Malls of the UAE, part 1: Dubai’s Ibn Battuta transports shopping into voyage of discovery

A shopper speaks

“I find I have actually, finally, learnt something about Arabia. I can take a brain-break from shopping, and at least it’s not just shops I have already seen.”

– Natalie Espinoza, visiting from New York City

About the mall

Ibn Battuta Mall opened in 2005. It sits at the top end of Sheikh Zayed Road beyond Dubai Marina – and is the first mall in Dubai you pass if coming from Abu Dhabi.

It boasts of holding the title of the largest themed mall in the world – its decor reflects the travels of the legendary 14th-century Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta. A walk from one end of the mall to the other will take visitors through China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia.

Some of the themed areas have a smack of Disney about them, but they are interspersed with models of famed Arabic artists and scientists, making your “travel” experience informative as well as easy on the eye.

While malls are first and foremost known for their retail mix, Ibn Battuta Mall has focused on a cultural exchange that allows one to not only shop but also educate oneself, with a series of interactive installations outlining Arabia’s influence on mathematics, flight, chronology, astronomy and more.

The feel of the place

It has more than 300 shops, although they tend to be more value-orientated than high end, so the socks you buy may not necessarily be from Gucci. There are many stores with seemingly constant sales. I was there on a Tuesday at 2pm, parking was easy and without charge, and the high, wide concourses inside were sparsely populated.

Its China Court has a 21-screen cinema that can get very busy at weekends and evenings. The China Court has a wide open space in deep red colours and a life-size junk surrounded by fountains, which heightens the theme park feel.

What’s changing?

Ibn Battuta will be adding another 150 shops when a new extension opens this year. It will have a link to the metro and a Premier Inn is due to open conveniently close to the extension. There is also a further 1 million square feet extension planned for 2018 that will feature a retractable glass roof over a 300,000 sq ft courtyard. There will also be another cinema.

Ibn Battuta has been designed as a destination as well as a business space. The high ceilings offer domes, blue skies, ornate marbling, mosaics and incredible Ottoman lampshades. If you visit, don’t forget to look up. The architects have spent a lot of time creating features overhead that will surprise and delight.

A lot of the food and beverage outlets are part of the journey, creating a feeling similar to a stroll through a city with corner restaurants and “street” vendors. Yes, there is a Starbucks in there too, but it sits within a mosaic-domed vestibule, and is one of the most pleasantly appointed Starbucks on the planet.

There is also a food court that offers all the usual outlets, and allows those with children to eat in a kiddie-friendly melee of fast food and bright colours.

Any hidden gems?

There are fantastic eateries at the entrance to the China Court. The court evokes a verdant Asian garden – wooden decking, shallow pools, running water, drooping fronds – a place were tranquillity really shouldn’t exist but somehow does.

Why should you go there

It is a good mall with value at its heart but not in its facade – I would happily go back, but if it was to buy I would want to know where the shop was and where to park before I plunged in. The Modell’s Sporting Goods store is in a glass box within the mall and its simplicity of thought and design made me smile.

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