To mark our 40th birthday, we’ve picked 40 places that have helped shape our country’s cultural landscape…

There are more than 9 million people living in UAE, each with their own passions, hobbies and activities that they love. And to mark 40 years of What’s On, we’re celebrating some of the greatest things to do in the UAE. These are the landmarks you have to visit, the exciting museums, the gorgeous landscapes, and the one-of-a-kind things that make the UAE an awesome place to be. Enjoy!

1. Rise up in a hot air balloon

What better way is there to see the desert than from a basket 1,220m in the air? Book with Balloon Adventures Dubai and experience the world’s only hot air balloon that flies with a falcon, that’s released to circle the balloon as the sun rises. After you land, enjoy breakfast in the dunes and ride in a 1950s Land Rover to a Bedouin camp.

2. Ride an abra across the Creek

Discover the charm of Old Dubai in this traditional boat. Just hand over a dirham (or two for the more modern abras with AC) and hop on what is arguably the best cruise in the city.

3. Head to the top of Dubai Frame

The 150-metre high Dubai Frame offers panoramic views of old and new Dubai. There are touchscreen displays pointing out some of the city’s most important landmarks, and a small museum inside that takes you through the rich history of Dubai.

4. Discover Islamic heritage at the Quranic Park

Located in Al Khawaneej, the Quranic Park spans over 60 hectares, and is designed to give a better cultural and educational understanding of the Islamic heritage. Learn about the Holy Quran through landscaped gardens, a glasshouse exhibit and the man-made Cave of Miracles.

5. See La Perle

Boasting everything from aerial acrobats to motorcycle stuntmen, plus a stage that turns into a swimming pool, this permanent water-based theatre performance is a must-visit.

6. Leap from a plane over Palm Jumeirah

Skydive Dubai has the quickest way to get your heart pounding, by skydiving over the emirate’s spectacular skyline. There are two locations on offer – you can dive in the desert, or over the coastline, taking in views of The Palm as you fall. Beginners can try a tandem jump where they are attached to an instructor, or you can also have lessons to learn how to skydive on your own.

7. Explore the UAE’s rich culture at Qasr Al Watan

Qasr Al Watan is the newly opened cultural landmark housed within the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. Through a series of zones, guests embark on an interactive journey through the UAE’s rich history. Don’t leave without visiting the Qasr Al Watan library – it’s filled with over 50,000 books.

8. Watch the Dubai Fountain by night

Gawp at the world’s tallest water plumes as they shoot skyward to rousing music. As well as the likes of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, you can also now catch Baby Shark and I’ll Never Love Again among the rotation of daily shows.

9. See a show at Dubai Opera

Having hosted everything from concerts to squash tournaments, Dubai Opera is no one trick pony. Glam up and head to one of the venue’s ever-changing shows.

10. Race around Yas Marina Circuit

Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit offers many car experiences, but the best for thrill seekers has to be Formula Yas 3000. Described as, “the closest thing to an F1 car most people will ever drive,” you’ll get to zoom around in a race car armed with a 3.0 litre V6 Jaguar Cosworth engine, plus Formula One-style paddle shift gear sticks. Looking for something a little less fast pace? Venue tours start from Dhs65.

11. See the UAE from the sky

The UAE is stunning from every angle, but don’t take our word for it. Book yourself a Seawings experience and see Dubai – or Abu Dhabi – from the sky. Enjoy a snapshot, 20-minute tour of Dubai’s iconic landmarks, or book the 45-minute heritage tour that takes you back in time with a mix of aerial sightseeing and cultural exploration on the ground.

12. Take a walk on the wild side at Al Ain Zoo

Established by Sheikh Zayed in 1968 and covering an impressive 400 hectares, Al Ain’s zoo has rebranded itself as a safari park and conservation hub in recent years. Inside you’ll find chimps, baboons, oryx, giraffes, gazelles, crocodiles and a Bengal tiger, plus the world’s largest group of Arabian sand cats.

13. Fly down the world’s longest zipline

Ras Al Khaimah’s stunning Jebel Jais is now home to the world’s longest zip-line. At 2.83km long, it runs through the picturesque mountains at a hair-raising 1,680 metres above sea level. If the views below aren’t enough to get your blood pumping, the speeds will – you’ll reach a jaw-dropping top speed of 150kph on your way down. Once again, you’ll be in the Superman position – belly down taking in the views as you descend.

14. Sip sundowners at the Jetty Lounge

Arguably one of the prettiest beach bars in the city, with tables right out on the sand, Jetty Lounge is the perfect spot for sundowners. Sip a cocktail while gazing out over the ocean and watch The Palm light up.

15. Snorkel around Snoopy Island

A visit to Snoopy Island in Fujairah should be a rite of passage for any UAE resident. Swimming around this infamous island – which gets its name from its resemblance to the cartoon dog – is a lot of fun. Jutting out about 100 metres in front of the legendary Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort, the waters surrounding Snoopy are home to lots of marine life. Snorkel or kayak (you can hire both from the hotel) and look out for those cheeky blacktip reef sharks.

16. Go horse riding in Al Wathba

It’s the rugged life of a cowboy, minus the rugged at the luxurious five-star resort Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa. The gorgeous new hotel has an equally gorgeous stable of horses that guests can ride at sunrise or sunset across the empty dunes.

17. Check out some retro wheels

Attracting tourists and visitors all across the world, the Sharjah Classic Car Museum is the first of its kind in the region and showcases more than 100 classic cars, which have been manufactured in the early 20th century. The museum is cleverly split into sections that start from ‘Early Autos’ to ‘New Heights of Innovation’, to give you an understanding of how cars evolved throughout time.

18. Tea time aboard an abra at Madinat Jumeirah

A trip to Dubai isn’t complete without a ride on a traditional abra boat or lavish afternoon tea. Luckily, Jumeirah Al Qasr has found a unique way to combine both. Taking place between 4pm and 6pm daily, the unique afternoon teatime experience invites guests to board a private abra and journey through the winding waterways of Madinat Jumeirah. With views of the resort’s lush surroundings and striking architecture, it’s the perfect way to spend a late afternoon.

19. Experience a luxury desert safari

Want to experience the desert in serious style? Platinum Heritage is a favourite of celebrities stopping over in Dubai – the likes of Zac Efron, Selena Gomez, and Joe Jonas have all been guests of this luxury tour company. What makes their desert safaris extra special is that you’re driven around in a vintage 1950s Land Rover (you’re also given your very own keffiyeh scarf to wear for bonus Instagram points). After a drive through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, you’ll enjoy a sunset falcon show, before settling in for an Arabic dinner under the stars at the Bedouin camp. There’s also henna tattoos, cultural Emirati performances, and camel rides. It’s a bit of a splurge compared to some of the other safaris, but if you want to feel like a true VIP, this is the one to book.

20. See flamingos at Ras Al Khor

It might look like something out of an African safari, but the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is located just a few minutes’ drive from Dubai Mall. More than 20,000 birds of 67 species inhabit the area, which is most famous for its magnificent flock of flamingos. To see them, head to one of three viewing hides dotted around the perimeter of the sanctuary. These are open from 9am to 4pm Saturday to Thursday, and entrance is free (there are binoculars available to borrow, too).

21. Cool off in a waterpark

From the recently opened Laguna to Legoland, Yas Waterworld and beyond, the UAE’s aquaparks are some of the best in the world, and the ideal way to keep cool over the summer months. For the ultimate waterpark, though, you need to head to the foot of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, where Wadi Adventure offers something a little different for the UAE’s adrenaline seeking crowd, namely whitewater rafting, kayaking and surfing right in the heart of the desert.

22. Attend the city’s coolest music festival

Now in its fourth year at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, What’s On’s own Party in the Park combines everything you love about music festivals – bands, great DJs, food and drink, sunshine and a liberal sprinkling of festival madness – all without having to contend with mud, or getting stranded in a field miles from home. With brilliant line-ups, a festival atmosphere and a classic Dubai barbecue brunch, Party In The Park is back this Autumn and ready to rock your socks off.

23. Get your cultural fix at Alserkal Avenue

While anyone who has lived in Dubai will know that the city has a thriving arts scene, there’s little question that its standing on the global arts stage was given a huge boost with the creation of Alserkal Avenue in 2009. Over the past decade the area has grown to become home to a self-sustaining and organic creative scene that is helping promote Dubai as somewhere artists can grow and thrive. Come and visit the many art galleries, busy gym studios and healthy cafes.

24. Camping at Banan Beach Jebel Ali

Set on the shoreline near Jebel Ali, this picture-perfect camping spot is kitted out with dozens of colourful wooden-framed tents and chalets for a more luxury experience. It’s the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. As well as wiling away the day in a hammock, or barbecuing by the beach, there’s also facilities including water sports and a mini market onsite.

25. Stay dry at Sharjah’s Rain Room

The Rain Room is an immersive installation by Random International that invites visitors to walk into a downpour without them getting drenched. Located at Sharjah Art Foundation, the unique experience uses no lighting tricks or green screens. The only light in the otherwise dark room is the one spotlight that allows you to see the rain falling from the ceiling. It also allows you to take some pretty impressive photos.

26. Visit Cinema Akil

How do you go about building something that doesn’t exist in the entire Gulf region? Just ask Butheina Kazim. Frustrated by a lack of alternative and arthouse cinema in the UAE, she decided to build her own. And with little support or funding, Butheina was able to go against the odds and co-found Cinema Akil, the only independent cinema platform in the Gulf. It’s popularity has grown rapidly, and it now has its own permanent space in Alserkal Avenue attracting over 40,000 people to its screenings to date. Check out their exciting schedule online.

27. Explore the sky like James Bond in a Gyrocopter

Experience the thrill of flying over Dubai’s landscape with a gyrocopter flight. The experience sees you soaring 450 metres above the emirate’s most iconic landmarks – in a unique two-seater aircraft. Moments will be captured by your pilot via GoPro.

28. Tackle snowy pistes in the desert

Dubai’s 400m indoor ski slope in Mall Of The Emirates is ideal for a quick adrenaline fix. There are lessons available for beginners and keep an eye on the website for their freestyle nights – that’s when you can test your mettle and jump off ramps.

29. Marvel at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Architecturally striking, a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must. It’s one of the world’s largest and has 82 domes, more than 1000 columns, 24 karat gold gilded chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet.

30. Meet Tweety Bird

Abu Dhabi’s newest theme park opened in July 2018. Inside Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi are 29 rides for thrill seekers, plus a variety of characters such as that legendary rabbit, as well as The Flinstones, Scooby Doo, Wonder Woman, The Joker and Batman. They all live in six zones, including DC Comics’ Gotham City and the desert world of Dynamite Gulch, home to Yosemite Sam.

31. Fly superman-style over Dubai Marina

Brought to you by XDubai, XLine in Dubai Marina opened in late 2017. You’ll lie face down, before flying off the side of a building through the air some 170m above the ground.

32. Dine at a revolving restaurant

Stratos is the name of Le Royal Meridien’s revolving rooftop restaurant that serves spectacular views of Abu Dhabi as well as good food. The grilled octopus with hazelnuts and the braised short ribs come with the What’s On seal of approval.

33. Take a trip through the UAE’s history

The newly opened Al Shindagha Museum is the first phase of the ambitious Dubai Historic District (DHD) project. Transporting guests back in time to the 19th century, you’ll learn about the heritage and growth of the UAE, which has seen the country become the stunning metropolis it is now. From pearl diving to the era of oil, visitors are sure to leave with profound knowledge and insight of the country’s interesting past.

34. Visit the seven-star hotel

A building that needs little introduction – though much shouting has been done about its groundbreaking seven-star status – Jumeirah’s Burj Al Arab is undoubtedly one of the city’s most iconic structures. Boasting just 202 suites, the sail-shaped hotel’s helipad has played host to everything from an Andre Agassi and Roger Federer tennis match through to a hair-raising donut stunt by F1’s David Coulthard.

35. Check in to the world’s tallest five- star hotel

Sure, we have a lot of five-star hotels, but the JW Marriott Marquis gets a special mention for being a true record breaker. Nowadays merely the second-tallest hotel in the world, the 72-storey, Dhs1.8billion twin-tower skyscraper complex remains hugely impressive, boasting 1,608 rooms as well as some of the city’s best restaurants and views.

36. Explore the wonders at Louvre Abu Dhabi

Louvre Abu Dhabi is an achievement on many levels. Not only does it bring the Western and Eastern worlds closer together, it rubberstamps the capital’s position as one of the globe’s top tourism destinations. It’s also one of the most ambitious cultural projects in the world, brought to light by Jean Nouvel’s exceptional architectural masterpiece. While inside you’ll find thousands of pieces on display, the museum structure itself – in particular, the 7,500-tonne dome – is also a work of art.

37. Party hard at a legendary beach club

Ibiza’s iconic party brand washed up on the shores of Ghantoot, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, seven years ago, and it’s showed no signs of slowing down ever since. Bringing some of the world’s most famous names in house and techno to the UAE, the decks of BMI have been graced by the likes of Sven Vath, Black Coffee, and Solomun. It’s now legendary day-to-night parties are on the bucket lists of party people from all over the world who visit Dubai.

38. Perfect your swing at a top golf course

If you rewind 30 years, the idea the UAE would become world-renowned for facilities requiring grass would have been hard to imagine. But since the opening of Emirates Golf Club 30 years ago, the country has become a golfing destination of international repute and, with Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, Yas Links and Jumeirah Golf Estates now added to the golfing portfolio, plays host to some of the world’s biggest international tournaments.

39. Take a stroll through Al Fahidi Historical District

Also known as Al Bastikiya, this well-preserved historic district on the banks of the creek provides a serious juxtaposition to the rest of the city’s gleaming skyscrapers. Made up of traditional Barajeel buildings, many of which have now been turned into public galleries, cafes and cultural centres, the tiny district gives a true taste of what life was like in Dubai from the mid-19th century through to the 1970s.

40. See the city from the world’s tallest building

In a city that’s constantly breaking records, the Burj Khalifa remains a crowning triumph, having maintained its status as the world’s tallest structure since its topping out in 2009. Standing at an eye-watering 829.8 metres, it remains the centrepiece of Downtown Dubai, where the dancing fountains at its foot, and latterly the light and laser shows projected onto its façade, attract millions of visitors each year.

— For the best of Dubai straight to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.