Sprinting camels, dancing fountains and fast-multiplying art galleries – the UAE’s most populous city is refusing to stand still, finds Laura Collacott
1. Camel racing
Arabs have a reputation for breeding and racing horses, but the region’s other well-oiled sprinting machines, camels, are less celebrated (both can hold a similar speed – if only someone would organise a head-to-head…). If you’re keen for an early start, grab a taxi (Dubai is not geared for pedestrians but cabs are plentiful and cheap) and check out an early meet (races are generally held at 7.30am and 2.30pm) at one of the UAE’s five well-maintained tracks. There are as many as 14,000 racing camels in the UAE, jockeyed by rudimentary robots (tin cans dressed in colours and equipped with miniature whips), since the practice of using small boys was outlawed some years ago.
The sport is well supported by locals, so it’s a great way to make some Arab friends in a city swamped by expats. The dress code is casual and binoculars are recommended. Cast a few smiles around and the chance of being rewarded with congenial Arab hospitality and a cup of coffee is high. The most central track is Nad Al Sheba in the shadow of Sheikh Mohammed’s palace, and those attending will be able to watch the princely camels in action. Nad Al Sheba course; tel +971 4322 277; emiratesracing.com
2. Al Mamzar beach park
Think of Dubai and you’ll probably conjure up images of dust and sand but, in fact, the city is well supplied with green municipality-maintained parks (it’s best not to think about how much water these take to maintain).
Among the best is Al Mamzar, on a headland at the Sharjah end of the city. Soak up the rays on one of the beaches, in the manicured parkland or by the swimming pool. If you’re feeling more energetic, you can jog, cycle or rollerblade around the web of pathways, or jet ski in the lagoon and see the area at high speed – it’s an invigorating world away from run-of-the-mill hotel gyms. If you’re in town over the weekend, arrive early as it’s very popular with families. Car entrance fee Dhs 30 (£4.85), or Dhs 5 (80p) per person. Tel +971 4296 6201.
3. Dubai Museum
Dubai Creek lies between Mamzar and the rest of the linear city sprawl. This is the most traditional part of town, where fishermen and pearl divers once lived before the dizzying economic urbanisation began. Set in the heart of the Bur Dubai district, alongside the creek is the museum. It is housed in the restored Al Fahidi fort, said to have been built in 1787 to protect the city from marauding invaders, and offers a well-presented insight into traditional Arabic life as well as charting the city’s growth. If you have ever wondered how effective wind towers are (they’re designed to ventilate buildings), come and stand beneath the one in the fort and you are sure to be impressed by their ingenuity. While you’re in the area, head down to the creek to absorb the hustle and bustle of the active port, replete with classic Arabian dhows. Open Sat-Thu 8.30am-8.30pm, Fri 2.30pm-8.30pm. Entry Dhs 3 (50p). Tel +971 4353 1862; dubaitourism.ae
4. Al Quoz galleries
Dubai’s art is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Encroaching on the staunch industrial district of Al Quoz – brimming with warehouses that are well suited to housing exhibitions – the art scene has started to gain momentum in recent years with a flurry of new gallery openings. One of the longest standing is the Third Line (3 Al Quoz; thethirdline.com), a sleek space showcasing modern art and cinema. It stands on a street that is steadily being taken over by galleries and, although it can be tricky to find, it’s worth the effort to see raw local art, much of it Arabic and Persian. Alternatively, head to the Dubai International Finance Centre. The uber-modern financial district – not dissimilar to Paris’s La Défense – also houses an impressive array of art and a clutch of high-end galleries. Visit liveworkexplore.com/dubai for listings and contact details.
5. Al Qasr
The billowing sail shape of the Burj Al Arab, an icon of the emirate, really has to be seen to be appreciated. From the outside – and that is where it’s best viewed from – it is graceful, clean and impressive, whereas the interior is a story of clashing colours. To catch the monumental hotel from its best aspect, make your way to Al Qasr next door. Its name means “the castle” in Arabic, and this sophisticated property – part of the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, itself full of bars, restaurants and shops – is fittingly regal. Settle yourself on the terrace of Koubba bar and enjoy some local shisha and a mesmerising view of the Burj (particularly great at sunset). Tel +971 4366 8888; jumeirah.com
6. Dubai Fountain
A big-money prize was offered to the winner of a contest to name this Vegas-inspired firework display of a fountain – so how the judges settled on the uninspired “Dubai Fountain” is a mystery. Nonetheless, the spectacle is impressive – over the length of two football fields, jets of water up to 150 metres tall are fired into the air, synchronised to music and lit by multicoloured lights. It’s said that at any one time, 84,000 litres of water are in the air. The highly choreographed display takes place at regular intervals after nightfall and can be seen from any of the dining outlets on the waterfront of Souk Al Bahar.
To avoid a potential drenching and see the show in its entirety, make your way to Neos on the 63rd floor of the nearby Address Downtown Burj Dubai hotel. One of the newest and finest offerings on the market, the art deco-inspired sky bar is a great place to round your tour off with a martini. Open daily 6pm-2.30am. Burj Dubai Boulevard; tel +971 4436 8928; theaddress.com