Dubai has grown into a thriving metropolis. In the last 30 years the population has exploded, and now over 80 percent of the emirate's inhabitants are expats. Just as the population has mushroomed, so has the assortment of things to see and do in Dubai.
Expats should note that the time of year makes a huge difference when planning leisure pursuits; summer months (June to August) are best spent inside while the winter (November to January) offers plenty of outdoor fun and entertainment. The month of Ramadan is generally a quieter time when people visit family and friends and take some time for reflection, so opening hours will reflect this in some cases – be sure to confirm beforehand.
Below are some of our favourite things to see and do in Dubai.
Best sightseeing in Dubai
At 829.8m tall, the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building and certainly Dubai’s most famous landmark. We recommend those new to the city put a visit to this unparalleled piece of construction right at the top of their list, and get a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Dubai from the building’s spectacular observation deck on the 148th floor. A nighttime visit is particularly special, and presents staggering panoramas of the emirate’s shimmering skyline.
Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates
Dubai Mall, which provides entry to the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Aquarium, is a shopping mecca. Stores are seemingly endless, and the mall is home to a massive cinema complex, innumerable eateries of all kinds, an ice rink, a colossal arcade and live entertainment venues.
One of the other sprawling shopping complexes in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates, home to the famous Ski Dubai. This indoor slope is a favourite among visitors and residents alike, and is a fun way to escape the desert heat. Complete with chair lifts and even a penguin enclosure, it really is something to behold. The mall also contains boundless shopping opportunities, restaurants galore and various entertainment areas.
When exploring their new city, we recommend expats make a stop at the enthralling Dubai Museum, and take the kids along. Housed in the Al-Fahidi Fort, which was built in 1787 to defend Dubai Creek, the museum is a fascinating journey back in time. Restored with original materials, including traditional coral blocks, wooden poles, mud and palm fronds, the fort gives one a glimpse into its storied history, and houses spectacular museum exhibits. From traditional boats and a wind tower to weaponry, musical instruments, and various other displays covering aspects of traditional Emirati life, as well as ancient artefacts.
On the northern bank of Dubai Creek, Deira is a hotspot among travellers who enjoy browsing its famous souks. Deira Gold Souk is the largest gold bazaar in the world and draws visitors from all over, while the Deira Spice Souk is equally popular and a feast for the senses, selling every imaginable spice, from frankincense to sumac. The Waterfront Market, a sprawling fish market, is more like an assault on the senses, but good for great bargains on fresh fish.
Heritage and Diving Village
For those expats interested in the ancient arts of pearl diving and dhow building, the Heritage and Diving Village is the ticket. Showcasing Dubai’s cultural and maritime heritage, the village also recreated traditional Bedouin life, with Persian homes, a traditional coffee house, and even a small souk, with regular live music and dance performances held here too.
Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
Expat families will love Dubai’s famous aquarium. Housed on the ground floor of the Dubai Mall, this massive aquarium is home to over 140 species of sea life, best enjoyed from the tunnels in the Underwater Zoo. One could also take a glass-bottom boat tour, go snorkelling in the tank and even do some shark diving.
Dubai Parks and Resorts
For a day of boundless fun, new arrivals in Dubai should head to Dubai Parks and Resorts. This sprawling project boasts a range of world-class theme parks, including Motiongate, which has rides based around Hollywood blockbusters, Bollywood Parks, which similarly brings Bollywood films to life, Legoland Dubai, and Legoland Waterpark, a huge hit with the kids. After a day of fun, hungry revellers flock to Riverland Dubai which boasts an array of eateries and evening entertainment.
Another popular way to stave off the searing desert heat is a visit to this waterpark. Based at Atlantis, The Palm on the Palm Jumeirah (the emirate’s famous manmade island), Aquaventure Park is home to a few truly epic waterslides, among them the world’s longest, the Aquaconda, and the Leap of Faith, a monstrous nine-storey slide. Visitors can also enjoy underwater safaris using Sea TREK helmets, or kick back on the pristine stretch of beach, while the kids frolic in the dedicated water play area.
Dubai Miracle Garden
Another 'world’s biggest' in a city intent on doing everything bigger and better is the Dubai Miracle Garden, the world’s largest flower garden, spanning 2,000 square metres and boasting millions of flowers. Expats in need of some fresh air can enjoy peaceful strolls amid fragrant blooms, marvelling at the jaw-dropping floral displays, including a flower version of the Burj Khalifa.
A favourite way to spend a weekend in Dubai is desert, or dune, bashing. Undertaken either with one's own vehicle or as part of an organised outing, this is a fun way to spend a couple of hours in the otherwise sandy oblivion. Once comfortable in the desert, grab the GPS and a tent and head out for an afternoon drive; make camp in time for the sunset and enjoy the peace.
Big Bus Tour
The best way for expats to get a complete overview of Dubai is to take the Big Bus Tour. A hop-on-hop-off service is offered from several major landmarks and tourist attractions giving passengers the opportunity to sightsee without the hassle of parking or getting lost. It makes for an informative couple of hours, and offers a good way to get a feel for this amazing city.