WHILE DUBAI’S CLAIM TO FAME might lie in its reputation as a city of scintillating skyscrapers, slick sportscars, and snazzy malls the size of small towns, a trip to the city need not be just about the luxurious and ostentatious. If you’re looking to enjoy Dubai’s abundant sun, sand, and sea through the lens of adventure, the city and its neighboring emirates are not short on epic offerings.
Some of the outdoor options are as over-the-top (and pricey) as you might expect from Dubai — as in ziplining between skyscrapers or snow skiing when it’s 120 degrees. Others offer the serene escape from the urban glitz that you may be seeking. Think kayaking alongside mangroves or hiking in the Hajar Mountains. Whichever adventure you seek, avoid pursuing it during the height of summer between May and August to avoid the real risk of dehydration.
1. Hike and bike in the Hajar Mountains in Hatta
Photo: Sudarsan Thobias/Shutterstock
A 90-minute drive from downtown Dubai, the exclave of Hatta in the Hajar Mountains is a major adventure destination in Dubai. This landscape that surrounds the town of Hatta is one of craggy peaks, dry wadis (valleys or ancient riverbeds), lakes, natural springs, and farmland, and it offers plenty of opportunities for active travelers through marked hiking and biking trails.
Hikers can explore 20 miles of trails through five marked routes, while cyclists are free to explore over 30 miles of trails with maps and route information available from the Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Center. Trails vary in suitability for different levels and all are free to use. At the Hatta Wadi Hub, where several trails begin, you can also try zorbing, axe-throwing, archery, and tube sliding. Other than toilets and showers, a café and food trucks are also available here. The beauty of the calm, azure waters of nearby Hatta Dam is best enjoyed by renting a kayak ($16 for a single kayak and $32 for a double) and paddling around the dusty peaks.
To appreciate Hatta from the air, tandem paragliding tours at $176 per 15-minute flight are also available. Don’t leave without visiting the Hatta Heritage Village, a restored village dating to the third century BC. For a glimpse of rural life in the old days, wander through reconstructed stone houses, courtyards, a majlis, and a museum. The restored mud and stone-built Hatta Fort dates back to 1896 and the two watchtowers offer views over lush date plantations.
2. Skydive over Palm Jumeirah
Photo: Skydive Dubai/Facebook
Palm Jumeirah, the man-made archipelago that looks like a palm tree when viewed from above, is one of Dubai’s most impressive engineering marvels. While most visitors drive around or book yacht tours to see this group of islands that are home to residences, luxury resorts, shopping malls, and beach clubs, its most unbeatable views are from the sky.
On a tandem skydive at the Palm Jumeirah Dropzone, you’ll leap out of a plane at 13,000 feet together with an instructor. The exhilarating freefall at 120 mph lasts for approximately 60 seconds, which go by quickly with a skydiving photographer taking photos and videos of you. Afterwards, you get to enjoy the view of the palm, with its fronds and a crescent that neatly frames it, while paragliding over Palm Jumeirah for a few minutes. Schedule three to four hours including time for instructions, weight and BMI check, gearing up, and a video interview. The whole experience through Dubai Skydive with an expert instructor and video footage, costs AED 1,799, or about $490. (It’s $50 less without the video)
3. Ride a dune buggy in the desert
A thirty to forty-minute drive from the city, the sublime golden landscape of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is best enjoyed between October and March when the weather is agreeable enough to wander between undulating dunes, see the desert on camelback, and experience a sunrise or sunset in the desert.
However, few adventures can equal the excitement of donning a helmet and strapping into a four-wheel-drive dune buggy, complete with roll cages and off-road suspension, and driving over massive dunes to reach speeds of up to 50 mph, roaring engines and all. With different tours, you do get what you pay for, with the pricier operator like Arabian Adventures giving you access (for $188 per person) to a powerful vehicle that’s better equipped for sharp twists and turns on the dunes. If you’re not feeling too confident about driving yourself, tours with a driver are available. Expect around two hours of driving time including a stop for drinks. If you’re lucky, you might even spot an Arabian oryx or two.
4. Sand board down a dune
Photo: Kseniya Resphoto/Shutterstock
If you’d rather enjoy the dunes without the sound of revving engines, trade them for the scraping of sand underneath your sandboard. Sand boards look like snowboards, but they are in fact designed to slide down dunes — although we can’t promise they are as easy to maneuver. Several outfitters will take you out to the desert to try this sport yourself, with a three-hour excursion costing only $24 per person.
5. Kayak in the Eastern Mangroves in Abu Dhabi
A 90-minute drive from Dubai to the capital Abu Dhabi transports you to the tranquil Eastern Mangroves, a protected nature reserve of mangrove forests inhabited by diverse marine and birdlife.
A kayak trip through the mangrove forests offers the chance to get up close with flamingos, herons, turtles, fish, stingrays, and crabs, easily spotted in the calm, clear water. You can join a guided trip or rent a kayak for as little as $13 from one of the operators in the area — such as SeaHawk. It’s a good idea to bring your binoculars for a bit of birdwatching. The trips are also suitable for beginners, with plenty of time to stop for a rest or enjoy a picnic.
6. Go parasailing with views of Ain Dubai
Photo: Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock
Right next door to cool restaurants, cafes, shopping, and a cinema, the lively JBR Beach is an excellent way to spend a morning in Dubai. There are plenty of watersports here, and you can rent stand-up paddleboards for $16/hour — but a parasailing trip offers truly breathtaking views over Dubai Marina, JBR, and Ain Dubai, the world’s largest ferris wheel that stands 820 feet high on Bluewaters Island.
Secured to a parasail that is being towed by a boat, you’ll soar above the Arabian Sea up to a height of 500 feet to get a bird’s-eye view of skyscrapers, beaches, yacht marinas, the islands of Palm Jumeirah, and the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel. While initially stomach-lurching, the ten minutes spent in the air are actually quite relaxing — although not cheap at about $95 a pop. You can choose to parasail solo or in tandem with a companion.
7. Scuba dive in Fujairah
Photo: Al Boom Diving/Facebook
For a refreshing change of scenery from the concrete-glass-steel cityscape of Dubai, take a day trip to Fujairah, an emirate on the eastern coast of the UAE that offers fantastic diving opportunities along its long coastline.
The beaches here are along the Gulf of Oman — which means a warmer sea and vibrant marine life, fed by currents, that’s richer than elsewhere in the country. On diving trips around one of Fujairah’s many diving sites — such as Snoopy Island, Martini Rock, and Dibba Rock, expect to see coral gardens, lionfish, stingrays, turtles, among other creatures. Dives are available for all levels of proficiency, and some operators like Al Boom Diving also offer night dives. If you’d like to make a day of it, then get a package that also includes a barbeque lunch on the boat after your dives. Both diving and snorkeling gear are available to rent.
8. Kitesurf in Jumeirah
Photo: Ashraf Hamdan/Shutterstock
Kite Beach is Dubai’s coolest weekend hangout spot, especially between October and March when the weather cools down considerably. With groups playing beach volleyball, live capoeira, live music, food trucks, pop-up markets and cinemas, beach yoga, fitness sessions, trampolines, and other activities, Kite Beach is worth a visit. Here you can choose to swim in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, run on the two-mile track, or just lie on the beach and enjoy views of the Burj Al Arab.
The name of the beach comes from its popularity with kitesurfers, who can often be seen launching off over the water at one end of the beach. There are a couple of different kitesurfing schools here; among them are Kitesurf School Dubai, which offer lessons, with options available for beginners and intermediates, along with equipment rental. Thanks to calm waters that are perfect for beginners, most schools also offer stand-up paddling (SUP) lessons (including SUP board rental).
9. Zipline among skyscrapers
Photo: Dubai XLine/Facebook
On most itineraries, Dubai Marina is a must-visit, thanks to the beautiful skyscrapers that rise along the promenade on both sides of the marina, creating the perfect photo opportunity. While boat tours are a good way to take it slow here, if you’re looking for more excitement than relaxation, consider ziplining among skyscrapers on the world’s longest urban zipline.
You’ll take off from a skyscraper at a height of 560 feet, cover the .6-mile distance at speeds of up to 50 mph, zip over the luxurious yachts and bustling promenade, and finish at ground level at the Dubai Marina Mall. If you’d like to share the adventure with a companion, a second zipline offers the chance to do it in tandem. Singles are about $175 and, if you go tandem, it’s about $325 for the two of you.
10. Indoor ski at Ski Dubai
Photo: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock
Ironically, the one adventure here that is pursued indoors is only an outdoor activity anywhere else in the world. Even more oddly, you’ll most want to do it the hotter it gets — and it’s the one thing you could do in mid-summer. At Ski Dubai, the indoor ski resort that is spread over 22,500 square meters with temperatures as low as 25°F, you can ski and snowboard even in the height of summer.
A 915-square-foot mountain and five slopes of varying difficulty offer options for everyone, whether you’re a novice or an intermediate skier. Ski and snowboard lessons are also available for beginners. Afterwards, soar 16 feet above the slopes on the 5000-foot long Snow Bullet zip line or go sledding in the snowpark.