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Dubai is known to many as a popular long-haul flight layover destination with year-round sunshine. And it is a famous shopaholics haven with more than 60 huge malls to choose from, including the worlds largest. There is, however, a gloriously exciting secret Dubai that I have recently discovered since relocating here last month. Beyond its ever-growing luxury retailing options, I have sought out Dubai’s alternative tourist attractions that you probably didn’t know existed here in the heart of the United Arab Emirates.
1) ADMIRE THE BUTTERFLY & MIRACLE GARDENS
It wouldn’t be ‘very Dubai’ if it wasn’t the biggest in the world, so yep the Dubai Miracle Garden is the worlds largest natural flower garden with over 109 million flowers. Showcased in a variety of displays and artistic structures, the garden is a stunning attraction with blooming hearts, stars, a full-size house and even a full-size Emirates aeroplane. Open between October and April, when the weather isn’t scorching hot, the gardens have welcomed thousands through their gates.
Due to its popularity, a second section was added featuring the Butterfly gardens, home to 26 different species including the beautiful blue butterfly emoji brought to life. If your lifelong dream, like mine, was to have a pretty butterfly land on you, it’s 95% likely to happen with over 15,000 butterflies fluttering around.
2) DISCOVER AN ABUNDANCE OF STREET ART
Between the desert and the shiny skyscraper city, I didn’t imagine there would be a cool, creative street art vibe going on, but I was very wrong. Since 2016, Dubai has made a conscious effort to increase art accessibility by creating dedicated spaces for global and Emirati artists to do their thing. I’m not talking basic graffiti here, this is about incredible huge murals, to fully interactive pieces that bring joy to both residents and visitors.
You can find pieces all over, but City Walk is a great place to start as it houses the Dubai Walls Project, which features 16 pieces set amongst the uber modern and chic area full of eateries. Just around the corner from there, you’ll find a more recent extension of the same project at Box Park that is totally worth checking out too. The Dubai Design District is a third excellent place for urban art that has been developed recently.
Moving towards the Old Town and away from the typical tourist trail, your next stop has to be Al Karama Market where 24 huge artworks have transformed an entire street into a rainbow of colour. Ranging in subject and creation technique, these paintings are a true hidden gem of the city, located just a few minutes from the Dubai Frame. And if you’re feeling artsy, but it’s a little hot outside, then you can do some indoor viewing at galleries such as XVA or Leila Heller. Then if you do have time you should absolutely head to the newly opened Louvre in Abu Dhabi (approx 1hr 20min from central Dubai).
3) GET IN TOUCH WITH NATURE AT HATTA DAM
A 1hr 40min road trip from central Dubai is a great excuse for a cool car hire, so Hertz ‘fun collection’ comes in very handy; my first choice would definitely be a bright orange Jeep. If you don’t feel like getting behind the wheel yourself, there are a variety of tour companies willing to take you such as Arabian Adventures.
Hatta Dam feels like a world away from both the bustling city and the golden dunes of the desert. Near the border of Oman and surrounded by the Hajar mountain range, translated as rocky mountains, you’ll find this gorgeous turquoise water filled enclave.
A peaceful and serene return to nature, it was traditionally used as a summer escape from the heat of Dubai and the humidity of the coast, due to its location in the mountains. These days though, you’re likely to find a small collection of expat adventurers and nature lovers, picnicking or enjoying the views whilst taking a stroll.
For the adventurous among you, prepare to pack your camping gear and trekking clobber too to fully experience this dreamlike unforgettable landscape. You’ll get the chance to go kayaking on the deep blue waters or raise your heart rate with some epic mountain biking on purpose-built trails. Hikers and bikers on the outer trails will be able to access a newly discovered heritage site, which is otherwise unreachable by car. For those who would rather avoid sleeping in a tent or under the stars, there is a 4-star resort available.
4) GET SOUK SEARCHING IN THE OLD TOWN
North of all the main tourist areas, the Old Town provides an entirely unique experience of Dubai. As Dubai was originally a small fishing village, the Old Town was built on Dubai Creek, where it also made sense to create the souks.
The traditional souks truly immerse you into the Arabian culture, as you wander around the gold, perfume, fish, textiles and spice souks. The spice souk in particular, in my opinion, is the most enjoyable of all. Filled with an incredible mixture of aromas, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you browse the huge bags of vibrant spices, rose petals, and traditional medicinal products which are stacked outside each shop.
Most of the stores only trade in cash and you should barter to get the best price available, as every shopkeeper will be doing their best to convince you to let them show you what they have for sale. Whilst this may seem pushy to some, I would completely recommend stopping to allow one of them to talk you through the various herbs and spices as none of them are labeled and I could never have guessed what each bag contained. Use this as an opportunity to try something new; in return for the time the gentleman talked to me, I purchased a very sweet herbal tea mixture from him which only cost 5AED (£1).
Next door, you can find the gold souk which is the most frequented souk by tourists due to the high savings you can make on your gold purchases. Here you will find traditional jewellery, alongside contemporary pieces and the more flamboyant; or you could even get something made at the market rate for gold, plus a 10-20% rate for workmanship.
When you have finished browsing for the day, you can choose to take a tour of the Dubai Creek via Creek Cruises, or you can opt to experience a traditional abra that the locals use for around 1AED to cross from one side of the creek to the other.
5) THE WORLDS LARGEST INDOOR THEME PARK
Yes a full theme park indoors, it’s crazy. IMG Worlds is only 15 minutes from central Dubai and protected from the middle eastern heat in a fully air-conditioned giant warehouse. Spread across 1.5 million square feet (that’s 28 football pitches) and open 11am-11pm daily, it features favourites from Marvel, Cartoon Network, and a generic dinosaur land called the Lost Valley. With 22 rides, 25 shopping outlets, 28 places to buy food and drink, as well as a full cinema, there is plenty to keep you entertained.
Thrill seekers might want to head for the biggest and best roller coaster first, which is in the Lost Valley. The adrenaline pumping Velociraptor loads you onto the ride inside before thrusting you outside into the hot Dubai desert. It is the only ride that goes outside I must add.
The best thing about this endorphin releasing activity is the lack of queues. I thought we got lucky on the day but blog after blog I have read, there is no one who has queued more than 20 mins, if that. A top tip would to not be put off the kiddies rides, even if you’re visiting with no little ones. Two of my favourite rides were in the Cartoon Network area. It is 245AED (£49) for a regular ticket, but if you are over here as a government teacher make sure to get your reduced rate of 165AED (£33).
There are so many more places to discover in this beauty of the Middle East. The growing list of places I have unexpectedly discovered in Dubai can be accessed viewed on a handy map here. Enjoy!
Have you ever been to Dubai? We’d love to hear your advice and tips in the comment section below! Read Next > 20 Photos to Inspire You to Visit Al Maha Resort, Dubai