The Burj al Arab and around Travel Guide

Some 18km south of the Creek, the suburb of Umm Suqeim marks the beginning of Dubai’s spectacular modern beachside developments, announced with a flourish by three of Dubai’s most famous landmarks: the Madinat Jumeirah complex, the roller-coaster-like Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and the iconic sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel. There are further attractions at the thrills-and-spills Wild Wadiwater park and at Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s first ski slope, while more sedentary pleasures can be found at the vast Mall of the Emirates, next to Ski Dubai, of whose snowy pistes it offers superbly surreal views. Close to the Mall of the Emirates on the far side of Sheikh Zayed Road, the industrial area of Al Quoz provides an unlikely home to a number of Dubai’s leading art galleries.

The Burj al Arab

Rising majestically from its own man-made island just off the coast of Umm Suqeim is the peerless Burj al Arab (“Tower of the Arabs”), one of the world’s most luxurious hotels and de facto symbol of the city. Commissioned by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, the aim of the Burj al Arab was simple: to serve as a global icon which would put Dubai on the international map. Money was no object. The total cost of the hotel was perhaps as much as US$2 billion, and it’s been estimated that even if every room in it remains full for the next hundred years, the Burj still won’t pay back its original investment.

As a modern icon, however, the Burj is unmatched, and the building’s instantly recognizable outline swiftly established it as a global symbol of Dubai to rival the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Sydney Opera House. Even the top-floor helipad has acquired celebrity status: Andre Agassi and Roger Federer once famously played tennis on it, while Tiger Woods used it as a makeshift driving range, punting shots into the sea (before ringing room service for more balls).

The Burj is home to the world’s first so-called seven-star hotel, an expression coined by a visiting journalist to emphasize the unique levels of style and luxury offered within. Staying here is a very expensive pleasure, and even just visiting presents certain financial and practical challenges. Fortunately the building’s magnificent exterior can be enjoyed for free from numerous vantage points nearby.

The building

Designed to echo the shape of a dhow’s sail, the Burj al Arab forms a kind of maritime counterpart to the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s “breaking wave”. Its sail-like shape offers a modern tribute to Dubai’s historic seafaring traditions, enhanced (as is its very exclusive aura) by its location on a specially reclaimed island some 300m offshore. The building was constructed between 1993 and 1999 by UK engineering and architectural firm W.S. Atkins under lead designer Tom Wright. The statistics alone are impressive. At 321m, the Burj is the third-tallest dedicated hotel in the world. The spire-like superstructure alone, incredibly, is taller than the entire Jumeirah Beach Hotel, while the atrium (180m) is capacious enough to swallow up the entire Statue of Liberty – or, for that matter, the 38-storey Dubai World Trade Centre tower.

The sheer scale of the Burj is overwhelming, and only really appreciated in the flesh, since photographs of the building, perhaps inevitably, always seem to diminish it to the size of an expensive toy. The Burj’s scale is tempered by its extraordinary grace and the sinuous simplicity of its basic design, broken only by the celebrated cantilevered helipad and (on the building’s sea-facing side) the projecting strut housing Al Muntaha (“The Highest”) restaurant and the Skyview Bar. The hotel’s shore-facing side mainly comprises a huge sheet of white Teflon-coated fibreglass cloth – a symbolic sail which is spectacularly illuminated from within by night, turning the entire building into a magically glowing beacon. Less universally admired is the building’s rear elevation, in the shape of a huge cross, a feature that caused considerable controversy among Muslims at the time of construction, though it’s only visible from the sea.

Most of the interior is actually hollow, comprising an enormous atrium vibrantly coloured in great swathes of red, blue, green and gold. The original design comprised a far more restrained composition of whites and soft blues, but was significantly altered at the insistence of Sheikh Mohammed, who called in interior designer Khuan Chew (responsible for the colourful lobby at the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel) to jazz things up. The contrast with the classically simple exterior could hardly be greater, and the atrium and public areas look like something between a Vegas casino and a James Bond movie set, the casual extravagance of it all encapsulated by enormous fish tanks flanking the entrance staircase which are so deep that cleaners have to put on diving suits to scrub them out (a performance you can witness daily 2–4pm). For many visitors, the whole thing is simply a classic example of Middle Eastern bling gone mad (that’s not gold paint on the walls, incidentally, but genuine 22ct gold leaf). Still, there’s something undeniably impressive about both the sheer size of the thing and Chew’s slightly psychedelic decor, with huge expanses of vibrant primary colour and endless balconied floors rising far overhead, supported by massive bulbous golden piers – like a “modern-day pirate galleon full of treasure”, as Tom Wright himself neatly described it.

Visiting the Burj Al Arab

Non-guests are only allowed into the Burj with a prior reservation at one of the hotel’s bars, cafés or restaurants. Big spenders might enjoy the hotel’s two fine-dining restaurants: choose between Al Mahara seafood restaurant and Al Muntaha, perched at the very top of the building. Alternatively, sign up for a less expensive buffet at the Arabian-style Al Iwan or Asian-style Junsui (lunch and dinner 505/560dh at both). Most visitors, however, opt for one of the Burj’s sumptuous afternoon teas, or just visit for a drink. Choose between the Sahn Eddar lounge in the spectacular atrium (minimum spend 290dh, afternoon teas 400/560dh) or put the high back into high tea with a table in the Skyview Bar at the very top of the hotel (minimum spend 350dh; afternoon tea 620dh). If you want to go the whole hog, try the novel “Culinary Flight” (lunch/dinner 1075/1350dh), comprising drinks at the Skyview Bar followed by a four-course meal, with each course served in a different restaurant, rounded off with dessert at Sahn Eddar.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel

On the beach right next to the Burj sits the second of the area’s landmark buildings, the huge Jumeirah Beach Hotel, or “JBH” as it’s often abbreviated. Designed to resemble an enormous breaking wave (although it looks more like an enormous roller coaster), and rising to a height of over 100m, the hotel was considered the most spectacular and luxurious in the city when it opened in 1997, although it has since been overtaken on both counts. It remains a fine sight, however, especially when seen from a distance in combination with the Burj al Arab, against whose slender sail it appears (with a little imagination) to be about to crash.

Madinat Jumeirah

Just south of the Burj al Arab lies the huge Madinat Jumeirah, a vast mass of faux-Moorish-style buildings rising high above the coastal highway. Opened in 2005, the Madinat is one of Dubai’s most spectacular modern developments: a self-contained miniature “Arabian” city comprising a vast sprawl of sand-coloured buildings topped by an extraordinary quantity of wind towers (best viewed from the entrance to the Al Qasr hotel), the whole thing arranged around a sequence of meandering waterways along which visitors are chauffeured in replica abras. The complex is home to a trio of ultra-luxurious five-star hotels (with a fourth currently under construction), the labyrinthine Souk Madinat Jumeirah bazaar, a vast spread of restaurants and bars, and one of the city’s best spas.

There’s an undeniable whiff of Disneyland about the Madinat, admittedly. The vision, according to the developers, was “to re-create life as it used to be for residents along Dubai Creek, complete with waterways, abras, wind towers and a bustling souk”, although in truth Madinat Jumeirah bears about as much relation to old Dubai as Big Ben does to your average grandfather clock. Even so, the sheer scale of the place, with its relentlessly picturesque array of wind towers, wood-framed souks and palm-fringed waterways, is strangely compelling, and a perfect example of the kind of thing – mixing unbridled extravagance with a significant dose of sugar-coated kitsch – which Dubai seems to do so well. The Madinat also offers some of the most eye-boggling views in Dubai, with the futuristic outlines of the Burj al Arab surreally framed between medieval-looking wind towers and Moorish arcading. The fact that the fake olde-worlde city is actually newer than the ultramodern Burj is, by Dubai’s standards, exactly what one would expect.

The obvious place from which to explore the complex is the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, though it’s well worth investigating some of the superb restaurants and bars in the Al Qasr and Mina A’Salam hotels, several of which offer superlative views over the Madinat itself, the Burj al Arab and coastline. Twenty-minute abra cruises around the Madinat’s waterways depart from the kiosk outside Left Bank bar-restaurant on the waterfront.

Mall of the Emirates

The second-largest mall in Dubai (outdone only by the Dubai Mall), the swanky Mall of the Emirates is one of the most popular in the city, packed with some five hundred shops and crowds of locals and tourists alike. Centred around a huge, glass-roofed central atrium, the mall is spread over three levels, crisscrossed by escalators and little wrought-iron bridges, and topped by the pink, five-star Kempinski Hotel. For dedicated shopaholics it’s one of the best places in Dubai to splash some cash – and there’s also the added bonus of surreal views of the snow-covered slopes of Ski Dubai through huge glass walls at the western end of the mall, or from one of the various restaurants and bars overlooking the slopes, such as Après.

Ski Dubai

Attached to the Mall of the Emirates, the huge indoor ski resort of Ski Dubai is unquestionably one of the city’s weirder ideas. The idea of a huge indoor snow-covered ski slope (the first in the Middle East) complete with regular snowfall is strange enough amid the sultry heat of the Gulf – but the sight of robed Emiratis skiing, snowboarding or just chucking snowballs at one another adds a decidedly surreal touch to the already unlikely proceedings. If a peek is all you’re after, you can take in the whole spectacle for free from the viewing areas at the attached Mall of the Emirates.

The complex contains the world’s largest indoor snow park, comprising a huge 3000 square metres of snow-covered faux-Alpine mountainside, complete with chairlift. Accredited skiers and snowboarders (you’ll need to undergo a brief personal assessment to prove you possess the necessary basic skills to use the main slope) can use the five runs of varying height, steepness and difficulty, ranging from a beginners’ track through to the world’s first indoor black run, as well as a “freestyle zone” for show-off winter sports aficionados. There’s also a Snow School ski academy for beginners and improvers, as well as a twin-track bobsled ride, a snow cavern, chairlift and the "Snow Bullet" zipline, plus tobogganing and snowman-building opportunities.

Ski Dubai has also recently acquired its own troupe of resident king and gentoo penguins. A couple can be seen for free from the mall during the regular "March of the Penguins" (every 2hr on the hour), or at closer quarters on a full-blown "Penguin Encounter".

Wild Wadi

Directly behind the JBH, the massively popular (although seriously expensive) Wild Wadi water park offers a variety of attractions to suit everyone from small kids to physically fit adrenaline junkies. The park is modelled on a Sinbad-inspired fantasy tropical lagoon, with cascading waterfalls, whitewater rapids, hanging bridges and big piles of rocks. Get oriented with a circuit of the Whitewater Wadi (MasterBlaster) ride, which runs around the edge of the park, during which you’re squirted on powerful jets of water up and down eleven long, twisting slides before being catapulted down the darkened Tunnel of Doom. Dedicated thrill-seekers should try the Wipeout and Riptide Flowriders, simulating powerful surfing waves, and the park’s stellar attraction, the Jumeirah Sceirah, the world's eighth-highest waterslide, during which you’re likely to hit around 80km/h and experience temporary weightlessness. There are also less demanding attractions such as gentle tube-rides down Lazy River, family-oriented water games in Juha’s Dhow and Lagoon and the chance to bob up and down in the big simulated waves of Breaker’s Bay. Many people make a day of it, and you can buy food and drinks inside the park using money stored on an ingenious waterproof wristband.

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Andy Turner

written by
Andy Turner

updated 26.04.2021

Ready to travel and discover
United Arab Emirates?

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍