Upon first landing in Dubai, it's easy to see why it's been self-appointed as "the city of the future." The city's architecture—particularly the Burj Khalifa, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, and the gravity-defying Museum of the Future—is magical and otherworldly, and its attractions (which include the longest urban zip line in the world) promise experiences unlike any other. But there's more to the city than meets the eye; explore a little bit deeper, and you'll discover its quainter side, one rich with history, traditions, and culture.
To highlight the old and the new, the charming, and the flashy, we've come up with an itinerary to see the best Dubai has to offer in two days. So get ready to shop and eat and revel in luxury, all while diving into the city's fascinating history.
Day 1: Morning
10 a.m.: After landing and collecting your bags at Dubai International Airport, hail a cab or rideshare and make your way to Paramount Dubai Hotel in the city's Business Bay district. The hotel, which opened in January 2020, is reminiscent of old Hollywood, with "Godfather"- and "Great Gatsby"-themed suites, a 20s-style speakeasy serving up gin-based cocktails and jazz, and cuisine with a California twist (Though inspired by Hollywood, the hotel's glitz and five-star service reeks of Dubai glam.) Drop off your luggage, and, if the jet lag is getting to you, grab a cup of coffee from Craft Table, the hotel's artisan café, bakery, and coffee roastery.
11 a.m.: Prior to 1966, before the city became the behemoth that it is today, Dubai was just a small village of merchants, fishermen, and pearl divers settled in barastis along the creek. You can get a taste of what the city used to be like in Old Dubai, where vendors in the souks (open-air markets) vie for your attention and abras (traditional wooden boats) take tourists and locals alike between the two sections of Old Dubai: Deira and Bur Dubai. Your first stop is at the Old Souk (in the Deira section of Old Dubai), home to the world's heaviest gold ring as well as more moderately priced—and just as importantly, wearable—necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Browse the Perfume Souk for oud and essential oils before making your way to the Spice Souk and picking up saffron, zaatar, and fresh dates to take home.
Hop on an abra for one dirham, and it'll take you across the creek to Bur Dubai, where the Textile Souk offers up a selection of fabrics and clothing.
Day 1: Afternoon
1 p.m.: After working up an appetite, it's a short, 10-minute walk to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) for one of the institution's esteemed cultural lunches. An Emirati guide will walk you through several of the UAE's traditional dishes—including lamb machboos, veal harees, vegetable saloona, and lugaimat—and share the history and traditions associated with each. As you sip on Arabic coffee, you will be introduced to a general overview of—and given the opportunity to ask anything you want about—Muslim, Arabic, and Bedouin cultures. The SMCCU is closed on Fridays and Saturdays; if you're in the area on either of those two days, you can enjoy an authentic meal at nearby Arabian Tea House instead.
2:30 p.m.: Walk off your lunch by exploring the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Al Fahdidi Fort, the city's oldest building, was originally built in 1787 and currently houses the Dubai Museum. Learn about the city's history by paying a visit to their collection and perusing artifacts like weapons and pottery and models of local boats and bamboo houses. For a pop of color, check out one of the district's art galleries, including the one at XVA Art Hotel, highlighting both emerging and established contemporary artists from the Middle East.
5 p.m.: Take a taxi or rideshare to Zabeel Park to gaze upon one of the city's more recent architectural marvels: a 492-foot-tall, 305-foot-wide picture frame made out of concrete, steel, and glass. When you enter the Dubai Frame, an elevator will whisk you up 48 floors in 75 seconds, allowing you to see stunning views of Old Dubai to the north and New Dubai to the south.
Day 1: Evening
7:30 p.m.: If you're not too full from lunch, head over to Mediterranean-inspired eatery BOCA for a round of tapas to share. Featuring a seasonal menu of eco-friendly fish and ethical produce, chef Mattheus Stinnissen serves up an array of small plates like grilled tiger prawns and sweet potato hummus and larger portions of paellas and classics such as gnocchi with braised beef short rib. Do yourself a favor and order the porcini risotto if it's on offer, consisting of salted ricotta, wild mushrooms, and black truffle. Every bite is full of delectable flavor. BOCA also has a wine selection of more than 200 labels, so be sure to order a bottle to finish out your meal.
9:30 p.m.: With a storyline inspired by the city's pearl diving history—and one that pays tribute to its diversity of cultures—"La Perle" by art director Franco Dragon is a grandiose show rife with fantastic acrobatics and stunts. You'll be mesmerized as 713,265 gallons of water flood the stage of the aqua theatre, and performers dive 82 feet down into its depths—but perhaps not as on the edge of your seat as you will be when five motorists whip circles around each other inside a globe suspended above the stage.
11 p.m.: Before calling it a night, cap off the day's activities with a cocktail or two in Flashback Speakeasy Bar & Lounge, located within Paramount Hotel. If you need help finding it, ask the staff, and they might tell you where it is. (Hint: It's behind a hidden door on the ground floor).
Day 2: Morning
10 a.m.: There are a couple of ways you could spend the morning, depending on where your interests lay. Your first option is to hit up the lesser-known Alserkal Avenue, Dubai's hip industrial quarter. Pop into Nightjar for a stack of ricotta-and-buttermilk pancakes and nitro cold brew or kombucha on tap to get you going for the day. As you hop between the district's 13 art galleries, you can shop contemporary clothing designs and antique furniture, get a custom-made pair of Italian shoes, or even design your fragrance.
Alternatively, you could snooze in a little and grab breakfast at the hotel before making your way to one of Dubai's top beaches. Sunset Beach comes with a picture-perfect view of Burj Al Arab, whereas water sports enthusiasts will want to check out Kite Beach for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. For a more low-key start to your day, journey over to Black Palace Beach to revel in pristine white sands and no crowds.
Day 2: Afternoon
12 p.m.: Make your next stop Palm Jumeirah, a human-made, palm-shaped island so large it can be seen from space. Start with lunch at The Pointe, a popular waterfront destination whose 70-plus eateries represent flavors worldwide. You most certainly won't be starved for choice; options range from manakish and shawarma at Lebanese restaurant Al Safadi to sushi rolls and sashimi at KYO.
1 p.m.: Considering how the trunk itself is 3 miles long, it should be no surprise that there are plenty of things to do in Palm Jumeirah—many of which are ideal for adrenaline junkies. You can swim with sharks and dolphins at Atlantis, take a 25-minute helicopter tour over Dubai's most iconic sights, or jump on a speedboat and cruise around the archipelago. (For even more thrills, head to the Dubai Marina just off the Palm, where you can skydive over the Arabian Gulf or ride the world's longest urban zip line.) Of course, if you want to sit back and unwind, you can do that, too; sign up for a full-body coffee peel or an ancient hot stone massage at Talise Ottoman Spa for the ultimate relaxation.
4 p.m.: Even if shopping isn't your thing, no trip to Dubai is complete without visiting one of the world's largest malls. Taking up more than 12 million square feet, Dubai Mall houses over 1,300 retail outlets and 200 food and beverage vendors, a 2.6-million gallon aquarium with glass-bottom boat tours, and snorkeling cages for shark diving; and an Olympic-sized ice skating rink. It's worth going for the theatrics alone.
Day 2: Evening
6 p.m.: After admiring the Burj Khalifa from every which way for the past couple of days, now's your chance to go up inside the world's tallest building. For 459 dirhams (or 359 if you can wait 'til 7 p.m.), you'll soar 33 feet per second in an elevator to the highest observation deck in the world on the 148th floor, which rises to 1,821 feet. Let the unsurpassable views of the surrounding area sink in as you sip on a drink from the SKY lounge; then, head down to the 125th and 124th floors to get a look at the city from a different angle. Travel tip: If you want to save money, skip the SKY deck and go straight to the 125th floor for 179 dirhams (or 109 during off-peak hours).
7 p.m.: The Dubai Fountain was dreamed up by the same design team behind the Fountains of Bellagio, so you can expect a no less impressive show. It is said to be the world's largest choreographed fountain, a 30-acre lake with nozzles jetting streams of water 50 stories into the air, and more than 6,000 lights and 50 colored projectors working in tandem to create a dazzling spectacle. Shows start at 6 p.m. and run every half hour until 11 p.m.
8 p.m.: It's your last night in Dubai, so make it count. Masti, an award-winning Indian restaurant in LA Mer, touts an incredible menu that'll make your mouth water. The heavenly eggplant bharta is a crowd-pleaser, as are the stracciatella and dill butter chicken and tamarind BBQ Angus beef ribs. Pair it with one of their signature cocktails, whose names hint at their unique and bold flavors (The Golden City, for instance, is made with gin, truffle, green apple, cardamom, and edible gold).