This guest post is by Monica Chapon, a California-based desert enthusiast:
Would you believe me if I told you that there’s much more to Dubai than glamour and gold?
The United Arab Emirates is a country of duality. It’s a mix of old and new, tradition and modernity, of vast orange desert and abundant development. It’s a place I didn’t expect to form a deep connection with or return to as often as I have.
Seven emirates, or “states” make up the UAE, and each of them offers something unique. Because the country is relatively small – roughly the size of Maine in the US – it’s possible to visit each of them quite easily.
Without a doubt, Dubai (also the name of its capital city) is the best known of all.
Expats from all over the world make up roughly 80% of the UAE’s population and the majority of them reside in Dubai. A booming oil economy created quick and tremendous growth for the country, which covered Dubai’s desert floor in shining skyscrapers and architectural feats not dreamed of elsewhere.
Outside of the city, the natural desert landscape is king. The multi-colored mountains, lush green date farms, and rolling orange dunes are a welcome treat for the eyes.
For visitors, this means a plentiful array of things to do in Dubai and nearby states. From city to nature, here are the top sights you can’t miss.
The Best Things to Do in Dubai (and Beyond)
1. Visit the Burj Khalifa
Dubai is home to the tallest building in the world: the Burj Khalifa. The skyline wouldn’t be the same without it!
This towering skyscraper can be seen all around the city. It stands at 2,722 feet tall (for reference, the Eiffel Tower is 984 feet tall). When skies are clear, it’s possible to see straight across the Persian Gulf to the shores of Iran from the top.
Architect Adrian Smith designed the Burj Khalifa’s unique shape after the spider lily, a regional desert flower. It took six years to complete the structure.
Visitors can not only dine at one of several restaurants located inside the tower, but they can also visit observation decks on the 124th, 125th, and the 148th floors.
2. Take an Abra to the Deira Grand Souk
If you are anything like me, then a trip to the Middle East would not be complete without exploring the souks (markets) and taking in a bit of traditional life. Thankfully there are pockets of this kind of atmosphere sprinkled throughout Dubai even today–though full disclosure:they are becoming smaller and smaller.
One of the most traditional things to do in Dubai is to take an abra across Dubai Creek. Abras are the oldest form of public transportation in Dubai. Historically, these wooden boats enabled locals to cross the waters before the highways were built. They shuttled both men and materials across the creek between Deira and Bur Dubai.
Nowadays, abras are used as water taxis. They are extremely cheap to use (roughly 25 cents per person) and connect “new Dubai” to “old Dubai” and its souks.
Aromatic spices, clothing, kitchen goods and souvenirs fill the Deira Grand Souk to the brim. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon and awaken the senses.
3. Fast-paced Ferrari World
For adrenaline junkies out there, the UAE is home to the fastest roller coaster in the world; the Formula Rossa. And forget cartoon-character-themed amusement parks; this coaster resides at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. By now you are noticing the UAE’s obsession with the “fastest” and “tallest.”
Roughly one hour from downtown Dubai, Ferrari World is an easy trip and is mostly indoors — an important feature given how hot the summers can be. If you are a fan of free-falls, loops, and drops, then Ferrari World is a must! With roughly 40 rides and attractions, it’s a fun spot if you’re traveling in a group or have made some friends during your trip.
The current cost of entry is roughly $30 USD.
4. Take in the Dubai Miracle Garden
The Dubai Miracle Garden grounds feel a lot like stepping directly into the pages of Alice in Wonderland. Obscenely bright and colorful flowers blanket over 780,000 square feet of land. And remember, this is a desert!
Some 50 million flowers completely transform this attraction. They are arranged in every configuration imaginable, from low gardens on the ground to animatronic sculptures. You read that right: animatronic flower sculptures! It’s a colorful feast for the eyes and a bright change of pace.
Food stalls are located on-site, with tables and chairs set up throughout. The entire garden is accessible by foot, but golf carts are available if needed. The cost of entry is roughly $14 USD.
5. Appreciate art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Calling all art lovers! The famous Louvre in Paris now has an art museum located in the UAE, and the architecture is even more stunning than the original.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017. It is the first of several museums that will be built in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District and the largest art museum on the Arabian Peninsula. One of its primary goals is to bridge the divide between Eastern and Western art.
I’ve noticed that the arts have played a more pronounced role in the UAE over the last five years, meaning more public sculptures, more art galleries, and more creative expression in general.
Admission costs roughly $16 USD and exhibitions change four times per year. Additionally, visitors can take a yoga class under the dome twice per day. How cool is that?
6. Enjoy solitude in the Arabian Desert
The Arabian Desert is one of my favorite places on the planet. In fact, it’s the sole reason I chose to visit the UAE in the first place many years ago (not to mention it’s the one place I go back to on every single visit).
Now, there are smaller and closer deserts you can visit just outside of Dubai that offer dinner buffets, belly dancing shows, and dune-bashing. And don’t get me wrong: these are great for a tiny taste of the desert.
But for me, the four-hour trek into the heart of the Empty Quarter is not just “worth it” but is actually necessary to get to the true Arabian Desert. While there are no flashy shows or buffets, there are much more satisfying sights to be seen.
Picture endless orange sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, or camels walking lazily across the scorched earth. Time stands still here, with only the changing skies to mark your days.
The Arabian Desert offers unbelievable stargazing opportunities if you camp overnight; I saw more shooting stars in one evening than in my entire life beforehand.
While it is easy to drive in the UAE in general, I do recommend hiring a skilled driver familiar with the landscape for this destination. Driving on dunes in the middle of nowhere is a dangerous feat.
7. Ascend the impressive Dubai Frame
One of the more recent architectural feats in Dubai, this unique building-slash-sculpture is a symbol of uniting the old and new.
Designed like an ornate gold picture frame, the Dubai Frame in Zabeel Park actually positions modern Dubai inside of a perfect rectangle, or, picture frame, if you view it at the correct angle.
For roughly $13 USD, daring visitors can take the fast 75-second elevator ride up to the Sky Deck, which showcases panoramic views of the city and the Burj Khalifa from atop the frame.
8. Relax on the beach
In a place noted mostly for its desert and skyscrapers, sometimes a relaxing beach day under the hot Arabian sun can take a back seat on the attractions list. But it is one of the most unexpected ways to spend a day in the UAE.
Umm Suqeim Beach in Dubai is a flat, very pretty stretch of sand along the ultra-turquoise Persian (or Arabian) Gulf. It is a public beach, so you do not need to be staying at any specific hotel to gain access (like many others), though it is also home to the sailboat-shaped Burj al-Arab ultra-luxury hotel.
The northern end of Umm Suqeim Beach allows activities like kite surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding, if you’re feeling full of energy. Both rentals and lessons are available.
Alternately, Fujairah (an hour and a half east of Dubai, on the Arabian Sea) offers excellent white-sand beaches and clear turquoise waters that would seem more at home in the tropics. Truly, my last visit there was one of the best days of my entire trip.
9. Experience the Dubai Fountain
This dancing fountain is another item on Dubai’s long list of over-the-top attractions.
Near the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Fountain combines perfectly timed surges of water with various musical styles. Love it or hate it, it’s a spectacular sight — particularly with the nighttime light show.
Pro tip: There are a number of restaurants inside of Dubai Mall that overlook the fountain, giving viewers the ultimate and uninterrupted vantage point (all for the price of a tasty dinner). It’s a popular and often-crowded attraction, so this is the best way to view the show.
10. Tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is the largest mosque in the entire country. It is opulent, and inspired by Persian, Ottoman, and Indo-Islamic styles. Hundreds of expert craftsmen were flown in to create the intricate metalwork and mosaic decorations. The result is certainly grand.
This mosque is a key place of worship, and can hold up to ten thousand people at a time. Thankfully, tourists are welcome to visit the mosque (free) outside of prayer times. Women will need to cover their heads and wear modest clothing to enter.
The blend of old and new in is part of the UAE’s beauty. And while many visit Dubai for its glamour and luxury, I highly recommend exploring some of the traditional and natural spaces, too!
While one post can’t possibly contain all of the mystery to be explored here, this is a great sampling of things to do in Dubai (and vicinity) that will undoubtedly leave you wanting more!
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About the author: Monica Chapon has traveled to six continents solo and chronicles her adventures on her blog, This Rare Earth. She can usually be found exploring the deserts of the world, taking impromptu road trips, or performing as an aerialist on silks. Follow along with Monica’s adventures on Instagram.