The first time you lay eyes on the United Arab Emirates, it feels like you’ve arrived in a science-fiction story come to life. In cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, rolling deserts give way to towering skyscrapers inspired in equal measure by ancient Islamic traditions and a futuristic vision of what modern life can look like. It’s a captivating country—cosmopolitan, yet traditional—as well as a young one. In fact, less than 50 years ago, the UAE as we know it didn’t even exist. It was a collection of independent sheikdoms. The country’s rapid growth, both from urbanization and cultural perspectives, has led to the development of some of the most interesting architectural designs on the planet—designs you can see for yourself when you travel to the UAE with us.
Here are a few of the most impressive, awe-inspiring, hard-to-believe-they-really-exist architectural marvels waiting for you in the UAE.
The Burj Khalifa
We’re starting from the top, which, in the case of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, is 828 meters in the sky—making it the tallest building and manmade structure in the world. To put this in perspective, the Burj Khalifa is nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building in New York City.
Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the same firm responsible for the Willis Tower in Chicago and One World Trade Center in New York City, the Burj Khalifa’s design is inspired by the spiral patterns of Islamic architecture. Inside, you’ll find the world’s highest swimming pool (on the 76th floor), nightclub (on the 144th floor), and mosque (on the 158th floor). You can also take in the entire city of Dubai from the world’s highest viewing platform on the 124th floor. And if you’re feeling hungry, enjoy a meal at At.mosphere, which is, you guessed it, the world’s highest restaurant (on the 122nd floor).
Speaking of dining, the height of the Burj Khalifa posed an interesting dilemma for some residents who fast for Ramadan. Because the building is so tall, the sun can still be seen from the higher floors for several more minutes after it sets for those on the ground. This led clerics to recommend residents living on the 80th floor or higher should wait two extra minutes before breaking their fast, while those living above the 150th floor should wait three extra minutes.
You can pay a visit to the Burj Khalifa observation deck with us as part of our Wonders of Dubai shore excursion.
The Burj al Arab
While the Burj Khalifa holds the distinction of being the tallest building in UAE (as well as the world) the Burj al Arab is arguably the country’s most famous. An iconic symbol of Dubai, the Burj al Arab takes its shape from the sail of an Arabian dhow ship, and seeing as it is located on the Persian Gulf, the building truly resembles a ship rising out of the distance to greet the city.
While the visual appeal of the building is undeniable, the feats of engineering that were employed to bring the Burj al Arab to life may be even more impressive. Most notably, the hotel sits on an artificially constructed island that took three years to reclaim from the water—which was actually more time than it took to construct the building itself.
Beyond its shape, the Burj al Arab is also well known for its helipad near the roof. Don’t let the name fool you, this is more than a landing place for those commuting by air for a night in the city. Over the years, the helipad has been the site of a tennis match between Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, golf demonstrations by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, and a music video shoot by Ronan Keating. Perhaps most unbelievably, Formula 1 race car driver David Coulthard once performed donuts on the helipad, which we can’t stress enough, is located near the roof of the building—approximately 210 meters above the ocean below.
Over the years, the Burj al Arab has garnered a reputation as being the world’s only seven-star hotel. With an underwater restaurant, extravagance on display at every turn, and a dazzling light show that brings the entire building to life in the evening, it’s easy to understand why. However, the Burj al Arab is actually a five-star hotel—the highest official ranking available. And while management has never used the erroneous seven-star claim in their own advertising, who are they to stand in the way of a good rumor?
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
A stunning house of worship, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has the distinction of being the third-largest mosque in the world, as well as one of the few in the region open for non-Muslims to visit.
Conceived by Sheikh Zayed, the first President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is notable for its blend of Mamluk, Ottoman, Fatimid, Moorish, and Indo-Islamic architectural styles—all of which come together to create a space that feels both contemporary and timeless. Considering over 90,000 tons of marble were used during construction, it should come as no surprise that you’ll find the touches of extravagance the region is known for throughout—including an 11 tonne chandelier embedded with Swarovski crystals and galvanized gold hanging in the main prayer hall.
Also located under the ornate marble domes of the main prayer hall is the world's largest loomed carpet. Made from a combination of Iranian cotton and New Zealand wool, this 5700 sq. meter carpet took 1200 craftspeople over two years to complete.
As we mentioned earlier, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is open to non-Muslims to visit (except during prayer times), and is considered by many to be a must-visit attraction. In fact, you can even visit with us on shore excursion. Remember to wear ankle-length, loose-fitting pants or skirts, and women will have to wear a headscarf. Don’t worry if you don’t have these items of clothing with you, as abayas and kanduras (Mosque-appropriate attire) can be borrowed free of charge.
One of the latest additions to the Dubai skyline, the Opus was designed by one of the greatest architects of the modern era, the late Dame Zaha Hadid. Sometimes referred to as “The Queen of the Curve” Hadid’s hallmarks are all over the Opus: sharp lines, fluid forms, fragmented geometrical shapes, and elements of avant-garde architecture.
What really makes the Opus stand out is actually what it is missing. Its two towers are joined by steel and glass bridges that create a striking gap through the heart of the building—resembling a free-form void. In fact, Hadid once described her vision for the Opus as an eroded single cube. The bold design has proved popular, and won the Leisure & Hospitality Project of the Year for 2017 at the Middle East Architect Awards—a fitting tribute to the work of a true original in the architecture world.
The Green Planet
While Dubai loves to boast about the biggest buildings on Earth, The Green Planet is proof that size isn’t everything—especially when it comes to impressive aesthetics. Designed by Grout McTavish Architects, The Green Planet’s cylinder and cube design draws inspiration from the art of origami, cutting a striking—and almost fragile—vision for visitors. Inside the cylinder is an incredible living biome that is home to over 3,000 species of tropical plants, mammals, insects, and aquatic life.
Yes, the Green Planet houses a thriving rainforest in the heart of the desert, providing visitors and Emiratie alike with the chance to explore and better understand the importance of protecting some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Of course, one does not simply build a rainforest, especially in Dubai. The architects who developed Green Planet designed more than just a building, they designed a living machine that sustains itself through advanced life support and filtration systems—ensuring it would have minimal impact on local resources while being able to sustain itself and its inhabitants.
If you’re a fan of the blockbuster film franchise The Fast and the Furious, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. After all, in 2015’s Furious 7, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker drive a Lykan Hypersport between three of the building’s five towers. This is a truly spectacular stunt, but the Etihad Towers don’t need flying cars to be impressive in their own right.
Ranging in height from 218 meters to 305 meters tall, three of the Etihad Towers are residential, while the other two are an office tower and hotel respectively. Atop the tallest tower, you can visit a two-story observation deck that offers spectacular views of Saadiyat Island—which is projected to be the cultural center of Abu Dhabi when development is completed in 2020. In addition, the observation deck offers a unique perspective on another one of the most impressive buildings in all of the UAE, the Emirates Palace, which we’ll be discussing next.
The Emirates Palace
It may surprise you to learn the Emirates Palace is not home to Sheikh Khalifa (the current President of the United Arab Emirates), but in fact a luxury resort that is open to the public. Opening in 2005 after four years of construction, the design of the Emirates Palace borrows heavily from elements of Islamic architecture that emphasize balance.
Outside, lush gardens surround the property, while 114 geometric domes give the Palace a rhythmic quality. Keen observers will also note that the colors of the building’s exterior reflect the different shades of sand found throughout the Arabian desert.
Inside, words like opulent and extravagant can be used, though they may not truly do the Palace justice. You’ll find over a thousand crystal chandeliers here, plus marble floors and stunning patterned domes lined with gold. More than just a hotel, the Emirates Palace also serves as a sort of cultural hub for the region—with an art gallery inside, as well as frequent opera and orchestral performances.
When you visit, be sure to drop in at Le Café in the lobby lounge. Here you can enjoy a truly bizarre indulgence—a cappuccino sprinkled in real 24 carat gold flakes. Whether these add flavor is debatable, but it’s certainly a taste you’ll never forget.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
You don’t have to be in Paris to visit the world’s most iconic museum thanks to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi draws influence from both Islamic and Arabic design principles. It has been described as “a floating dome of light and shade”, highlighted by its silvery dome that—upon first glance—appears to be floating in sparkling water. The geometrical perforations in the dome allow light to pass through, creating an effect inside the museum that Jean Nouvel refers to as the “rain of light”. It’s meant to simulate beams of light dancing between palm trees on a sunny day, and truly needs to be seen to be believed.
Under the dome, visitors will find the largest art museum on the Arabian Peninsula, housing works that strive to bridge the gap between cultures and civilizations. Everything from prehistoric artifacts to contemporary art is on display here, with the ultimate goal of revealing shared themes and common connections.
The dome serves more than an aesthetic purpose, however. It also shades the museum’s outdoor plaza from the Abu Dhabi sun, allowing visitors to roam freely between the different galleries and buildings. This shade also reduces the overall energy consumption of the museum.
To get the full architectural experience of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, we recommend signing up for the Kayaking at the Museum experience—where you can actually paddle a boat through the museum’s waters while learning more about its architectural design.
An Architectural Oasis in the Desert Awaits
We could go on all day talking about “The Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi”, “The Coin”, the experiments of sustainable design in Masdar City, the twisting Cayan Tower, and more of the buildings that dot the skylines of the United Arab Emirates. But nothing will ever beat seeing these achievements in design for yourself. Sail with us to the UAE, and discover why the Emirates are renowned for their architectural marvels for yourself.
Browse our upcoming voyages to the UAE today.