Dubai skyline with Burj khalifa
Al Jadaf Waterfront | TTstudio/Shutterstock
Al Jadaf Waterfront | TTstudio/Shutterstock

The Most Stunning Sights in Dubai, a City That Loves the Impossible

Flying taxis included.

Ah, Dubai, a monumental city built and then rebuilt and then rebuilt again upon the pillars of industry, technology, and innovative design. Much like time itself, the UAE metropolis never stops hurtling forward, always striving toward the next best, biggest, and most reality-defying endeavor. Its skyline is an ever-evolving panorama of modernity, with round-the-clock construction producing an endless stream of luxurious highrises, flashy attractions, artificial islands, and—yes—shopping malls capable of putting any American monolith to shame.

Elsewhere, hiding in the shadows of touristy giants like the Burj Khalifa and Palm Jumeirah, the old Dubai lingers on. The bygone fishing hub is kept alive via historic nooks that aren’t mentioned nearly enough in this emirate’s narrative, as well as in the harmonious intermingling of world citizens and expats from all over. Today’s Dubai might have been built according to superabundance and bragging rights, but no one can deny it’s pretty awesome to witness in person.

Here are the must-hit sights around Dubai, from towering skyscrapers to captivating museums and everything in between.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Burj Khalifa | Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

There it is, the world’s tallest building; despite being unveiled all the way back in 2010 (in Dubai years, that’s basically a century), the otherworldly Burj Khalifa is constantly reinventing itself. On New Year’s Eve in 2018, it slipped into the Guinness Book again for staging the largest light and sound show on one building, and in 2014, it opened the world’s highest observation deck. And the 2,700-foot-tall edifice (that’s more than two Empire State Buildings, stacked) might even get away with hanging onto its biggest accolade, now that the construction of Saudi Arabia's highly anticipated Jeddah Tower—slated to be an absurd 591 feet taller—is officially stalled.

Burj Al Arab luxury hotel
Burj Al Arab hotel, Duabi | Creative Family/Shutterstock

Even at a relatively human-scaled 1,053-feet-tall, Burj Al Arab is no less a stunner than its enormous sibling. Shaped like a dhow sailboat in homage to Dubai’s fishing and pearling origins, it exists quite literally out to sea, on an artificial island propped up by a few hundred columns beneath the Gulf. But unless you’ve got a cool $2,000 a night to spend on a room, you’ll be relegated to admiring it from the beach—Thankfully, just $100 or so will get you an unforgettable sundowner drinks session at the onsite cocktail bar.

Dubai Opera
Dubai Opera, Dubai | dani1296/Shutterstock

Get a load of the most futuristic, high-tech opera house ever. Due to the implementation of modern hydraulics, about half of Dubai Opera’s 2,000-seat expanse can transform into different setups like theater, concert hall, and flat floor at a button’s push. A sophisticated acoustics shell made of towers and reflectors offers otherworldly sound, while wraparound glass walls and a chandelier with 2,900 LED lights are among the trimmings.

Dubai Water Canal
Dubai Water Canal | Sarath Maroli/Shutterstock

Launched in 2016, this ambitious megaproject transformed the bustling downtown area into an artificial island with solar-powered street lights and tons of charging stations for devices. Visitors can cruise the canal in a traditional abra, even passing under a motion-sensored, LED-illuminated waterfall. The $7 billion project was completed in a speedy three years, complete with sweet floating homes shipped in from design-savvy Finland.

Expo City Dubai
Expo City Dubai | Photo courtesy of Expo City Dubai

Opened in October, 2022, this forward-looking miniature city is an offshoot of Expo 2020 Dubai, which saw some 24 million guests pass through its gates. This gargantuan entertainment hub buzzes with worthwhile attractions, including trippy water features, a sweeping observation tower, interactive educational programming, and a museum detailing the first World Expo ever held in the Middle East. A network of pavilions immerses visitors in far-off destinations like Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Pakistan, and Australia, while sustainability efforts like a zero single-use plastics policy and WELL Certification point towards a greener global future. Throw in a smattering of food and drink options representing everything from American comforts to Lebanese street food and Taiwanese bubble tea, plus high-tech play areas for kids of all ages, and you’ve got quite the exciting day out waiting for you.

Aquaventure Waterpark
Aquaventure Waterpark | Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Everything in Dubai is the biggest, the greatest, and the most—a mantra that even applies to water parks, it seems. Over at Atlantis, The Palm’s sprawling resort you’ll find Aquaventure Waterpark, a splashy wonderland that weighs in at more than 2.4 million-square-feet, making it the world’s largest water park by size. But that’s not all—it’s also home to the most water slides in one place, with 105 slippery declines stashed amid its three towers, watersports areas, interactive aquarium, sandy beaches, play structures, wave pools, and so much more. Where else can you swim with sharks, feed stingrays, plunge down a 90-foot freefall, and float a winding (and reportedly longest-ever) lazy river before downing a few choice cocktails at an onsite live music and arcade bar? That’s right: Dubai.

Dubai Marina
Dubai Marina | Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock

This artificial marina, modeled after False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers a sweeping skyline panorama of some of Dubai’s most impressive buildings, like the 75-story Sulafa Tower and Cayan Tower, the world’s tallest structure to twist in a 90-degree spiral. The waterfront, fashioned out of excavated desert sand and Persian Gulf waters, is home to a walkway teeming with bright, trendy cafés and pop-up clothing and craft markets. Jet Skis chop the waters past a dock of luxury yachts, and these days, hydroflying is all the rage; thrill-seekers wearing jetpacks or jet boots skyrocket into the air via water pressure, in what is the closest sensation you can get to riding Marty McFly’s hoverboard (for now, at least).

Al Salam Mosque
Al Salam Mosque, Al Barsha, Dubai | Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock

Islam might be an age-old religion, but the Al Salam Mosque is anything but traditional. Opened in 2014, its design blends together Ottoman and Andalusian influences with elaborate gold domes and minarets that are brightly illuminated at night. A salmon pink exterior and white trimmings fit perfectly into the laid-back Al Barsha suburb where the mosque presides. A green waterfront park and eclectic eateries—spanning everything from Indian to gelato—make this one of Dubai’s loveliest districts for an outdoor hang.

Dubai Frame
Dubai Frame | Photo courtesy of Dubai Frame

Is it cheesy? Sure. But is it also kind of awesome? Absolutely. Cloaked in golden stainless steel, this iconic piece of Zabeel Park public art isn’t to be missed. Its two slim towers and sturdy top bar perfectly capture Dubai’s modern skyline to the south and the city’s historic district to the north, curating a still life tableau that never actually sits still. And that’s only the beginning. The interior reveals even more, including a 490-foot-high Sky Deck where a 165-foot-long liquid crystal floor magically turns clear whenever it senses footsteps. Elsewhere, flashy exhibitions showcase Dubai’s past and present—and then there’s Future Dubai Gallery, a swirling tunnel where visitors can get a taste of what Dubai might look like in 50 years (hint: flying taxis are involved).

The Dubai Mall
The Dubai Mall | Photo courtesy of The Dubai Mall

Occupying three times the total land area of the Mall of America, this 12 million-square-foot behemoth is home to an ice rink, a massive aquarium, an indoor theme park, more than 1,300 shops, and over 200 places to eat, including a full-scale Chinatown to rival just about any major American city. If you want to give your credit card a proper workout, this is one of the best places on the planet to do it.

Historical museum in Dubai
Al Fahidi Fort | Tatsiana Selivanava/Shutterstock

Al Fahidi Fort is a must-visit in Dubai, if only for escaping all those humongous skyscrapers and traveling back in time to understand the city’s humble inception. Located in charming Bur Dubai, the fort is Dubai’s oldest existing building, dating to 1787. Take a tour and read up on its stints as a prison and a garrison before becoming a museum, then venture over to check out the surrounding Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, a pocket filled with heritage structures housing cultural centers, art galleries, and famously cozy traditional restaurants.

Dubai Creek
Dubai Creek | Oleg_P/Shutterstock

This is where it all began—Dubai’s sole harbor and, more than a hundred years ago, a hub for pearl divers and nautical traders from as far away as India and East Africa. Today, you can still hop on a rickety abra for just a few dirham and discover historic districts like Deira and Bur Dubai, where you’ll find traditional shopping souks, Indian vendors selling hot chai, and no-frills eateries slinging Pakistani and Persian lunches. After all that downtown futurism, it serves as the ultimate palate-cleanser.

Atlantis The Royal
Atlantis The Royal | Photo courtesy of Kerzner Communications

When the Queen Bee herself graced Dubai with her presence back in January, 2023, it wasn’t for just any old show—it was to perform at the grand opening of this hospitality masterpiece perched out on the resort-laden Palm Jumeirah. The upscale hotel spans 795 rooms over its 1,640-foot beachfront plot, alongside world-renown restaurants like Jaleo by José Andrés, La Mar by Gastón Acurio, Costas Spiliadis’s Estiatorio Milos, and the swanky poolside Nobu by the Beach, where brunch often extends into an all-day affair. Come nightfall, the DJ-fueled rooftop club Cloud 22 is the place to be, or you could keep things low-key and simply enjoy the scenery—namely the structure itself, a curious stack of blocks balanced in a sprawling, Jenga-like formation—from your suite’s private infinity pool. Another cool feature? The largest jellyfish aquarium in the world. Go figure.

Sky Views Dubai
Sky Views Dubai | Photo courtesy of Dubai Tourism

There’s an old “would you rather” stumper that pits living in the most beautiful house on the block against living in a house with the best view of the most beautiful house on the block. For those who’d rather gaze at an architectural triumph than remain confined to its interior, Sky Views Dubai is the ideal downtown attraction. The 720-foot-tall observation deck crowns the Address Sky View Hotel, occupying the top two floors and offering nonstop breathtaking views of the neighboring Burj Khalifa and the accompanying skyline. The panoramas don’t quit, from the glass-walled elevator ride to the 150-foot glass floor bridge and the famed Glass Slide (not for the faint of heart). If you’re really feeling adventurous, sign up for the Edge Walk, where you’ll head outdoors to a glass walkway encircling the 53rd floor for some fresh air and a selfie to remember.

Museum of the Future
Museum of the Future | Photo courtesy of Museum of the Future

Anyone who’s even typed “Dubai” into Google over the last year and change is undoubtedly familiar with the Museum of the Future, the landmark asymmetrical ring-shaped building that looms over a multi-lane stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road in the Financial District. Designed by celebrated architect Shaun Killa, the Dubai Future Foundation’s steel and glass creation was unveiled in February, 2022, and has been treating museum-goers to one-of-a-kind exhibits ever since. Traveling showcases, theatrical productions, and other innovative attractions forecasting upcoming scientific and technological advances might draw the masses inside, but it’s the building’s exterior that really sets it apart from the city’s shimmering pack.

The curving facade features a series of windows Emirati artist Matar Bin Lahej formed out of Arabic calligraphy, spelling out inspirational poems written by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE. The expressive letters dance around the reflective surface, illustrating quotes like, “We won't live for hundreds of years, but we can create something that will last for hundreds of years,” and, “The future will be for those who will be able to imagine, design and build it, the future does not wait, the future can be designed and built today.” The whole thing balances atop a layered hill, covered in greenery and interrupted by swooping archways revealing doors and more windows. There’s a reason National Geographic named it one of the most beautiful museums in the world.

Dubai Fountain
Dubai Fountain | MDXB/Shutterstock

The Dubai Fountain outmaneuvers the Bellagio’s in Vegas by both size and repertoire. Some 900 feet in length, it’s framed by the Dubai Opera House and the Burj Khalifa. A complex array of color projectors, plus thousands of water expressions and super lights, make for powerful performances that keep you loitering by the lake all evening long. You might hear twangy Bedouin tributes, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Jackson, and Edith Piaf, while as much as 22,000 gallons of water splashes and swirls in the air.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel. 

Barbara Woolsey is a Canadian writer who, after all Dubai’s excess, is happily back to leading a “poor but sexy” life in Berlin. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.