7 Underrated Places to Visit in Dubai
Dubai consistently ranks as one of the world's most popular cities, with close to 16 million visitors in 2018. It's also one of the world's most well-documented cities, and recognized as a top social media influencer hub. So, with whopping tourist numbers and accolades like that, what surprises could the well-known destination still hold?
In 2016, I studied abroad in Dubai for an entire academic year. Much has changed since then, of course, but fortunately, what remained unweathered were the local connections I made. After four years, I still had friends who were happy to help me discover the many parts of Dubai I had not experienced before. And what I learned in the three months that I recently spent working remotely there is that the city still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Here are a few of the underrated gems I uncovered.
Whether you're traveling with your sweetheart or looking for a fun friend activity, Love Lake is a lesser-known spot that's worth a visit. Located off Al Qudra Road, 45 minutes from downtown Dubai, this place offers a breath of the great outdoors, especially between October and April before it gets too hot, as well as some relaxing activities, like walking the pathway, barbecuing, playing outdoor games, and bird-watching.
Love Lake is also part of the Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve and a seasonal landing spot for migratory birds such as flamingos, swans, and Egyptian geese. As a wildlife advocate and Steve Irwin wannabe, finding a natural animal experience in Dubai was an absolute delight. It's a great place to go when you want to relax — you can sit and peacefully watch the birds fly in and out of the area, and the beautiful carp fishes swirl around the water's edge, hoping for some bits of bread.
Dubai has strict rules about flying drones, but if you get a permit or simply check Google Earth, you'll see the stunning reason why its name, Love Lake, is apt: The entire thing is shaped like two huge, interlocking hearts.
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa
Another hidden desert oasis, Bab Al Shams is a destination worth visiting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Couples and families can stay in one of the 113 traditional Arabian-style rooms. However, as a solo budget traveler, I found a great alternative.
For just around a $30 taxi ride from the Dubai Marina and a $50 USD fee, day visitors can enjoy Bab Al Shams' 360° Nature Brunch picnics, which includes a large umbrella for shade, a classic picnic basket and utensils, and pillows to sit on in front of a low-to-the-ground table.
Mosquitoes and flies don't survive as well in the desert, so you'll enjoy your outdoor meal in peace, and if you're lucky, even catch a glimpse of a reem gazelle or Arabian oryx. Many people come to Dubai for the skyscrapers and shiny landscapes, but its deserts have stunning experiences with fewer crowds and more history.
Queen Elizabeth 2
Dubai has a long-standing relationship with Britain, since it used to be under the empire's protection due to the General Maritime Treaty of 1820. The Queen Elizabeth 2 completed its final voyage on Nov. 26, 2008, and since then has been docked near Dubai's Gold Souk, at Port Rashid. One of Dubai's most unique hotels, it was fully refurbished in 2017 and is remarkably modern. The docked ship operates as a hotel and museum, and with its Heritage Tour ($23 USD), you can walk through the ship's history.
However, if you think that the QE2 presents the perfect opportunity to recreate that iconic shot from "The Parent Trap" in front of the life preserver (as I was), I'll have to burst your bubble, since the majority of shots from the 2002 film were actually filmed on the Queen Mary 2. But the QE2 is a great date spot nonetheless, and a wonderful place to watch the sunset without having to worry about crowds blocking the Dubai skyline.
Chances are, you're familiar with Dubai's famous habit of constructing complete islands for leisure. Well, they're at it again with Lebanon Island. The private beach club, restaurant, volleyball court, pool, and events space are reachable only by boat. Dubai's World Islands is regarded as somewhat of a failed project as a whole, but Lebanon Island offers a great opportunity to get off the mainland and away from the crowds for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Palm Jebel Ali
You've likely heard of Palm Jumeirah, home to some of Dubai's most iconic hotels and restaurants. But do you know about its bigger sister? Not far from this world-famous landmark is another man-made archipelago that's two times the size: Palm Jebel Ali. This failed construction project has been salvaged by the outdoor adventurists of Dubai, and you'll find a shooting club, motocross track, camping grounds, and beach completely taken over by kitesurfers.
Though construction began in 2002, the 2008 financial crisis all but stopped development, which is evident by the half-finished bridge. Dubai might be known for its over-the-top attributes, but the kitesurfer's beach had a casual atmosphere. Despite the expensive cars in the parking lot, visitors donned wetsuits and casual beachwear, bringing a bit of California's refreshing surfer energy to Dubai.
The Cove Rotana Resort, Ras Al Khaimah
Technically outside of Dubai, The Cove Rotana Resort is still a must-visit. This hotel's standout feature? The Santorini-esque room structures that are staggered on the hillside down to the lagoon. The Mediterranean vibes continue with bright-pink bougainvillea that weaves throughout the property and the stunning cloudless sunsets. Even better, the resort, which draws families and couples every year, is only around a one-hour drive from downtown Dubai.
Arabian Tea House
Arabian Tea House has a few locations in Dubai, but arguably the best experience can be had at the branch at the Jumeirah Archaeological Site in Jumeirah. The location was excavated in 1969, and unearthed artifacts were determined to be as old as the Abbasid era in the ninth century A.D. It is now managed by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, and you can discover a bit more of Dubai's lesser-known cultural roots before or after your meal.
Pro tip: Try to align your visit during the sunset for a stunning view. It's also preferable to go during the week for prime seating, and as far as what to order, consider some simple karak tea and luqaimat (traditional sweet dessert dumplings) for a light meal. In the middle of this fast-paced city, you can have a serene sit-down meal with family or friends.