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Architecture in Dubai

Visitors' imaginations are mesmerized by Dubai’s architectural wonders. While many people are not familiar with Arabian wind towers or courtyard houses, most have heard about the evocative sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the indoor snow resort Ski Dubai, and the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. When the World Trade Centre was built in 1979, it stood as the sole skyscraper in a desert landscape, raising questions about its purpose. But today, the World Trade Centre appears antiquated next to the sleek high-rises that stretch into the horizon, Dubai's skyline is now longer than that of Manhattan, and Dubai is home to some of the most innovative and ambitious architectural projects in the world.


This architectural heritage site is a complete restoration of one of Dubai's original neighborhoods where wealthy Persian merchants settled in the late 1800s. The buildings are historic, but the pristine quarter looks brand-new. You can walk along meandering lanes, see traditional Gulf courtyard houses with hand-carved wooden doors, and marvel at the ornate wind towers that were used for cooling in the days before air-conditioning. The coral stone and cement wind towers, defined by double or triple wind openings, arched ends, and stepped recesses, once lined the Dubai Creek and cooled the residences using innovative air-current systems that passed from the wind towers to the floors below. Bastakiya also houses a museum, cultural center, restaurants, and a heritage hotel with an art gallery. The Al Fahidi Fort, which today is the Dubai Museum, was built in 1799, and is the city's oldest surviving structure.

Burj Al Arab

Created by architect Tom Wright to resemble the billowing sail of an Arabian dhow, the massive Burj Al Arab (which translates to "Arabian Tower") extends 321m (1,053 ft.) to the sky. The iconic structure, which rises from its own man-made island, dominates the Jumeirah Beach coastline, eclipsing the wavelike-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel just in front. The Burj is made of a steel frame exterior wrapped around a concrete tower, with white Teflon-coated fiberglass forming the building's white "sail." At night, the Burj is lit up in a spectacular show of changing colors. A helipad and glass-enclosed restaurant extend from the top. The expensive hotel features the world's largest atrium, and the opulent interior design includes 8,000 sq. meters (86,111 sq. ft.) of 22-carat gold leaf.

Burj Khalifa

Inaugurated in January 2010, the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, dominates the skyline with its thin silver steel structure and can be seen for miles. Its height surpasses 800m (2,625 ft.), including 160 stories (the top floors are not much bigger than storage spaces, however). There's an observation deck - At The Top - on the 124th floor (for ticket information, visit In designing the building, lead architect Adrian Smith, of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, drew inspiration from traditional Islamic architecture, which uses stepped ascending spirals. The building rises from a flower-shaped base - the flower is the hymenocallis, a white lily cultivated in the surrounding desert. The skyscraper, which is also the world's tallest freestanding structure, is estimated to have cost over $4 billion. In addition to luxury apartments and office spaces, it houses one of the first Armani hotels. The tower marks the centerpiece of the surrounding "Downtown Dubai" residential and entertainment complex, which houses the Dubai Mall, the Address hotel, and The Palace - Old Town. There are more than 1,200 stores here, 150 restaurants, the Dubai Fountains, an ice-skating rink, cinemas, an aquarium, and vast entertainment options for families and kids.

The Islands

The largest artificial islands in the world sit off the coast of Dubai in the Gulf. Collectively, the Palm Islands are considered by some to be an Eighth Wonder of the World. Developed by U.A.E.-based Nakheel Properties, this triad of islands includes the Palm Jumeirah, Palm Deira, and Palm Jebel Ali. However, only the Palm Jumeirah is complete, and the others have been delayed - some believe permanently - as a result of debt problems facing Nakheel. Made with hundreds of millions of cubic meters of reclaimed land from the bottom of the Gulf, the islands are each designed in the shape of a palm tree with a trunk, fronds, and crescent, adding a total of 520km (323 miles) of coastline to Dubai. The Palm Jumeirah includes a 2km-long (1 1/4-mile) "trunk," 17 fronds, and an 11km (7-mile) crescent that surrounds the island, creating a breakwater. Many residents have already moved into their luxury villas and apartments, and dozens of beachfront hotels are planned. The Atlantis Resort opened at the apex of the island's crescent in late 2008, and along with it Aquaventure, Dolphin Bay, and The Lost Chambers. A high-tech monorail runs from the base of the island to the crescent.
The Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, which are planned to be much larger than the first island, are still under construction and will take at least another decade to complete. Bridges attach the islands to the mainland, and each is expected to house multimillion dollar villas, luxury condos, private marinas, and retail and entertainment centers. Environmentalists worry about damage to surrounding marine habitats, and there's no doubt the enormous Palm Island projects have altered the ecology.

The other major island project, "The World," has also been indefinitely postponed amidst financial troubles. It was intended to comprise a series of 300 man-made islands 4km (2 1/2 miles) off the coast of Dubai, protected by an oval breakwater and situated to form the shape of a map. It was designed by the same troubled U.A.E. developer Nakheel Properties, at a cost of roughly $14 billion. Each of the islands ranges in size from 23,000 to 84,000 sq. meters (247,569-904,168 sq. ft.), with 50 to 100m (164-328 ft.) of water between them. Much of the groundwork has already been laid.

Dubai Frame
Dubai Frame

A one-of-a-kind structure, the Dubai Frame is literally that – a supersized picture frame with a special purpose. Viewed from one side, the golden-clad structure neatly frames Dubai’s past, including its historical heritage district and the pearl-diving ports that once supported the city’s rise. From the other side, you can see Dubai’s future, with modern skyscrapers including Burj Khalifa stretching out to the desert. Visitors to the Frame can explore a third perceptive from 150m up, with a 360-degree view from the structure’s 25sqm crystal-clear glass panel. Don’t miss the immersive gallery on the mezzanine level, which makes use of projections, audiovisual presentations, and even curated scents and mists for an engaging retelling of the city’s origins.

Atlantis, The Palm

Perhaps one of the world’s most iconic hotels, the Atlantis, The Palm has been in the spotlight since its launch in 2008, thanks to its eye-catching pink sandcastle design, glam interiors and prime position on the apex of the Palm Jumeirah island in Dubai. While only hotel guests are privy to the luxurious resort, everyone can take that bucket list selfie in front of the hotel’s memorable turrets and towers from the adjacent Palm Boardwalk. Alternatively, book a table at the resort’s celebrity-led restaurants, including Nobu by Michelin-starred chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel

One of the city’s original five-star hotels, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel has maintained its legacy of luxury since it first opened in 1997. Inspired by the shape of a cresting wave, the building is a stand-out on the city’s pristine shoreline. The lush resort is home to several notable venues and is best known for its close-proximity to another Dubai icon, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. The hotel is currently undergoing a series of refurbishments to refresh the hotel and will reopen in October 2018.

Cayan Tower

Visitors to Dubai Marina won’t be able to miss this incredible structure. The shimmering silver Cayan Tower twists 90 degrees as it rises. In an amazing feat of clever engineering, each of the 75 floors is rotated by 1.2 degrees to create the helix shape. It was designed by the same architectural firm behind Burj Khalifa, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, together with local specialists Khatib & Alami Dubai. While the tower itself is home to residential apartments, a day spa and a gym, it is best viewed from across the water on the Marina Walk to be able to fully appreciate the building’s beauty.

Emirates Towers

An early architectural icon in the city, Emirates Towers is one of Dubai’s most recognisable skyscrapers since opening in 2000. Located along the famed Sheikh Zayed Road, which boasts other leading architectural examples including the record-breaking Burj Khalifa, the towers are a sleek example of modern vision. With equilateral triangular facades, the towers are inspired by traditional Islamic themes. It features a hotel block and an office tower that boasts the Prime Minister’s Office among other prestigious names. Both towers are connected by a central podium – The Boulevard, a leading retail and dining destination in the city.


Taking its style direction from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Wafi melds together the old and new for a unique building shape that stands out even amongst Dubai’s towering skyscrapers. The complex is home to a mall with 350 stores, 30 restaurants and the Raffles Dubai hotel, which rises 18 floors from the ground in a modernised pyramid formation. At night, the ridges are illuminated for an extra striking effect. The mall also features the Khan Murjan souk, inspired 14th century bazaars in the region. It’s filled with artisan wares and unique souvenirs, amidst a striking setting that’s complemented by the intricate stained glass on the ceiling which was hand-painted by skilled craftsmen.

The Opus

Designed by the late Dame Zaha Hadid, revered for her inventive approach to architecture, The Opus stands out in Downtown’s Business Bay district for its striking design. Set to house the first ‘ME by Melia’ design hotel in the region, the building was crafted in the form of a cube with two separate towers that merge together – from the bottom at the atrium level, as well as from a bridge 71m above the ground. The middle is given the illusion of being ‘carved’ out, creating iconic curves. Once the ME by Melia hotel opens, The Opus will house 12 restaurants and a rooftop lounge, along with a variety of luxe residences.

Dubai Canal

One of the city’s newest attractions is the Dubai Water Canal, a 3.2km long waterway which winds its way to the Arabian Gulf from the Creek in Old Dubai through Business Bay. Its effectively made parts of old Dubai, including Bur Dubai and Karama, an island in one of the greatest urban transformations in the city’s history. There are five pedestrian bridges in the area, each offering prime vantage points of the city skyline. One of the most famous ones is the Tolerance Bridge that marks the International Day for Tolerance, which falls on 16 November. The Habtoor City is nearby, home to the spectacular La Perle show masterminded by artistic director Franco Dragone, five-star hotels and a dining and entertainment destination known as The Atrium.

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