In Dubai, just about everything is meant to be the biggest and the best and it’s no joke. Here you’ll find the world’s tallest building, the largest man-made islands, the richest horse race, the biggest shopping festival, the most massive mall and the most luxurious hotel. People who live here will tell you that Dubai is always changing, that’s an understatement. Dubai has grown so fast that it hardly seems recognizable from one year to the next. Each project has been bigger, bolder and significantly more expensive. The skyline fills with more architecturally daring high-rises. The land is carved with new canals and marinas. The sea is gifted with new artificial islands. In other words, nothing remains constant. By 2009 the global financial crisis had slowed Dubai‘s frenetic growth, but had not stopped it. The indebtedness of Dubai World, a major investment arm of the Dubai Government, led to the indefinite postponement of some of the emirate’s most ambitious projects, such as The World and Dubailand, although officials remained hushed about which of these grandiose projects would resume or be cancelled.
The pace of future construction will, no doubt, depend on the state of the global economy and Dubai’s own financial management. In the meantime, the emirate continues its transformation into a truly global city. With people from around the world who live, work and visit here come demands that the emirate continues to build its international credentials and seeks the best of the various cultures it represents. Until recently, Dubai and culture seldom came together in the same sentence. But things continue to change on this front, and today there is more than just the Dubai Museum to give you a feel for Dubai’s heritage and culture.
Although there are not so many must-see cultural attractions, Bastakiya is a picture-perfect restoration of an early Arabian neighborhood and a walk through here will give you a strong sense of Dubai’s history. Spend a little time walking or taking a dhow along the creek, the city’s lifeline where dhows haul their traditional trade. Many of Dubai‘s best art galleries are located in the city’s Al Quoz area, an otherwise unappealing industrial zone of factories and warehouses. Yet a dynamic arts community thrives here and there are a number of art spaces worth visiting. Other galleries have opened in major malls and hotels as Dubai tries to build a more culture-conscious image.
Dubai is recognized around the world for its ambitious tourism developments, which have helped turn the tiny emirate into a major travel destination in just a couple of decades. Among its most extraordinary feats, Dubai recently opened the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, one of the planet’s biggest shopping centers and the Palm Jumeirah, which is home to Atlantis, The Palm. This may be some of Dubai’s last grandiose investments for a while, though, other extravagant projects, such as The World and most of Dubailand, were put on hold or canceled as a result of the 2009 global financial crisis and Dubai’s staggering debt. It remains to be seen which of these stalled projects will get another chance.
The attractions already here are meant to impress. The fact that the indoor Ski Dubai was built is an accomplishment in its own right; that it’s located in one of the world’s hottest deserts almost exceeds imagination. And you can even visit Ski Dubai without straying more than a few feet from the comfort of your own Kempinski ski chalet or the air-conditioned corridors of Mall of the Emirates, just where you want to be in summer when the outside air is hot as Hades and will nearly melt your sunglasses. The obvious alternative is to head to Aquaventure at the Atlantis resort and spend the afternoon whizzing down water slides and dunking your head in tide pools and lagoons, just after spending the morning swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Bay.
Except in the very hottest months, Dubai is a paradise for outdoor sports, particularly for beach activities, golf and tennis. All of the major beach resorts offer watersports, and a number of excellent parks invite you to walk, jog, rollerblade or go for a bicycle ride. Camel and horse racing are important aspects of Dubai’s heritage, and the emirate today hosts championship races as well as international golf and tennis tournaments. A desert safari is one of the most fun activities you can do outside the city, complete with dune bashing in a 4WD, camel riding, delicious dining under the stars and Arabian entertainment. Those who have more time may want to consider an overnight camping adventure in the desert to get a more in-depth perspective of Arabic life outside the booming Dubai metropolis.
There’s no doubt about it: Dubai is a shopper’s paradise. It may not be high culture but it is high street. One could argue that all of the international fashions offered here are available in London, New York or Milan, that Dubai actually isn’t any less expensive than elsewhere except for during a couple of festival periods, and that if you’re really looking for authentic Middle Eastern goods, Dubai is hardly at the center of production, and you’re better off elsewhere. However, there’s something about shopping here that goes well beyond this being just a hot consumer market. It sometimes seems the whole Dubai culture revolves around spending money. This is just as true for locals and expats as for visitors. Emiratis may be a minority in their own land but you will see them en masse at the malls, since shopping is a favorite family pastime.
Young Emiratis, who are less likely to hang out in the licensed bars of Western hotels, tend to congregate in the malls. In summer, the heavily air-conditioned shopping centers are among the only places anyone wants to go, since it’s as hot as an inferno outside. So, the whole population ends up shopping through the summer, particularly during Dubai Summer Surprises, with only a marginal decrease come fall. And then there’s Dubai Shopping Festival, the apex of the year-round shopping frenzy that grows larger year by year, as people pour into Dubai from all directions to fill their bags, get some sun, and return home with more photos but diminished savings.
The diversity of goods at the many fanciful malls, markets, and stores is truly impressive, the result of Dubai’s heritage as an expanding center of trade. There are traditional souks selling everything from textiles and carpets to antiques, handicrafts, electronics, food and spices. There’s Dubai’s world-famous Gold Souk, where skillful bargaining can lend you an excellent deal. There are mega-malls and shopping centers that resemble amusement parks, world-class department stores selling the latest international fashions and independent stores and eclectic boutiques offering goods to suit particular tastes. You’ll easily find recognizable American, European and Asian products, but make sure not to overlook what Dubai more uniquely offers: jewelry of Middle Eastern design, local fashion, Arabian perfumes, carpets and tapestries, antiques, shisha pipes, and other regional goods.
Dubai’s traditional shopping areas include Al Riqqa Road, Al Dhiyafa Road, Bani Yas Square and Karama, which sells mostly pirated and counterfeit goods. Higher-end fashions are available along Jumeirah Beach Road, at the many large shopping centers, and in the duty-free complex at the airport. Now open next to the world’s tallest building, the Dubai Mall at Burj Khalifa has overtaken Mall of the Emirates and become the city’s biggest mall and the largest shopping center outside North America. It offers over a thousand retail outlets, 160 eateries, indoor ice-skating rink, giant aquarium, high-tech cinema and theme park, kids’ entertainment center, luxury hotel, and amazing water fountain show. In New Dubai, The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) is quickly becoming the trendiest place in town for outdoor shopping and people-watching. High quality Persian and other regional carpets are signature items in Dubai, which you can buy more easily, if not more inexpensively, here than in most other major cities. Most of the big shopping centers have stores selling hand-made carpets, as do the more traditional souks. Be sure to do your homework, shop around, inspect the carpets, and bargain before making your final decision, as a nice carpet can be a major investment. The most expensive are generally silk rugs from Iran.
If you’re in the Middle East and want nightlife, you come to Dubai. The many nationalities living in and visiting this relatively liberal emirate ensure a diversity that gives the place a unique richness. While the performing arts remain underdeveloped, the bar and clubbing scene puts Dubai on par with other leading resort cities. The action here revolves around hotels, since with only a few exceptions these are the places that have liquor licenses to serve drinks in restaurants, bars and clubs. Whereas you’re not allowed to drink in many Arab countries, and even in some parts of the U.A.E. such as neighboring Sharjah, non-Muslims are free to drink in Dubai. An evening at a shisha cafe, most of which are unlicensed and do not serve alcohol, is the more traditional nighttime activity for Emiratis.
Among the liveliest areas with multiple restaurants, bars, and clubs housed in one location are Madinat Jumeirah, the Pyramids at Wafi City, the Boulevard at Emirates Towers and Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa. The newest hot spot is The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). The largest hotels and resorts offer multiple entertainment options, as well. Choosing one of these entertainment complexes allows you to visit multiple establishments in a one-stop night on the town. It also minimizes your need to deal with traffic and find parking, which can be difficult on weekend nights.
The best time for live music is during the Dubai International Jazz Festival, which takes place in Dubai Media City for approximately 2 weeks in February. And it’s not just traditional jazz, acid jazz, funk jazz, oriental jazz and all kinds of other styles are part of the lineup, which has been expanding since the jazz fest first started happening in 2003. Live music is not permitted during Ramadan, when nightclubs remain closed. Still, there’s plenty to do at night during this holy month. Restaurants are full starting at sundown and Ramadan tents stay open until 2 or 3am with people talking, sipping non-alcoholic drinks and smoking shisha. Some hotel bars do serve alcohol during this period but only after dark. These bars are typically much quieter than during the rest of the year.