Sheikh Zayed Road and Downtown Dubai Travel Guide
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Around 5km south of the Creek, the upwardly mobile suburbs of modern Dubai begin in spectacular style with the massed skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road and the huge Downtown Dubai development: an extraordinary sequence of neck-cricking high-rises which march south from the landmark Emirates Towers to the cloud-capped Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. This is the modern city at its most futuristic and flamboyant, and perhaps the defining example of Dubai’s insatiable desire to offer more luxury, more glitz and more retail opportunities than the competition, with a string of record-breaking attractions which now include not just the world’s highest building but also its largest mall, tallest hotel and biggest fountain.
Dubai’s last big hurrah before the credit crunch hit town in 2008, the shiny Business Bay development comprises a dense cluster of high-rises arranged around an extension of the Creek. Most of the buildings are fairly humdrum, although there are a few local landmarks worth a quick look.
Exiting the metro and heading right at the first main intersection brings you to the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai hotel, opened in late 2012 and currently the tallest hotel in the world at a cool 355m. The hotel occupies one of a soaring pair of identical blue-glass-clad towers whose strangely contoured outlines appear to be modelled on the trunk of a palm tree, each topped with a spiky little crown.
Opposite the Marriott, you can’t fail to notice the Iris Bay building, an extraordinary crescent-shaped structure (like an eye turned sideways – hence the name), while back down the road, next to the intersection opposite the metro, stands the Omniyat tower, like an enormous popcorn carton made out of shiny black glass, and, next door, the Prism building, looking exactly as the name suggests. From here down the road ahead in the distance your eye is drawn to the funky O-14 tower, popularly known as the Swiss Cheese Tower thanks to the undulating layer of white cladding which envelops the entire structure, dotted with around 1300 circular holes. It’s said to have been inspired by the Arabian mashrabiya (a kind of traditional, elaborately carved wooden screen), although it actually looks like nothing so much as an enormous piece of postmodern Emmenthal.
Winding through the heart of Downtown Dubai between the Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa and Old Town Island is the large Burj Khalifa Lake. The section of the lake closest to the Dubai Mall doubles as the spectacular 275m-long Dubai Fountain, the world’s biggest, capable of shooting jets of water up to 150m high, and illuminated with over 6000 lights and 25 colour projectors. The fountain really comes to life after dark, spouting carefully choreographed watery flourishes which “dance” elegantly in time to a range of Arabic, Hindi and classical songs, viewable from anywhere around the lake for free.
Short abra rides around the lake and fountain are also available, leaving from outside Wafi Gourmet on the lake-facing side of the Dubai Mall.
Currently under construction on the far side of the lake is the spectacular Dubai Opera House (wdubaiopera.com), a two-thousand-seater state-of-the-art venue due to open in 2016 and promising to give a long-overdue boost to the city’s moribund performing arts scene.
Virtually in the shadow of the Emirates Towers, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is the city’s financial hub and home to myriad banks, investment companies and other enterprises, along with the flagship NASDAQ Dubai exchange. Opened in 2005, NASDAQ Dubai is a key element in the government’s attempts to exploit the city’s location midway between European and Asian financial markets and become the region’s leading financial trading centre – and, ultimately, a major player in global markets to rival the City of London, Wall Street and Tokyo, although progress so far has been slower than hoped for. The exchange is also a leader in the rapidly growing international market for sukuk, so-called “Islamic Bonds”, devised to be acceptable under Shariah law, which (in accordance with the Koran’s strictures against usury) forbids the charging of interest, stipulating that investors profit only from transactions based on the sale or purchase of actual assets.
The DIFC’s northern end is marked by The Gate, a striking building looking like a kind of postmodern Arc de Triomphe-cum-office block. The Gate is surrounded on three sides by further buildings linked by “The Balcony”, an attractive raised terrace lined with assorted cafés and shops. The entire pedestrianized complex is pleasantly sedate, almost collegiate, with sober expat financial types shuttling between meetings and a high-financial solemnity which feels more like London or Frankfurt than anywhere in the Gulf.
Off on the east side of the complex (walk through the office building just past the Bateel Café) lies a further cluster of buildings known as the Gate Village, now one of the focal points of Dubai’s burgeoning visual arts scene, with virtually every building occupied by assorted galleries, with a couple of top-end restaurants (see La Petite Maison and Zuma) thrown in for good measure.
Right next to the Burj Khalifa, the supersized Dubai Mall is the absolute mother of all malls, with over 1200 shops spread across four floors and covering a total area of over a million square metres – making it easily the largest mall in the world measured by total area (although other malls contain more shopping space). Just about every retail chain in the city has an outlet here, with flagship names including Galeries Lafayette, Bloomingdale’s, an offshoot of London’s famous Hamleys toy store and a superb branch of the Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya. There are also lashings of upmarket designer stores, mainly concentrated along the section of the mall called Fashion Avenue – a positive encyclopedia of labels, complete with its own catwalk and Armani café – and in the ultra-cool boutiques of the ground-floor Level Shoe District, one of the most gorgeous pieces of retail interior design you’ll ever see – chic, sexy, and just a little bit camp.
Look out too for the eye-catching The Waterfall, complete with life-size statues of fibreglass divers, which cascades from the top of the mall down to the bottom, four storeys below, and the attractively Arabian-themed Souk. The central hall of the latter also provides a somewhat incongruous home for the “Dubai Dino”, a beautifully preserved, 7.6m-high skeleton of a 150-million-year-old Diplodocus longus, unearthed in Wyoming in 2008.
Other amenities include some 120 cafés and restaurants, divided between various interior food courts and the bustling waterside terrace at the back of the mall overlooking the Dubai Fountain. There are also a couple of five-star hotels, a 22-screen multiplex, the state-of-the-art SEGA Republic theme park, the KidZania “edu-tainment” centre, an Olympic-size ice rink and the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Not surprisingly given its size, even a casual shopping visit to the Dubai Mall can be an exhausting experience – expect to walk several kilometres at minimum, even if you’re just looking for the nearest toilet. Maps of the mall are available from various information desks – useful to plan your visit and save endless backtracking.
Despite its size, the mall also suffers from massive crowds, especially at weekends and during holidays, when it’s best avoided. Crowds and noise also blight many of the mall's eating outlets. There are a lot of attractive cafés here, but sadly they often get totally overrun and borderline manic – as well as being subject to a constant barrage of remorselessly piped muzak.
If you want a break from the masses, the coffee shops on the top (2nd) floor such as Caribou Coffee and Rubicon’s Coffee are often significantly quieter than those downstairs, and there’s also a pleasant little café in Kinokuniya, offering bird’s-eye views of the Dubai Fountain below, and often surprisingly peaceful when other places are rammed.
North of the Emirates Towers stretches the sprawling Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre, on whose far side rises the venerable old Dubai World Trade Centre tower, Dubai’s first skyscraper and formerly the tallest building in the Middle East. Commissioned in 1979 by the visionary Sheikh Rashid, this 39-storey edifice was widely regarded as a massive white elephant when it was first built, standing as it did in the middle of what was then empty desert far from the old city centre. In fact, history has entirely vindicated Rashid’s daring gamble. The centre proved an enormous success with foreign companies and US diplomats, who established a consulate in the tower and used it as a major base for monitoring affairs in nearby Iran. The centre also served as an important anchor for future development along the strip, and it’s a measure of Sheikh Rashid’s far-sighted ambition that his alleged folie de grandeur has long since been overtaken by a string of far more impressive constructions further down the road.
Opened in 2000, the soaring Emirates Towers remain one of modern Dubai’s most iconic symbols, despite increasing competition from newer and even more massive landmarks. The larger office tower (355m) was the tallest building in the Middle East and tenth highest in the world when it was completed, though such has been the pace of development that it now barely scrapes into the top ten tallest buildings in the city. Size (or lack of) notwithstanding, the twin towers remain among the most beautiful in the city, their highly reflective surfaces mirroring the constantly changing play of desert light and shadow, and their unusual triangular groundplan and spiky cutaway summits giving them a kind of thrusting sci-fi glamour – like a pair of alien rockets about to blast off into space.
The taller tower houses the headquarters of Emirates airlines, plus the offices of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed and his inner circle of senior advisers; the smaller is occupied by the exclusive Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel. One curiosity of the buildings is that the office tower, despite its considerable extra height (355m versus 305m), has only two more floors than the hotel tower (53 versus 51). The taller tower isn’t open to the public, apart from the ground floor where you’ll find the posh (if now rather moribund) Emirates Towers Boulevard, but there are plenty of opportunities to look around the hotel tower, most spectacularly from the 51st-floor Alta Badia bar . It’s also worth popping in to have a look at the dramatic atrium, with its little pod-shaped glass elevators shuttling up and down the huge orange wall overhead.
On the far side of the Dubai Fountain, directly in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, is the chintzy Old Town development: a low-rise sprawl of sand-coloured buildings with traditional Moorish styling. The overall concept, with a soaring futuristic tower placed next to a cod-Arabian village with waterways, is effectively a blatant copy of the Madinat Jumeirah/Burj al Arab concept, except not quite as impressively done. Centrepiece of the development is the Souk al Bahar (“Souk of the Sailor”), a small, Arabian-themed mall, home to a number of handicraft shops and offering a pleasantly quiet and low-key alternative to the crowd-packed carnage of the Dubai Mall. A string of restaurants lines the waterfront terrace outside, some of them offering peerless views of Burj Khalifa – although they tend to get absolutely rammed after dark. On the far side of the Souk al Bahar stands the Old Town’s opulent showpiece hotel, The Palace, its rich Moorish facade offering a surreal but quintessentially Dubaian contrast with the needle-thin outline of the Burj Khalifa rising imperiously behind.
The quaint Dubai Trolley (daily 5pm–1am; free) is the latest addition to the city’s ever-evolving transport network, travelling in a loop around Downtown Dubai, along Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard and beneath the Dubai Mall, with stops at locations including the Address Downtown Dubai, Manzil Downtown and Vida hotels. Running on tracks alongside the road, this is the world’s first hydrogen-powered, zero-emission street trolley tram – not that you’d ever guess it from the vehicle’s gorgeously antique appearance. It won’t, admittedly, get you anywhere you can’t reach on foot, but it offers a fun and free way of taking in the Downtown sights, and with excellent views from the breezy open-air upper deck en route.
Technically, Sheikh Zayed Road – christened after the much-loved first president of the UAE – is the name of the highway that runs all the way from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. In practice, however, when locals refer to “Sheikh Zayed Road” they're usually talking about the section of highway in central Dubai stretching south from Trade Centre Roundabout (also known as Za’abeel Roundabout) to Interchange no. 1 – in other words, from just north of the Emirates Towers to the Dusit Thani hotel, which is where you’ll find most of the road’s hotels, restaurants and shops.
South of the Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Road continues in a more or less unbroken line of high-rises, looking like contestants in a bizarre postmodern architectural beauty parade. Heading down the strip brings you immediately to The Tower, a slender edifice rising to a neat pyramidal summit, with three tiers of stylized leaf-shaped metal protuberances sprouting from its sides. Right next door sits the thoroughly daft Al Yaqoub Tower: effectively a postmodern replica of London’s Big Ben, minus the clock, although at 330m it’s well over three times the height of the 96m-tall UK landmark. Two buildings down, the quirky Maze Tower (wmazetower.com), its facade covered in labyrinthine doodles, looks almost understated in comparison.
Further south the eye-catching Al Attar Tower (not to be confused with the nearby Al Attar Business Tower) appears to have been constructed entirely out of plate glass and enormous gold coins, while close by rises the graceful Rose Rayhaan – a beautifully slender and delicate structure, topped by a small globe which is illuminated prettily after dark. At 333m this was the world’s tallest hotel until the opening of the new JW Marriott Marquis Dubai just down the road in Business Bay. Slightly further down stands the Rolex Tower, a rather severe rectangular mass of black glass with (apparently) a kind of card slot cut out of its uppermost floors, while across the road is the soaring Chelsea Tower, topped by what looks like an enormous toothpick. A short walk further south the strip reaches a suitably dramatic end with the iconic Dusit Thani hotel, a towering glass-and-metal edifice inspired by the traditional Thai wai, a prayer-like gesture of welcome, though it looks more like a huge upended tuning fork thrust into the ground.