Dubai is often criticized as being a soulless city without culture, but anyone who tells you that has neither spent much time in the city, nor befriended any Emiratis or expats. The UAE’s culture was intangible until recent years when a contemporary art scene and numerous arts festivals began to evolve. There are no monumental pyramids and no majestic heritage buildings, but visitors will find a rich traditional culture based on things like oral storytelling, song, dance, and poetry.
Dubai has festivals for everything: shopping, food, film, and sports. Most are scheduled from November through March, culminating with the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race. The Muslim calendar is lunar, so religious festivals always begin with the sighting of the moon, and the night before a religious holiday, alcohol isn’t served. During Ramadan, the holy fasting month, business hours are limited, and it’s forbidden (haram) for anyone—Muslim or non-Muslim—to eat, drink, or smoke in public. Many clubs close for the month, as music is also haram, except for the traditional oud (Arabian lute). At the end of the month, after the breaking of the fast, the streets come alive, malls stay open until midnight, and families picnic in the parks until the wee hours. Other holidays to watch for include Islamic New Year, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed, Eid Al Fitr (the festival marking the end of Ramadan), and Eid Al Adha (a four-day celebration at the end of the Hajj, or the main pilgrimage to Mecca). If you’re in Dubai for National Day, which takes place on December 2, head to the Dubai Heritage Village and Diving Village after dark to participate in the festivities.