Dubai is known for its teetering skyscrapers, and equally sky-high ambitions. But if we're talking pure architectural chops, it's no Rotterdam or Barcelona. We're calling for a rethink. Dubai is home to a range of ambitious projects that would test the most inventive designers—how do you build the world's largest flower display or keep penguins happy at an indoor ski slope? We've rounded up the best of Dubai's wacky, wonderful architecture that keep it firmly on our must-visit list.
Golden Picture Frame
The newest skyscraper to grace Dubai's skyline is the lithe "Dubai Frame," which when completed will reach 492 feet. There will be an observation deck up top, but the real picture to snatch will be a bit further afield on the ground. Located in Zabeel Park, the building will act as an actual frame to Dubai's already teetering skyline. Pundits predict that the building will attract up 2 million tourists annually. But the building isn't without controversy: architect Fernando Donis has sued the city for stealing the design he submitted to an international competition hosted by Dubai and elevator giant Thyssen Krup in 1998. Donis and Dubai were never able to settle on the construction terms, but that hasn't stopped the city from building a copy down to the exact height.
Not only is the Dubai Mall the largest mall in the world by square footage, but it's also the most well-equipped one. Swing by the Apple store for your $1000 phone and see one of the world's largest kinetic art installation. Have lunch at either Shake Shack or the Rainforest Cafe (it'ss the only location in the world to offer a light show). But the 1,200 shops are only the starting point of all the crazy things you'll discover: watch a film at the 22-screen Reel Cinema, gape at sharks at the Dubai Aquarium or let the kids loose at Kidzone, an amusement park designed for little ones. If you're visiting the Burj Khalifa, you can reach the mall via an 820 meter air conditioned foot bridge (the desert sweat is real).
Whether your call it the world's largest garden or a display of flower-studded-topiaries on acid, you'll be mentioning the 775,000 square foot Miracle Garden at cocktail parties for years to come. Gape at over 60 varieties of flowers, arranged around bountiful trellises, bursting out from houses and adorning a life-sized model of an Air Emirates Airbus A380, which was entered into the 2016 Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest floral installation.
Burj Al Arab
What does a "seven-star" hotel look like? It looks like the semi-conical Burj Al Arab on the outside, and has a panoramic bar, underwater restaurant and tennis court on the inside. Reportedly designed to look like the sail of an Arab dhow, images or "color sculptures" of water and fire are projected onto it at night.
The Palm Islands
Tourist attraction or major engineering project? The Palm Islands are a bit of both. Although Dubai has become known as a beach getaway, the city doesn't have as many miles of coast as you might expect. So in 2001 UAE's Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed decided to embark on a series of artificial islands that would add hundreds of beach miles to the coast, and ensure Dubai keeps earning money from tourist dollars once their oil-fortune dries up. To make these islands a local real estate agency started by dredging up three billion cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor and replaced it with a seven million tons of rocks, then layered more sand on top. There are currently 17 palm leaves with large mansions, and a six lane tunnel that runs from the island to the mainland. Unsurprisingly for such an ambitious project, not everyone is so happy with the results—residents complain to stagnant water, algae and bugs, while environmentalists point out that the drastic alteration of the landscape has wrecked havoc with local ecosystems.
Before you get mall-ed out at the Dubai Mall, head to the so-weird-it's-delightful indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. The mountain is 85 meters high with a run of about 400 meters and five of slopes varying degrees of difficulty, including the world's first black diamond rated indoor course. Regulars will appreciate the fact that obstacles like trees and logs are switched up frequently, keeping the runs fresh. Not a skier? You can still enjoy to adjoining snow-play area, which include body slides, toboggan runs, an ice cave and encounters with real live penguins.
It is 828 meters tall. It is the tallest man-made structure in the world. It houses the world's highest mosque, the world's highest swimming pool and the world's highest observation platform. Of course, there's plenty more space to fill so you'll also find residences, offices and an Armani Hotel (suites start from 1700 AED, or approximately $450). Construction started in 2004, but the exterior wasn't completed until 2009. The building was officially opened in 2010, and has been the tallest structure since 2008 when the antenna was added to the roof. Fun fact: it was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the same architecture firm that came up with the plans for One World Trade Center and the Sears Tower.
Although real estate agents dub its offerings as "Riviera style living," Dubai's glitzy man-made marina offers a more luxe metropolitan experience. It was built in 2003 and stretches along two miles of the city's coastline. In addition to being the largest man-made marina in the world, developers swear it's also the most inhabited with 40 towers that are home to more than six thousand apartments. Keeping with the luxe atmosphere, the area offers plenty of amenities for residents such as a tramway, a mall, a metro station and a picturesque canal bridge. It's a must see if you're eager to immerse yourself in Dubai's super-architecture, be sure to look for the Al Sahab building, a duo of towers that fetch the highest price per square footage of any building in the city—best done from a cruise down the man made canals.
Still haven't planned a trip to Dubai? You might want to wait until the Rotating Tower is completed. The project to create an 80 story residential building in which each full-floor apartment rotates individually was first announced in 2008, but shelved until recently. Each apartment will be able to control how it rotates, being able to set their views according to the time of day. To power the energy-intensive building, engineers have designed a series of 79 wind turbines to sit between each floor and plan to install solar panels on the roof.
Okay, so the Dubai's choreographed fountain is only the second largest in the world after the Okada Fountain in Manila. But let's be real: it's still in Dubai and the kind of thing you thought only existed in Vegas and celebrity Instagrams. The fountains was built in Dubai-fast time: the project was announced in October 2008, inaugurated in May 2009, then expanded in January 2010. There are performances in the afternoon and at thirty minute intervals each evening starting from 6pm. The best time to go is in after the sun has set so you get the full experience of the 6,500 lights, 25 color projections and going off in coordination to a pre-determined series of songs (among them "Thriller," an instrumental rendition of "Walk on the Wild Side" and contemporary Arab hits). In total the fountain can spray 22 thousand gallons of water up to 500 feet in the air. We challenge you to take a photo that does this justice.
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
Whether you think it better resembles a wave or a sail, this one-of-a-kind building is a must-photograph on your trip to Dubai. Not only does the roof curve, the building itself curves slightly inward as well. Guests can enjoy their pick of 20 restaurants and bars, unwind on a private beach and splash around in the Wild Wadi Water Park.
Atlantis The Palm Hotel And Resort
Located at the tip of The Palm, this Atlantis-themed resort was one of the first commercial projects to be built on the island. Unlike most of Dubai's futuristic buildings, this hotel is a comparative throwback, with Moorish turrets and a pink-brick exterior. Guest rooms start at 1,275 AED or approximately $350 USD, and offer luxury touches like an extra-large bath and a view of the sea or The Palm Islands. If you're not ready to swing the serious buck for a room, you can still come as a day guest to watch dolphins in the aquarium or play in one of the many themed-water parks.
Want your own country? You can buy it in Dubai's harbor, albeit in the form of a man made island. Emboldened by the relative success of the nearby Palm development, Prime Minister Sheikh Maktoum decided to build a replica of the globe nearby. Only turns out the project is even more of an undertaking—it was started in 2003 and has yet to be fully completed. It requires 321 million cubic meters of sand, or roughly the amount of sand it would take to fill 150 Major League baseball stadiums. Unfortunately, the project has been plagued with problems: weathering, sinking and erosion mean the islands look more like blobs of sand rather than defined countries, and difficulty getting electricity to the development has caused 291 of the 300 islands to remain uncompleted. The only exception to the whole world islands gimmick? There's no island for Israel.