Dubai is a place plagued by preconceptions. Even non-visitors confidently claim to have a clear picture: ostentatiously luxurious, slick to the point of slippery, a hollow desert metropolis dripping in gold.
After seven years in the city, I came to know its real personality, written between the lines of the swaggering press releases. Dubai and I got close. The truth is, an incredibly positive culture flourishes beneath the city’s shiny surface. With a population made up of roughly 90-percent expats, it’s crammed with people who uprooted their lives to try to get ahead, along with locals hungry for international recognition.
Such a high density of ambition makes it feel like everything happens in fast-forward: Skyscrapers dreamed up by famous architects shoot up like sunflowers, manmade islands speckle the sea, canals are etched into the landscape. I can’t imagine many places in the world that are more exciting to live. On a day-to-day level, new restaurants and bars perpetually open and world-class DJs drop in nightly.
But it’s not all about the new, new, new. Dubai’s ancient trading-port past is still alive and bustling around the wind towers of the Creek. Its spellbinding desert, a rich expanse of red and orange shades just a short drive from the Dubai Mall, remains as untouched as when it appeared in Arabian Sands, explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s 1959 classic travel novel. Though the city’s design and architecture is increasingly diverse, a mix of the chest-beating and record-breaking buildings with subtler and more sophisticated structures, it incorporates influences from across regional borders—a reminder that, despite its in-yourface extravagance, Dubai is the Middle East’s foremost global city.
The inaugural Art Dubai fair in 2007 was a tipping point for the city’s then-barren cultural landscape. Since then, a concerted focus on the arts has ignited the city to do what it does best: build. On the out-skirts of town, the Dubai Design District, or D3, will officially launch in 2017. Masterminded by British architect Norman Foster and his firm, Foster + Partners, the area has host-ed Design Days for the past two years and will be home to studios, galleries, and tech labs. This year, it will be home to the first-ever Dubai Photo Exhibition, the largest photography perspective in the world, running concurrently with Art Dubai. With a facade inspired by an Arabian dhow, the Atkins-designed Dubai Opera is set to become yet another iconic landmark when it opens downtown this year. The orchestra will take its place in the “bow” of the building, next to the stage and sky garden. Meanwhile, a more organic movement is afoot on the maze-like Alserkal Avenue, in the industrial zone of Al Quoz. Home to a former marble factory and auto-repair workshops, creatives and baristas have recently cultivated a grassroots art-café enclave with multifaceted venues such as Project Space, which displays contemporary works, and A4, a converted warehouse with a screening room and boutique that carries French and Japanese designers. In the city’s heart, a tasteful amalgamation of slate and right angles forms the tuning fork–shaped Dubai International Financial Centre. Its raison d’être is to accommodate the moneyed crowd in stylish surroundings—the spate of new galleries and shops are a happy byproduct. Catch a DIFC Art Night, when locals congregate to check out the latest exhibitions.
Sheikh-worthy properties continue to sprout in Dubai’s skyscraper garden. On the banks of the canal in Al Habtoor City, the new beaux arts–style St. Regis welcomes guests in cinematic fashion: The lobby chandelier made of 1,200 hand-cut crystals presides over a double marble staircase with gilded banisters. One & Only The Palm is perhaps the city’s most stylish stay, thanks to Moorish- and Andalusian-inspired interiors washed in tones of ocean blues and mother-of-pearl cream. Much like the fashion impresario’s suits, Armani Dubai is slick and subtle, even though it takes up 10 floors of the world’s tallest and least subtle build-ing, the Burj Khalifa. Colors and materials are masculine and warm, lines are bold and curved, and rooms are furnished with the brand’s Armani Casa housewares line. Sitting on its own private island, the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, with its sail-shaped exterior by Tom Wright of WS Atkins, remains a dramatic sight on the city’s coastline, even nearly two decades since it opened. New this year: a massive state-of-the-art pool deck and the debut of an Arabian-inspired sister property next door. Believe it or not, small-scale gems can be uncovered in some corners. Located within the narrow alleyways of the historic Al Fahidi District, XVA Art Hotel is a study in pared-down design: The small rooms are centered around an open-air courtyard and decorated with modern art pieces from its on-site gallery.
Dubai’s food scene mirrors that of another desert city built of glass and steel: Las Vegas. This means a healthy serving of flashy chain imports and upmarket hotel restaurants—a few of which rise above the pack. Hailed by critics, the Dubai satellite of La Petite Maison is populated with gussied-up arrivistes who work the open-plan layout on weekends. The Provençal-inspired bistro’s Gallic décor pronounces itself in paneled walls, mustard leather chairs, and colorful modern paintings. Inside the Jumeirah district’s Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, LW Design imagined Geales as a British gastro pub, with industrial pendants, graphic marble patterned floors, and a bar lined in a honeycomb motif. Nearby, Tribeca Kitchen & Bar echoes the loft-style aesthetic of the New York neighborhood, from the exposed piping and brickwork to custom leather sofas and murals by street artists Justone and Onemizer. Lebanese architect Suzy Habre Nasr brought sophistication to the city’s tawdry rooftop bar scene at the Iris Dubai, which crowns the Oberoi Hotel in Business Bay. The glass-encased space gets warmth from caramel-hued woods and low-slung sofas. Owner-designer Lesley Zaal’s The Farm is an organic café and cooking school housed in a box-like structure within a private estate in Nad Al Sheba. Floor-to-ceiling windows and an open-air deck that juts over a lily-flecked pond accentuate the botanical setting.
Homogeneous high-end fashion outposts stripe the landscape, especially the Dubai Mall, which has the largest luxury-brand presence of any department store in the world. One standout: Level Shoe District, where London-based architecture firm Shed’s distinctive design language unfolds in multiple spaces; the women’s section displays runway staples like Dsquared2 and Proenza Schouler in gold birdcages under vaulted brass arches, and a room dedicated to trends showcases urban-wear such as Isabel Marant on geo-metric marble boulders. The concept boutique Mahani stocks upstart labels and is a visual interlude to the city’s gloss. The monochromatic con-crete interiors by designer Faye Toogood are offset with copper-hued curtains and mint satin chairs. Mimicking the original in Shoreditch, London, Boxpark is a series of Emirati favorites—Zoo Concept, Rundholz, Marimekko—housed within repurposed black and slate shipping containers near Safa Park. The lines between art and fashion blur at architect May Barber’s groundbreaking Cartel on Alserkal Avenue. In addition to the show-room promoting avant-garde designers and “wearable art,” a studio hosts fashion shoots, film screenings, and exhibitions.