Dubai is a city of superlatives: It is home to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; the Dubai Mall, the world’s biggest shopping mall; and the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest performing fountain. It is a city that seeks to impress and does so with success. Initially, I did not know what to expect from Dubai. I wondered, Would the glitz and glam make the city seem artificial or contrived? The answer to this question after a day in Dubai was yes and no. Of course the city’s soaring skyscrapers are not beacons of history and tradition. However, they do have a certain charm that makes this metropolis a buzzing, happy place. I had a great time in Dubai and really enjoyed the unique experiences that the city has to offer.
Here are seven recommendations for your visit to Dubai. In contrast to my post on Old Town Dubai, this post focuses on the more modern, newly developed parts of the city.
#1. Spend a morning at the mosque.
In addition to the “superlative” structures that Dubai is known for, there exist some cultural gems worth a visit in the city’s more newly developed areas. Jumeirah Mosque is a beautiful pearl-white mosque in the heart of the city. Unlike most other mosques around the world, Jumeirah Mosque welcomes non-Muslim visitors. I truly appreciated this aspect of my trip to the UAE: Whether at Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai or the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, I consistently felt invited to learn more about the history and traditions of Islam, especially in settings where non-Muslims are not typically permitted.
I highly recommend visiting Jumeirah Mosque as part of a guided tour with the local Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The Center, whose slogan is “open doors and open minds,” organizes a variety of cultural events in Dubai, like this mosque visit and Q&A. For a mere 20 dirhams, the mosque visit includes a traditional breakfast followed by a guided tour of about 90 minutes. Upon arriving to the mosque’s reception room at around 9:45 am, you’ll sip coffee and savor syrupy pastries and dates as you get comfortable on couches lined with Bedouin cushions. The tour commences with a traditional washing, which is done by Muslims before prayer. Our gracious guide explained how to wash oneself before prayer and invited us to do the same. Then, we were provided with traditional dress to enter the mosque: men were given tunics and women were given abayas and head scarves. In the mosque, our guide discussed important aspects of the Islamic faith, such as the Five Pillars of Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca, and the differences between Sunnis and Shias. He then led a short prayer followed by a Q&A session. In our current political climate, in which Islam often gets a bad name among Westerners, this Q&A was a very enlightening learning experience. Our guide politely and insightfully answered even the toughest questions about Islam, prompting those in the audience to “open” our minds to meaningful dialogue and differing points of view.
#2. Take a snapshot of the soaring Burj Khalifa.
The Burj Khalifa is one of the primary sites that makes Dubai a city of superlatives. Although we didn’t go all the way to the top of this impressive edifice, snapping a pic of it from below was a must. Burj Khalifa measures 830 meters to the tip, which is almost a vertical kilometer. For reference, the One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the US, is 541 meters high. Pretty mind-blowing. Burj Khalifa is located in Downtown Dubai, right next to the Dubai Mall and the Dubai Fountain.
#3. Watch water dance at the Dubai Fountain show.
This crazy fountain show, known as the largest in the world, was one of the highlights of my day. Think about it – have you ever seen water dance before? The vertical streams of water shoot sky high and swerve back and forth to the tune of some rockin’ Middle Eastern music, making this spectacle really fun to watch. I had never seen anything like this before, and the joyful nature of the show simply puts you in a good mood.
#4. Take a coffee break at the Dubai Mall.
The Dubai Mall is entertaining to explore for its sheer size and the amount of patrons visiting at any given time. It is a mall, after all, so it’s a glimpse into what some Emiratis do on a regular basis. You’ll see locals shopping and dining in traditional dress, which is always an interesting sight for a Westerner new to the country. Pro tip: Look out for abaya stores, which offer the traditional cloak in all different colors and styles.
#5. Stroll through Madinat Jumeirah.
Madinat Jumeirah is a modern complex of hotels, shops, and restaurants designed with a traditional feel. Its wind towers and sand-colored facades are reminiscent of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood in the Old Town. This area is great for snapping pics of the Burj Al Arab, the building whose iconic image and sail shape are associated with Dubai. Although Madinat Jumeirah was difficult to enjoy in the sweltering heat we experienced while there, strolling through the shops inside was pleasant. I particularly liked the shops that featured art with an Emirati twist, as you’ll note in the photos below.
#6. Get artsy on Alserkal Avenue.
This industrial neighborhood is home to a flourishing contemporary art scene – one of the most prominent in the UAE. Wander Alserkal Avenue and the adjacent streets as you pop into swanky galleries and cool cafes. If you’re into cars, check out the vintage car showroom called Nostalgia Classic Cars Gallery. It’s stunning: I’m not even into cars, and my jaw dropped upon entering. You’ll see everything from old-school candy apple Ferraris to gleaming throwback Rolls Royces.
#7. Grab dinner and drinks with expats at JB’s Gastropub on The Walk.
The expat scene is happening in Dubai, and JB’s just may be the hotspot of it all. Although alcohol is not legal in some parts of the city, it is flowing here. Upon entering this gastropub, you’ll feel like you’re in New York or Chicago as you watch tourists and expats boozily mingle and dance to popular American music. The menu offers a wide selection of items, like charcuterie platters and delicious burgers. This area in general, known as The Walk in the Dubai Marina neighborhood, is right on the beach and has a lot of hotels, restaurants, and bars that will make an expat feel at home.
There really is no city like Dubai. It’s a whirling mixture of the old and the new, all with an over-the-top twist. Dubai may have some of the most modern, “superlative” sights in the world, but it retains a sense of tradition and culture in spite of it all. Comment below for tips to plan your trip!