Dubai’s cultural coming of age has been at least a decade in the making. Thanks to an emerging wave of bold local and regional artists, Dubai is on the cusp of a transformation that positions the city as much more than a hub for the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
And it’s not just the cityscape that’s evolving; today’s Dubai is the manifestation of many cultural shifts that have occurred organically over the years.
These changes tell of a people who value their heritage while looking ahead at a global-minded future.
They are creatives and designers who are intent on telling their stories, while staying relevant and interesting to an international community.
Connecting with Creativity
Take the trendy d3 Dubai Design District. This creative ecosystem brings together talent from around the globe. It’s a stimulating, innovation-driven environment that establishes the city’s unique identity in the world of fashion and design.
The district hosts annual events such as Dubai Design Week and the hip hop culture-focused Sole DXB. Expect lifestyle boutiques, pop-up exhibitions, interactive installations, design galleries, sophisticated cafés, co-working spaces and restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs at the helm.
At the industrial area turned art precinct Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, you’ll find galleries, design studios and eclectic boutiques alongside homegrown vegan and raw food cafes, trendy concept gyms and artisanal chocolatiers. Home to independent theaters and performing arts venues in refurbished warehouses, the precinct is one of many settings for the week-long Art Dubai festival.
While exploring its many art halls, stop by local artisan chocolatier Mirzam, or refuel with some plant-based cuisine from Wild & The Moon, or Project Chaiwala’s first permanent location, pouring ethically sourced chai from Darjeeling, India. For collectors seeking hard to find vinyl, stock up at The Flip Side, Dubai’s only independent record shop.
A diverse culinary hub, the restaurants at Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) range from modern Japanese cuisine, served izakaya style at upscale restaurant Zuma, to fine dining at Italian restaurant Roberto’s and colorful açaí bowls at The Açaí Spot.
Check Into Luxury
Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre nestles in the heart of all the action, located close to art auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as notable galleries such as The Empty Quarter, showcasing fine art photography.
“DIFC is a thriving crossroads that’s close to many landmarks like Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall,” says Victor Chalfoun, general manager at Waldorf Astoria DIFC. “Our new property is a destination within a destination. With architecture and interior design inspired by 1960s New York, the hotel exudes contemporary elegance and understated luxury, which perfectly complements the surrounding area.”
Embracing Dubai’s Heritage
The city’s newest retail neighborhoods foster community spirit and a sense of being outdoors (as opposed to indoor shopping malls), whether it’s through pedestrian-friendly developments or family-friendly festivals. The Dubai tourism agency has paid homage to the city’s past when it comes to designing new projects. For example, beautiful new murals reflect Dubai’s heritage.
Al Seef, a retail development project with restaurants and cafés, overlooks the old Dubai creek. Half of it reflects the traditional architectural style with sand-colored barjeel wind towers that flank narrow, winding alleys, an extension of the early 19th century heritage district of Al Fahidi that lies next door.
Walking along the creek, looking across to the souks of Deira where much of the city’s trade still takes place today, is like walking through chapters in the history of Dubai, all the way to the slick, contemporary retail blocks in the other half of Al Seef.
Where to Find the Best Views
From the Sky Deck on the 48th floor of the Dubai Frame in Zabeel Park, among the city’s newest landmarks, you can enjoy views of old Dubai to the north and new Dubai to the south, with the Burj Khalifa rising up over the city.
“Projects in Dubai are now more conscious of the human experience and even though the commercial value of development is still important, the focus is on creating effective public realms and social spaces,” says Preeti Mogali, senior architectural designer at CallisonRTKL, the architecture, planning and design firm that has worked on exciting projects such as Dubai Creek Harbour.
New Experiences that Transform
“This new direction gives the city longevity and vibrancy,” Mogali says. “Dubai’s focus on creating experiences increases the social value of the city and makes it more attractive to live, work, stay and invest in.”
At the lively beachfront retail district La Mer in Jumeirah, locals, expats and tourists alike stroll under glowing fairy lights, posing for photos in Instagram-worthy squares and nooks. Colorful murals draw their attention to everyday life in Dubai. “Aloo Keefak?” (Hello, how are you?) asks one painting with an old-school, bright red telephone handset.
A More Walkable City
When it comes to rebranding its identity as more than desert and shopping malls, Dubai has outdone itself.
Whether it’s building islands in the shape of palm trees at Palm Jumeirah or waterfront projects, such as the 1.8-mile Dubai Canal that connects Business Bay to the Arabian Gulf, the efforts have paid off.
Parts of the city can now be explored on foot, leading residents to adopt a more active lifestyle, at least when the weather allows it. During the cooler months, you’ll find them running along the Dubai Canal boardwalk, practicing yoga at Kite Beach, cycling on the Al Qudra Cycle Course, or hiking and mountain biking in Hatta.
And Dubai isn’t nearly done yet.
Dubai’s Newest Icons
Dubai Creek Harbour will become home to thousands of residents who will enjoy a marina with shops, eateries, hotels, yacht club and beach.
The crown jewel of this development, Dubai Creek Tower, is set to become the world’s next tallest building, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava with inspiration from the natural world and Islamic architecture.
Expect observation decks, rooftop gardens and rotating balconies, all with incredible panoramic views over Dubai.
“The projects in Dubai are never short of ambitious,” Mogali says. “Dubai Creek Harbour is a long-term development that is essentially building a micro-city around the tallest tower in the world. I believe Dubai is looking for more long-term growth. Therefore, the projects focus more on master planning.”
“In general, there’s a trend toward increasing land value by capitalizing on waterfront developments and also regenerating the existing city, which, in my opinion, creates more organic and interesting neighborhoods.”
While it’s easy to be distracted by all the superlatives (“the tallest building” or “the second-biggest mall”), Dubai has come a long way in more ways than one.
“The Dubai tourism industry has taken great steps to put Dubai on the global map and position it as a leading hub for international travelers and diverse residents,” Chalfoun says. “The government has struck the right balance between paying tribute to the city’s heritage, while also creating modern spaces and experiences for people to enjoy.”
To experience the modern Dubai, be sure to book your stay at the new Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre.