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Superlative Dubai

Open Doors, Open Minds
Superlative Dubai
Dubai’s architectural wonders and thriving cultural scene make it the envy of its Middle Eastern neighbors and a traveler’s delight. Savor the juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity.
By Baxter Jackson, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Open Doors, Open Minds
    Open Doors, Open Minds
    For the past decade, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding has been sponsoring “Open doors, open minds.” Visit the intricately detailed Jumeirah Mosque to find answers to all of your questions about Islam. Doors and minds open at 10 a.m. (arrive at 9:45) every day except Friday, which is reserved for communal prayer. Taking pictures and video and asking questions are all encouraged. The event costs about $3 per person; children 12 and under are free. Modest dressing is recommended, but if you're heading back from the Russian Beach, staff at the center will have some clothing for you.
    Photo by age fotostock
  • 2 / 8
    Hit the Ski Slopes at the Mall
    Hit the Ski Slopes at the Mall
    Rushing down a ski slope on actual snow in a mall surrounded by the Arabian Desert is exactly the kind of incongruity for which Dubai is famous. Escape the heat and embrace the improbable on the slopes at Ski Dubai, where the temperature is 28 to 30 degrees inside the 5.5-acre facility. With five runs that vary in difficulty, height, and gradient (with the longest extending for over 400 yards and with a drop of about 200 feet), even the most accomplished skier will feel challenged. Alternatively, try tobogganing, playing in the snow, or just chilling at the St. Moritz Café with a hot cocoa. The local colony of gentoo and king penguins puts on a daily show in the snow park.
    Photo by Marco Brivio/age fotostock
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    Traditional Cuisine with a Side of Culture
    Traditional Cuisine with a Side of Culture
    For a glimpse into old Dubai, walk through the restored neighborhood of Al-Bastakiya, situated down by the creek known locally as the khor. There, in the courtyard of a traditional bastakiya house—a coral-and-adobe structure cooled by an ancient aeration system known as a wind tower—you’ll find welcoming Emiratis dishing out all-you-can-eat servings of traditional cuisine while answering your questions about their culture. Guests enjoy the Arabic flatbread, foul (beans), balaleet (vermicelli with eggs), and for dessert, Emirati-style doughnut holes. As at the Jumeirah Mosque, questions of a cultural nature are highly encouraged. Advance booking is required. If you're in Dubai for Ramadan, seek out an iftar dinner experience.

    Photo by Jochem Wijnands/age fotostock
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    Dubai Mall’s Aquarium
    Dubai Mall’s Aquarium
    Dubai Mall may be the gateway to Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, but the opportunity to scuba dive with sharks at the mall's aquarium is at least as exhilarating. While surrounded by sand tiger sharks and manta rays in a fish tank that holds over 2.5 million gallons of water, gaze back through the largest acrylic viewing panel in the world upon another remarkable sight: the mall visitors themselves. Tens of millions of people flock to the mall each year—a heady mix of foreigners (both expat and tourist and locals).
    Photo by Jochen Tack/age fotostock
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    The High and Mighty Burj Khalifa
    The High and Mighty Burj Khalifa
    At 2,716.5 feet, Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. Rising from the sun-baked plain of the Persian Gulf, Dubai’s latter-day Tower of Babel—so dubbed because of the cacophony of languages you will hear while visiting—boasts a host of world records. Among its most salient superlatives: highest occupied floor, highest outdoor observation deck, and elevator with the longest distance traveled. Views of the forest of skyscrapers, the Arabian Sea, and the desert are simply spectacular from the 124th-floor observation deck. It’s been said that on a clear day, you can even see all the way to Iran. To save time and money, buy tickets online a couple of weeks in advance.
    Photo by Iain Masterton/age fotostock
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    Activities to Take Your Breath Away
    Activities to Take Your Breath Away
    If the viewing platform on the 124th floor of Burj Khalifa doesn’t induce vertigo, you could always jump out of an airplane with Skydive Dubai. The view of Palm Jumeirah from 13,000 feet will literally take your breath away as you fall at 130 mph. If that sounds too extreme, give the biggest vertical wind tunnel in the world a go at Inflight Dubai. The wind in this 16.5-foot-diameter tunnel is cranked out by four powerful electric motors that let you experience skydiving without having to set foot inside a plane.
    Photo by Baxter Jackson
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    The Gold and Spice Souk
    The Gold and Spice Souk
    From the south side of Dubai Creek, where the creek meets the Arabian Sea, hop on a chugging abra (water taxi) for an evocative ride past the creaking dhow shipyard in Deira. There awaits the Gold Souk—a warren of shady walkways and glittering window displays. Gold is priced strictly by the gram and market demand; the intricate handiwork on the gold is free. Follow the heady aroma of frankincense and myrrh to the nearby Spice Souk. Pick up a do-it-yourself henna kit or a hookah pipe from among the jute sacks piled high with all the spices of the Orient. Just bring all your tricks to the bargaining table because the merchants here drive a hard deal.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Desert Safaris
    Desert Safaris
    No visit to Dubai would be complete without a desert safari. Local tour operators have fine-tuned the bedouin desert experience into a checklist of tourist activities: 4x4 dune bashing, camel rides, sand boarding, pictures in traditional costumes, barbecue dinner, water-pipe, henna painting, and belly dancing (usually in that order). The whole experience is canned and clichéd, but is undeniably lots of fun. Plus, the sunset view of Dubai’s glittering skyline from the surrounding sand dunes manages to outweigh the kitsch factor of the trip. Plenty of tour companies run desert safaris, such as Arabian Adventures and Desert Safari Dubai.
    Photo by Balan Madhavan/age fotostock