People often ask what there is to do in Dubai aside from eat and shop. Having spent some time living there, I decided to compile my own list, based on some of my own favourite places to go and things to do. If malls are not really your thing, and you’re not into desert ‘excursions’ that confuse Arab traditions with Bollywood (yes, this really happens), check out the list below for ideas that won’t break the bank, don’t require hotel tour guides, and have a little more substance than the usual tourist spots!
1. Drive out to the desert at night for some stargazing
If you’re renting a car during your stay, this is an absolute must-do! All you need is a full tank and a clear night; for a good spot, head towards the Bab Al-Shams Desert Resort, passing its main entrance on the right. Carry on going straight for 10km and pull up on the flat desert plain on your left (obviously don’t go too far, the last thing you want is to get lost in the dark or stuck in the sand). Take a blanket with you, spread it out on the roof of the car, and lie down under a canopy of stars. There is nothing like the desert sky at night!
2. Visit The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Full disclosure- I used to work here; but that’s precisely why, having seen firsthand the essential role they fulfil (read my piece about them here), I wholeheartedly recommend people visit, particularly non-Muslims or anyone who wants to know more about the religion and culture of the UAE. Welcoming visitors daily, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) seeks to create a ‘safe’ atmosphere where people are free to ask questions over a traditional Emirati meal, served in a traditional setting. They organise numerous heritage tours around the city, including Jumeriah Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Dubai.
SMCCU is based in Bastikiya, one of the oldest areas of Dubai, made up of traditional buildings that are more than a century old. It has been suggested that Prince Charles petitioned the authorities to preserve the historical district, which is now home to a number of small art galleries, as well as a mosque. It is worth visiting the area to get a taste of what the city was once like, long before skyscrapers dominated the skyline.
3. Have some Karak tea at Filli’s coffee shop, Bur Dubai
For what is probably the best Karak tea in town, head to Filli’s on Al-Mankhool Road (next to the public library) in Bur Dubai. Aesthetically, it’s certainly not the best looking coffee shop in town, but it’s well known for the quality of its Karak tea.
4. Visit Omar Ali Bin Haider Mosque, Deira
This mosque (along with number 8 on the list), is completely different to any other you will see in the city. It was established in 1952, making it one of the oldest buildings in Dubai. There are close to 1500 mosques in the city, the vast majority of which are immaculately designed and maintained; this one differs from the others in both appearance and feel. The entire building is contained within a dome, and the women’s side at least, with its wooden corridor and steps reminded me of a grotto or Hobbit house! It is worth visiting.
5. Eat at Special Ostadi (Al-Ustadhs), one of the oldest restaurants in Dubai
This family-run restaurant on Al-Mankhool Road opened its doors in 1978, making it one of the oldest in Dubai. It is certainly not fancy, but the old Iranian memorabilia and hundreds of photos of famous patrons that cover its walls give it a certain authentic charm that you won’t find in many establishments in the city. Famous faces on the walls include the rulers of Dubai and the UAE, as well as Bollywood actors. The food is surprisingly cheap and tastes fantastic (check out these reviews if you don’t believe me!). Just a note, if you turn up as a couple or a family, you will most likely be seated in the quieter (and in my view, bland) ‘family room’ on the side of the restaurant- but to get the full Ostadi experience, ask for a table in the main restaurant.
6. Pray at Abdul Salaam al-Rifa’i Mosque
This was once my local mosque, so I have a soft spot for it! The Imam, Habib Husayn, is from amongst the Ba Alawi scholars of Hadramaut, and his Friday sermon (khutba) is briefly summarised every week in English. Amongst the diverse congregation, hailing from all parts of the world, you will almost always find English speakers, who were, in my experience, very welcoming. If you find yourself in Dubai during Ramadan, this is a wonderful mosque to pray tarawih at.
7. Admire an amazing view of the skyline and some wildlife
This one is a double whammy! Head to Ras al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary to see flamingos in their natural habitat, a site you probably didn’t expect to see in Dubai. As a bonus, you also get an incredible view of the skyline, particularly at sunset. This is probably the most scenic spot I found.
8. Visit the Iranian Mosque, Satwa
Like the Deira Mosque (number 4), this mosque, located on Al-Wasl Road is not like others in the city. Built in typical Persian style, with its facade mimicking that of Shah Mosque in Iran, it was established in 1979 to serve the Shia community in the city. Along with the Iranian hospital, that is built in a similar style nearby, it is worth visiting for its beautiful architecture.
9. Enjoy a quiet spot on the beach with a fresh juice
If you want to relax on the beach away from sunbathers and tourists, grab a fresh juice from Al-Ijaza Cafeteria on Jumeirah Beach Road, and head for the beach area behind it. The best time to go is after Asr, an hour before sunset, when you tend to find fewer sunbathers and the temperature is more bearable. Plus you get to see the sunset.
A note about Cafeterias- they are cheap, fast and serve pretty much everything. You find them all over the city and they are great for fresh fruit and vegetable juices, with lots of options available! Watermelon juice was my favourite.
10. Check out the best views of the city from above
Head for the Turkish Roof-Top Lounge at the Emirates Grand Hotel on Sh Zayed Road. Located right in the heart of the city, this 47-storey tower gives you incredible views of Dubai from above.
Dubai has a lot of really good annual festivals- one of my favourites was the Emirates Literary Festival. If you happen to be in the city at that time, check it out- you get to meet a wide array of well-known authors.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!