If Dubai makes you think of shopping malls and baking hot beaches, it’s time to think again. Post-lockdown there is a bold, new city rising from the desert sands. With a new futuristic museum that’s almost more spacey-theme-park than cold-artifact-tomb, you can bet Dubai is looking to tomorrow. It’s really no wonder why scenes from the movie dune were filmed nearby—you can similarly expect a stunning arid setting with futuristic technology. In other words, welcome to Arakis.
Be dazzled by the sleek metallic skyline sparkling in the desert sun, revealing rooftop swimming pools and terrace bars abuzz with shisha and cocktails. Surrounding the city are the rolling white sands of the Arabian desert, where visitors can surf the current dunes, ride Lawrence-of-Arabia-style camels, and enjoy decadent dinners as the flaming red sun sets on the far-reaching horizon.
The thriving, forward-thinking hub of art and science also balances a respect for tradition—especially in the steamy food wafting with spices. Flakey falafel, overflowing mezze platters, and the gooiest of baklava tempt strollers down winding side streets on food tours through the old city. You’ll also find an artsy neighborhood, more surprising spots to scuba dive and ski (really) in these arid lands. From action packed adventure to the city’s famous glamour, here’s what you should check out in Dubai.
Take a look into the future
Brand new and dubbed “the most beautiful building in Dubai” the Museum of the Future is a focus point for innovation and exploration. Part ride, part interactive exhibition, part platform for real global scientific research, visitors enter a Space Shuttle set in 2071 and “launch” into space ready to boldly go where none have gone before but humanity hypothetically will.
Journeying from Outer to Inner Space, the museum moves on to what it means to be human, with a floor dedicated to connecting to our five senses through several zen-inducing activities, such as communal gong baths. Finally, “Future Heroes” (under-10s) have a dedicated space to conduct their own experiments while parents sip a coffee from the robot-staffed café. Leave feeling all warm and fuzzy about possibilities and tittering from having the ground swept from under you.
Spend 1,001 Arabian nights at a luxurious hotel
Just 20 minutes from the airport, the newly launched 25 Hour Hotel, One Central is a massive boutique hotel that manages to be both quirky and sexy. Taking inspiration from Arabian storyteller Hakawati, the striking ‘Fountain of Tales’ in the lobby is a beautiful place to sit, relax, and read one of the hotel’s 10,000 books. A hub for creative minds, there’s a coffee-adjacent co-working space (I recommend the cold brew by independent roastery Nightjar) as well as a pottery room and an artist’s studio. Playful slogans pepper the hotel from the neon “We Are All Nomads Here” at reception to your pillow’s entreaty of “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” Large glass showers sit daringly in the center of the rooms, with curtains along the outside if you prefer. Swing in a chair hammock overlooking the central courtyard, head to the first mixed-gender sauna in the city, spin a vinyl on a vintage record player in the Analogue Circus, or borrow a polaroid camera to explore the city in one of their complimentary mini coopers.
Though not the cheapest of cities, for a more economical stay try the Rove City Walk. Offering many instagrammable corners, this well-appointed hotel is just a short stroll from Jumeirah beach. With a convenient–and rare–late check out at 2pm, plus super strong power rain showers, you’re bound to feel well rested no matter what you got up to the night before.
Eat abundant, assorted platters like a local
Take a break from all-you-can-eat brunches and head to Al Ustad for some truly tasty Persian food. Disarmingly low-key from outside, inside is filled with photos of Bollywood and Arabian stars who flock here just like the locals. Jars of pickled mangoes and pots of fresh tzatziki jostle for space as dishes of creamy hummus and dates arrive with paper-thin flatbreads still tasting from the grill. A bargain by Dubai standards, a mixed grill of chicken and lamb with whole roasted tomatoes and falafel will set you back only around $5. Be sure not to miss the mushroom rice, served with pats of butter and tart red berries on top. As you and your extended stomach make your way out, the friendly staff press chewing gum and candies on you.
Combining North Indian cuisine with a vibrant, British twist Tandoor Tina at the 25hour Hotel serves up decadent bone marrow naan, tasty coconut negronis, and epic sharing platters of grilled meats, vegetables, and fragrant spices. Bring out your party dress, because come evening the Monkey Bar upstairs is the place to dance amid the palm fronds thanks to a rooftop DJ, or take a shisha to the terrace to watch the golden sunset.
Before you leave Dubai, make sure to take in the Old Town with a Frying Pan Food Tour. Founded by two sisters looking to preserve cultural food, stories, and the community they grew up in, this four hour tour combines storytelling, exploration, and a whole lot of food. With complimentary earphones allowing you to hear your guide no matter where you are, visitors venture off the overly crowded main avenues and weave their way through Dubai’s Old Town, trying Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi cuisine. Well-paced and at just under 2km with seated stops, the sisters go the extra mile providing hygiene kits with scented tissues and antibacterial wipes for bathroom breaks (this is ‘old Dubai’ after all) as well as fascinating facts and a few special treats along the way.
Tap into your creative side on Alserkal Avenue
The cultural core of Dubai houses independent coffee shops, galleries, vinyl stores, restaurants, and the first arthouse cinema in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). We weekends, Alserkal Avenue is full of friends grabbing brunch after spin classes or before taking in an art exhibition. As one of the few dog-friendly spaces in the city, you’ll also find outdoor screenings and fitness classes that welcome pets.
If you want to pick up a canvas and try your hand at painting, The Happy Studio is a bubbly place that caters for budding artists. Head to Cinema Akil for cult classics and independent films from across the world. Or enjoy a spiced cup of warm Chai served in sustainable terracotta pots from socially conscious Project Chaiwalaworking to empower women in India.
Ski and scuba dive while you shop
A visit to Dubai really wouldn’t be complete without at least popping into one of their gigantic shopping malls. Not just a stop to buy the latest trainers, these emporiums of commerce contain everything from ice-skating rinks to real dinosaur skeletons. Take the opportunity to scuba dive with sharks and “mermaids” in multi-levelled aquariums at the largest shopping mall in the world or hit the slopes for a ski. Test your nerve by skiing the Snow Bullet and getting up to 16 meters off the ground, then cuddle up with real, live penguins.
Ride away into a desert sunset
Sonara Camp is a unique, eco-friendly dining experience nestled amid the sand dunes of a Conservation Reserve in the Arabian Desert. Arrive at your shaded encampment for refreshments on low lying sofas and rugs strewn across the sand, then work up an appetite by riding a camel, playing volleyball, or trying your hand at falconry. You can also surf the dunes here—and maybe pretend like a giant worm is chasing you.
Visitors can opt to spend the night, but either way—as the sun sets and the fires are lit—make your way to the dining area to be entertained by dancers and fire-eaters while you enjoy a leisurely dinner under the stars.