By Nicola Chilton
Oct 13, 2021
DUBAI DOESN’T DO THINGS by halves, so it’s only right that the current iteration of the World’s Fair, Expo 2020 Dubai, should be full of superlatives. On from now until March 31, 2022, it’s the “most international” Expo ever, with 190 country pavilions located across the 4.38 square kilometer site, as well as more than 60 daily events, food from around the world, and some spectacular architecture. It’s a huge place, and if you go with no idea of what to see you’re likely to find yourself wandering around dazed at the scale of it and missing the really good stuff.
Which is why we joined the more than 410,000 people who’ve visited in the festival’s first 10 days, scoped out the global scene and are here to offer our 7 top highlights to help you best navigate Expo 2020 Dubai.
1. Garden in the Sky
It may not be of the vertiginous proportions you’ve come to expect of Dubai, home of the Burj Khalifa, but at 55 meters you’ll get a panoramic view of the entire Expo site from this rotating viewing platform, helping you work out where everything is. There are two levels, so head to the upper outdoor platform for the best views. It’s an extra AED30 (US$8) in addition to the regular entry ticket, but is a worthwhile investment if you want to orient yourself and plan your next meal, show or pavilion.
2. The UAE Pavilion
As the showcase of the host nation, the UAE Pavilion is one of the stars of the show and should be among your first stops. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the building is inspired by the shape of a falcon’s wings, all elegant lines and sleek white ‘feathers’ that open up to reveal photovoltaic panels.
Once inside, you’re taken on a journey through the country’s 50-year history, with archival footage of founding father Sheikh Zayed bouncing his Cadillac through the dunes, as well as photography by Emirati photographers picking up on low-key elements of contemporary culture such as street-side shwarma and karak tea.
You won’t find too many shiny skyscrapers here—it’s a reflection on the nation’s humble beginnings and a reminder that, in spite of all the progress, there are some traditions that will always remain.
3. Emerging destinations to bucket-list
Saudi Arabia’s pavilion is pulling out all the stops to showcase the largely unknown natural diversity of the country, taking you on a journey through ancient heritage sites, oases, rose harvests, turquoise seas, and more. You’d be hard pressed to find more welcoming hosts, too.
When the heat gets too much outside, wander through 360-degree projections of the lush mountains, rich forests and shimmering lakes at the pavilion of Slovenia, the fairytale land snuggled between Italy, Austria and Croatia that’s one of our favorite less-traveled countries.
And save some time for the extraordinary Kazakhstan pavilion where architecture inspired by Ayir Kalpak headdresses reveals innovations in space exploration and AI, with a show-stopping performance incorporating human and machine interaction.
4. Amazing architecture
Whether designed by big-names or rising stars, the architecture at Expo 2020 Dubai is really pushing boundaries. The Pakistan pavilion, designed by artist Rashid Rana, dazzles with an exterior covered in 24,000 mirrored tiles, each one slightly different. It’s also home to an excellent boutique, one of Expo’s best.
Head to the UK pavilion for a display of ever-changing words, “donated” by each visitor, that combine to create a poem written by an algorithm trained on thousands of poems by more than 100 British poets. While at times the poetry can be baffling, at other times it’s strangely moving. It’s hard to believe that a line such as “There was no more love, no more freedom, just a line of solitude under the great big sky” could be written by anything other than a human.
A masterpiece in its own right, the Morocco pavilion combines traditional rammed-earth building techniques and contemporary design. Made up of 22 stacked rectangular blocks, it houses 14 exhibition spaces ranging from traditional medicine to modern trade routes, a central courtyard and a lovely boutique, all connected by a continuous inner walkway.
5. A world full of new friends
Not every country has a lavish show-stopping pavilion (or budget to match), and part of the beauty of Expo 2020 Dubai lies in the opportunity to meet the hosts of the smaller participating nations, from Albania to Zimbabwe and practically everywhere in between. Highlights include Tajikistan where you’re guaranteed a wonderfully warm welcome from people who are thrilled to tell you about their home, Guatemala for a burst of color from the indigenous textiles on display, and South Sudan to discover the world’s youngest nation.
6. Fast food and fine dining
If you’ve always wanted to try Saudi fast food, you’re in luck: the mysterious appeal of (admittedly very good) Jeddah-based fried chicken chain Al Baik draws the crowds. Make it your first stop of a food safari around the site, stopping for schnitzel at the Austria pavilion; Thai street food at David Thompson’s Long Chim; buckets of seafood poured onto your table at Filipino favourite Dampa Seafood; or goat rump tacos, baobab hibiscus cake and Durban bunny chow at pan-African dining hall Alkebulan.
But if you’re looking for something a little more elevated, head to the Italy pavilion and its elegant Bulgari restaurant, where chef Niko Romito is recreating classics from the menu at the Bulgari resort over on Dubai’s Jumeirah Bay Island (we also recommend his fine-diner in Bulgari Hotel Shanghai).
Courtesy of Expo 2020 (3)
Spend even a few of hours at Expo and you’re bound to encounter a few shows on your way around—there are more than 60 every day. It’s an eclectic line-up, and you’re as likely to bump into a Belarusian choir as you are dancers from Uganda, Chilean pop singers, and Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace Orchestra. Upcoming highlights include flamenco by one of Spain’s most highly regarded dancers Olga Pericet on October 29, a concert by Arabic pop superstars Nancy Ajram and Ragheb Alama on November 12, and a full 25 days of Riverdance shows (November 4 through 27) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Grammy award-winning Irish music-and-dance troupe.
Expo 2020 Dubai is running until March 31, 2022.