By Thessa Lageman | Published on May 13, 2022

When walking around this extravagant city, it's hard to imagine only a few decades ago — before the discovery of oil — Dubai was little more than a small, dusty town. Now the small emirate is an endless array of iconic skyscrapers, enormous shopping malls, luxury hotels and restaurants, palm-shaped islands, and other sights that will keep you enthralled during your Dubai vacation. Dubai is stunning, glittery and dazzling. Indeed, this city is all about superlatives, so it can be dizzying to figure out where to start. These are the must-dos, must-sees, and must-eats for your next Dubai vacation.

Aerial view of Bluewaters island and Ain Dubai ferris wheel. Dubai.
Aerial view of Bluewaters island and Ain Dubai ferris wheel. Dubai.

Explore The Metamorphosis Of Dubai

Temperatures in Dubai are still pleasant when it's winter in the Northern Hemisphere between November and April. But May, September and October are ideal times to hit the beach in Dubai. Summer is sweltering hot, but luckily, they crank up the air conditioning so you can explore all of the great things Dubai offers indoors.

The options for things to do in Dubai are truly endless; it's hard to get bored in this city. But where do you start? My time spent in Dubai was filled with culture, beaches, luxury, shopping, and great food. Dubai has it all.

Front view of Al Fahidi fort. Dubai
Front view of Al Fahidi fort. Dubai

When you pull into Port Rashed in the north of the emirate, grab a taxi to the Dubai Museum. A visit to the city's main historical museum is an excellent start to your Dubai vacation. It's housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates back to 1800 and is Dubai's oldest remaining structure. The museum gives you an idea of the days before the discovery of oil and the metamorphosis from a sleepy fishing and pearling village to the current global center of commerce and tourism. Before you head into the city, you'll get the big picture of how special this city is.

It's often too hot to walk in Dubai, and many districts aren't built for pedestrians — exceptions being the Al Fahidi Historical District, Deira, Dubai Marina and City Walk. Cycling is great fun here, too, as Dubai was the first city in the Middle East to implement a bicycle-sharing system. Dubai has that big-city feel, and you'll soon notice just how cosmopolitan this place is. It's a true melting pot of cultures.

If you're lucky to be there on a not-too-hot day, I highly recommend exploring the Al Fahidi Historical District around the museum. Also known as the Bastakiya Quarter, this area was built at the beginning of the 20th century by merchants from the Persian town of Bastak. Spend the afternoon strolling around the labyrinthine lanes admiring the nicely restored sand-colored houses topped with the ingenious wind towers, which helped against the scorching heat before the invention of central air conditioning. Enter one of the pleasant cafes, craft shops or art galleries if you need to cool down or are craving a snack.

Colorful women sandals made of camel skins in street market. Dubai.
Colorful women sandals made of camel skins in street market. Dubai.
The very lively Bur Dubai Souq is one of the city's oldest markets. Here you'll find all kinds of colorful fabrics, clothes, lamps, spices, perfumes, and other crafts and souvenirs. Another fascinating activity in Dubai is crossing the nearby Dubai Creek by "abra," a motorized traditional wooden boat. It's a thrill and gives you a new perspective of this amazing city.
Dubai is stunning, glittery and dazzling - an endless array of iconic skyscrapers, enormous shopping malls, luxury hotels and restaurants, palm-shaped islands, and other sights that will keep you enthralled during your Dubai vacation. 

Grow As A Fan Of The Phenomenal Foods In Dubai

I always send people planning a Dubai vacation to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The organization teaches visitors and expats about the traditions and customs of the United Arab Emirates (Dubai is one of the seven). They offer tours to places like the Jumeirah Mosque and informative Q&A sessions, but the best part is you can book a delicious traditional Bedouin-style Emirati breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner here.

Kuwaiti dessert served with egg. Dubai.
Kuwaiti dessert served with egg. Dubai.
While you can find restaurants with food from all over the globe in Dubai, finding traditional local food can, surprisingly, be a challenge. So this is a great chance to sample some balaleet (sweet spaghetti with egg), chabab (pancakes with cardamom) or machboos (rice with meat or fish). You'll finish with the special Gulf Arab coffee, tea and dates.

Witness The World’s Tallest Building

After that cultural deep-dive, it's time for modern-day Dubai. The easiest way to get around here is by taxi. You can take a government-licensed vehicle, a private taxi or even an Uber. However, the metro is cheaper and much faster during rush hour. Hop on one of the two lines, the Red Line or the Green Line, to zip across the city.

Aerial view of Downtown Dubai. Dubai
Aerial view of Downtown Dubai. Dubai

There's a metro station near the iconic Burj Khalifa. You can't miss it, since this tower looms over all of the other buildings in the city. No surprise, because this is the world's tallest building at 2,715 feet (828 meters) with the highest number of floors (211). It mainly houses offices, but there's also a hotel, swimming pool, nightclub, and you can even buy an apartment here, too, if you have about a million dollars to spare.

Inside the Burj Khalifa, rise to the observation decks on the 124th floor (or the 148th floor with a hosted VIP experience) in the fastest elevator in the world. On a clear day, you'll catch a breathtaking view. This is one of the most popular things to do in Dubai, so book tickets well in advance. And while you're there, grab a window seat and enjoy a drink or bite to eat in the lounge or restaurant on the 122nd floor overlooking this sprawling city.

Aerial view of the famous dancing fountain show. Dubai
Aerial view of the famous dancing fountain show. Dubai
Don't miss the daily Dubai Fountain music and light show, one of the most popular tourist activities in Dubai. Catch the spectacular show from a birds-eye view in the Burj Khalifa, or book a Dubai Fountain Lake Ride in a traditional abra for an immersive experience.

Witness Underwater Wonders & Exclusive Shopping

Dubai Mall, United Arab Emirates
Beautiful View of Dubai Mall Over Blue Water

Shopping is kind of synonymous with Dubai, and your visit just wouldn't be complete without a shopping spree in one of the many, many malls. Even if you're not into shopping or don't need anything new, you'll probably end up in one of the malls sooner or later to explore as you escape the heat. Opposite the Burj Khalifa is the Dubai Mall. With around 1,300 shops, it's like an entire town, and until the Iran Mall near Tehran opened in 2018, it was the world's largest shopping mall. You'll find lots of clothes, household items, and electronics but also a giant ice rink, indoor theme parks, cinemas and several food courts. Why not have a Pakistani, Palestinian, Somali or Filipino lunch all in one afternoon?

The mall's most interesting feature is the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, the largest aquarium in the world (yes, they love breaking records here). You can watch thousands of aquatic animals up close in the 10-million-liter tank, comprising over 140 species, including no less than 400 sharks and rays. Favorite inhabitants are the 5.1 meter-long Australian saltwater crocodile named King Croc and his wife Queen Croc. Come during the feedings for a fun show: The rays are usually fed at 10:30 a.m., sharks at 2 p.m., and the crocodiles at 4 p.m.

If you're looking for something special to do but don't want to spend a fortune shopping, take a taxi or bus to the Dubai Outlet Mall in the eastern outskirts. Here, you'll find bargains from both designer and international clothing brands. You can also visit the Outlet Village, a mall at an entirely different location, in the direction of Abu Dhabi and built in the style of an Italian village. After finding some discounted fashion deals, enjoy a tasty Italian coffee or some ice cream or pasta while you sit on the pretty square.

Take An Iconic Trip To Burj Al Arab

Aerial view of skyline and Burj Al Arab hotel. Dubai.
Aerial view of skyline and Burj Al Arab hotel. Dubai.

Another Dubai icon is the Burj Al Arab, a luxury hotel shaped in the form of the sail of a dhow (a traditional wooden cargo vessel). The hotel opened in 1999, is built on a small artificial man-made island and was designed by British architect Tom Wright. If you have a reservation for cocktails, afternoon tea or a meal (up on the 27th floor), you can cross the bridge to the hotel. Marvel at the over-the-top interior: the gold-leaf, red, blue and green opulence of the huge lobby with crystal chandeliers and the most extraordinary fountain.

When you're all walked-out and it's time for a refreshing swim (although, to be honest, Dubai's seawater is never quite cool), you can admire the gracious blue and white building from the wide, sandy beach. The beach is divided into Umm Suqeim Beach, Kite Beach and Russian Beach. Find a spot to sit and watch the sunset at the popular Umm Suqeim Beach, and stay well after sundown. There's even a floodlit section of the water making it perfect for nighttime swimming, a wild experience.

Discover Unique Things To Do In Dubai

Little Venice canal in Madinat Jumeirah district. Dubai
Little Venice canal in Madinat Jumeirah district. Dubai

Nearby, a little more south along the coast, you'll reach Madinat Jumeirah, also known as "Dubai's Venice." You won't regret visiting this luxurious resort village during your Dubai vacation. It has many exquisite international restaurants and four lavish hotels amidst colorful and lush bougainvillea, palm and banana trees. You can stroll around the winding waterways of this attractive contemporary interpretation of a traditional Arab village or take a traditional wooden boat water taxi (a trip by abra takes around 20 minutes).

In the heart of it is Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a maze-like bazaar with quality souvenirs, such as carpets, clothes and art. At night, the gardens are enchantingly lit, as is the Burj Al Arab hotel in the background. The complex is also one of the many popular nightlife locations, so come ready to mingle and enjoy the bass-thumping beats.

There are many more unique things to do in Dubai. It may surprise you, but you can even find lush nature in this big city. When you're ready to relax, wander around the Dubai Miracle Garden, a 20-minute taxi drive inland from Madinat Jumeirah and a true miracle in this arid desert climate. Covering 2,000 square meters and home to no less than 100 million flowers, this surrealistic park is said to be the largest natural flower garden in the world. The huge Dubai Butterfly Garden next door is also extremely popular and offers fun for kids to explore.

For an entirely different type of nature, head further east to the desert, where you reach the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The reserve was established in 1999 to reintroduce mountain gazelles, sand gazelles and Arabian oryx. A tour out of urbanized Dubai to this or another part of the Arabian desert is an impressive experience and definitely recommended if you have the time. Climb a few photogenic dunes and weathered mountains, join a traditional meal, and watch the countless stars as you reflect on your unforgettable trip to Dubai.

Written By

Thessa Lageman is a freelance journalist and content marketing writer from the Netherlands. She started her career writing travel guidebooks about European destinations and also worked as a correspondent from Tunisia. Right now, she lives in the Dutch seaside town of Scheveningen, a popular tourist destination, and writes stories for companies and organizations, including inflight magazines and the hotel industry.

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Aerial view of the famous dancing fountain show. Dubai
Aerial view of the famous dancing fountain show. Dubai

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