside.
You can buy all sorts of things in the souq, not only gold. They have spices, carpets, Moroccan lamps, as well as too many fake bags and watches. You will have to politely say no to A LOT of hustlers, but that’s the case in most markets, right?
The souq is not our favourite place in Dubai, but a lot of people we brought here simply loved it. We rarely shop and are definitely trying to avoid buying any useless s*** including most souvenirs. We just end up having to carry it in our backpacks around the world, which hurts not only our wallets but also our backs and thighs.
9. Dubai Miracle Garden
We went here to kill some time before catching a flight. We were flying quite late but wanted to go to Dubai and chill a bit before heading to the airport. The Dubai Miracle Garden was a perfect choice. We were here in March, and the weather was absolutely perfect for a walk around this flower extravaganza.
World records are quite the theme of the UAE, which you will quickly notice if you spend just a short amount of time in the country. Of course, this place has also won plenty of Guinness World Records, one of which is illustrated in the picture. It’s their main attraction – a full-size Airbus A380 – the largest passenger plane in the world, full of flowers.
The Miracle Garden is only open from mid-November to mid-May, but we still don’t want to think about how much water they are using to keep the garden blooming in this desert climate. It will probably break our small sustainability hearts. But it was definitely a beautiful and impressive garden. The entry fee is 14 USD, and we feel it’s worth it, especially considering the size of the place. They also have some small shops for food and drinks, but nothing super fancy if that’s your thing.
There is a Butterfly Garden right next to the Miracle Garden, which we did not have time to see. It’s supposed to be quite nice, so you might consider dropping by there as well if you are in the neighbourhood.
10. Last Exit and Mad Exit
“Last Exit” and “Mad Exit” on the highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two places you know very well if you take that road trip once in a while. They are located on the border between the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi on both sides of the road. There’s no real difference between the two emirates as a driver, so the border is symbolic.
Last Exit is themed as an American trailer park. It’s basically an advanced food-truck concept instead of a dull and ordinary rest stop. Mad Exit is themed based on the movie “Mad Max” with some very cool and deadly-looking cars and trucks scattered all over the place. The theme is very realistic, as just like the movie, it is located in the desert.
Both stops are very detailed, and there is a lot to look at. It’s perfect if you need a drink, a cup of coffee, something to eat or perhaps a bathroom break on the road. The visit does not have to take more than 5 minutes, but it is a fun stop if you are going that way anyway. Even if you are in a taxi, you can just ask the driver to make a quick stop. There’s really only one highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and you can’t miss it. Just look for the large signs stating “Last Exit”.
11. Burj Al Arab and Umm Suqeim Beach
To be honest, we have never been inside Burj Al Arab, also known as The Sail. You can probably guess why… the price is relatively steep, and there is no free access for the public. The hotel claims to be the most luxurious in the world and the only one worthy of 7 stars. We have no way of telling whether that’s true, but it sure looks fancy. If you have been, please let us know if the hotel really is THAT awesome?
It is a beautiful building, and you can easily enjoy the architecture from the outside. You can either book a room in a nearby hotel, eat at a beach restaurant on one of those, or visit the public beach known as Umm Suqeim Beach. It is a lovely beach which is actually not so crowded compared to others in Dubai. We used to pay a quick visit whenever we were going to the Danish Consulate – it’s located right next door. Convenient, right?
You can also rent some jetskies and see it from the water. Just remember to go in the morning then, where the sea is calmer. We went in the afternoon and had huge waves. That meant Nick’s parents had to go for an unintentional swim. On a second thought, that was pretty hilarious so maybe you should go in the afternoon as well!
You can also book a meal in the restaurants in Burj Al Arab itself. It is a slightly pricier option, but you may get a good deal if you go for lunch. There is also a luxurious afternoon tea, which is said to be quite good with a beautiful view.
12. Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding was something we had never even heard about before arriving in the UAE. When Kia started working, the company arranged for new employees to participate in one of their lunches as part of onboarding. Otherwise, we would probably never have tried it.
The centre is run by local Emiratis, and the idea is to bridge the gap between myth and reality. When you go for lunch or dinner, you are basically allowed to ask any questions about the local culture and religion, critical or otherwise. These could be questions you are otherwise not allowed to ask, or where you may feel uncomfortable doing so. Everything is allowed here, even if the question may sound a tiny bit racist or just plain dumb.
We both went once for their Iftar event during Ramadan the first year we lived there. Never having been in the Middle East before, we had a lot of questions. It was a good experience where they show you around the local mosque, you eat real Emirati food, and of course just talk and enjoy the company. Both local men and women volunteer here and support the initiative. Therefore the event is quite cheap. If you are interested in understanding the Emiratis and their culture, or at least hear things from their perspective, then you should definitely go! It is super close to the creek, so you can easily combine this with a visit to the Gold Souq.
13. Dubai's deserted road
We had seen so many amazing photos from Dubai where the desert have reclaimed the roads – with a beautiful downtown skyline in the background. If you have googled Dubai, or been on Instagram, you probably know what we are talking about. It looks pretty cool! Unfortunately, we have to disappoint you. Those photos are fake. This is what the roads actually look like. Still quite cool but there’s no epic skyline. As many people before us, we realised that the location of these half-deserted roads would never be as picture-perfect as on Instagram.
It was a beautiful day out in the dunes though, and you can definitely use the area to practice some light desert driving. The desert here is pretty much in the city, and there shouldn’t be too much of an impact on any delicate desert ecosystem. That means it’s a great way to have some fun, driving in the sand without too much risk. We had a lovely day out and also found time to collect a little trash.
To find the deserted roads, just search google maps for “Dubai’s Half Desert Road”.
14. Meydan Golf- and Racecourse
We went to the Dubai World Cup 2018 at Meydan Racecourse. It was a great event. You would probably have a better time if you dress up a little and wear a hat. Everybody who attends are looking very fancy indeed, and that’s of course part of the fun. We had never been to a real horse race before but heard that this was the ultimate one. It definitely seemed like that could be true.
We had a great time here and would highly recommend it for a day out and about. It happens during the last weekend of March every year. There are also other events throughout the year though, and you can come over to play a round of golf any day of the week. We actually took our first ever golf lesson here, and really liked it. We never became great golfers, but we sure had fun pretending! All in all, not a bad place to spend a day.
Of course, there are many other things you can do in Dubai, and not everyone will agree with our list. But the main point we are trying to make is that Dubai can be quite enjoyable whether you are into world records, a peaceful stroll along the beach or basking in the sun by the pool all day. When we lived in Abu Dhabi, we thoroughly enjoyed spending the odd weekend there.
However, despite all the great feats of constructions, and the world records the country holds, our all-time favourite place there will always be the desert. That’s our final tip to you: Don’t skip a trip to the giant sandbox!
Looking for suggestions on where to stay in Dubai?
Or perhaps you aren’t fully convinced to visit the UAE yet? Maybe our little travel video can do the trick!