Dubai has built such a dazzling reputation as a six-star consumer wonderland that it's easy to overlook its other assets. Every year the emirate hosts a flurry of fab festivals showcasing its more cultured and creative side – from Arabian art shows and foodie fests to celebrations of world literature, music and film.
There are a handful of festivals dedicated to Dubai's more obvious charms too. In the famous luxury malls a bargain-filled shopping festival and a summer festival amp up the entertainment. Religious and commemorative events also offer visitors a rare chance to get to know Emirati culture and heritage. Here's my selection of the ten best festivals to add some creative sparkle, cultural depth and fun experiences to your holiday in Dubai.
Top ten festivals in Dubai
Dubai International Jazz Festival
22-24 February 2017
Dubai doesn't do anything by halves, and so the International Jazz Festival is no typical low-key jazz affair. Instead the emirate puts on a three-day music extravaganza that evidently has the pulling-power to attract some really big headline acts and thousands of spectators. Although the organisers are playing fast and loose with the definition of jazz, I'm sure most people won't complain about being treated to live music from household names like Sting, Santana and Toto, British music acts James and David Gray, and singers Macy Grey and Mica Paris. Dubai Media City's enormous amphitheatre makes for a spectacular setting, especially on a warm starry Arabian night. For details of next year's festival go to this site.
Emirates Literary Festival
7-11 March 2017
Flying in the face of all who doubt Dubai's cultural credentials, the city hosts the Middle East's largest literary festival. It features some really well-known authors and TV personalities too, with previous appearances, talks, live interviews and book readings from Richard and Judy, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo and multi-award winning African novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi. The next edition will be held over five days from 7-11 March next year at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City. Click here for more info.
Dubai Summer Surprises
9 July – 20 August 2016
Summer Surprises livens up superhot July and August in Dubai with plenty of live family entertainment and events springing up at indoor venues across the city. Visitors can expect free pop-up performances from international stars such as Willow and Jaden Smith and Laura Marano, mini fashion shows and a wide variety of children's activities hosted by bright yellow festival mascot Modhesh. Most events take place around Dubai's malls with accompanying promotions to tempt shoppers. More details are available here.
Dubai Shopping Festival
1-31 January 2017
With supermalls the size of small towns and luxury stores like glittering consumer temples, Dubai is perhaps more famous for its shopping than anything else. It's little surprise then that the emirate takes the idea of January Sales to a whole new level with the one-of-a-kind Dubai Shopping Festival. For the whole month of January shoppers can bag themselves amazing deals on fashion and accessories, perfumes and beauty, gold and jewellery. You can take advantage of special offers galore at the city's malls and souks where there's a fat dollop of family entertainment thrown in just for good measure. Major shopping centres like Dubai Mall woo visitors with shows and activities to amuse the kids while their parents enjoy an almighty shopping spree. Dubai's Global Village adds a dash of culture to proceedings with pavilions showcasing arts and crafts, live music and dance performances from different nations around the world. For more information visit this site.
Dubai Food Festival
23 February – 11 March 2017
Dubai has become renowned for its gastronomy with exclusive restaurants and hotel venues offering the ultimate in fine dining, international fusion cuisine and even lavish feasts for Friday brunch. Over the last few years the Dubai Food Festival has cemented the emirate's reputation as Arabian culinary capital with top global chefs rustling up treats, exclusive restaurants offering special tasting menus and promotions, and stalls selling mouth-watering street eats at a range of gastronomic events around the city and by the beach. Dubai Restaurant Week marks the pinnacle of the festival, while Taste of Dubai gets in on the action from 9-11 March at Media City. Over three days, Taste has live cooking demos, lessons from celebrity chefs, tasting sessions, culinary shopping and accompanying live music. For more info click here or here.
Eid Al Adha
13 September 2016
The second most important festival in the Muslim religious calendar offers visitors a great chance to gain an insight into the region's Islamic traditions and join in the festivities. Dubai goes all out for Eid with 10 days of star-studded concerts, fireworks, theatre, family entertainment and unique themed events. The three-day International Dance Festival and Dubai Music Week form part of the Eid celebrations bringing a whole host of international talent to the emirate. You can also see all kinds of circus shows and performances, enjoy novel gift promotions and even get a free personalised henna tattoo at shopping centres across Dubai including Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai Festival City Mall and Mall of the Emirates. As Eid Al Adha is calculated by the lunar calendar, it falls around 11 days earlier each year. Details of this year's celebrations can be found here.
National Day Festival
2 December 2016
Long before Dubai's meteoric rise to fame and fortune, it was part of a British colony. To commemorate the UAE's independence from the UK, Dubai holds its National Day festivities every year on 2 December. Locals celebrate this national holiday with great fervour, festooning streets, markets and malls with decorations, and staging musical and dance performances. The state also opens important monuments to the public and there are official events for visitors and locals all around the city such as fireworks displays, parades and dhow races. Local restaurants serve up special national dishes and some hotels even host traditional Emirati entertainment programmes for guests.
Dubai International Film Festival
7-14 December 2016
Film fans visiting Dubai in December should check out events and screenings around the annual International Film Festival, held at Madinat Jumeirah and now in its 13th year. Considered the region's leading film festival, it celebrates independent movies and arthouse cinema as well as supporting the home-grown film scene and bringing Middle Eastern movies to international attention. World-famous actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Catherine Deneuve attend the annual awards ceremony, adding a dash of red carpet glamour to proceedings. For details of the latest festival visit this site.
Anyone interested in the arts should not miss a chance to experience the creative side of the Arabian Peninsula at Dubai's massive annual art fair taking place over four days in mid-March. Held in the enormous halls at Madinat Jumeirah, the fair showcases artworks sourced from scores of galleries around the world and runs fringe events such as workshops, exhibitions and forums. Running in tandem with Art Dubai, the Bastakiya Art Fair is an alternative festival for emerging artists that's held in the historic old quarter of Bastakiya. It offers a rare window on the region's contemporary visual arts scene with an interesting programme of art shows, film screenings, talks and book readings. For more details go to artdubai.ae
Dubai Polo Cup
7-14 April 2017
As an oasis of lavish luxury with an Arabian horsey heritage, Dubai actually seems a suitable outpost for polo and all its trappings. Dubai Polo Cup has become a permanent fixture in the emirate's events calendar where those who enjoy the finer things in life can rub shoulders with the well-heeled and the wealthy and enjoy a fabulous day out. Centred round the glamorous Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club with lush green lawns, champagne and nibbles, and soirees in marquees you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in Blighty – if not for the blue skies and blazing sunshine. There's even a British Polo Day held over Easter Bank Holiday where Made in Chelsea stars Millie Mackintosh and Hugo Taylor were spotted hobnobbing earlier this year. For details visit this site.