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Discovering Dubai: A Comprehensive Guide to its Districts and Top Attractions

by Paola Bertoni
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From the iconic skyscrapers of Downtown Dubai to the luxurious beach resorts of Jumeirah, this article offers an in-depth look at the city’s diverse districts. Discover the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the stunning Dubai Fountain. Explore the historical Al Fahidi Historical District and the traditional souks of Deira. Whether you’re interested in modern architecture, world-class shopping, or cultural experiences, this post covers you.

What to see and do in the districts of Dubai

Dubai has changed a lot in the past few decades and is no longer just a destination for the wealthy and boorish. The city now offers plenty of opportunities to explore art and culture. Along with iconic landmarks like the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, and the Dubai Frame, historical museums are throughout the city.

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For instance, the Dubai Museum is located in the city’s oldest building and tells the story of the Emirate of Dubai. On the other hand, the Etihad Museum is an architectural masterpiece documenting the birth of the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, Dubai is a continuously developing city, with neighbourhoods like Al Quoz and Dubai Design District becoming home to art galleries, cafes, coworking spaces, and independent boutiques.

If you’re interested in art, you could dedicate your entire trip to exploring it in Dubai. Alternatively, you could explore the old city and discover ancient aromas and scents. Lastly, classic Dubai has beach life, luxury hotels, restaurants, and extravagant shopping malls. I suggest visiting Dubai with an open mind and being amazed by all the city has to offer.

Paola Bertoni in Dubai's La Mer district
The famous mural with wings in La Mer where you can take pictures to post on Instagram

Downtown Dubai

Although there is no actual city centre in Dubai, as we understand it in Europe, you can refer to Downtown Dubai as a kind of centre if you want to label it that way. Downtown Dubai is the area around the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre.

This area of Dubai is a must-see destination for every tourist. Inside the Dubai Mall, you will find the famous Dubai Fountain, which has light and music shows every night, the aquarium with the world’s largest glass panel, and the best shops of luxury brands worldwide.

The Burj Khalifa, on the other hand, holds the record as the world’s tallest skyscraper at 829 metres high. Soon, however, the record will be broken by the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. You can go up the Burj Khalifa to the viewing terraces. The highest is an impressive 555 metres above the ground. Tickets differ depending on the floor you choose and the time of day. In the evening tickets are more expensive because you can see a breathtaking sunset.

What to see in Downtown Dubai

All the attractions in Downton Dubai are located around the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. I recommend visiting the Dubai Mall even if you don’t like shopping malls. It really is something incredible, so big that you risk getting lost.

What to see in Downtown Dubai:

  • Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper.
  • Dubai Mall attractions: the Dubai Dino dinosaur skeleton, the Dubai Aquarium with the Underwater Zoo and the Dubai Fountain during its show.

Where to shop in Downtown Dubai

Shopping in Downtown Dubai is concentrated in the Dubai Mall. With over 1200 shops in one space, there are plenty of bargains. Here, I bought almost all the souvenirs of my trip in the official Dubai tourist office shop, which offers gift ideas for everyone. Thanks to their assortment, my son received a stuffed camel, a book about Dubai in English and some much-appreciated police cars.

The interior of the Dubai Mall
The interior of the Dubai Mall


In Deira, you won’t find the spectacular skyscrapers that have made Dubai famous. Still, you can discover its commercial past through the narrow alleys of the Gold Souk, Spice Souk, and Perfume Souk, which once overflowed with goods transported across the water of Dubai Creek.

The Deira district is the cheapest in Dubai. It is packed with little restaurants worldwide, serving authentic Levantine cuisine, Iranian food, and spicy Indian food. From the banks of the Creek, you can travel to Bur Dubai in an abra, a small wooden motorboat that serves as a water taxi. If you are intrigued by this experience, you can hire an abra for a trip along the Creek.

What to see in Deira

Deira is the oldest part of Dubai. In this district, you can visit several fascinating museums, in addition to the souks.

What to see in Deira:

  • Gold Souq, Spice Souq and Perfume Souq
  • The city’s first school, Al Ahmadiya School, founded in 1912
  • Heritage House, the former home of a pearl merchant
  • Women’s Museum to discover the history of Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, the best-known female poet in the Arab Emirates
  • Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili, the birthplace of the Saudi-born poet of the same name, who became one of the most important classical Arab poets
  • Naif Museum, a former police barracks located in a former fortress once used as a prison in Dubai

Where to shop in Deira

In this area, you can find the cheapest souvenirs, dried fruits, and spices. In between shops, you will also find people trying to sell you a counterfeit Gucci. Still, the vendors in Dubai’s souqs are generally less harassing than any other market in an Arab country. To spend less and not get hassled, you should get out of the souq area and shop in the shops where the people of Dubai go to buy.

The Heritage House in the Al Ras district of Deira, Dubai
The Heritage House in the Al Ras district of Deira, Dubai

Bur Dubai

The Bur Dubai area is located across the Creek from Deira and is still an active residential and economic centre. The first inhabited settlements were built in Bur Dubai long before the oil period and the transformation into the urban metropolis we know today.

Bur Dubai is also home to the historic Al Fahidi district, formerly known as Bastakiya. This district is famous for its traditional architecture with wind towers, the Al Fahidi fortress, various museums, and cultural associations. Because Indian and Filipino communities densely populate it, the district also offers plenty of cheap Indian and Asian restaurants.

Moving away from the Creek, you can reach the iconic Dubai Frame, the Egyptian-themed Wafi Mall, and the nearby pyramid-shaped Raffle Hotel, which are sights to behold.

What to see in Bur Dubai

The Bur Dubai area is where old and new meet, the most historic area of Dubai with new modern icons. Below are the must-see attractions and museums:

  • Dubai Frame, the world’s largest frame
  • Dubai Museum inside Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city built in 1787
  • The Al Fahidi Historical District, sometimes still referred to by its old name, Bastakiya
  • Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, the home of the grandfather of the current Emir of Dubai, with photos of the Al Maktoum family
  • Crossroads of Civilisation Museum, a private museum telling the story of trade between east and west
  • Coffee Museum, a private museum chronicling the cultivation of coffee and how it is drunk in the UAE
Entrance to the Al Fahidi Historical District, formerly Bastakiya, with restored historic houses and reconstruction of a Bedouin camp
Entrance to the Al Fahidi Historical District, formerly Bastakiya, with restored historic houses and reconstruction of a Bedouin camp

Al Barsha and Barsha Heights

The residential district of Al Barsha is best known for the Mall of the Emirates, which includes the first indoor ski slope in the entire Middle East and is also home to a colony of king penguins. I find it downright ugly, yet it is popular with expats who adore its fake alpine landscape.

Much more interesting is the Dubai Miracle Garden, the world’s largest garden covering an area of more than 72,000 square metres, with more than 150 million flowers composed in the shape of animals or objects. The Butterfly Garden, the largest butterfly house in the Arab Emirates, is also located here.

The Al Barsha district is a good option for visiting Dubai without spending too much money. The Barsha Heights area offers plenty of mid-range hotels surrounded by residential and office buildings. All around, inexpensive international restaurants serve Lebanese cuisine, Pakistani curries, and Nepalese specialities.

Where to shop in Al Barsha

In the Al Barsha district, you can shop at the Mall of the Emirates. Now surpassed in size and popularity by the Dubai Mall, the Mall of the Emirates is still an awe-inspiring shopping centre by our European standards.

  • Mall of the Emirates, the only mall with an indoor ski slope
The Ski Dubai indoor ski slope as seen from the Mall of Emirates
The Ski Dubai indoor ski slope as seen from the Mall of Emirates


Jumeirah is synonymous with beaches, and this area is perfect for relaxation and fun. On my first visit to Dubai, all I could see was a long sandy coastline with the silhouette of the iconic Burj Al Arab. Today, this area is buzzing as it continues to expand with new construction, including hotels, shopping malls, and expat residences.

Jumeirah has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, with the addition of residential islands, marinas and beach clubs. A short distance from the most beautiful beaches, you can visit the Jumeirah Mosque, built in 1975 and the only one open to non-Muslims in Dubai.

Jumeirah is also home to the La Mer district and the Etihad Museum, both opened in 2017. The Ethiad Museum tells the story of the birth of the UAE and the founding emirs in a visionary structure. La Mer, on the other hand, is a spectacular hipster-industrial-style shoreline decorated with murals, hammocks and water sculptures.

What to see in Jumeirah

Jumeirah offers several attractions and a long sandy beach. In this area, you can’t miss some of Dubai’s most iconic landmarks, which are also useful for discovering the UAE’s history and culture.


  • Burj Al Arab, the iconic sail-shaped building that identifies with the Dubai skyline
  • Jumeirah Mosque, whose daily tours offer an insight into Islamic culture
  • Ethiad Museum, a museum with fabulous architecture in which to discover how the United Arab Emirates came into being

Where to shop in Jumeirah

Jumeirah is home to Souk Madinat, a shopping mall with wind towers and souqs inspired by traditional Arabian architecture. The complex includes souvenir shops, textiles, spices, hotels, and private residences.

The Souk Madinat is also one of the few places where beer and wine are on restaurants menus because they’re part of licensed hotels (in the Arab Emirates, only hotels can sell alcohol). Here, you can also take highly Instagrammable photographs with the Burj Al Arab behind you or book a leisurely abra tour along the mall’s canals.

Traditional architecture with wind towers at Souk Madinat in Dubai
Traditional architecture with wind towers at Souk Madinat in Dubai

Palm Jumeirah

Palm Jumeirah is the palm tree par excellence in Dubai. Another palm-shaped artificial island on the coast is Palm Jebel Ali, which is larger but still under construction. For the time being, therefore, the palm-shaped island destination is Palm Jumeirah. Artificially constructed by reclaiming land from the sea, Palm Jumeirah is an engineering masterpiece.

Here, you will find the iconic Atlantis The Palm Hotel with an aquarium and water park, exclusive beach clubs, luxury condominiums, five-star resorts and trendy restaurants. There are several water parks in Dubai, but Aquaventure Waterpark is the premier water park in the Middle East, where you can find a private beach, tunnels, waterfalls and water slides.

If you prefer to visit the aquarium, the Lost Chambers Aquarium houses 15,000 marine species. It is the largest aquarium in the UAE. Here, you can take your PADI Open Water certification or book an activity to swim among sharks and stingrays in the Lost City of Atlantis.

You can explore Palm Jumeirah by hiring a bike or riding the Palm Jumeirah Monorail. The elevated monorail runs along the trunk of the palm-shaped island. It gives you a unique view of the artificial island buildings. Its stops include the Atlantis Aquaventure water park and a connection to the Dubai tram line, perfect if you plan to explore Palm by public transport.

What to do in Palm Jumeirah

Palm Jumeirah is one of the best areas in Dubai for a family holiday. Even without staying at the legendary Atlantis Hotel, you can still experience all the attractions of the palm-shaped island.


  • Lost Chambers Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the UAE, with 15,000 species of fish
  • Acquaventure Waterpark the largest water park in Dubai
  • Palm Jumeirah Monorail to discover the artificial palm-shaped island in an original way

And, of course, you can enjoy Dubai’s transparent sea and sandy beach from the beach club of your luxury hotel.

The amazing Atlantis The Palm Hotel in Dubai
The amazing Atlantis The Palm Hotel in Dubai

Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residences

You know Dubai when you start calling the Jumeirah Beach Residences area, opposite Dubai Marina, JBR. Time Out magazine named JBR and Dubai Marina among the 50 most beautiful neighbourhoods in the world.

In this area, you can experience the best seaside of the city. You can relax on the beach, admire the luxury yachts moored in the marina or even enjoy water sports such as water skiing, wakeboarding (like water skiing, but with a board) or parasailing.

JBR and Dubai Marina are as popular with professionals coming to relax after work as they are with families. Its spaces, such as The Beach and The Walk, are designed to be enjoyed by tourists and residents alike. Here, you will find a neighbourhood full of trendy restaurants and shops.

In a city like Dubai, full of shopping malls and air-conditioning, you will be amazed to discover this area is also perfect for a stroll. During weekends (Thursdays and Fridays), there are often free live music events or street art exhibitions. Finally, not far from JBR and Dubai Marina is Bluewaters Island, an artificial island with exclusive hotels and the world’s tallest Ferris wheel.

Banyan Tree Dubai beach club
Banyan Tree Dubai beach club

Where to stay in Dubai

Often considered a luxury destination, Dubai offers hotels and flats for all budgets and is much cheaper than you think. Below are a few value-for-money establishments that have been tried out by me personally or by friends and fellow bloggers.

For a luxury family holiday, the Bluewaters Beach Hotel, with swimming pools, restaurants to suit all tastes and children’s areas, is a great choice. To spend less but still stay in top-notch facilities, the Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City or the V Hotel Dubai are great choices, both overlooking the Dubai Water Canal with numerous in-house restaurants to choose from.

Finally, to see Dubai from a different perspective, I suggest you stay at the Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai, a unique property built in traditional Arabian style and located a short distance from the historic district and Al Fahidi Fort.

I hope this guide to Dubai’s neighbourhoods will help you navigate this huge city, which is always buzzing and full of things to see. In the comments, let me know which neighbourhood you prefer and what you would like to visit in Dubai on your next trip.

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