Dubai: A Guide to the Ultra-Modern City

To date, one of the strangest countries I’ve ever visited was the United Arab Emirates. Famous for its ostentatious displays of wealth, likely the inspiration to the song “Arab Money”, the entirely man-made country left me puzzled, which is partly why I thought I’d write a Dubai travel guide.

What do I mean by man-made? Well, most of the popular tourist attractions (at least in Dubai) were spectacular malls, giant hotels, and bazaar-like marketplaces. There were no historical monuments, with the exception of a few large mosques. It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that back in the day, the UAE was probably just a giant strip of desert that nobody thought to visit.

I went in 2012 for a family friend’s wedding and visited three of the Emirates: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are quite well-known, but Sharjah and the rest of the Emirates less so. Apparently I didn’t take any photos of Sharjah, because there isn’t much there – it’s a little disheartening to visit and see the ridiculous economic disparity between Sharjah and the other two Emirates. I do recommend visiting the less “popular” parts of the country just to get a feel for the rest of the country.

Have limited time but want to check out Abu Dhabi? Check out how to do an Abu Dhabi stopover.

If you do find yourself in the Dubai, below are some of the cool and mind-boggling things to do in the city in my Dubai travel guide! And if you’d rather visit for a stopover instead, check out this guide.


1. The Gold Souk

Just one of many shops. Dubai travel guide
Just one of many shops

Dubai is anything but subtle, and the glittery Gold Souk is a perfect introduction to the ostentatious city. The shops upon shops of intricate gold jewelry will trick you into thinking you’ve just entered the cave of wonders.


2. Naif Souk

Inside Naif Souk. Dubai travel guide
Inside Naif Souk

This is one of the city’s oldest souks, and was actually once a camel market. Now you’ll find shops selling everything but camels – including clothing, leather, and souvenirs. Brush up on those bargaining skills!


3. Abara boat ride

Looks a little like Venice! Dubai travel guide
Looks a little like Venice!

Abaras are glorified water taxis, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to ride. Travel between Deira and Bur Dubai via the Dubai creek and pretend you’re on an epic boating adventure.


4. The Grand Mosque

It's much more grand inside! Dubai travel guide
It’s much more grand inside!

Bigger and better is the theme here, and the Grand Mosque is the largest in the city – complete with Dubai’s tallest minaret. It’s beauty can only be admired from outside, as non-Muslims are not allowed inside. It’s actually quite pretty – I was just a terrible photographer back in 2012.


5. Burj Khalifa

World's tallest building! Dubai travel guide.
World’s tallest building!

A Dubai travel guide is incomplete without the addition of the iconic Burj Khalifa, famed as the tallest building in the world. Although I didn’t get a chance to explore inside, the photos I’ve seen taken from the observation deck are stunning. You can also spend the night at the hotel if you have $500+ lying around. Like I said – bigger and better.


6. Mall of the Emirates

Ski Dubai, one of the many attractions inside Mall of the Emirates. Dubai travel guide
Ski Dubai, one of the many attractions inside Mall of the Emirates

Why is there a picture of people in the snow where I listed Mall of the Emirates, you may ask? Why, that’s because the mall has its own ski lift. Inside the mall. I’ll repeat that: there is a ski lift (in fact, an entire mini snowy “mountain”) inside the Mall of the Emirates. If that alone doesn’t entice you to come here, then you likely won’t be impressed by the hundreds of shops and restaurants either.


7. Palm Jumeirah / Atlantis

Driving to Atlantis. Dubai tour guide
Driving to Atlantis

Natural islands are SO 1990. Haven’t you heard that all the cool countries build their own islands nowadays? Just look up Palm Jumeirah on Google Maps and gawk for a few seconds. On this island, you will find the other Atlantis Hotel, because why should the Bahamas get all the fun? My favorite find on Palm Jumeirah was the ATM that distributes (real) gold bars. Just in case you need some in a pinch.

Looking for accommodation in Dubai? Click here for a guide on where to stay. 

8. Ibn Battuta Mall

There's even a souk within the mall! Dubai travel guide
There’s even a souk within the mall!

Not much could blow my mind after visiting both the Mall of the Emirates and Palm Jumeirah, but Ibn Battuta Mall is still impressive enough of an attraction in its own right to be added to a Dubai travel guide. Themed in accordance to Ibn Battuta’s travels, it truly is an architectural delight with beautifully designed ceilings and walls. Shops are nothing special, but this mall almost felt like theme park – definitely worth a visit.


9. Dubai Mall (Fountain Show & Souk Al Bahar)

Impressive fountain show complete with music and lights. Dubai travel guide.
Impressive fountain shows complete with music and lights

Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest shopping malls. Are we noticing a running theme here? We were so tired of malls by the time we finally visited this one, that we actually spent most our time at the nearby Souk Al Bahar – an Arab-style marketplace that sells carpets and antiques. The true highlight of Dubai Mall, and the reason it’s part of this Dubai travel guide, is actually its nightly fountain show. Complete with music, lights, and sound, it makes the Bellagio’s show look like a mere water fountain – probably because this is the world’s largest choreographed fountain system (of course)!

Dubai may be a strange man-made country, but it certainly will leave you slack-jawed and impressed. If they don’t have it, they will build it. And that is the power of “Arab Money.”


Have you ever been to Dubai? What were your impressions, and did we leave anything out of our Dubai travel guide?

My Dubai travel guide - impressions of an entirely man-made city - now on Passport & Plates!
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12 thoughts on “Dubai: A Guide to the Ultra-Modern City

  1. RoarLoud says:

    All I ever pictured about Dubai are the beautiful beaches- did you visit any? I’m not sure I’d like any of the malls or the city.

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      It was February when I visited, so it was a little too cold for the beach (at least for me, being spoiled by SoCal weather). I’ve heard a mix about the beaches – some say they’re quite polluted and others say they’re gorgeous. If you ever visit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them!

  2. Julie DenOuden says:

    Fascinating! One of the things I love about traveling is learning the history and stories behind the places I visit so I imagine it would be quite odd to visit Dubai…

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Same! I love historical landmarks and stories. Dubai is so bizarre – it’s almost like visiting Disneyland if Disneyland were an entire country! Even so, all the ostentatiousness is definitely jaw-dropping if you ever get a chance to visit!

  3. Andra Tomescu says:

    I’ve moved to Dubai with a 3 years contract in my hand and left after 6 months. The city is impressive, it’s unbelievable what they’ve built on sand! It’s definitely worth seeing because is different, but for living it very much depends on what you like, want in life and what kind of job/salary you have there. For me…it was too artificial, too much glitz blitz and really hard to bear spending 5-6 months per year mostly indoors with the AC because outside is too hot to do anything.

    • Sally from Passport & Plates says:

      Interesting to hear that from the perspective of someone whose lived there!! I was there for around a week, but I do agree with you. It almost feels like Disneyland or something. I think it’s great if people like the lifestyle but it’s definitely not for everyone.

  4. revert life says:

    I really love the sound of Dubai. And the Gold Souk well, let’s just say somebody would have to drag me out because I wouldn’t be leaving. Thanks for sharing

  5. Pinay Flying High says:

    Lived there for 7 years and I can honestly say that Dubai is a place which you either love or hate. Even if I’m not really a fan of big cities in general, it’s kind of hard not to be in awe whenever I think about how it used to be as compared to the big, modern city that it is now.

    • Sally E says:

      I could totally see that! No denying that it’s very impressive but it’s just a bit of a strange place haha. It feels a bit like a theme park or something!

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