Untold Dubai 2024: What we learnt from the festival's opening day

British singer Ellie Goulding delivered an excellent set at the bustling Expo City Dubai event

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Out with the diplomats and in with the DJs.

Nearly three months after Expo City Dubai successfully hosted Cop28, the sprawling site has become home to its first major international music festival with Untold Dubai.

Running until Sunday, the four-day gathering features more than 100 international and regional artists, mostly from the electronic music genre, performing across four stages.

The festival also marks the first global expansion by Untold after the Romanian brand built a reputation as one of the premiere dance music festivals in central Europe.

So with so much preparation and anticipation, did the opening night’s artists deliver? Pretty much.

While big-name DJs such as headliner Armin van Buuren, Chase and Status and Sven Vath performed strong sets, the night belonged to those on stage earlier in the bill.

After making a cameo appearance in the Expo Dubai 2020 opening ceremony, Untold Dubai marked the first full concert by Ellie Goulding in the UAE in four years.

The time in between has had the British singer pull away from sugar-rush dance-pop to embrace more darker and evocative sounds.

Backed by a seven-piece band, including five vocalists, tracks from the new album Higher than Heaven, particularly the dramatic title track and Midnight Dreams, signal her pedigree.

That said, casual fans were rewarded when the big numbers I Need Your Love and Outside with pyrotechnics and confetti.

Meanwhile, UK soul singer-turned-DJ John Newman also made a convincing case for his career transition.

His whirling hour-long set served as a mega-mix of his solo hits, some of which sounded better with blazing synths and shuddering basslines. It was particularly apparent in Feel the Love and Love Me Again, with Newman also dialling up the vocal intensity when singing along from the decks.

For those heading to the festival over the weekend, here are tips on how to make the best of your time.

1. Expo City Dubai has something for everyone

While Expo City Dubai has hosted concerts in the past, this is the first time the whole site has been used for a multi-stage musical event.

Organisers had a mammoth task of thematising the sprawling venue to fit in with the brand’s colourful aesthetics and carnival atmosphere – and they did a solid job.

Whether you are in The Oasis or Mobility Pavilion, several branded murals and visual backdrops are available for selfies. There are also seemingly impromptu performances, taking place everywhere from drumlines to acrobatics dance displays.

The festival signage is easy to spot and plenty of staff are on hand to guide you to the main stages.

Some of the site’s existing features are also used for great effect. For Dh30, you can hop on the Garden in the Sky, a rotating observation tower to admire the magnitude of the festival 55 metres up.

2. Jubilee Park is the central point of the festival

Jubilee Park – home to picnic areas and food trucks – can be considered the central point of the site, with all stages relatively accessible within minutes.

Meanwhile, the Main Stage delivers on its promise. Hulking over one of Expo City Dubai’s car parks, it is seemingly built out of an endless amount of LED screens which are startling in clarity.

The powerful sound system is matched by brilliant visuals that also incorporate the DJ booth.

The T-shaped stage, mostly used by singers, extends halfway into the audience to allow those at the back a better glimpse of the performers.

While home to harder underground dance artists, it’s in the Alchemy Stage where you can hear the beats in an almost picnic-like setting courtesy of the artificial grass carpets.

The Time stage is in one of Expo City Dubai's main attractions. With a circular stage built in front of the Surreal waterfall, it conjures the feeling of an ethereal house party.

For a more relaxed vibe, head to the Galaxy Stage under the dome of Al Wasl Plaza for chilled beats.

3. There's an expansive menu but be sure to have your card

You won’t go hungry at Untold Dubai, with the festival home to dozens of food trucks and some of Expo City Dubai’s existing restaurants also operational during the weekend.

When it comes to the former, there is plenty on offer, such as burgers from Pickl, pizzas from Pinza! and shawarmas from Allo Beirut.

Those looking for a more diverse fair should head to Expo City Dubai’s Alkebulan Food Hall for a range of flavourful dishes from East and West Africa.

Water bottles bought on-site can be refilled free of charge.

4. Come early to get your wristbands

With big crowds expected over the weekend, it is recommended to come early to pick up and validate wristbands. Doors open at 4pm.

Wristbands can be accessed from the metro plaza and Sustainability gate entrance.

As the festival's restaurants are cashless, it's recommended to top up your wristbands from one of the many kiosks upon arrival.

Credit cards and cash can only be used in non-festival-affiliated venues such as the Alkebulan Food Hall.

There are more than 9,000 car parking spots available as well as ranks for taxis and cars from ride-hailing services such as Yango, Careem and Uber.

Untold Dubai runs until Sunday at Dubai Expo City; tickets start at Dh300; more information is available at untold.ae

Updated: February 16, 2024, 10:09 AM