Dubai’s approach to design, architecture and consumer culture could best be described as discreet and restrained—said no one, ever. The world’s tallest building. The world’s richest horse race. The world’s tallest choreographed fountains. The world’s only seven-star property. And, because there’s no such thing as too many superlatives here, the most visited mall on the planet. Yes, it’s all here, in the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.
An alluring blend of over-the-top architecture and Arab heritage, Bedouin culture, traditional souks and luxury shopping, Dubai rises from the golden sands like a mirage. Religiously tolerant, socially liberal and future-forward, the capital of modern Arabia has become a brand—a brand that many in the Western hemisphere can understand, buy into and visit. By 2020 when it hosts the World Expo, the emirate aims to attract 20 million visitors per year, doubling the number it welcomed in 2012. As our top-ranked city in the Middle East, Dubai welcomed more than 15 million international overnight visitors, amazingly just three million fewer than Paris.
Dubai continues to benefit from years of extensive investment in state-of-the-art infrastructure, shopping, hotels and entertainment—and there are no signs of the building boom stopping. One of the most exciting architectural projects on the horizon, and one that’s sure to become an even more dramatic exclamation point in Dubai’s skyline, is the collaboration between architect Santiago Calatrava and local entrepreneur Mohamed Alabbar. Together, the duo is building an even taller tower than the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building, also in town). Slender and flared at the bottom, the $1-billion Dubai Creek Tower is, in Alabbar’s view, the Middle East’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Next to it, the Arab entrepreneur (who’s also behind Dubai Mall) is creating yet another massive shopping center that’s part of a new 3.7-square-mile district called Dubai Creek.
In a city where summer temperatures often reach 120 degrees, it’s no surprise that shopping malls become the de facto hangout spots for people of all ages. Lots and lots of people; in fact, Dubai Mall recorded 80 million visitors in 2015, or about double the number who visited the Vegas Strip the same year. But it’s not just the shopping that’s making it among the most popular place on Earth. The trick, says Alabbar, is to build an urban, integrated destination with lots of reasons to visit, like restaurants, cinemas, galleries and—why not?—a 2-million-gallon aquarium.
Yet there’s much more to see and do in the Shopping Capital of the Middle East than malls. The emirate comes in at #11 in the world (just behind New York) in our deep Place category, for which we look at influential factors like Air Quality, Crime Rate, Neighborhoods & Landmarks, Weather, and Parks & Outdoor Activities. Dubai ranks #5 in Weather and nabs the coveted top spot for Parks & Outdoor Activities—ironic, considering it’s sweltering outside and everyone’s at the mall, to say nothing of the fact that little grows in Dubai’s environment on its own.
But no matter. Amid swirling traffic and towering glass towers are lush sprawling parks and gardens that offer much-needed respite from the concrete jungle. Look deeper and you might even come across a pat of flamingos at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, a delicate wetland reserve set at the mouth of Dubai Creek. Home to thousands of migrating birds, it could have easily been turned into another tower cluster, but the municipality recognized its unique habitat and decided to preserve it. Plans are in the works to develop elaborate visitor education facilities for nature lovers.
Year-round sun and a dramatic combination of desert and beach offer Dubai visitors and residents the opportunity to partake in high-adrenaline endeavors of every kind. There’s paddleboarding, surfing and swimming with dolphins in the clear aquamarine waters of the Arabian Gulf. There are miles of golden beaches featuring volleyball courts and climbing gyms, as well as permanent food trucks complete with air-conditioned seating areas right on the sand. Or you can leave the city behind and dune bash in the desert, soar above the sand in a hot air balloon or go on safari in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to get a taste of Bedouin traditions.