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You’re Doing Dubai Wrong. Here’s How You Experience It

There's so much more to this incredible city than meets the eye. Trust us, your wallet will thank you.

When you think of Dubai, you think of huge architectural wonders, glamorous over-the-top shopping excursions, and larger-than-life attractions. But there is so much more that this almost 200-year old city has to offer. From exciting art events to shopping that won’t make your credit card cringe to unique, only-in-Dubai experiences, this hyper-modern city has a little something for everyone.

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Seek out Art for Social Change at Al-Serkal

Based in Al-Quoz Industrial District, Al-Serkal Avenue reenvisions what you would assume a street full of warehouses would look like with socially engaged art exhibitions, creative coworking spaces, and educational programs.

With art exhibitions featuring Palestinian artists, and work that drives conversations around local and global feminist movements, Al-Serkal is a breath of fresh air beyond Dubai’s conservative and consumer-heavy mindset.

Supporting a mix of new and established artists, the initiative is aimed at striking up conversations around local art and culture, while engaging in educational activities. Check out their website for what’s on and maybe get lucky if an artist happens to be in town. Or grab and coffee from a local coffee shop on the avenue and get lost into the art, theatre, and culture Al-Serkal has to offer.

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Step Back in Time in Historic Al Fahidi

With its stunning skyline, modern shopping malls, and beautiful hotels, Dubai has quickly established itself as a fast-paced city of progress, but don’t miss out on a chance to take a journey back to its past.

Away from the hustle and bustle, Al-Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood–located in Bur Dubai–allows visitors to get a glimpse into the Dubai of the mid-19th century and what life was like back then. Start off at the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding to book a tour of the neighborhood, and explore the Coin and Dagger Museums for a glimpse into the history and lifestyle back then. The Cultural Centre also hosts a traditional Arabic dinner with a host who takes you through the significance of the meal. Apart from the museum, the neighborhood has over 50 “houses” to explore. Try and catch the Sikka Art Fair hosted in the neighborhood.

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Soak up Some Sun at La Mer Beach

Dubai’s scorching heat for most of the year limits many outdoor activities but for the most part, it’s perfectly beach-friendly. What better way to get a tan, cool off, or get adventurous with watersports than the stunning La Mer Beach.

Not only does the beautiful coastline have clear waters where visitors can swim, jet ski, or take boat rides, but it’s also home to a waterpark and non-water-related activities like go-karting and an outdoor trampoline park.

La Mer also hosts Girly Tuesdays, offering ladies exclusive deals on food and activities so you might want to time your visit accordingly–as the beachfront has some of Dubai’s most famous restaurants and exclusive shopping and spa experiences.

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Safari Under the Stars With Desert Safari Dubai

Spend the night in a desert under the stars and experience riding dune buggies, a traditional dinner, camel rides, and more with a classic Dubai desert safari.

With the option to choose from various packages at different times in the day, Desert Safari Dubai’s overnight safari is one of the top picks because it lets you get the full experience. Visitors are encouraged to leave electronics at home and truly detox amidst the sand and sky. Belly dancing shows provide entertainment with sheesha, fire shows, quad biking, and an unlimited buffet dinner filling up your hours.

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Walk Among the Butterflies at Dubai Butterfly Garden

Home to over 15,000 species of butterflies, Dubai Butterfly Garden proves a colorful visit with nine custom-made domes. The garden is made beautifully and provides information on the species of butterflies it hosts which can be a great activity for children of all ages–and a great way to engage with nature

Admission packages include group discounts which can be perfect for a family. Relax amid the colorful enclosures that host these beautiful creatures and visit the onsite Butterfly and Insect Museum for more in-depth information. The entire area is also climate-controlled, which is great for the butterflies but also for visitors who may want to escape Dubai’s extreme heat.

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Enjoy a Thrill Ride at IMG Worlds of Adventure

If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me you’re going to love this one. Indoor theme parks are quite rare to find and IMG Worlds of Adventure means you get to enjoy roller coasters, popcorn, and slushies without having to worry about the terrible heat. If you’re in the city for a while it’s worth splurging on an Annual Pass so you can go again and again.

As the world’s largest indoor theme park, IMG Worlds of Adventure definitely doesn’t disappoint because you’ll want to be going on these rides over and over again. My personal favorite rides are Velociraptor and Spider-man, but there are more than a few things that’ll be sure to keep you busy for most of the day.

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Commute Like the Locals on a Boat Ride

Want to take the cheapest boat ride in the world? At just AED 1 ($0.27), an Abra Ride offers stunning views of Bur Dubai–an older part of the city that is often forgotten under the glitz and glamour of high-rises. Locals usually use the traditional wooden boats to get across the creek but as a tourist, it’s a unique way of exploring the older part of the city.

With Abra stations located in both Deira and Bur Dubai, the 5-minute boat ride leaves you with easy access to the Gold Souk and Spice Souk amongst other great areas to explore. The best way to explore a city like Dubai is to do it through the eyes of the locals and that means moving out of the areas that were built especially for tourists’ eyes.

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Get a Little "Wild" at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary

If you thought butterflies were the only wildlife in Dubai you’re in for a surprise. The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary acts as a conservation area for all kinds of animals from fringe-toed lizards to Ethiopian hedgehogs and flamingos–with Mangrove forests that serve as nesting grounds to various species of shrimp, crabs, fish, and mollusks.

Entry to the Wildlife Sanctuary is free, a welcome change from many of Dubai’s expensive activities. Plus, at a time when humans have overtaken so much of the natural world, this wildlife oasis is a great reminder of connecting with nature again.

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Catch a Movie House Masterpiece at Cinema Akil

While Cinema Akil is also based at Al-Serkal Avenue, it deserves a special mention. Cinemas aren’t uncommon in Dubai by any means–after all, what else would you do in a mall after a long day of shopping? Yet Cinema Akil is a different kind of treatment altogether.

Initially launched as a nomadic cinema in 2014 that has held 60 pop-ups in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, it is now permanently based in Al-Serkal as GCC’s first arthouse cinema. With upcoming documentaries like There Is Something In The Air, which explores accounts of spiritual possession experienced by women worshippers at a Sufi shrine in India, Cinema Akil is about exploring film beyond mere entertainment. Grab a cup of authentic and ethically sourced Karak Chai from the chai diner next to the cinema and take a seat on its mismatched cushions to explore emotional journeys.

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Get Your Art History Fix at Jameel Arts Center

Jameel Arts Centre is a great spot for anyone wanting to learn more about art. The Centre focuses on research while also supporting artists in the Middle East, South Asia, and beyond.

The Centre is also home to an art and sculpture park, which serves as an open art community gallery. It also curates events–like reading groups to discuss Palestine and Down to Earth, a festival celebrating all things green–that will challenge your understanding of politics, society, and their intersection with our everyday lives.

For those looking to engage with or conduct research, the Jameel Library at the Centre is always available and its focus on youth programs make it an ideal visit for young people looking to learn more about the world around them and understand how things work beyond their own self by looking at the community at large.

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