Dubai Bucket List – Must Do Activities

Visiting Dubai for the first time soon? I’ve got you covered with the must-do activities to get the most from your visit.

It was Dubai that instilled the travel bug in me. Back in 2008 we almost moved here. Before then I had barely travelled, but coming here to look at houses and schools really opened my eyes.

We didn’t make the move, but my cousin did, and so every time we pass through the Middle East on our way to Europe we stop here for a few days. We also visited for nine days in 2022, our first post-covid trip, to go to the incredible World Expo.

So over all those trips, I’ve had the chance to do plenty of pretty cool things in Dubai – which is a city dedicated to pretty cool things and goes above and beyond.

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The Dubai Bucket List

Here are the top ten things I think every visitor should do in Dubai. You may not fit them all into your first visit if it’s a short stopover, but you can do something different each time you pass through.

Do a Desert Safari

A white 4WD driving over bright red sand dunes near Dubai
4WDing over the dunes

We did a desert safari on our second trip to Dubai with our then-teenagers, and I asked one of them recently and she still says this is the best thing she’s ever done in Dubai.

While there are variations available, generally the desert safaris start with you being picked up around 4pm to start your drive out to the sand.

You will be in a 4WD vehicle, and once in the dunes will do some “dune-bashing”. It looks a little scary, and will certainly get your blood pumping, but it’s so much fun.

There are also options to include quad biking on many of the tours too.

You will have time to take some great photos in the sand, before making your way to a traditional (although built for tourists) bedouin camp.

Here there are more activities, like camel-riding, falconry, henna tattoos, traditional dancing and more, all while eating a delicious meal.

So not only is a desert safari a lot of fun, but you get to enjoy some of the unique landscape outside of the city and see a tiny bit of the Emirati culture too.

This makes it a great option if you only have time for one thing on this list, and is why it’s a big part of the 1-day itinerary I recommend.

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Visit the Burj Khalifa

The Dubai skyline features the Burj Khalifa with a purple and orange dawn or dusk sky.
Burj Khalifa Photo by ZQ Lee on Unsplash

You simply can’t miss the chance to go as high as you can in the world’s tallest building.

The view from the observation decks on the 124th and 148th floors is nothing short of spectacular, offering a bird’s-eye view of the city skyline and beyond.

There are several different options for your visit, with viewing decks on three levels. You can also include a meal if you would like to dine with a view.

If I had to recommend a time to visit, I would suggest an hour before sunset. You can see the sun sink below the dusty horizon and watch the city light up.

The viewing decks are open from 9 am until 11 pm (or later on weekends) so you have plenty of time to take a look

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Dubai Mall & Fountain Show

Looking from behind a group of people. many holding up phones, to water shooting up from a fountain. Behind that is a city skyline. Photo is taken at sunset so is quite dark.
The Dubai fountain show Photo by Roberto Martins on Unsplash

While you are at the Burj Khalifa, you should also call into the adjoining Dubai Mall (you will actually enter the Burj through the mall).

Even if you’re not a shopper it’s worth taking a look around. I have been known to spend hours here without spending a cent.

You can simply wander and enjoy the beautiful buildings and attractions like the waterfall and the huge aquarium tanks facing the mall.

It’s fun to window shop in all the high-end stores and imagine filling up the credit card. People-watching is also great here from the beautiful Emirati women to other people from all over the world.

There are many paid activities too, like the aquarium, an ice rink and movie cinemas.

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If you can, make your Dubai Mall visit in the afternoon so that you can also enjoy the fantastic fountain show.

Perhaps organise your day to visit the mall, go up the Burj Khalifa for sunset, then have dinner at a restaurant overlooking the fountains (I recommend the balcony at Time Out Market for dinner)

The fountain show happens every half an hour from 6 pm until 11 pm, changing each time, so you may like to stay and watch it more than once.

It’s free to watch the show from around the edge of the lake, but if you’d like an even better show, you can book a boat ride to get even closer.

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Take a Day Trip to Abu Dhabi

White marble mosque in Dubai with ornate archways and reflective pool under a clear blue sky.
The stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Dubai is awesome and you can spend weeks here without getting bored, but I also think a trip to the country’s capital should be on the cards.

Abu Dhabi is only a bit over an hour from Dubai by car so it is an easy day trip. If you do not have a car, there are many tours available, or you can catch the public bus for just a few dirhams like we did.

When in Abu Dhabi you simply have to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is breathtaking and quite possibly the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

Entry to the mosque is free, but you will have to work around their worship times (particularly on Friday) and be dressed appropriately – but don’t worry, they provide coverings if you need them.

We spent the rest of our day having a long lunch (you can choose any of the fancy hotels – but the Shangri-La was over-the-top) and then we walked off some of the food with a stroll around the Corniche area.

Another popular thing to do is to visit the Ferrari World theme park, home to the fastest roller coaster in the world.

I’ve not been there because theme parks aren’t really my thing, but many people love it, especially adrenalin junkies. This might be perfect if you have teenagers with you.

Something I’ve not done but is on my list for next time is to visit The Louvre. No, I’m not confusing Abu Dhabi with Paris, there is a second location here.

Again, the building is stunning, and I can only imagine the artwork inside is just as impressive.

For local culture, you can visit the Falcon Hospital and go to the Heritage Village.

There are many different Abu Dhabi day tours from Dubai – here are three suggestions

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Take Another Day Trip outside the City

Hatta Dam
Hatta Dam with it’s dramatic surrounds

Dubai is well known for its shiny, modern cityscape, but there is a whole lot more to see outside the city too. By visiting another area, you can see a little more of the country than just the towering buildings.

Here are four ideas for things to do outside Dubai city

  • Hatta – still in the Dubai Emirate, Hatta is near the Oman border and is known for its outdoor activities, especially water activities at the Hatta Dam. It’s also a haven for mountain bikers and hikers.
  • Mleiha Archeological Centre – located in the Sharjah desert an hour out of Dubai, Mleiha is an opportunity to learn about the first people in this area and see some of the ancient structures.
  • Jebel Jais – this is the highest mountain in the UAE and has been turned into an adventure playground. We went to Jebel Jais in Ras al Khaimah to go on the sledder, but you can also do the incredible zipline (has to be seen to be believed), do the ropes course, go hiking (including a via ferrata course) or simply enjoy the stunning views.
  • Al Maha – for a day of relaxation and luxury in the desert head just out of the city to Al Maha. You can stay here overnight for a truly fabulous experience, but a day visit is possible too. From spa experiences to camel rides at sunset or swimming in the stunning pool, this is definitely a special treat for your Dubai trip.

Walk the Streets of Old Dubai

Many colourful baskets piled high with a variety of different spices at a market
One of the many beautiful displays at the Dubai spice souk

It’s easy to think that Dubai is all bling, but there is another side of the city and a good way to see it is with a walking tour of Old Dubai.

I have visited this area a few times, including visiting the Dubai Museum twice (it’s closed for renovations now though) but on my last trip did a tour, and I really enjoyed it.

The tour starts in the Al Seef area, which is really a new area made to look old, but then it makes its way to the al Fahidi area, which is old.

You will visit some traditional homes, drink Emirati coffee and learn about the culture, both in the past and today.

Refuel with some street food snacks before jumping on a traditional abra to cross Dubai Creek before learning how to navigate the Spice and Gold Souks.

There are dozens of different walking tour options, but this is the one we did. A friend also said she had the same guide and enjoyed it too.

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Dubai Miracle Garden

United Arab Emirates
The Emirates A380 entirely covered in flowers

Dubai Miracle Gardens is one of those “only in Dubai” things you just have to do while you are here. Where else in the world are you going to see an A380 plane covered in flowers?

Like everything else in Dubai, the garden is huge, with over 72000 square metres to explore. There is no shortage of flowers here either, with over 150 million of them making up the colourful and fun displays.

The gardens are seasonal, only open during the winter, usually from around October to May. In between, new displays are created and the plants are refreshed (and it’s too hot in Dubai then to spend time outside anyway).

Plan to spend an hour or two wandering amongst the blooms – and bring your camera, there are Instagram opportunities everywhere!

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High Tea at the Burj Al Arab

Burj al Arab
The beach near the Burj al Arab

You would have seen this iconic building in advertising about Dubai. It’s the sail-shaped one sitting on its own small, man-made island just off the coast.

It’s well-known for Federer and Agassi having a hit of tennis on the helipad, 210m above the sea. It’s also known for its luxury, claiming to be the first 7-star hotel.

While this is something I am yet to do, I have been saying for years I would like to have high tea at the Burj Al Arab. I had planned it for a visit to celebrate our daughter’s 18th birthday – but realised she had to be 21 in Dubai to attend a licensed venue.

High tea has changed since then though, and they now offer it in the Sahn Eddar atrium restaurant instead of up in the bar on the 27th floor.

This would be a great way to celebrate a special occasion, like a birthday or wedding anniversary – or perhaps just being in Dubai!

If high tea is a little over the budget (it’s not a cheap experience, that’s for sure!) then you could instead just take a tour to see this impressive building.

There are other luxury experiences here too – how about adding a gold drink to your tour? These have to be seen to be believed! Or include a relaxing spa visit instead.

Go Skiing in the Desert

Perhaps if you are from somewhere where skiing is commonplace then this will not be for you, but if, like me, you have never (or rarely) skied, then hitting the slopes in Dubai is a fun option.

Yes, you heard that right, skiing in Dubai.

It’s not like skiing in Europe or Canada or New Zealand though. This ski slope can be found at The Mall of the Emirates – they really do have everything at the malls here.

If you don’t want to ski, there are plenty of other snow activities to enjoy, like tobogganing, tubing, the giant ball – or just hanging out with the resident penguins.

No ski gear, no worries, they provide all the warm clothing and equipment you need to enjoy the snow.

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Taste the Emirati Food

A tray with eight bowls of different middle eastern food on it, including boiled eggs, chips, falafel, and hummus.
The Egyptian breakfast tray (although the chips were unexpected)

Food and travel are intertwined for me, so I always like to try the local cuisine if I can when I visit a new place.

There is plenty of great food to be found all over Dubai, almost anything you want is available. But one of the things that is harder to find is traditional Emirati food. I have two suggestions where to find it.

Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Here you will be treated to a meal, Emirati style, but also learn about the culture of the local people while you are eating.

We visited for breakfast on one of my first trips and really enjoyed learning about a culture I didn’t know at all. It gave me a good basis for many of my future activities and trips to the UAE.

You don’t have to visit for breakfast though, they do meals all through the day. You will need to book in for a time though, they are not a restaurant as such, so you can’t just turn up and get a meal.

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Arabian Tea House

If you just want to eat without the cultural information, then this is another fun option.

There are a few locations in Dubai, but I recommend visiting the Arabian Tea House in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood – I’ve eaten there twice now and enjoyed it both times.

I suggest eating here for breakfast – but that can be up until about 12;30 pm, so you could make it brunch or an early lunch instead – simply because they do fabulous breakfast trays.

Order the Emirati option for true local cuisine, or cheat a little like I did on my recent visit and order the Egyptian option instead (it was delicious!).

There are lots of options for local tea or coffee. One of the local favourites is Karak Tea (which I’ve had elsewhere and like a lot), but I tried the Sulaimani Tea – which has a delicious mint flavour.

Planning Your Dubai Itinerary

These things to do in Dubai only scratch the surface – there really is so much to do here! If you start with these though, you will be doing some of the most popular Dubai activities.

I’ve tried to balance them across cultural, historical, adventure and just plain fun, so I’ve included something for everyone.

Here are just a few more suggestions of things that I’ve done over my visits. While I don’t see them as essential, they might be nice to round out your trip:

For more ideas, read these other posts on Dubai next
Top 5 Most Visited Dubai Museums
1 Day in Dubai Itinerary
What to do in Dubai on your Second Visit

TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS

Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs

Book accommodation – my go to is always Booking.com for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.

Hire a rental carRentalCars.com is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.

Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.

Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.

Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.

Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.

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