dubai things to do
Middle East,  Travel

4 Things To Do In Dubai

Dubai may be known for its luxury, but it also boasts a vibrant art scene. Here’s my Alserkal Avenue guide to the best galleries, hip cafes and more.

“What do you buy for someone as a souvenir from Dubai?” a friend asked over dinner at Dubai Marina Mall.

“Something expensive!” came the reply as our table burst into laughter.

We were munching on mezza at Abd El Wahab restaurant surrounded by high-end boutiques and a man-made lake. Looking out over the glittering skyscrapers of Pier 7, my friend’s punchline made perfect sense. The emirate city has long been known for its luxury shopping and glittering excess – and we were in the heart of it.

But the “City of Gold” is hoping to change its image as a hub of high-rises and mega malls.

In an effort to attract 20 million tourists per year by 2020, Dubai is eager to bring in a broader market and show it’s got more to offer than bling. It’s a move from being a city you “must visit” to a city “you must experience,” Issam Kazim, the CEO of Dubai’s tourism promotion body, told Arabian Business.

These days, Dubai is marketing itself as a cultural destination and highlighting its burgeoning art scene at Alserkal Avenue.

I set aside an afternoon during my visit to Dubai to visit this hipster haven and browse the artist studios, trendy cafes and theaters.

Here are the best things to do in Dubai:

1. Alserkal Avenue – an artsy compound

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai

Head for Alserkal Avenue – a compound full of warehouses in the industrial zone of Al Quoz that have been re-made into shops, galleries and cafes. Despite all the media coverage of this cultural phoenix, my taxi driver has trouble finding the place.

It is mercilessly hot and the streets are empty as we ride past gray concrete blocks and storehouses. Finally, we turn into a compound where I spot a few discreet shop and gallery signs.

The first gallery at Alserkal opened in 2008. Others gradually followed and an expansion in 2015 doubled its square footage to some 500,000. Alserkal Avenue is now a mix of industrial, business and creative spaces, housing some 60 cultural venues. During Ramadan it  hosts month-long exhibits, events and workshops.

2. Vegan lunch in artsy Dubai

Wild and Moon, Dubai

Wild and Moon, Dubai

I begin my visit with lunch at the chic Wild & the Moon, a food and juice bar that launched as a superfood cantina in Paris before expanding to Dubai. I grab a seat on a bench of reclaimed wood and gulp in the cool, refreshing air. The decor is minimalist with high ceilings, exposed pipes and hanging potted plants.

I get a creamy latte and a magic budwig bowl that’s a mouthwatering mix of ground almonds, spirulina and banana. It’s indulgent, refreshing and vegan. I also love the acai bowl topped with banana slices and granola. A perfect light yet nourishing power lunch for a hot afternoon.

3. Street calligraphy on Alserkal Avenue

el seed, Dubai

eL Seed’s studio is nestled in a warehouse nearby. eL Seed is a French-Tunisian artist whose work I’d first seen in Egypt. In a bid to challenge Egyptian prejudices about the city’s trash collectors’ district, el Seed painted a massive mural that covered nearly 50 buildings.

His other work is just as brilliant: bright, colorful murals that play with classical Arabic calligraphy in a decidedly modern way.

I browse the works-in-progress leaning against the studio walls. Then I ask eL Seed what he thinks of Dubai’s image as a shopping city.

“People who think that haven’t seen this side of Dubai,” he says.

I grab a few stickers with eL Seed’s calligraphy (his original art is way out of my budget) and head out into the sizzling heat.

4. Art and Theatre at Alserkal

The Artsy Side of Dubai

The Artsy Side of Dubai

I stop briefly at The Jam Jar, drawn in by the bright paintings at the entrance. This community arts space aims to boost art appreciation in the UAE, and regularly hosts workshops, youth programs and events. I browse the studio filled with easels, paint jars and colorful canvases.

Then I peek inside The Junction, a 158-seat theater that puts on plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. An old-fashioned popcorn machine stands at the entrance and the walls are decorated with bright theater posters.

I finish my tour and walk towards the main street, gulping down water as I look for a taxi. It’s quiet and takes awhile before one appears.

And although Alserkal is creating a buzz with the city’s art lovers, it feels like a hidden gem tucked between rows of warehouses. In a city full of dizzying luxury and record-breaking shopping malls, it’s also proof there’s more to Dubai than the stereotypes.

For more about exploring a city’s hidden gems, read 29 Practical Tips for Slow Travel.



  • Tara Runs the World

    Thanks for the post! I am trying to decide if I should go somewhere in Morocco or visit Dubai this December. Both are appealing in different ways. I recently heard from someone that went to Dubai that they have more than shopping to offer. Some of those overnight camping trips in the desert look cool. Have you done that?

  • Green Global Trek

    We have never been to Dubai and it is good to know that there is a whole hipster area of blossoming art galleries and art culture. When and if we do get there, we will be sure to check it out. Thanks for the list of places at the end of your post!


    • Dee

      I’m glad you liked it, Peta! It’s such a different and unique side to the city and I hope you’ll get to visit there someday.

  • Zara

    Thanks for the information. A week trip must be a good choice for a traveller to Dubai. All popular places are nearby and this is what I like the most. You can enjoy your full time without wasting much on travel.

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