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More insider guides for planning a trip to Dubai
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Prepare to be overwhelmed with superlatives and to repeatedly hear ‘the world’s biggest…’ while in Dubai – an emirate defined by its ability to evolve and astound. Even regular visitors will be tempted by something new every time they arrive – a record-breaking museum perhaps, or maybe an entire hipster neighbourhood that seemingly sprang up overnight. So, tick the must-dos off your list – attempting to squeeze all 2,722 feet (828 metres) of the Burj Khalifa into one photograph and sailing a traditional abra (wooden boat) across Dubai Creek, for example – but don’t ever think you’ve done Dubai, because Dubai is always on a mission to outdo itself.
Be part of the art at this modern museum
The world’s fastest-growing museum chain has finally made its way to Dubai, and, of course, the UAE version has the biggest collection of illusions in the world with 80 mind-bending exhibits to play with. The first Museum of Illusions opened in Zagreb in 2015, and six branches have popped up since, thanks to the popularity of its highly Instagrammable optical trickery.
Insider’s tip: Photos from the ‘Upside Down Room’ and ‘Head on a Platter Room’ will garner the greatest reaction on social media, while walking through the Vortex, in which participants believe the floor is moving when it isn’t, will be the most unsettling.
Contact: 00 971 4 357 3999; museumofillusions.ae
Opening times: Sun-Wed, 10am-10pm; Thurs-Fri, 10am-12am
Nearest metro: Al Fahidi
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Al Fahidi Historic District
Delve into Dubai’s forgotten past
In a forward-facing nation, history is hard to find, but look between the gaps of Dubai’s skyscrapers and the story of its early hardships and pearl-diving heritage emerges. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Dubai Museum. Part fort, the building dates back to 1787, making it the oldest in Dubai, and the museum has been in existence since 1971 – the year the UAE was formed. Some exhibits may seem a little dated, but the ragged edges add to the charm. The most impressive displays are the skeletal remains of Dubai ancestors excavated in the area, which date back to 1500 BC.
Insider’s tip: Just down the street, find the pretty courtyard café of the contemporary art-focused XVA Gallery.
Contact: 00 971 4 353 1862; dubaiculture.gov.ae
Opening times: Sat-Thurs, 8.30am-8.30pm; Friday, 2.30pm-8.30pm,
Nearest metro: Al Fahidi
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Follow your tastebuds in the souks
Dubai’s souks are best explored on a guided walking tour and the most locally renowned of them are hosted by Frying Pan Adventures. Founder Arva Saleem Ahmed and her growing team curate culinary walks peppered with Arabian, Indian and Iranian food tastings, while covering the ‘Old Dubai’ essentials of being ferried across Dubai Creek on a cheap-as-chips abra, shopping at the spice and textile souks and exploring the historic Al Fahidi neighbourhood. The ‘Dubai Souks and Creekside Food Walk’ lasts around four hours and is the most comprehensive tour offered.
Insider’s tip: Tours require a minimum of four guests. Bring your own earphones for the audio guide and wear comfortable walking shoes.
Contact: 00 971 56 471 8244; fryingpanadventures.com
Opening times: Guided walks start from 9.30am October to April; and from 4.30pm all year round
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Get the picture at Dubai Frame
At ground level in Zabeel Park, circumnavigate Dubai Frame to see the contrasting faces of this emirate – ‘Old Dubai’ is framed from one direction and ‘New Dubai’ from the other. Inside, it’s essentially a footbridge with a glass floor, 500 feet (150 metres) up in the sky, giving guests a vertiginous thrill as they look down and a 360-degree view of Dubai as they look out.
Insider’s tip: Once you’ve seen the old and the new through the Frame, visit the Future Dubai Gallery on the mezzanine floor to find out what tomorrow looks like for this fast-paced metropolis.
Opening times: Daily, 9am-9pm
Nearest metro: Al Jafiliya
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Light-up nocturnal outings
As romantic as it is family-friendly, Dubai Garden Glow is the world’s largest glow-in-the-dark theme park featuring 10 million energy-saving bulbs in fanciful illuminated formations of giant coral reefs filled with delightful Disney-esque jelly fish, exotic birds perched in gilded aviaries, Seventies-worthy disco tunnels and glistening models of local landmarks. There are also 100 animatronic dinosaurs for budding paleontologists to walk among.
Insider’s tip: Cool down at the on-site Ice Park where 5,000 tonnes of ice have been fashioned into a small airplane, a winged horse and carriage and a miniature Burj Khalifa, among other things.
Contact: 00 971 52 478 5605; dubaigardenglow.com
Opening times: From October to April, see website for details
Nearest metro: Al Jafiliya
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Tick off the major Downtown highlights
The world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, neighbours the sprawling, designer label-filled Dubai Mall and the dancing Dubai Fountain, and between them they share a patch of Downtown Dubai famed for prestige, evident right down to the parking lots lined with Maseratis and Lamborghinis. Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai, owns a penthouse in the tower, which also houses the At the Top observation deck, At.mosphere restaurant and Armani Hotel Dubai.
Insider’s tip: The Dubai Fountain is best viewed by night when laser and light shows accompany the music. Also note that the Dubai Mall is equivalent in size to 50 football pitches, so you should wear comfortable shoes.
Contact: burjkhalifa.ae; thedubaimall.com
Opening times: Dubai Fountain shows start 1pm and 1.30pm, Saturday to Thursday; 1pm and 2pm on Friday, then every half hour from 6pm to 11pm daily; The Dubai Mall, daily, 10am-12am
Nearest metro: Burj Khalifa
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Enjoy an alternative night at the opera
Dhow-shaped in a nod to traditional Arabian ships, the 2,000-seat Dubai Opera opened with a promise to bring cultural diversity to entertainment in the region, and delivers shows that range from music by Morcheeba and comedy by Al Murray (The Pub Landlord) to ballets of the Swan Lake variety and the BBC Proms. Plus, Antipodean super-chef Sean Connolly has a seafood and steak brasserie on the top floor.
Insider’s tip: Head to the nearby Armani/Ristorante for refined Italian pre-theatre menus, served from 5.30pm at AED 250 for two courses and AED 300 (£64) for three.
Contact: 00 971 4 440 8888; dubaiopera.com
Opening times: Evening performances start between 7pm-8pm
Nearest metro: Burj Khalifa
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Al Barsha South
See 100 million flowers in one day
Imagine a universe made of flowers and you’re picturing Dubai Miracle Garden, winner of a Guinness World Record for the largest floral arrangement ever created, which takes the form of a 70-metre-long A380 airplane resplendent in a rainbow of petals. Stroll beneath heart-shaped trellises swollen with petunias along the Avenue of Love, the most photographed display at the attraction, and see houses, windmills and even a Mercedes, all repurposed as planters for marigolds, roses, calendulas and tulips.
Insider’s tip: The Butterfly Garden, enclosed and aflutter with myriad species, is popular with children; visit during school hours if you want the winged beauties all to yourself.
Contact: 00 971 4 422 8902; visitdubai.com
Opening times: December to May, see website for details
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Spend an afternoon at Dubai’s hippest beach
At The Beach JBR, prove to the kids you’ve still got what it takes to make it around an inflatable floating assault course at sea (Aqua Park, AED 150/£30 for adults; AED 120/£25 for children), then refuel at one of the many restaurants on the strip. As night falls, potter among the market stalls, where you can learn how to create bottled sand art and pick up customised flip-flops.
Insider’s tip: Try the succulent peppered clams at Aprons & Hammers, but note that restaurants at The Beach don’t serve alcohol unless they’re part of a hotel complex.
Contact: 00 971 4 317 3999; thebeach.ae
Opening times: Sun-Wed, 10am-11pm; Thur-Sat, 10am-12am
Nearest metro: Jumeirah Lakes Towers
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Set your heart racing at this supersized amusement park
Mix international movie park Motiongate with Indian blockbuster-inspired Bollywood Parks, throw in a Polynesian-themed hotel, Legoland and Legoland Waterpark, and what have you got? Dubai Parks and Resorts. This multiplex of amusement offers high-speed rides, a village of Smurfs, live Bollywood-style theatre, replicated street scenes of Mumbai and a primary-coloured world made of kids’ building blocks.
Insider’s tip: If your clan is mad about parks, check into the on-site Lapita Hotel and receive unlimited multi-park access and complimentary Q-fast to Motiongate and Bollywood Parks for the duration of your stay.
Contact: 00 971 4 820 0000; dubaiparksandresorts.com
Opening times: Hours vary across parks and seasons, see website for details
Nearest metro: UAE Exchange Station (from here a taxi will cost around AED 40/£8)