Up to now, if you weren’t a paying guest at the hotel or dining at one of its restaurants, your Burj Al Arab experience was likely confined to snapping photos of the structure from the adjacent public beach.
But from October 15 this year, the Burj Al Arab’s secretive doors are finally sliding open, with a new Inside Burj Al Arab experience promising to offer visitors a glimpse inside, and lift the veil on some of the UAE hotel’s intriguing stories.
For almost 22 years, the Burj al Arab has been standing proud on its own private island just off the Jumeirah seafront, instantly recognizable with its design modeled on the shape of a billowing sail.
Its cantilevered helipad, suspended 210 meters above the water, has played host to many headline-grabbing events over the years. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer knocked a tennis ball around in 2005. David Coulthard spun donuts in an F1 car in 2013.
In February 2021, with the world in lockdown, DJ David Guetta used it as the stage for his “United at Home” livestream event. And in August 2021, as part of Dubai Tourism’s glitzy new campaign, Hollywood duo Zac Efron and Jessica Alba skydived off it.
This year “the spotlight is really on Dubai, and it seems like the perfect time to open up one of the city’s icons to visitors,” he says. “It’s a glimpse of the original home of luxury in Dubai.”
So what exactly will visitors experience when they enter these rarefied spaces? Starting from a new welcome center, the 90-minute tour begins with a buggy ride over the 340-meter bridge that connects to the private island on which the hotel stands. But there’s a pit stop to make first.
“We noticed that most guests come and stand on the bridge to take photos of the hotel,” says Nicholson. A new platform has been created to let visitors have the perfect vantage point.
On arrival at the Burj Al Arab, after a traditional welcome with a sprinkle of rosewater by Emirati hosts, you enter the cavernous atrium — at 180 meters, the tallest in the world — and the tour proper begins.
Without the context of other skyscrapers flanking the building, it’s hard to grasp its scale, but at 321 meters in height it’s three meters shorter than the Eiffel Tower (including tip) and 60 meters shorter than the Empire State Building.
The atrium manages to feel modern and retro at the same time, an Arabian Nights-meets-Jetsons setting, with layer upon layer of curves and color shades that become lighter the closer they get to the sky. At the top of the escalators, that glide upwards past twin aquariums, a fountain dances to the rhythms of traditional Emirati dance before shooting a final plume, geyser-like, 42 meters up into the air.
A glass elevator speeds visitors up to the 25th floor (in real terms, the 50th — each suite in the hotel is spread over two floors) for the main event, a tour of the opulent Royal Suite, after which there’s time to explore the interactive Experience Suite, sipping Arabic coffee and learning trivia about the Burj Al Arab’s architecture and interiors, as well as the pivotal role the hotel played in the development of Dubai.
Original sketches by interior designer Khuan Chew are on display, as is the napkin on which British architect Tom Wright sketched the first draft of his proposed structure in October 1993.
Building an instantly recognizable icon
The Burj Al Arab is the result of the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. His brief for the building was simple — to create the most luxurious hotel in the world, a building that would become an icon for the city.
Prior to coming up with the now instantly recognizable shape, Wright considered various symbols of Dubai’s culture and history for inspiration. But he came to a clear conclusion — if the building was to become an icon of a city that was boldly looking to the future, it should not be rooted in the past. Rather, it should be moving forward, and thus the sail-shaped building was born.
It took five years to build the Burj Al Arab — two years to create the artificial island on which it stands, and three years to build the hotel itself. When originally announced, the location was considered an unusual choice by many due to the fact that it was around 15 kilometers from what was the center of Dubai at the time. But its seaside backdrop on Dubai’s loveliest beach is one of the reasons it has become such an icon.
The great indoors
The interior of the Burj Al Arab is perhaps even more jaw-dropping than the exterior. Sheikh Mohammed envisioned an aesthetic inspired by Arabic styles from across the Middle East and given a contemporary interpretation, and instructed designer Khuan Chew to push the boundaries of color and decoration. And push them she did, creating interiors that dazzle with a sense of the theatrical in a space that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“Fun is something that we want to include in the Inside Burj Al Arab experience,” Nicholson explains. “The whole building is full of joy with its audacious design and colors, and the new tour picks up on that.”
Royal Suite butler Roman Sedev, dressed in a gold tailcoat and white gloves, fully embodies that sense of fun as he opens the doors to the suite with a flourish and a grin, welcoming the visitor into a space dominated by a central staircase covered in leopard-print carpet.
A superlative space
Whether it’s your personal style or not, the Royal Suite is nothing short of astonishing with its no-holds-barred exuberance. The highly polished yellow floor reflects the 24-carat gold ceiling, just part of the 1,790 square meters of the material used throughout the hotel. There’s a private lift to take you up to the second floor. And it’s on the second floor where things become even more “extra.”
“Khuan Chew called the dining room a ‘sunburst room,'” says Sedev, pointing to the trompe l’oeil blue sky ceiling dotted with fluffy clouds above a dining table set for 10, sitting on top of a carpet that’s like a burst of sunlight. Leopard print makes an appearance again on the high-backed velvet dining chairs, in the cushions in the adjacent majlis room, on the ottomans in the bedrooms, and in some of the carpets.
And it’s those carpets that really stop you in your tracks. The attention to detail and craftsmanship that goes into them is extraordinary, each one taking three months to make by hand. And this being the Burj Al Arab, a stain or fray is unthinkable. “We always have an extra one in storage so we can change it immediately if anything happens,” Nicholson explains.
Once your eyes adjust to the opulence, the details start to jump out. Golden falcon talons grip the door handles. Walls are covered in silk that appears to change color depending on where you stand, with hand-stitched ladybirds embroidered in more of that 24-carat gold. There’s a dedicated team of artisans who come and do repairs whenever needed.
A glimpse into an exclusive world
Now that the doors are open to visitors, is there a chance that the hotel’s guests might be a bit miffed to be sharing their space?
“Our atrium is the biggest in the world, and we definitely have space for everyone,” says Nicholson. Each group is limited to a maximum of 12 people, and most of the experience takes place on the 25th floor which is reserved exclusively for visitors to Inside Burj Al Arab. In-house guests can take the tour too. “This is a working hotel, open 365 days a year,” continues Nicholson, “and the new tour offers a glimpse behind the scenes, bringing to life 21 years of amazing stories about the hotel and its people.”
Visitors won’t be asked to vacate the premises immediately after the experience, either. A new outdoor lounge, Uma, has opened exclusively for Inside Burj Al Arab, and each of the hotel’s restaurants can be booked by non-guests.
You could also just go all out and book yourself in for the night, although with prices starting at around $1,500 a night, it’s about 14 times the cost of a tour.