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Rayya Wellness Retreats at The Retreat, Palm Jumeirah

In Need Of A Mini-Break?

Recharge, reboot and unwind with the UAE’S brand new wellness, staycation and daycation portal.

Global travel may still be a no-go as we continue the battle against Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean a well-deserved mini-break is totally out of the question.

According to recent research by Colliers International and Arabian Travel Market, local tourism and domestic travel are leading the UAE and the wider GCC’s recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic, with figures revealing the percentage of staycation bookings in Abu Dhabi within a 48km radius of the capital increased from just 20% in January 2020 to 43% in March.

And since staying healthy and local is now what 2020 is all about, the launch of a new wellness travel site couldn’t have been better timed.

Founded by qualified STOTT Pilates teacher and Nutritionist Stacey Elizabeth Sharp with the aim to make wellness travel more accessible to general travellers, Retreatmi.com was born – the world’s first custom-made retreat builder. An online platform and healthy adventure hub designed to make planning wellness holidays and retreat experiences hassle-free, the Dubai-based site combines unique locations, top instructors and a variety of beauty, food and fitness services that allows each user to curate, select and book their own custom wellness holiday or short break. 

“Active wellness is essential right now,’ says the site’s founder, Stacey. ‘With the new WFH mentality, it’s essential that we don’t become disconnected from all that we are inateley programmed to connect with, like nature, fresh air and movement.’

‘The benefits of wellness holidays, both physically and mentally, are immense. It allows us to get away from the daily stresses of life, but knowing that we’re taking a guilt-free getaway is all the more rewarding because you can relax and unwind as well as take away new skills you can utilise in your daily life.”

Offering glorious getaway options from all over the globe, handpicked by an expert, in-house team, the site also provides a wealth of UAE-based staycations allowing exploration without having to board a flight. Whether it’s goal-driven experiences to push urbanites of their comfort zones, back to nature desert retreats that nourish the soul or micro-breaks that transform and engage through physical exploration, getting fit, detoxing, learning a new skill or simply just chilling out the healthy way are the focal points of each specially-selected destination. 

‘The aim is to allow travelers to connect in order to be able to disconnect in a way that they feel comfortable with,’ explains Stacey. ‘From custom made options to working with our wellness warriors, inspiring people to take a step towards wellness is all we want. And we don’t just mean physical wellness – we mean mental wellness too, which is why we’re passionate about bringing in services that offer stress management teachings.”

Sound like just what you need? We hear you! Here are three fab-sounding mini-breaks The Gaggler have got on their getaway radar:

ICE THERAPY Workshop – Wim Hof Method

October 24  – AED 380 per person

Discover the benefits of cold exposure, breathing techniques and the power of the mind to conquer the cold and overcome fear. 

Weekend in Hajjar

October 23/24 (2 nights), AED 660 per person

Just an hour’s drive from Dubai, this trip takes you deep inside the Hajjar Range of Musandam where your base is a secluded farm at an altitude of 950 metres and temperatures drop by up to 10C compared to sea level. Guests can hike the wadi, sleep outdoors at high altitude and enjoy nights by the campfire.

Chilling by the pool at Rayya

Rayya Wellness Retreats at The Retreat, Palm Jumeirah  – 3,5 and 7-night options

Various dates – Packages start from AED 5,380 per person

The Rayya Wellness Centre provides 360-degree wellness solutions designed to help guests achieve a personal transformation of body, mind and soul, through a variety of treatments and retreat packages with varying levels of immersion into the wellness experience.

For more information follow @Retreatmi or visit www.retreatmi.com

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Places To Visit in Al Ain

6 Must-See Attractions in the Garden City

There’s more to Al Ain than palm trees.

Between its natural springs and palm groves, Al Ain offers endless appeal to those deprived of nature and desperate to escape city life for a few hours – especially with the return of cooler temperatures. But a closer look reveals that the capital’s garden city also boasts hidden gems, historical forts, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an impressive showcase of wildlife, and plenty more. Here, we delve into six attractions worth visiting and who they’re best suited to.

Al Ain Oasis

for the nature enthusiast

Al Ain Oasis
Courtesy: Visit Abu Dhabi

We’d be remiss not to start with Al Ain Oasis, arguably known as garden city’s ultimate attraction owing to its tranquillity. Spread across 1,200 hectares and the first UNESCO World Heritage Site certified in the UAE, this oasis is famed for offering insights into the ancient ‘falaj’ irrigation system that brings water from the mountains via a complex system of underground and surface channels, and continues to nourish it today. It’s also our favourite place to immerse in nature; the many pathways within Al Ain Oasis are shaded by towering fruit trees (mango, orange, and fig among others) and more than 147,000 date palms. Bonus: you can explore the premises on foot, on horseback, or by bicycle.

Al Ain Camel Market

for the UAE newbie

Al Ain Camel Market

While it’s not entirely kind to the senses – dust, noise, and funky smells are admittedly a given – a trip to Al Ain Camel Market is the perfect way for new expats to immerse in the country’s true culture – camels have always been at the centre of life in the GCC, after all. The sheer spectacle of haggling and trading (these hoofed mammals are either suited to racing or purchased for breeding purposes) takes place early in the morning and is a sight worth catching, especially if a complete departure from life in Dubai is what you’re after.

Al Qattara Arts Centre

for the artsy type

Al Qattara Arts Centre

Housed within a traditional mudbrick residence and home to permanent exhibitions, archaeological findings, and classes (everything from painting and drawing to handicrafts and music sessions are on offer), Al Qattara Arts Centre has single-handedly elevated the arts scene of Al Ain. It’s also one of Al Ain’s leading events venues – this cultural landmark often marks milestones by showcasing the works of local artists or screening films by Emirati talent. The programming changes according to season, but regardless of what’s on the agenda, there’s plenty to while away a couple of hours.

Jebel Hafeet Beehive Tombs

for the adventurer

Jebel Hafeet Beehive Tombs
Courtesy: Alexander McNabb

Own a four-wheel drive and up for a little off-roading? The tombs at the base of Jebel Hafeet beckon. Believed to be 5,000 years old, these remnants of an ancient cemetery still contain the skeletal remains of Al Ain’s earliest inhabitants. Hundreds of dome-shaped tombs have been found in this area, with artefacts suggesting trade links with Iran, the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan and India), and ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Getting here is half the adventure – a bumpy ride and a complete absence of facilities follows soon after you exit the roundabout when following Google Maps towards Jebel Hafeet National Park near the Mezyad Border Post.

Hili Archaeological Park

for the history buff 

Hili Archaeological Park
Courtesy: Sunil Kumar Nair

For a slice of history that’s more easily accessible – and recognised by UNESCO – Hili Archaeological Park is both family-friendly and furnished with extras like go-karts and tennis courts that accent the earliest known evidence of an agricultural village dating back to 3000 BCE. Elsewhere, the likes of tombs, strongholds, old dwellings, and irrigation systems also offer a glimpse into Al Ain’s Bronze Age and Iron Age past. Incidentally, the circular Hili Grand Tomb is considered the crown jewel of this sprawling park as it’s over 4,000 years old and the largest monument of its kind in terms of the size of stones used. Tip: be sure to linger by the two entrances until you spot the engravings depicting human and animal figures.

Al Ain Safari

for the animal lover

Al Ain Safari
Courtesy: Visit Abu Dhabi

While Al Ain Zoo needs no introduction (the beloved attraction has been operating since 1968), this 217-hectare park is yet to be discovered by many. Home to one of the world’s largest man-made safaris, it houses a range of African animals and closes to 2,500 plants. Adding a sense of place to the overall safari experience, meanwhile, are the Emirati guides who steer the SUVs – they have extensive knowledge of the vicinity’s flora and fauna (white rhinos and African lions included). And while activities like feeding the giraffes and dining at the edge of the park’s lion territory make for a memorable outing with the kids, it’s the conservation efforts that animal lovers will value most; critically endangered or locally extinct species such as the addax and scimitar oryx roam free in the wild here.

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Countries to Visit from Dubai

Wandermust: 6 Travel Experiences Easily Accessible from Dubai

Add to bucket list – stat.

Today marks World Tourism Day, highlighting the shift towards tourism being recognised as a crucial pillar of development, especially as the global tourism sector slowly recovers from the impact of Covid-19. Luckily for us, we reside in an air travel hub, giving us easy access to some of the world’s most popular destinations. In fact, there are six travel experiences that not only belong on any bucket list, but are also easily accessible from Dubai – each is only five hours or less from the UAE, eliminating the additional stress that comes with layovers and stopovers. Let the planning begin!

Cruise Down the Nile

Egypt 

Cruise Down the Nile

Just as a visit to the pyramids is practically obligatory, a cruise along the Nile River is, too. But don’t just book a trip with any cruise ship because the Steam Ship Sudan – or SS Sudan – is truly special. Built in 1885 as a gift for King Fouad and launched as a cruise vessel in 1921, this historic paddle steamer retains the Belle Époque grace that inspired Agatha Christie to write her famous 1937 novel, Death on the Nile. Today, the ship regularly traverses the Nile on five-night cruises that launch from either Luxor or Aswan, chugging along at a relaxed eight kilometres an hour.

Float in the Dead Sea

Jordan

Float in the Dead Sea

The ancient city of Petra is what attracts hordes of tourists to Jordan, but a dip in the Dead Sea is seriously underrated. Formed three million years ago, this super-salty lake is the lowest point on land (423 metres below sea level) and the world’s oldest natural health resort – its mineral-rich waters are loaded with healing properties for several skin conditions, making it a prized ingredient in the world of beauty. Besides, effortlessly floating in the Dead Sea is just plain fun! But the time to visit this natural wonder is now; the Dead Sea is shrinking at an alarming rate, with experts estimating that its surface level is falling by more than a metre each year.

Sleep in a Yurt

Kyrgyzstan

Sleep in a Yurt

A longstanding symbol of nomadic culture, yurts have been around for thousands of years. This circular dwelling is not only portable, but also steeped in tradition as it is made of animal skin or felt and serves as the primary style of home across Central Asian countries such as Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the concept has been taken up a notch, pairing glamping with yurt life at Supara Chunkurchak ethnoresort. Located just 37 kilometres south of the capital Bishkek, it’s immersed in untouched rural beauty, yet offers creature comforts, cultural activities aplenty, and even an onsite spa – because why not?

Fly Through the Mountains

Nepal

A visit to Nepal from Dubai

The average adventurer will tell you that Everest Base Camp deserves a spot in your bucket list, but let’s face it – this once-in-a-lifetime trek isn’t exactly accessible to all. Yes, it requires no mountaineering skills nor technical expertise, but altitude sickness can strike as Everest Base Camp sits at 5,364 metres above sea level. Now factor in that you’ll be walking for somewhere between 12 and 15 days, and you’re looking at a bucket list experience that’s not for everyone. Enter: the mountain flight. This shortcut to Mount Everest by domestic airlines such as Yeti Airlines offers passengers a front-row seat to the breathtaking, snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas, bringing them back to Kathmandu in an hour.

Take a Scenic Train Ride

Sri Lanka

A visit to Sri Lanka from Dubai

Considering its bounty of natural beauty, Sri Lanka boasts some of the most scenic train rides in the world – at a bargain price, too. Arguably the most spectacular route is the seven-hour ride from the centrally located city of Kandy to the small town of Ella. In fact, it’s even been dubbed “Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attraction” as the vistas comprise everything from rolling rice fields and lush forests to towering mountains, sweeping tea plantations, waterfalls, and more. A word to the wise: avoid taking this train ride midday or on a weekend as it’s extremely popular with locals and tourists alike (read: uncomfortably crowded). 

See the Whirling Dervishes

Turkey

A visit to Turkey from Dubai

The phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches’ comes to mind when it comes to bucket list musts in Istanbul – taking a ferry across the Bosphorus, getting scrubbed at a traditional hammam, gorging on a kumpir with countless toppings in Ortaköy. But if a truly cultural experience is what you’re after, head straight to Hodjapasha Culture Centre, home of the famous whirling dervishes. Declared a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity, the mystical Mevlevi Sema ceremony depicts a journey of man’s spiritual ascent to “perfection” through mind and love, making it an unmissable blend of music and moves. For the uninitiated, the Mevleviye is an ascetic Sufi order founded in 1273 and renowned for their whirling dances.

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Places to Celebrate Diwali in Dubai

5 Places to Celebrate Diwali in Dubai

Let the festivities begin!

One of the world’s grandest festive occasions is right around the corner. Diwali, meaning “row of light”, marks five days of joyous cheer celebrated by friends and family. It is during this period that Hindus adorn their homes with blossoming marigolds and a wide variety of candles to commemorate the return of the Hindu god Rama to his kingdom after being exiled for 14 years. Dubai, being home to nationalities and religions from far and wide, offers a wide range of dining and entertainment options suitable for all cultural and traditional celebrations. Want to make Diwali a little extra special this year? Here are our picks of the best dining destinations for the occasion.  

Bombay Brasserie

In addition to its spirited murals and unobstructed views of the Burj Khalifa, Bombay Brasserie at Taj Dubai offers a lavish blend of traditional and contemporary Indian cuisine. Enjoy the breathtaking fireworks display this festive season while you indulge in rich, aromatic flavours. Each dish promises to deliver an authentic Indian experience that’s well-suited for this joyous occasion.

Bombay Brasserie, Taj Dubai, Burj Khalifa Street, Business Bay, 04 438 3222, eatapp.co

Basanti & Co.

Celebrate Diwali in style at Basanti & Co. at Bluewaters Island. It’s the prime location to enjoy the astonishing fireworks display and the magnificent Bluewaters Street Festival while feasting on classic Indian fare. Top off your evening with a craft cocktail from the in-house lounge or a delightful gulab jamun from the dessert menu.

Basanti & Co., Bluewaters Island, 04 557 6947, [email protected]

Farzi Café

Located at City Walk in Al Safa, this beloved spot offers an elevated gourmet experience that will take your culinary journey to new heights. The gastronomic array of traditional classics fused with global delights at Farzi Café reinterprets Indian cuisine in the most unexpected ways. Additionally, the restaurant shines with the glow of diyas and fairy lights during Diwali to truly pay tribute to this major holiday.  

Farzi Café, Dubai City Walk II, Al Safa St., 04 394 2556, [email protected]

farzi cafe

Source: @khyberdubai

Khyber

This award-winning restaurant situated in the heart of Palm Jumeirah stays true to its Indian identity through awe-inspiring murals, vibrant décor, and unmatched North Indian food and beverages. Share the festive spirit with company at Khyber by treating yourselves to scrumptious vegetarian delights such as the paneer tikka and makai ki tikki.

Khyber, Dukes The Palm, Palm Jumeirah, 04 455 1101, [email protected]

Patiala

No matter which special occasion calls for a splurge, this elegant spot at Souk Al Bahar has you covered. Patiala’s sophisticated setting and relaxed ambiance is just the right choice if you prefer a more laidback celebration. Sit back and take pleasure in well-loved Punjabi classics accompanied by service that reflects exuberant Indian hospitality. Take your taste buds on a sensory experience this festive season with the signature vegetarian delicacies such as the dum ke khumb and garbar falooda.

Patiala, Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Dubai, 04 451 9151, [email protected]

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Gaggler Kyrgyztan Travel Guide

The Definitive Guide to Kyrgyzstan

This first-timer’s itinerary has it all.

Landlocked in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a magnet for trekkers owing to its alpine wilderness. Bordering Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and China, it remains untouched by mass tourism (for now), making it the ideal destination if a little adventure is in order. September is widely considered the best month to visit Kyrgyzstan as the crowds start to dissipate, and the weather is still warm enough for hiking and horse riding. But Kyrgyzstan doesn’t just cater to outdoorsy types – it’s also a land where Silk Road sites, a crumbling Soviet legacy, and a rich nomadic culture coexist. Here’s how to take in a bit of everything.

Bishkek

You’ll likely fly into Kyrgyzstan via Manas International Airport, and soon see why a jaunt in this often-overlooked capital is mandatory. For starters, Bishkek is set in the foothills of Tien Shan, so it won’t be long until your first sighting of this majestic mountain range. Moments of beauty also await at its public parks and wide, tree-lined avenues – a legacy of the Soviet era. Russophile or not, you’ll also appreciate its architectural oddities and their equally curious backstories, many of which are clustered together.

Built-in 1976, the UFO-like Kyrgyz State Circus welcomed performers from around the world and functions to this day. It’s a testimony to the role played by the circus in the Soviet Union – the first stationary circus of Russia opened back in 1877, adapting street entertainment to the aristocracy’s tastes. Nearby, the Wedding Palace stands as a reminder of the days when religion (“the opium of the masses”) was banned. Pointy and pompous, this glass-and-marble venue was designed as a compromise between communist authorities and those furious about not being able to wed in religious establishments like mosques and cathedrals. Victory Square, tame in comparison and dedicated to the victory over Nazi Germany, is also in the vicinity.

Travel Guide To Kyrgyzstan

Prefer to join a guided walk? With themes spanning the likes of ‘Mosaics of Bishkek’, ‘Soviet Architecture of Bishkek’, and ‘The Making of Industrial Bishkek’, opt for those led by Bishkek Walks. All that walking will inevitably work up an appetite, and a meal at Navat or Faiza makes for a great introduction to Kyrgyz cuisine – think: fist-sized dumplings stuffed with mutton (manti), homemade noodles with a meaty stew (laghman), and fermented mare’s milk (kumis). Admittedly, the latter – foamy and uniquely sour – is an acquired taste. And if you’re looking to sample Kyrgyz snacks like kurut and samsa while immersed in local life, Osh Bazaar is the one to beat.

Incidentally, Bishkek is also ideally placed to explore a few of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular spots. Less than an hour away, Ala Archa National Park contains trails that accommodate varying fitness levels and is beloved for its striking gorge and array of juniper trees. Burana Tower and Konorchek Canyon, meanwhile, are commonly paired by tour operators, accenting a trip to the ancient city of Balasagun’s remains with a landscape of red rock formations. As for those with a penchant for the unusual? Catch a marshrutka to Issyk-Ata, where the 131-year-old Issyk-Ata Sanatorium feels like a time capsule, but is still very much operational – strange therapies and all. On the menu is everything from radon baths to full-body massages and even mud electrocution, but visitors can simply walk around the premises to get off the beaten track, Soviet-style.

Issyk-Kul

A complete contrast to the odd, angular, brutalist architecture of Bishkek are the felt-and-wool yurts anchored with the help of birch wood poles. They’re a vital part of nomadic culture, so a trip to Kyrgyzstan without at least a night of yurt camping would be incomplete. The southern shore of Issyk-Kul lake – the world’s second largest saline lake – offers plenty in terms of natural wonders, many of which are easily accessed following a stay at Bel-Tam Yurt Camp.

Here, you can sunbathe by the lake, catch a folklore show around the nightly bonfire, or take a horseback ride – with creature comforts like hot showers and eco-friendly toilets to boot. The definitive experience, however, has to be the Salbuurun demonstration. Recalling the days when golden eagles, taigan dogs, and bows and arrows were utilised to capture animals for food, it depicts authentic hunting traditions (so be warned that a sacrificial rabbit is involved).

A beginner's guide to Kyrgyzstan

The city of Karakol is under three hours away from the camp, so you can cross off a couple of key attractions in only a matter of hours, starting with the dramatic Fairy Tale Canyon. A mere 30 minutes away is the small settlement of Barskoon, where both a towering waterfall and a giant boulder carved into the head of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin make for great photography subjects. From here, it’s just over an hour until you reach the unique Seven Bulls rock formation – and inevitably hear the related legend about a man’s infatuation gone awry – before calling it a night in Karakol.

Karakol

Is Karakol the most underrated city of Kyrgyzstan? Hint: yes. Most travellers merely view it as a gateway to conquer the mountains or take a rest from them, hightailing it out of the city as fast as possible – much to their detriment. Easily explored on foot and full of unexpected discoveries, Karakol boasts an unmissable dining experience: the Dungan Village Visit & Family Dinner. The ancestors of the Dungan (Chinese-Muslim) community fled persecution in China back in the 1800s, escaping to Kyrgyzstan via the Tien Shan mountains in brutal conditions. 

Karakol

Today, a visit to the home of a local family entails a veritable feast (including ashlan-fu, a spicy noodle dish that’s served cold and absolutely delicious) alongside insights into their way of life in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. While you’re around, make the time to visit the architecturally ambiguous Dungan Mosque, too. Built by Chinese artisans between 1907 and 1910 for the local Dungan community, it is entirely constructed without any nails and reflects their Buddhist roots – a pagoda in place of a minaret, for example. And while the exhibits within Karakol History Museum aren’t quite as interesting, it’s worth a visit as it houses a permanent photography exhibition of Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart’s work. 

As Europe’s first documented solo female traveller in Central Asia, her black-and-white photos depict the minutiae of everyday life during her 1932 expedition, back before the region fell under the Soviet Union’s reign. Elsewhere, the past is also alive and well at the aptly named Antique Shop, the definitive pit stop for anyone looking to secure a piece of communist kitsch. A word to the wise: owner-collector Alexandr Korablev knows the story behind every item, so linger and get a better sense of your finds. More conventional souvenirs can be purchased at EthnoMir (embroidered slippers and locally made chocolate) and One Village One Product (felt toys, organic soaps, and a wide selection of jam and honey).

TRAVEL to KYRGYZSTAN

Arguably, the country’s most fascinating day trip originates in Karakol, taking visitors through the mountainous Chon-Ashuu pass (3,822m) to the eerie ghost town of Engilchek. This once-thriving mining town was home to 5,000 inhabitants, but quickly forgotten with the Soviet Union’s collapse. A handful of residents remain, living amongst debris and decay. You’ll need a permit to visit Engilchek as it’s in a buffer zone close to the border with China, but don’t let that deter you – the team at Visit Karakol can facilitate your journey to this truly remote corner of Kyrgyzstan.

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New Openings in Dubai Summer

9 New Openings You (Likely) Missed Over Summer

Your Dubai bucket list, updated.


If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s referring to summers in Dubai as “slow and sleepy”. Whether it’s the green season of Salalah, the vibrant cultural scene of London, or the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Baku, residents hightail it out of the city as soon as the mercury rises, travelling far and wide in search of respite. This summer, however, was surprisingly eventful, bringing with it a whole host of new openings across dining, fitness, hospitality, entertainment, and more. Let’s catch you up.

1. Margaux

Dubai got a little sweeter over the summer, courtesy of Margaux’s arrival. The intimate new pastry boutique at Jumeirah Mina A’Salam offers a decadent selection of tarts, millefeuille, and more – all of which can all be ordered online and delivered to your home. It’s located just off the hotel’s main lobby, and accented with the likes of feminine detailing, ornate mirrors, and soft lighting. As for its elegant shopfront? Adorned with delicate pastries and desserts collectively transporting guests to the heart of Paris, where the cobblestone streets are paved with chic bakeries and chocolatiers. Expect to indulge in the likes of tiramisu, pistachio flan, button cake, and chocolate eclairs.

Margaux

2. Horror Cinema

While we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to cinematic experiences (Cinema Akil for leading foreign films, Theatre by Rhodes for films with a side of fine dining), there was never a space dedicated to those with an appetite for horror movies – until now. Aptly named Horror Cinema, this new opening in Indigo Sky building screens cult favourites from the genre (IT, Rings, Insidious, and Insidious: Chapter 2) in an intimate environment. But you’ll have to brace yourself as the experience is designed to immerse visitors in a world of scares at every turn, starting with a scary check-in and a seating area reminiscent of a haunted house. Expect a series of flashes, splashes, and high-tech special effects for an evening like no other in Dubai.

3. Blended Wellness

Our growing quest for wellness brings with it the launch of Blended Wellness. Located at Dukes The Palm, a Royal Hideaway Hotel, it is an innovative, all-encompassing collective of purpose-built health, fitness, and beauty experiences, pioneering a new way of thinking that challenges the ideology of perfection. The lifestyle concept not only caters to both mental and physical health, but also introduces the country’s first traditional Russian banya. An innovative interpretation of a traditional Russian bathhouse, Dubanya brings the tradition to today, blending ancient cleansing and detoxifying practices with new-age health and wellness rituals. Elsewhere, a spa, a salon, an aesthetic clinic, a fitness centre, and a space dedicated to mental wellness collectively ensure a picture of holistic health.

4. Bedrock

Located at Pier 7, Bedrock is a new sports bar that’s here to redefine the face of sports bars in Dubai. A change of pace from the typical dark and dingy options, it pairs a fresh and stylish interior with a warm and friendly atmosphere, incredible food, high-tech indoor sports, and the perfect view of every unmissable sporting moment. Bedrock features 20 TV screens, the latest technology in darts, and the region’s best indoor golf simulator for the ultimate competitive socialising. Bedrock is also home to five state-of-the-art darts boards with digital scoring and game options, challenging traditional notions and bringing darts to a new generation.

Bedrock

5. Studio 14

While several gyms made their debut in recent months, Studio 14 in Umm Al Sheif stands out for its eco-friendly space inspired by nature. Catering to both children and adults, it houses high-tech machines that are not only effective, but also powered by the users themselves – thereby using zero electricity. As for the good news if you prefer to join workout classes? Each is limited to only six people in order to provide a more personalised experience. Studio 14’s eco-friendly outlook, meanwhile, is reflected in details such as green walls, recycled woods, and a retail selection that includes sustainable items like recyclable bags.

6. Roxy Xtreme

Not a fan of catching horror flicks in indie cinemas? Meet Roxy Xtreme, home to the biggest screen in the MENA region. Spanning 423 square metres, its screen is a whopping 60% bigger than a tennis court. Combine that with state-of-the-art laser projection, DOLBY ATMOS surround sound technology, and absurdly comfortable seats, and you’re looking at every cinephile’s dream destination. Not only will Roxy Xtreme screen an array of blockbusters, but also unmissable sporting events like the FIFA World Cup. Incidentally, the auditorium features 382 premium reclining seats in total, but those in the Director’s Boxes tier promise pure luxury; they’re fitted with heated seats, wireless phone chargers, shopping bag storage, and a personal swivel table.

7. Eva Beach House

In a case of culinary déjà vu, the line-up of restaurants at Palm West Beach continues to grow, catering to just about every occasion and palate possible. Case in point: Eva Beach House, a beachside destination celebrating the bliss of Tulum-style seaside dining. The aesthetics of this new venue feature airy and draped elements in shades of clotted cream and earthy brown, complemented by wooden accents and all manner of cacti, creating a spot of escape from the city’s frenzy. Bathed in natural light with floor-to-ceiling windows, it also allows the breathtaking skyline views to steal the spotlight. Meanwhile, a rich selection of the day’s catch, dry-aged meat, and a menu rooted in diversity promise a treat for the taste buds.

Eva Beach House

8. 53

Between the likes of Dream, Papillon, and The Theater, the city’s nocturnal landscape now offers more than simply bars and nightclubs. 53 joined the line-up over the summer, and it’s officially the highest dinner show in the region. Pairing a refined culinary approach with world-class nightlife and entertainment, it promises to redefine the experiential dining experience in Dubai as it’s the brainchild of a team of innovators and experts in event production. With its stunning interiors with views over the skyline from its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, patrons are invited to enjoy sundowners from an early evening that will evolve into a night to remember. Incidentally, the dinner shows take place across a multitude of elevated stages, giving the opportunity to all guests to immerse in all the elements of the venue without taking focus away from the dining experience.

9. Salmon Guru

It hails from Madrid and boasts the #24 spot on the World’s Best Bars list – and there isn’t a hint of salmon on the menu. Meet Salmon Guru, a quirky new concept located at The Opus by OMNIYAT. Named to express the ability of going upstream and against the flow, it was brought to the region thanks to legendary bar industry figurehead, Diego Cabrera. His vision? To recreate the intimate-yet-casual European experience of the original outpost in Dubai. To that end, he has personally designed this venue, infusing all his creativity into his first project outside of Spain. Here, guests can immerse themselves in the unique drinks execution by sitting in or behind the detailed open bar stations. The venue itself, while intimate, combines three distinct vibes: a ’60s Tropical Speakeasy section, an Asian Night Market, and a Comic Book themed area. In short, an evening riddled with escapism is promised.

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A woman smilling

Exploring Dubai on a Budget – Here’s How

Frugal fun in the city of gold? Yes, really.

Something Fishy 

If you’re into cooking, exploring, or just enjoy a fish-out-of-water adventure(pun intended), Waterfront Market is a great place to spend an early morning. While away the hours checking out the different types of locally caught fish and meeting the melting pot of people who catch your fish in Dubai.

Cost: Free (fish not included)

Waterfront Market, Al Khaleej Road, 800 627 538

Street Eats

O’Pao is the definitive hidden gem in Karama, known for serving wallet-friendly sliders from the streets of Mumbai – a.k.a. O’ Vada Pao – at a bargain price of only AED 7 each! A literal treat for your taste buds, this vegetarian delight is made of a spiced potato dumpling, garnished with chutney, and sandwiched in a homemade bun. 

Cost: AED 7 

O’Pao, ground floor, behind Park Regis Kris Kin Hotel, Karama, 04 349 6726

Old-School Cruising

Hop on board a traditional abra and explore Dubai’s original downtown through the creek that cuts right through it. Did we mention that it only costs AED 1? Head out at sunset for the perfect Instagram picture, or take the time to reflect on Dubai’s evolution as you pass by the historic buildings of Al Fahidi and Al Seef. And if you rather cruise through the creek, you can even book an abra as a private charter for AED 120 per hour. 

Cost: AED 1

Various abra stations across the creek

Make a Splash

With access to some hotel pools in Dubai costing up to a whopping AED 250, Barasti Beach pool is a perfect frugal hack. And trust us when we say the early bird definitely gets the worm – or a sun lounger in this case. Ladies, make sure to also look out for their ladies days to get an extra (sometimes, even free) bang for the  buck!

Cost: Free

Barasti Beach, Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, 04 318 1313

But First, Coffee

Take a trip down memory lane in Old Dubai, courtesy of The Coffee Museum. What better way to celebrate the city than learning all about coffee and the rich history it has in Arabic culture? 

Cost: Free entry

The Coffee Museum, Al Fahidi Historic Neighbourhood, 04 353 8777

The Cool Factor

If you’re looking for the perfect place to people-watch (we have spied the major artists, designers, and all-round cool kids of Dubai) then Dubai Design District is the place to see – and be seen. Stroll through this concrete and glass jungle, passing stunning art installations, homegrown designer boutiques, a skate park, and some of the best homegrown restaurants and bars along the way. Our favourites? The beloved One Life Kitchen and contemporary Indian eatery Mohalla.

Cost: Free

Dubai Design District, adjacent to Business Bay 

Blast from the Past

Located by the banks of Dubai Creek, Al Shindagha Museum offers fascinating insights into the UAE’s rich past. Step inside and discover various facets of Emirati culture and heritage from traditional remedies and food to the history of trade in the Dubai Creek. Bring friends or family along and avail the group ticket price of just AED 10 per person!

Cost: AED 5 for children, AED 15 for adults, AED 10 for a group of five

Al Shindagha Museum, near House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, 04 515 5336

Free as a Bird

Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for birdwatchers, nature enthusiasts, or those just looking for an epic photography site! This wetland reserve is home to several species like the grey heron, flamingo, and cormorant. A visit to the sanctuary also features the famous salt flats, mangroves, and lagoons. Our tip? Pack water, snacks, and sunscreen as this really is the perfect all-day adventure.

Cost: Free 

Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, Ras Al Khor Road, 800 900

Social Media Star

You’ll never look at Starbucks the same way after visiting the iconic branch in Al Seef. Located in the heart of the city, this one-of-a kind outpost has become one of the most talked about Starbucks locations thanks to TikTok and Instagram. Trust us, seeing is believing. 

Cost: Free/Your Starbucks order

Starbucks, Al Seef, 04 419 0014

Another Woman’s Trash 

If shopping is a sport, then a trip to Dubai Flea Market is an all-out war! Arm yourself with small notes (store holders love change) and make sure you get to the markets as soon as they open. We’ve picked up designer shoes for as little as AED 10 – true story!

Cost: Free entry 

Dubai Flea Market, various locations across Dubai, click here for schedule of upcoming events

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Aerial view of skyscrapers in Dubai

Exploring Abu Dhabi on a Budget – Here’s How

Save, don’t splurge, in the capital.

Fit for Royalty

This hotel needs no introduction – anyone who has spent some time in the UAE is sure to have heard of Emirates Palace. Featuring over a hundred domes, chandeliers, and meticulous architectural craftsmanship, it is an ode to an ornate past and a symbol of Arab hospitality. While booking a room and dining at the hotel is likely to leave a dent in your wallet, the actual hotel is open to visitors free of charge, so get your phone and start clicking!

Cost: Free

Est Corniche Road, 02 690 9000, Emirates Palace

Family Matters

Take a walk in the green gardens of Umm Al Emarat Park after a long week of work for some budget R&R. The park boasts several gardens, a promenade, and even a shade house for when it’s too hot – all for AED 10! Aside from being a great space to de-stress, the park frequently hosts al fresco markets, has dedicated children’s gardens, and houses an animal barn and petting zoo with animals such as camels, ponies, and emu birds, making it perfect for the whole family.

Cost: AED 10

15th Street, Mushrif Area, 02 666 9559, Umm Al Emarat Park

Cheap Eats

You can find some of the UAE’s oldest cafeterias in the city’s capital, so enjoy a late night AED 7 shawarma and an AED 4 juice named after a landmark of Abu Dhabi. Immerse yourself in local culture and rub shoulders with a melting pot of different nationalities as you all enjoy some cheap eats. 

Cost: Starting at AED 4 

Cafeterias are located around Abu Dhabi, check out Google reviews to see local favourites

All That Jazz

Whether you’re a huge fan of jazz or couldn’t name a single jazz song, Jazz & Fizz Bar is the place to be from 8pm to midnight on Wednesdays. Ladies get three free drinks and 50 percent off food while listening to the best live jazz that Abu Dhabi has to offer. 

Cost: 3 free drinks and 50 percent off food

Jazz & Fizz Bar, Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche, Capital Plaza, 02 813 7777

You Grow, Girl

Living in the UAE, you sometimes crave lush greenery, right? And thanks to Al Ain Oasis, you can get your forest fix – all without leaving Abu Dhabi. Al Ain Oasis offers shaded pathways with a thick canopy of over 147,000 date palms and other trees.

Cost: Free entry 

Al Ain Oasis, Central District, near Al Ain Palace Museum, 03 711 8251

Shape Up

Gym memberships can be pricey and doing a couple of spin classes a week can really add up! So why not take care of your body and your bank account with Vogue Fitness? It’s offering a three-day free membership for all new sign-ups. The best part: it has a ladies-only gym at Yas Marina! Sign up here for a three-day free trial.

Cost: 3 days free 

Vogue Fitness, Yas Marina, Khalifa City & Al Raha, vfuae.com 

Back to Nature

A wetland reserve might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the UAE, but the Al Wathba reserve is here to prove you wrong. This biodiversity hotspot is home to several species of birds, plants, and aquatic life, with the most popular being the iconic pink flamingos.  Spanning five kilometres with walking trails, bird-watching hides, a visitors centre – and most importantly – a thriving ecosystem, it is a unique green jewel in Abu Dhabi.

Cost: Free 

E30 Abu Dhabi-Al Ain Truck Road

Art for Art’s Sake 

Get in with the local art scene at Manarat al Saadiyat, the go-to space in Abu Dhabi for all things cultural and creative! Make sure to check out their various (free) exhibitions showcasing innovative art projects and local diversity, and the MAS space, where you can relax and do everything from hone your skating skills to read that book you’ve been meaning to get around to. Plus, if you’re willing to fork out a little more, there are a plethora of workshops and other enriching programmes that are organised year round.

Cost: Free

Al Saadiyat Island, 02 6575 800, manaratalsaadiyat.ae

Dreamy Desertscapes

Wonder where all the celebrities take those majestic desert shots when they visit Abu Dhabi? The Empty Quarter is the perfect backdrop for any photo op. With its shimmering sands at sunset, this mesmerising landscape is the perfect place to bring your out-of-town visitors and for any Instaworthy photoshoot.

Cost: Free

The Empty Quarter, Rub’ al Khali desert,

Cup of Karak

Best Tea Café isn’t called Best Tea Café for nothing! It’s famed for having the best karak in town, so visit this Abu Dhabi institution to find out why everyone raves about its karak.

Cost: Drinks starting from AED 3 

Best Tea Café, near Sahara Hotel Apartments, Defense Road, Al Nahyan, 02 641 8515

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Best attractions in Sharjah

Exploring Sharjah on a Budget – Here’s How

Welcome to the UAE’s cultural capital.

Sharjah seems to be a bit of an enigma for some, the undisputed source of Dubai’s relentless traffic for others. And then there are those who see it for what it truly is: a city packed to the brim with cultural and culinary offerings. Here, we’ve put together a list of things to do that are surprisingly affordable, proving why it’s time you head northeast.

Right as Rain

Sharjah doesn’t get enough love, but the opening of Rain Room is doing its part to draw Dubai residents. This site-specific installation provides an immersive experience of continuous rainfall, but getting drenched isn’t a concern – your movements will trigger motion sensors to pause the rainfall as you walk through the room. You can buy your tickets once you get there, but as the Rain Room is incredibly popular (read: fully booked), we recommend buying them online.

Cost: Free for children five and under, AED 25 for adults

Al Majarrah, 06 561 0095

Best Places in Sharjah

Seeing Snakes

Specialising in what is known as “calligraffiti”, French-Tunisian artist eL Seed uses his work to promote cross-cultural tolerance and his larger-than-life murals can be seen everywhere from Cairo’s Garbage City to a bridge in Paris, a rooftop in Rio de Janeiro, and the minaret of a mosque in Tunisia. In Sharjah, an abandoned building serves as the canvas for the artist’s first piece of public art in the UAE. His mural draws inspiration from a poem by 19th century Iraqi poet and calligrapher Ahmed Bu Sneeda, who spent most of his life in Sharjah.

Cost: Free

Next to Al Arabi Toys Centre, Bank Street

Journey Back

The largest historical preservation and restoration project in the region, Heart of Sharjah is worth a visit for photography enthusiasts and history buffs alike. Many of the buildings in this heritage area are former Emirati homes that have been restored over the years, so traditional courtyards, coral walls, narrow alleys, and hanging lanterns translate to an air of nostalgia. Throwback vibes continue at Souq Al Arsah – considered one of the country’s oldest souqs – which is located just minutes away and home to stores that sell everything from old-timey antiques and handicrafts to herbs and spices.

Cost: Free

Corniche Street, Mareijah, 06 511 2555

Corniche Street, Mareijah
Photo: Courtesy of Alexander McNabb

Art for Art’s Sake

Sharjah Art Foundation is to Sharjah what Alserkal Avenue is to Dubai – a.k.a. a hub for artsy types and a great place to while away a Saturday evening. Here await urban gardens, several art exhibitions, alfresco film screenings, and more. Our pick? The upcoming Vantage Point Sharjah 10, an annual photography exhibition that supports up-and-coming photographers from the region and around the world.

Cost: Free

Al Shuwaiheen, Arts Area, 06 568 5050

Comeback Kid

A patisserie, a supermarket, a branch of Sharjah Co-operative Society, an outpost of Taza Chicken, and now an arts centre – meet the aptly named Sharjah structure with nine lives. Inspired by the Brutalist architecture style of the 1950s, The Flying Saucer was recently renovated by Sharjah Art Foundation and now features new exterior spaces, as well as community gathering spaces that include a multi-activity café around a sunken courtyard with a specially curated library and multiple screening walls. Today, the venue hosts film screenings, workshops, and other events accessible to the general public. 

Cost: Free

Corner of Sheikh Zayed St and Sheikh Humaid Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Square, 06 544 4113

Sheikh Humaid Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Square,
Photo: Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Open Book

Just about any architectural structure designed by award-winning architecture firm Foster + Partners is worth a visit, and House of Wisdom is no exception. Part-library, part-cultural landmark, this striking destination spans over 12,000 square feet and boasts a whopping 305,000 books across print and digital in different languages. It’s also the definitive spot if peace and quiet is what you’re after, courtesy of the library’s futuristic suspended private pods. Elsewhere around the premises? Lecture halls, outdoor reading spaces, an auditorium, an eatery, and uninterrupted views of ‘The Scroll’ monument that was designed to look like an ancient Arabic scroll looping 36 metres towards the sky.

Cost: Free

Al Juraina 1, 06 594 0000

Chasing Butterflies

With cooler weather on the horizon, now is the perfect time to escape to to the 45,470-square-metre Al Noor Island, which is best explored around dusk. Here, lighting, literature, art, and nature collide, coming together to form a leisure destination that is intended to foster a sense of serenity – a rather unexpected discovery amidst the frenzy of the city. While there’s quite literally something for every age group, kids and adults alike are bound to love the Butterfly House that is home to nearly 500 different species of butterflies in an ornately designed building inspired by its inhabitants.

Cost: AED 10 for children aged 3 -12, AED 15 for adults

Buhairah Corniche Road, Khalid Lagoon, 06 506 7000

Khalid Lagoon
Photo: Courtesy of Al Noor Island

Breaking Bread

If there’s one thing that life in Dubai has taught us, it’s that expensive does not equal delicious when it comes to food. In fact, some of our favourite local haunts are shockingly affordable, much like Al Mukhtar Bakery in Sharjah. A beloved staple in the city’s casual eats scene, this bakery has been churning out pastries, pizza, fateer, and desserts since 1981. Having said that, it’s still the manakish that people rave most about. And with14 different varieties to choose from, there’s something for even the pickiest palate – Nutella included.

Cost: AED 10 for a Labneh & Zaatar manakish

Al Bustan Tower – Block B, Al Etihad Road, 06 531 2228

Family Matters

While Al Majaz Waterfront boasts several family-friendly attractions – think: countless cafés and restaurants, green spaces aplenty, a jogging track, a magnificent mosque, mini golf, Maraya Art Park, and more – it’s the spectacular Sharjah Musical Fountain at this epicentre of entertainment that enthralls kids every single time. Not only is it one of the biggest in the region, but it also pairs water that shoots up to 100 metres high and 220 metres wide with cutting-edge sound, light, and laser techniques. Add to that the sheer variety of shows, and there’s always something new to come back for.

Cost: Free

Al Majaz Park, Khalid Lake Trail, 06 511 7000

Al Majaz Park, Khalid Lake Trail
Photo: Courtesy of Ludo Fotografía

New and Now

Between its trendy concept stores and traditional offerings, Souq Al Shanasiyah is a great place for an aimless browse. For starters, Dukan Namlet is one of the few places in the country where you can give Namlet a try. The drink – still unknown to most residents – dates back to the 1920s and had just about disappeared by the 1980s, only to return recently. Coffee aficionados, meanwhile, swear by specialty café Ratios Coffee. Overlooking Sharjah Creek and featuring décor elements that have been reclaimed from a 60-year-old dhow that was used by the traders of yesteryear, it’s our favourite spot in which to sip a cup of single-origin coffee in Sharjah.

Cost: Free

Corniche Street – AlMerijah, Heart of Sharjah, 06 511 2555

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Travel Guide to Kathmandu

Making a Case for Nepal’s Chaotic Capital

Yes, Kathmandu belongs on your bucket list.

Something’s not right. Because Nepal is home to some of the world’s most spectacular treks, Kathmandu is perceived as merely a gateway to the dramatic landscapes of Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Manaslu Circuit, and more. The Nepalese capital is where hikers purchase camping gear, board domestic flights to Lukla and Pokhara, and tend to their aching muscles with cheap massages and even cheaper dal bhat platters post-trek. As for those who hate hiking? The city never even makes an appearance on their bucket list.

What happens in this process, however, is a lost opportunity to discover the UNESCO-listed sites of Kathmandu Valley, temples dating back to the third century, elaborate thangka art, and a perpetual showcase of human resilience. Following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake back in 2015, Nepal has continued its reconstruction efforts – even amidst the pandemic – vowing to provide a roof over the country’s most vulnerable residents. And the ultimate address to escape the chaos of Kathmandu come dusk? Dwarika’s Hotel.

A Visit to Kathmandu

Sleeping In

Kathmandu isn’t quite where you would go to ‘get away from it all’. Noisy, polluted, and overpopulated, it is a city that’s more catered to travelers than tourists. And then there’s the traffic – that notoriously nasty traffic. Luckily, the public spaces at Dwarika’s promise respite. While the guest rooms are spacious, it’s the wide and atmospheric courtyards that offer the best vantage point to admire the architectural grandeur of days gone by. Accenting the palatial cluster of traditional red-brick buildings are sunken fountains, lush pomelo and persimmon trees, and a light scattering of religious shrines. Arguably the most striking detail can be found at the outdoor swimming pool that’s inspired by 12th century Malla Dynasty baths: water gushing out of stone spouts depicting mythical creatures.

Incidentally, Dwarika’s is the brainchild of the late Dwarika Das Shrestha, who was determined to collect, protect, and replicate the intricately engraved wooden structures that were being desecrated in favor of more modern versions, starting with a pillar that was cast aside to be used as firewood. Today, the family-owned property boasts an astounding collection of artefacts from the 13th century onwards, with beautifully carved doors, pillars, and window frames at every turn – all exhibiting the very best of Kathmandu Valley’s craftsmanship. But don’t let this emphasis on heritage fool you. While the founder’s vision is reflected in each of the 83 rooms and suites, they all feature creature comforts like air conditioning and a well-stocked minibar.

Kathmandu

Stepping Out

Admittedly, Dwarika’s Hotel is much closer to the airport than the city center, but you’ll appreciate its location when it’s time to wake up at 5am for what can only be described as a truly awe-inspiring day. Several local airlines (like Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines) run hour-long mountain flights on a daily basis, providing passengers a front-row seat to the breathtaking, snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas – Mount Everest included. This one’s a must-do, hands down.

Closer to sea level, two major attractions are easily accessible from the hotel, starting with Pashupatinath Temple. Arguably the most famous religious site in all of Nepal, this Hindu temple complex is only an 11-minute walk away from Dwarika’s and the definition of sensory overload. Amidst this riot of colors, sounds, and smells is an opportunity to observe cremation ceremonies, devotees bathing in the sacred Bagmati River, and dreadlocked sadhus dressed in canary yellow and eager to pose for photos in exchange for a few hundred rupees. As stray dogs vie for a spot in the shade and monkeys scamper from temple to temple, we suggest you silently vow to embrace this country and its people wholeheartedly, curious stares and all.

In stark contrast to this parade of human and animal activity at Pashupatinath is the nearby Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas worldwide. Here, Buddhist monks silently walk clockwise around its base, prayer flags of all colors flutter in the wind, and pilgrims spin the many cylindrical prayer wheels that contain scrolls of Buddhist mantras. Like the rhythmic activities that humans turn to in times of stress, the repetitive nature of this environment feels relaxing, meditative almost.

Best Things to Do in Kathmandu

But that’s Nepal for you – full of unexpected surprises that have nothing to do with mountaintops. Case in point: the yak cheese by Himalayan French Cheese that you can sample at the weekly farmers’ market hosted by Le Sherpa restaurant. Another unexpected discovery? The aptly named Garden of Dreams. Because Kathmandu can be as frustrating as it is fascinating, you’ll be in dire need of some peace and quiet after a few hours of exploration. And with its ponds, pergolas, and amphitheater, this neoclassical garden guarantees just that.

Those in search of the city’s creative spirit, meanwhile, can distance themselves from the smog, noise, and impatient motorcyclists at Baber Mahal Revisited. Built in 1910 and once belonging to the Rana dynasty that ruled Nepal from 1846 to 1951, this complex houses the likes of Siddhartha Art Gallery (the city’s first contemporary art gallery) and Chez Caroline (beloved for its weekend brunches). Bonus: it’s nowhere near the hectic tourist hub of Thamel.

Also in the vicinity awaits Raithaane, a restaurant that comes highly recommended by Pauline Driard, founder of Pauline’s Rooftop Bar and an expat who has lived in Nepal since 2009. “Taking diners on a culinary journey through ethnic Nepali cuisines, this tiny joint is hidden in the courtyard of a traditional Newar house and rediscovers the ancestral ingredients that modern-day Nepalis have forgotten,” she says. “Just thinking about the buckwheat fries and rikikur potato pancakes served with yak butter and spring onion achaar – a delicious spicy sauce that accompanies everything here – makes me want to drool.”

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City Guide to Baku

Here’s Why Baku Belongs on Your Bucket List

A visa on arrival is just the beginning.

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is repeatedly dubbed “the next Dubai” – but Icheri Sheher would beg to differ. This old city has managed to preserve its 12th century defensive walls, thereby earning a spot in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Elsewhere, the city hosts a vibrant piazza, a lively jazz scene, artistic institutions aplenty, a handful of architectural gems, and a food scene that draws influences from East and West. Factor in a visa-on-arrival system for all UAE residents, regardless of nationality, and a jaunt to Baku feels like a no-brainer.

Sleeping In

By now, many of the major luxury hotel groups have landed in Baku – Fairmont, Four Seasons, and JW Marriott included. But as any savvy traveller can testify, the location of a hotel trumps all else. Enter: Boutique 19 Hotel, which sits perfectly in the middle of Fountains Square and Baku Boulevard, both of which deserve a visit during your trip. However, bragging rights come in the form of Boutique 19’s proximity to Icheri Sheher – in fact, part of its fortress wall is actually located inside the hotel.

Stepping Out

Baku may be one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, but never does it feel too chaotic or overcrowded. Unlike your trips to the likes of London, New York, and Bangkok, you’ll actually find the time to pause and people-watch in the tree-lined Fountains Square. Here await – you guessed it – fountains of various designs alongside street food, bronze sculptures, and carousels that look like they belong in a whole other era. The piazza transitions seamlessly into the lively Nizami Street. Stroll down this pedestrian avenue to feel the city’s pulse as it’s rife with restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, and high street stores. And adding to its appeal is the sheer diversity of historic architectural styles – Baroque, Renaissance, and Neo-Gothic included.

Another wonderful area in which to take a stroll – and get a whiff of the Caspian Sea – is Baku Boulevard. Not only is this seaside venue especially family-friendly owing to attractions such as Tusi-Bohm Planetarium, Baku Eye ferris wheel, and Little Venice (complete with gondola rides), but at 25 kilometres in length, it’s also one of the longest promenades on the planet. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunities to get heckled by the many playful men who sell dondurma – there’s an ice cream stall at virtually every turn.

Baku Travel Guide

Time Travel

Nothing wins tourists over more than Icheri Sheher, which holds history, mystery, stories, and secrets within its time-worn walls. You’ll undoubtedly get lost within its maze of cobblestone streets, but that’s part of the fun – just be sure to make a mental checklist of some unmissable pit stops. Both Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower are listed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The former is the crown jewel of the inner city as it’s made up of several different structures built throughout the ages, with each adding to the mash-up of medieval, Asian, and Islamic influences. The latter, meanwhile, is a symbol of Baku.

Historians don’t agree on when this cylindrical stone tower was built, how it was built, or why it was built, but everyone agrees that it is the stuff of legends – literally. Of the many folklores that surround it, the one you’ll likely hear is that it’s named after a princess who took her own life by jumping off the top of the tower to escape from a marriage of strategic convenience. Culture buffs, take note: the Museum of Miniature Books and studio of famous (and famously barefoot) artist Ali Shamsi also come highly recommended.

We recommend setting a whole day aside for this open-air museum as amongst the domed bathhouses, sandstone caravanserais, and storied mosques are plenty of opportunities to pick up quality (read: authentic) souvenirs such as traditional copperware, handwoven carpets, intricately painted ceramics, and armudu teacups alongside unexpected vintage finds – Soviet-era shot glasses, anyone? Social project ABAD gets a special mention for housing handicrafts from all over Azerbaijan under one roof, encouraging small-scale entrepreneurship and supporting the formation of family businesses.

Awesome Things to Do in Baku

Culture Quest

Baku’s blend of East and West, old and new, has resulted in a culture scene that has something for everyone. Bibliophiles should make a beeline for the extravagant Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature, and history buffs can while away the hours at the massive National History Museum of Azerbaijan. Also keep an eye out on the shows taking place at the various cultural venues around town, starting with the historic Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Incidentally, the city has a longstanding (and complicated) relationship with jazz – authorities in the Soviet Union banned it after World War II, forcing musicians to move or perform in secrecy. The result? Baku became a regional hub for this genre of music. Today, live jazz can be enjoyed at various places around town, but Baku Jazz Club is the one to beat.

Eye Candy

In complete contrast to the old city – and speaking volumes of Azerbaijan’s oil boom in the late 19th century – are Baku’s over the top architectural marvels. There are two in particular that are worthy of a closer look: the flamboyant Flame Towers and the beautifully fluid Heydar Aliyev Center. We suggest viewing the Flame Towers from the commanding Bahram Gur Statue before taking the Baku Funicular up to Martyrs’ Lane for panoramic views and countless photo ops. 

Come night, this trio of flame-shaped skyscrapers comes alive, its flickering lights symbolizing Zoroastrianism’s origins in Azerbaijan. Further afield, Heydar Aliyev Center is a true architectural feat by the legendary Zaha Hadid. Walk around to admire the many waves, folds, and curves of this iconic structure – and know that you’re in the presence of greatness.

Baku, Azerbaijan travel guide

Art for Art’s Sake

Between Azerbaijan National Museum of Art and Yarat Contemporary Art Space, aesthetes will be spoilt for choice – the city’s thriving art scene certainly came as a surprise to us. But if you can make time for only one, opt for Museum of Modern Art, where open passages help provide a multidimensional perspective of the over 800 exhibits. Contemporary art by leading Azerbaijani artists aside – which greets you before you’ve even entered the building – masterworks by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall are also on display.

Retail Therapy

If you’re lucky enough to make it to the Baku Museum of Modern Art, there are two great stores just minutes away on foot: Port Baku Bazar and Chelebi. The former is a gourmet food market where you can sample and stock up on endless varieties of the sinfully delicious pastry, pakhlava. But that’s not all. Locally produced jams and honey, black caviar produced from classic Caspian sturgeon by Baku Caviar, all manner of sweet and savoury breads, and high-end confectionery by Xurcun are also on sale at Port Baku Bazar. Next door, Chelebi sells vibrantly hued cushions, coasters, wall art, figurines, and other decorative home accessories – all making for great gifts.

Azerbaijani Food, Most Popular and Traditional Dishes
Source: Kamran Amirkhanov

Food Matters

It’s not just Baku’s architecture that reflects the diversity of its past; the culinary culture of Azerbaijan, which sits at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia and borrows from the travellers who passed along the Great Silk Road, is just as rich. Influences from Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Georgia are evident in Azeri dishes – think: pilafs embellished with nuts and dried fruits, fall-off-the-bone meats, sumac-infused salads, creamy cheeses, and pomegranate molasses adding a hint of zing to fresh fish from the Caspian Sea.

Both Sumakh and Nakhchivan are popular with the locals for their upscale ambience. Russian fare, meanwhile, is best enjoyed at Mari Vanna, where a meal feels more like dining in your (rich) grandmother’s living room rather than a restaurant abroad. As a tourist, however, you ought to dine at Şirvanşah – especially if you’re pressed for time. Not only is this museum-meets-restaurant housed in a two-story building that once served as a caravanserai, but it also accents authentic Azeri cuisine with a side of live mugham music, making for a night you won’t soon forget.

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