Contrary to what you might have read, Dubai is not just Instagram models and five-star hotels. There is so much life, culture and endless activities to enjoy whilst in the city – which is why so many tourists revisit year after year.
There are so many incredible things to do in Dubai, but it can feel utterly overwhelming as a first-time visitor. So, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, an architecture lover, or a huge foodie, this guide to the best things to do in Dubai has you covered.
See the Desert via Quad Bike
Escaping the glitz and glamour of the city for a few hours is an absolute must for your first trip to Dubai. There are a tonne of different options, which all include pick up and drop off from any central Dubai hotel. The various tours offer a variation of quad biking, dune buggies, desert safari, camel rides and dinner.
We opted for a morning trip and struck gold. Our tour guide, Shabib, collected us at 7 am sharp, where we joined one other traveller. Shabib advised us that our intimate group of three would grow to an astounding 250 guests in the afternoon. So, well worth the early start and skipping the buffet breakfast queue. If you prefer to explore at your own pace, definitely opt for a morning session.
After an hour of driving down the wide-open roads, admiring the incredible villas and camel spotting, we arrived at camp. From here, we spent an hour riding around the endless sand dunes, me lagging in the boy’s shadows but enjoying the adventure nonetheless. Next we tried our hands at sandboarding (unbelievably difficult) followed by a short and sweet camel ride. Shabib made sure we were all still awake by popping his jeep into off-road mode and giving us a taste of dune bashing – certainly not for the faint-hearted. Finally, we finished the morning with some Arabic coffee and a beautiful drive back to the city – all before midday.
Enjoy the World’s Tallest Building – The Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is a must-visit on your first trip to Dubai. You will likely have read comparisons to the Empire state building or Eiffel Tower, but the Burj Khalifa swamps these in comparison. There are various ticket options, but I hugely recommend heading up to the lounge on floor 154. The outside viewing platform is the true star of the show. It gives you a real sense of perspective of how dramatically huge the roads are and how comparatively small every other building in the city is.
For the best views and photographs, grab yourself tickets just before sunset. Once you have enjoyed the city’s sights, I would recommend heading into the mall to enjoy dinner. One of my favourite meals in the city was at Bababel, an incredible Lebanese restaurant with views of the Burj Khalifa and the spectacular fountain show.
Shop Until You Drop
If you’re anything like me, the prospect of spending precious vacation hours shopping is not an exciting one. However, Dubai opens up a whole new world where shopping is concerned. The Dubai mall has over 1200 shops and attracts over 100 million visitors every year. It genuinely felt more like an experience than an evening hitting the shops. So, whether you’re looking to treat yourself or window shop at the designer gear, Dubai Mall is the place to be.
Visit the Chaos of the Global Village
Calling the Global Village a food market is like referring to Disneyland as a fair. The Global Village is a larger than life park, with designated areas dedicated to each and every country. Visitors can browse local food, souvenirs and clothes from all over the world, sampling delights from locations we can only dream of visiting.
My favourite area was the Thai stalls along the waterfront, with immaculately grilled seafood, delicious Pad Thai and some of the best mango ice cream I’ve ever had. As well as the eclectic mix of food and shopping, there are rides, daily shows and nightly firework displays at the Global Village.
Splash Around at Aquaventure, Atlantis
Don’t be fooled into thinking this waterpark is reserved for families only. On the contrary, the Aquaventure waterpark, situated in the famous Atlantis resort, is the biggest in the world and attracts over 1.6 million visitors each year.
There is a designated area for children but plenty to keep adults entertained all day long. You can purchase tickets in advance, but we bought them at the door – perfect if you like to keep a more flexible itinerary in the city. Towels and lockers are also available at a small extra cost. There are so many incredible slides here, but my personal favourite was Medusa’s lair.
If I were to visit again, I would consider bringing evening wear. This way, we could freshen up at the waterpark and spend the evening enjoying one of the many restaurants the Atlantis offers.
Stroll the Kite Beach Walk
Kite Beach is one of my favourite places to relax in the city, and particularly beautiful at sunset. As the name would suggest, hundreds of people fly their kites here, creating stunning photo opportunities. I actually found it confusing where one beach ends and another begins along this coastline, but a beautiful 6km boardwalk connects them all, which is a lovely way to enjoy the sands and avoid the traffic in Dubai.
Visit the Worlds Largest Picture Frame
If you’ve been researching your first trip to Dubai, you will have undoubtedly come across images of the world’s largest picture frame. If you’re into epic photographs, then the Dubai frame is a must-do. This new attraction allows you to walk across a glass floor, 150 meters in the air. There are epic views across the city, head at sunset for the best shots.
Enjoy a Luxury Boat Trip
Dubai’s beautiful year-round weather makes it a superb location to enjoy a luxury boat trip. These surprisingly affordable trips offer a great way to enjoy the ocean and soak up the incredible views. The tours typically last around 2-3 hours, and depending on what time of day you choose; they will include a breakfast or bbq dinner. There are also plenty of family-friendly options for those travelling with little ones.
Marvel at the Jumeirah Mosque
It would be a shame to travel all the way to Dubai without soaking in a bit of culture. The Jumeirah Mosque is open to non-muslims every day other than Fridays, with 75 minute guided tours offered from 10 am. This is an incredible way to enjoy some of the world’s most outstanding architecture and a wonderful way to learn more about Islam.
Stroll the Boardwalk of the Palm
The Palm is an incredible manufactured island that cost over $12 billion to build and now houses some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Dubai is a notoriously un-walkable city, but the Palm has a beautiful 11km boardwalk that hugs the coastline. This provides the perfect option to stretch your legs on a sunny walk, admiring the best that Dubai has to offer.
Al Fahidi Historical District
The Al Fahidi Historical District is unlike any other ‘old town’ I’ve ever visited. It is commonly known as Al Bastakiya and is situated on the south side of the beautiful creek. This area wasn’t quite the rugged, bustling town I was expecting. Instead, we were greeted by stone buildings offering various souvenirs, spices and traditional dress. The area was impeccably clean, with multiple restaurants and coffee shops. I visited in January, and it was surprisingly peaceful.
Whilst this wasn’t my favourite part of the trip, I believe it is an excellent addition to any Dubai itinerary, offering a brief respite from the chaos of the city. Plus, it is a particularly beautiful spot to watch the sunset.
The Famous Fountain Show
Understandably, you might not be too excited about the prospect of a fountain show whilst on holiday. However, this is one of the best things to do in Dubai. The first and most spectacular fountain show is situated outside Dubai mall. There are plenty of free spots around the fountain, and with a show every 30 minutes throughout the day and night, you are guaranteed a great view. However, the most dazzling views are from the restaurants inside the mall.
The second fountain, is the slightly more tame Palm show. Whilst I wouldn’t say this show compares to the one outside the Burj Khalifa, it is worth a watch if you’re already on the Palm. Again, the show isn’t quite as grand as its counterpart, but the backdrop of the Altantis hotel is a real sight to behold.
Wander the Luxurious Dubai Marina
The Dubai Marina is a beautiful area of the city, with luxurious restaurants and hotels lining either side of the waterfront. You don’t have to be an architecture expert to appreciate the beauty of the buildings in this area.
There is a stunning, family-friendly beach at the marina, and it’s a great place to take a boat trip. Additionally, there are many incredible restaurants in the area, including Marina Social and Asia Asia.
The attractions below may be slightly more adventurous (and expensive) than those already discussed. However, they are ideal for a special treat or those looking for something to enjoy on an extended or second trip to this magical city.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
For perhaps the most magnificent views of the Dubai desert, consider a once in a lifetime balloon tour. At over 4000 ft in the sky, you might have to strain your eyes to spot the camels strolling along the burnt orange sands, but watching the sun melt into the horizon is an incredible experience. There are many different packages available across the city – and most offer pick up and drop off from centrally located hotels.
Zip Line Across Dubai Marina
As we have established, Dubai is a larger than life playground for grown-ups. So, of course, the city is home to the world’s longest urban zipline. For AED 650 (£130), you can enjoy the glistening Dubai marina from a unique angle, gliding over the luxury yachts and marvelling at the breathtaking architecture. Although the zipline takes less than 60 seconds, reaching speeds of 80km per hour is a truly exhilarating experience in the city.
If jumping out of a plane and free-falling to the ground at a rate of 120mph sounds like fun to you, then look no further than Skydive Dubai. Skydive Dubai is open to experienced divers and those looking for their first taste. A tandem skydive is the most straightforward option for beginners, as you will be strapped to an experienced diver, meaning no experience is necessary. A tandem skydive starts at AED 2299 (£460) but offers a genuinely unforgettable experience.
Swim With Sharks at Dubai Aquarium
For 790 AED, visitors to Dubai can experience the wonder of swimming with sharks at the Dubai aquarium. Experienced scuba divers can jump straight in, whereas those with no experience must undertake a short course before entering the water. With over 400 sharks, diving in the Dubai aquarium is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Things to Do in Dubai – Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Dubai?
Dubai is known for its unbeatable year-round weather, with rainfall expected on only a handful over days throughout the year in the United Arab Emirates. I visited in February, and the temperature hovered around a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius (the perfect exploring conditions). However, in the summer (June-August), the temperature reaches a scorching 43 degrees, leaving most visitors searching for an escape in the shade.
Where Should I Stay in Dubai?
It can be overwhelming to choose accommodation for your first trip to Dubai. If you have longer than five nights in the city, I recommend splitting your time between a couple of different areas. I enjoyed four nights in beautiful downtown Dubai, followed by four nights of sun-soaking on the incredible Palm Island.
How Expensive Is Dubai?
Dubai is expensive. There are of course plenty of local restaurants where you can enjoy a cheaper meal. Expect to spend between £15-£30 for a main meal in a nice restaurant, and anywhere upwards of £15 for a glass of wine. The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country, so understandably, alcohol is costly.
Our hotels cost around £250 per night, including breakfast. However, both were exceptional and well worth the price point. More moderately priced accommodation can certainly be found in all areas of the city.
How Do I Get Around in Dubai?
Dubai is a famously un-walkable city. The highways are enormous, and there are vast distances between many of the attractions, meaning getting around on foot simply isn’t possible. However, taxis are extremely affordable, and there is a clean and efficient metro line which is ideal for longer journeys.