Dubai may seem young with its modern architecture and innovative spirit, but the city's history dates back centuries. A global trading hub, it embraces a cultural landscape that is as rich as it is extraordinary. The best way to appreciate Dubai's present and future? Travel back to its humble beginnings.
Learn about local culture
A great place to start your cultural journey in Dubai is Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, where you can get a feel for how the city used to be. Most of the buildings date back to the late 19th century, and now house museums, galleries and traditional cafes, as well as studio spaces for artists.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is located here, and offers visitors an introduction to the Emirati way of life, along with local food and coffee – a delicious and enriching experience. Also worth looking out for is the Arabian Tea House, where you can sample local food, including their signature date syrup pancakes.
For a more spiritual journey, head to Jumeirah Mosque, which offers tours to people of all faiths. Learn about Emirati culture, Islam and the mosque's elegant architecture, which is constructed with beautiful white stone.
And no exploration of Emirati culture would be complete without a trip to the desert. Luxury tour operator Platinum Heritage offers the Al Marmoom Bedouin Experience, where you can experience a slice of the UAE’s traditional Bedouin culture first-hand and learn how these nomadic people lived in harmony with the desert.
Check out Dubai’s art scene
Dubai has seen its homegrown arts landscape blossom in recent years with new galleries, studios and initiatives. One of the most prominent is Jameel Arts Centre, on the banks of Dubai Creek – a custom-built institution that showcases the best of contemporary art from the Middle East and around the world. The arts centre features a varied programme of exhibitions and events, and is worth a visit at any time of year, thanks to its serene atmosphere and extensive grounds, which includes an impressive sculpture park.
Another key arts institution in Dubai is Alserkal Avenue, located in the industrial Al Quoz neighbourhood. Made up of former warehouses, it's now home to some of Dubai’s most innovative artists and curators, along with homegrown cafes and independent picture-house Cinema Akil. The district has become a centre for Dubai’s cultural scene, and plays host to an eclectic series of events, where you could rub shoulders with Dubai’s leading creatives.
Venture out to Dubai International Financial Centre and Dubai Design District, where you'll find plenty of galleries and design-focused shops focusing on commercial art. Both these precincts host regular events for artists and collectors, known for exhibitions that attract the city's connoisseurs.
Catch Dubai’s must-see events
Dubai has several landmark events in its cultural calendar, and the biggest is Art Dubai, one of the world’s leading commercial art fairs. The fair is held at Madinat Jumeirah in March, serving as a platform for artists from across the region and around the world. Beyond the fair, March is also regarded as a creative month in Dubai, and a collection of art-centric events and festivals make it a great time to visit.
For visitors of a literary persuasion, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is the event to catch. The Lit Fest, as it’s commonly known, attracts some of the biggest authors in the world, with stars such as Jo Nesbø, Ranulph Fiennes and Jane Goodall being recent attendees. Don't miss your chance to hear your favourite authors speak, discover new talent and participate in creative workshops.
Dubai also caters to fans of the performing arts, from annual events such as the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival, to large-scale productions at Dubai Opera. Complementing those are smaller events at venues in Alserkal Avenue, from poetry reading to community theatre. There’s always something going on, so check Dubai Calendar to see what's on during your visit.
Expand your mind at a museum
Deep in Dubai’s desert, undisturbed for centuries, lay an archaeological treasure trove packed with Iron Age artefacts, from pottery to fine gold jewellery. Discovered by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, while flying overhead in 2002, the contents of the Saruq Al-Hadid site are now on display at a dedicated museum near Dubai Creek.
Nearby is Al Shindagha Museum, which gives visitors a glimpse at Dubai’s more recent history, specifically focused on how the city developed around its creek. You can get a closer look at the founding of the nation and pre-union heritage at the Etihad Museum.
For something a bit different, head to the Museum of Illusions in Al Seef, and let your eyes deceive you. Filled with optical illusions, holograms and mirrors, the museum is great fun, and also a fantastic way of learning more about how the mind works.