Dubai is famous for many things and home to myriad record-breaking feats, but its architectural landscape is easily one of the city's most stand-out features, as super-tall skyscrapers sit next to futuristic museums and unique buildings with sentiment behind the design.
It's an architect and engineer's playground, and this has given rise to a fascinating skyline with plenty of tales to tell.
Among the latest is the Museum of the Future, with an opening date now announced.
Here are 28 buildings with the most interesting stories the emirate has to offer.
1. Burj Khalifa
2. Burj Al Arab
3. The Dubai Mall
4. Atlantis, The Palm
5. Dubai Frame
6. Museum of the Future
7. Gevora Hotel
8. Dubai Opera
9. Etihad Museum
10. Cayan Tower
11. Jumeirah Mosque
12. Jumeirah Emirates Towers
13. Wafi Mall
14. JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai
15. Jumeirah Beach Hotel
16. Mall of the Emirates
17. Rose Rayhaan by Rotana
18. Princess Tower
19. Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort
20. The Torch
21. Marina 101
22. The Opus by Omniyat
24. Al Rostamani Maze Tower
25. Address Sky View hotel
26. Solar Innovation Centre
27. Al Yaqoub Tower
28. The Gate Building
This isn't just one of Dubai's most famous buildings, but the world's, as it's the tallest skyscraper on the planet. From most vantage points in the city, you'll spot the 828-metre, 160-storey tower glittering in the distance, looming over the skyline.
It opened in 2010, having taken six years, 22 million man-hours and about $1.5 billion to build, and has a number of other accolades to its name, including the tallest free-standing structure, highest occupied floor and outdoor observation deck, and elevator with the longest travel distance.
It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm also behind Chicago’s famous Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Centre.
It's also starred in numerous big-budget movies, such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Burj Al Arab
There are a few Dubai buildings that are instantly recognisable to an international crowd, including this sail-shaped luxury property, which is also the tallest all-suite hotel in the world.
It's often referred to as a "seven-star" hotel, but those don't exist. It is a five-star property, however, that's gilded with 24-carat gold interiors and often welcomes a VIP guest list that's included the likes of Justin Bieber, Roger Federer and Gigi and Bella Hadid.
The Burj Al Arab has also clinched some record-breaking titles, such as the most expensive cocktail at Dh27,321 ($7,439) and the largest Swarovski crystal chandelier, with its 21,000 crystals, worth Dh1.3 million.
The Dubai Mall
It’s not the architecture, but the vastness of this shopping mall that makes this building world-famous, and it’s only set to get bigger as expansion is still under way. At the moment, it has more than 1,300 stores and in excess of 200 dining outlets.
Customers from overseas will feel right at home, as brands from across the globe have set up shop in The Dubai Mall, from France’s Galeries Lafayette to America’s Bloomingdale’s and the UK’s Debenhams.
Other attractions at the centre include the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, a virtual-reality theme park and an Olympic-sized ice rink. Outside, you can watch the choreographed Dubai Fountains, and look up at the Burj Khalifa.
Atlantis, The Palm
Not only does this globally renowned hotel have more than 1,500 rooms, but it’s also home to a record-breaking water park, celebrity chef-backed restaurants and an aquarium that’s home to more than 65,000 marine animals.
The five-star ocean-themed property, inspired by the myth of Atlantis, sits at the apex of Palm Jumeirah’s crescent. It was opened in 2008 and reportedly cost $1.5bn to build.
Its architecture incorporates classical Arabian influences, with semi-precious stones and fossilised shells used throughout the interiors and exterior.
Here, you will also find American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s first Middle East installation; a 10-metre-high sculpture that uses more than 3,000 pieces of brightly hued blown glass. The lobby also features eight hand-painted murals by Spanish artist Albino Gonzalez amid its 19-metre-high arched ceilings.
Glass, steel, aluminium and reinforced concrete combine to create one of the city’s most famous structures. The Dubai Frame is one of the youngest buildings on this list, having only opened to the public in 2018, and it stands at 150 metres tall and 95 metres wide, offering views of old and new Dubai on either side, serving as a “metaphorical bridge connecting the emirate’s rich past with its magnificent present”.
Its rectangular design was inspired by the “golden ratio” of 1.618, which architects and artists are said to believe forms an ideal structural balance.
Inside the 48-storey structure, there is a sky deck, which an elevator will take you to in 75 seconds, and exhibitions that tell the city’s story.
Museum of the Future
Dubai firm Killa Design is behind the complex and unique architecture of the city's 78-metre-tall Museum of the Future, which is set to open this year.
Its windows are shaped in the form of Arabic calligraphy, based on a poem by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, about his vision for the city's future. The idea is that the low-carbon, stainless steel-clad, torus-shaped museum represents Dubai's perpetual energy and a vision of the future as we understand it via exhibitions, while its elliptical void represents what we do not know yet, according to the architects.
Four floors focus on possible futures of outer space resource development, ecosystems and bioengineering, as well as health, wellness and spirituality. Another floor showcases near-future technologies that address issues in areas such as health, water, food, transportation and energy. There’s also a dedicated children’s floor with challenges for them to complete “on their way to becoming future heroes”.
At 356 metres and with 75 floors, the four-star Gevora Hotel became the world’s tallest hotel when it opened in 2018, a record it nabbed from JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, which is 355 metres and 72 floors (although this is again set to be eclipsed by Dubai Marina’s 82-storey Ciel Tower by 2023).
It took 12 years and is said to have cost more than Dh500m to build. The property boasts more than 500 rooms and suites, plus five restaurants, and is recognisable by its gold-coloured facade and tapered pyramidal crown structure on top.
In the heart of Downtown Dubai is this 2,000-seater, multi-format theatre that plays host to world-class shows throughout the year. The dhow-shaped building, designed by lead architect Janus Rostock of Atkins and opened in 2016, is a tribute to the city’s maritime history.
It’s been designed with flexibility in mind, so it can host everything from musicals to ballets and fashion shows to art exhibitions. The opera house, which is within walking distance of The Dubai Mall, also has a rooftop restaurant and sky garden, boasting views of the Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa.
From a live concert by Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi to the popular musical The Phantom of the Opera, and even a new slate of hologram performances, the entertainment schedule here is incredibly varied.
Not only can you explore the Emirates’ rich heritage in the exhibits at this museum, but the site is history-making in itself. The 25,000-square-metre building is located where the Union House once sat – the place where the constitution was signed, and the UAE was founded, on December 2, 1971.
The museum features an eye-catching curved white roof that was inspired by the shape of the treaty. Designed by Canadian firm Moriyama & Teshima Architects, the building also boasts seven columns, symbolising the pens used to sign the agreement for each emirate.
Etihad Museum is home to a library, education centre, temporary exhibition space and a restaurant. Across eight permanent pavilions, discover the events that led up to the unification of the country, with emphasis on 1968 to 1974, and what its constitution means for the rights and responsibilities of Emiratis.
The same architectural firm behind the design of the Burj Khalifa and Trump Tower in Chicago is responsible for this 306-metre-tall, 75-storey skyscraper in Dubai Marina.
The distinctive, twisting luxury apartment building is the world’s tallest high-rise with a 90-degree spiral.
Formerly known as the Infinity Tower, the structure is complex, with each floor rotating 1.2 degrees around a cylindrical elevator, forming the twist that carves out its niche in an already impressive and bustling skyline.
While Dubai may be most famous for its super-tall skyscrapers, its religious buildings should not be overlooked, as often they are architectural masterpieces.
Jumeirah Mosque, located on Beach Road, is particularly well known, as it offers a gateway to those seeking deeper knowledge of Islam and life in the UAE through guided tours six days a week.
It was a gift from the former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and construction was completed in 1979. The white stone building’s architectural influences draw from the Fatimid Caliphate of Syria and Egypt, with a large central dome, twin minarets and elaborate stonework, of which the intricacies are best viewed when illuminated at night.
It can accommodate up to 1,500 worshippers.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers
Last year, Jumeirah Emirates Towers, one of Dubai's most recognisable pieces of architecture, turned 20. The complex, which consists of a 305-metre hotel and 350-metre office tower, has lost none of its lustre over the past two decades, continuing to stand as a striking gateway to Dubai's financial district.
Its reason for being was, in the 1990s, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, launched a design competition for a new landmark in Dubai’s then-growing financial hub, requesting twin towers that would be at least twice the height of the 149-metre Dubai World Trade Centre.
Construction started in 1996 and it was designed by architect Hazel Wong. Its distinctive design is formed of two equilateral triangles connecting traditional Islamic themes with contemporary architecture. They’re clad in aluminium panels, allowing the buildings to capture the sun’s changing light, offering a different perspective on the towers depending on where you view them from.
This striking shopping mall, which first opened in 1991, is recognisable thanks to its Egypt theme. Sphinx statues greet customers at the entrance, while inside stained-glass pyramids, pharaoh sculptures and columns dotted with hieroglyphics are seen throughout.
Amid the Egyptian interiors, you’ll find well-known international brands jostling for space, such as Burberry and Chopard, as well as a range of local, home-grown boutiques.
Wafi Mall is also home to Khan Murjan Souk, where you can find Arabian handicrafts, plus dozens of restaurants, mini golf and even an outdoor pool.
It's also where the eye-catching, pyramidal five-star hotel Raffles Dubai is located.
JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai
Before Gevora Hotel, the $490m, 355-metre-tall JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai was the tallest hotel in the world, standing just 26 metres shorter than the Empire State Building. It might have lost that title, but it is still the tallest five-star property, featuring twin towers that are home to more than 1,600 rooms and suites, plus a slate of award-winning restaurants, bars and lounges, including steakhouse Prime68, which sits on the 68th floor, offering incredible views of the Dubai skyline.
The towers’ unusual form, designed by Archgroup International Consultants, was inspired by the date palm, “a symbol deeply entrenched in the Arabian culture”, according to a statement on the firm’s website. The buildings were symmetrically placed on a seven-storey podium to get the best views of the Burj Khalifa, Business Bay and Arabian Gulf.
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
About as famous as the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab is the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, thanks to its striking wave-like form, recognisable from any postcard or Instagram post from the region.
In 2018, the hotel, which first opened in 1997, reopened after undergoing an extensive renovation during which it was closed for five months. The result was a space that is "contemporary and yet warm, with white, gold and blue accents throughout sharing a seamless connection with nature", according to the Jumeirah Group.
The five-star property, designed by Atkins, has welcomed many VIP guests over the years, and features more than 10 restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a climbing wall and the world-famous Wild Wadi Waterpark.
Mall of the Emirates
There are a number of reasons Mall of the Emirates, open since 2005, is famous the world over. As one of the leading shopping destinations in Dubai, it’s much-loved by residents and tourists, and was designed by American firm F+A Architects.
Its domed main entrance foyer with glass ceiling is instantly recognisable, but one of its most defining features has to be Ski Dubai, the indoor ski resort that maintains a temperature of about -1°C throughout the year, even during the scorching UAE summer, and has an 85-metre-high mountain and five slopes.
Rose Rayhaan by Rotana
Before Gevora Hotel and JW Marriott Marquis, the city’s 333-metre-high Rose Rayhaan by Rotana was the world’s tallest all-hotel tower for three years.
The four-star property has 72 floors and nearly 500 rooms, plus three dining outlets and a wellness club.
It’s a looming example of postmodernism, with a distinctive tapered roof and spire that allows it to jut out of the skyline, carving its place in the annals of architectural history in Dubai.
Six of the top 10 tallest residential buildings in the world are in Dubai. This is one of them. Princess Tower opened in 2012 and was the world's tallest until it was taken over by America's 432 Park Avenue three years later (now that is third, following two more New York spots).
The 414-metre postmodern building, which took six years to construct, lives up to its regal name as its dome, topped off by a decorative mast, weighing 110 tonnes of steel and aluminium, almost resembles a crown.
The Dubai Marina development stands at 107 storeys and encompasses basement floors, a ground floor and 100 above-ground levels. To this day, it’s the third tallest building in the UAE, after Burj Khalifa and Marina 101.
Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort
Dubai isn't all skyscrapers and shopping malls, as the city is also full of cultural landmarks, such as the Dubai Museum, which is in Al Fahidi Fort.
It was built in 1787 as the premises of the ruler and a fort of defence, according to Dubai Culture. It was later turned into an arsenal for weapons, and used as a prison for outlaws.
During the reign of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, it was renovated and reopened as a national museum in 1971, with another underground section established in 1995. At the moment, it is closed for renovation until further notice.
While the Torch’s reputation may have been marred by tragedy, as it made international headlines for unfortunate fires, this is by no means the only reason it’s world-famous.
It was actually the world’s tallest residential building when it opened in 2011, surpassing Australia’s Q1 Tower. It’s now ninth on the list, falling behind five other UAE properties, but it’s no less notable, nor less popular as a home of choice in the Marina. This is thanks to its impressive amenities, which include a pool deck with a stunning city view, as well as a sauna and steam room.
The 321-metre building is another example of postmodernist architecture, originally designed by Khatib & Alami.
After the Burj Khalifa, this is the second-tallest building in the UAE, and the fourth-tallest residential building in the world, standing at 425 metres.
Construction began in 2007 and was supposed to be completed in 2014, then 2017, however the project stalled as the original developer, Sheffield Holdings Limited, ran out of capital.
It’s more than 95 per cent complete at this point, but a new investor is still being sought. Once finished, it is supposed to house a hotel and residences.
The Opus by Omniyat
Zaha Hadid's first project in Dubai is a work of art to rival any of the renowned Iraqi-born architect's award-winning structures.
The Opus is home to the ME Dubai, which is the first and only hotel in the world that Hadid created both its architecture and interiors for. The cube-shaped building spans 7,831 square metres and was designed as two towers that form a whole, with a large free-form void in its centre.
The portions on either side of the gap are linked by a four-storey atrium and connected by an asymmetric three-storey bridge that hangs 71 metres above the ground.
Despite having won several awards, this may not be a building people would know simply by name, but its distinctive architecture certainly makes it stand out in Business Bay.
The 22-storey commercial tower, also known as the Swiss Cheese, is wrapped in a 40-centimetre-thick exoskeleton with 1,300 holes. There’s a one-metre space between the facade and windows, which is said to allow hot air to rise and cool air to come in from below.
It was designed by architects Reiser + Umemoto with an open concept to give the perception of space. It’s home to offices, shops and four levels of underground parking.
Al Rostamani Maze Tower
Adrian Fisher, who The Washington Post once referred to as the "Michael Jordan of maze design", created the vertical maze (said to be the world's first) that sits on the facade of this Sheikh Zayed Road tower.
The lines of the balconies on the front and rear of the building form real and separate puzzles that were painstakingly created. “Once people realise there is this challenge towering above them I am sure they will be excited to solve it,” said Fisher.
Ten types of natural stone have been used in the building’s creation, including black slate, Siberian white marble and verde Bahia honed with a water jet.
Address Sky View hotel
This relatively new build, designed by the same architects as the Burj Khalifa, has not one but two defining skyscrapers that are linked by a sky bridge with a 200-metre-high cantilever observation deck known as the SkyWalk that offers 360-degree views of the city.
The 260-metre-tall, five-star hotel boasts a combined floor count of 117, with more than 150 rooms, plus residences and amenities such as a spa, restaurants and a 70-metre-long infinity pool.
The Solar Innovation Centre
Dubai Electricity and Water Authority's Innovation Centre, which is in the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, the world's largest single-site solar park, opened in November 2020.
The centre, which aims to be a public attraction and clean-technology innovation hub, houses 30 interactive exhibits and an auditorium for events, conferences and training programmes on solar power, renewable energy and other green initiatives.
The four-storey building covers 4,355 square metres and is 88 metres high. Its design is based on the principles of “divine geometry” as seen in Islamic art, according to architecture firm Kettle Collective.
The angular spire is formed by twisting ribbons of glass, creating faceted interiors. Integrated photovoltaic panels, solar shading and smart management systems are just a few of the features that have been incorporated into this sustainability-focused building.
Al Yaqoub Tower
It might not have a clock, but Al Yaqoub Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road bears a remarkable resemblance to London's Big Ben. In fact, the 328-metre skyscraper was inspired by the British building and boasts 69 floors.
The project by Al Yaqoub Group, with Lebanon's Arabian Construction Company as the main contractor, was designed by Dubai's Adnan Saffarini Engineering Consultants.
The Gate Building
Anyone who's been to Paris may find familiarity in The Gate Building in Dubai International Financial Centre, as it was modelled on the Arc de Triomphe at Champs Elysees.
It was the first building in DIFC to be completed and comprises 15 storeys with office and retail space over 46,000 square metres.
US architecture firm Gensler, which has offices in Dubai, designed the property, sitting on an axis with the Emirates Towers and the World Trade Centre, as it frames these two city landmarks.
This article was originally published on June 2021