Mushroom farms, Swedish forests and naughty Italian sculptures – has Expo 2020 Dubai been worth the wait?

·5-min read
Expo’s Sustainability Pavilion (Expos 2020 Dubai/PA)
Expo’s Sustainability Pavilion (Expos 2020 Dubai/PA)

Nothing in Dubai is every done in moderation. In the last month alone, the glittering Emirate launched Deep Dive Dubai, the world’s deepest swimming pool, shortly followed by the tallest Ferris wheel – almost double the height of the London Eye.

Now the ambitious city hopes to stage the greatest ever global show.

Postponed due to the pandemic, Expo 2020 Dubai has finally opened and organisers hope to receive 25 million visits between now and March 31, 2022.

A platform for innovation and interactions across the international community, it also promises to deliver on entertainment – from waterfalls that appear to flow backwards, to a sky garden shooting skyward.

Grab an Expo passport to gain stamps from every country involved or carefully map out a journey to a few of the highlights. Here’s all you need to know to make the most of a whirlwind 24-hour visit.

So what exactly is Expo?

Launched with the intention of showcasing innovations, the world’s first Great Exhibition was hosted in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. Since then, the event has been responsible for some landmark inventions. The telephone, for example, was first demonstrated by Graham Bell in Philadelphia in 1876, where Heinz Ketchup and ice cream cones coincidentally also made their debut.

Every five years, a different destination carries the mantle, each one leaving its legacy with a selection of fantastic buildings. The Space Needle in Seattle, The Atomium in Brussels, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris have all become standalone tourist attractions since making their Expo mark decades ago.

What makes Dubai’s event so special?

The Al Wasl Dome (Expo 2020 Dubai/PA)
The Al Wasl Dome (Expo 2020 Dubai/PA)

Hosting 191 countries, this is the biggest Expo ever held. It’s also the first major public event since the pandemic forced the globe to a standstill 18 months ago. Unlike the Tokyo Olympics, the show is fully open to visitors, demonstrating the darkest days of coronavirus could be behind us once and for all.

What are the highlights I shouldn’t miss?

Spread across a 4km square area, the site is sprawling. An Expo App enables visitors to plan and pre-book pavilions, but it’s worth saving some time to wander freely and drop into different spaces.

The site is divided into three main areas connected to Expo’s overarching themes of Mobility, Opportunity and Sustainability – the latter being the most thought-provoking of the lot. Choose between two immersive journeys – diving under the ocean or burrowing beneath a forest floor – and walk through a collection of interactive exhibits highlighting human habits of over-consumption and asking where our priorities lie.

A 3D printed version of David at the Italian Pavilion (Mohammad Shahrooei/Expo 2020 Dubai/PA)
A 3D printed version of David at the Italian Pavilion (Mohammad Shahrooei/Expo 2020 Dubai/PA)

Equally concerned with environmental issues, another must-see comes from the Netherlands, who’ve transformed their pavilion into a mushroom farm. Guests are handed umbrellas and drenched with a rain-shower of technicoloured lights, then informed about fungi growing techniques using moisture collected from the air.

Other quirky additions to the site include a Swedish forest recreated by trees transplanted from Scandinavia, a controversial 3D print out of Michelangelo’s nude Italian hero David (whose nether regions are discreetly concealed), and a band of robots playing Beethoven in Germany’s Culture Lab.

What’s the UK pavilion like?

Designed by artist Es Devlin the UK’s contribution to Expo is a cross-laminated timber structure, with a changing script of words projected onto slats. Based on an idea by Stephen Hawking to transmit a message to other civilisations in outer space, the project asks visitors to donate a word which is then digested by an AI system to create a poetic couplet. Every contribution over the next six months will form part of an ongoing script, although no decision has been taken on what will be done with the final piece.

Sounds like a long day. Where can I refuel?

There are around 200 different outlets on site to choose from, including a food hall serviced by robots and a multi-sensory extravaganza from experimentalists Bompas & Parr. Guaranteed to sell out, the menu for their Future of Food: Epochal Banquet promises to be palette-bending. Expect dishes that glow in the dark and rare ingredients sourced from newly-cultivated plants.

Less whacky but equally original, African food hall Alkebulan features dishes, music and art from across the continent. Seven highly-acclaimed chefs have been cherry picked to host the experience. Try flame-grilled chicken with okra at Chicken Coop, and dig into African pastries at Showbox by Mame Sow.

And anyone feeling a twinge of homesickness can pop into the UK pavilion’s 1851, serving fish and chips as good as it gets in Grimsby, followed by trifle or Eton Mess.

How should I get there?

Depending on where you plan to stay in Dubai, the site is around a 45-minute drive away, towards the city limits. It’s easier and cheaper to take advantage of the metro, which runs directly into town, linking multiple stations. You’ll need to buy a Nol card (available from most stations) which can be topped up with credit.

Where should I stay?

The excellent Rove chain have a hotel set within the Expo site for anyone who wants to live and breathe the experience 24 hours a day. Alternatively, stay in the city and divide time with other activities.

Set on the beachfront in the Jumeirah district, Rove La Mer takes inspiration from its surroundings, with surf boards strapped to the walls and staff dressed in Hawaiian-style shirts.

Fun and affordable rooms come with convenient communal features: there’s an onsite laundry and ironing room, a healthy all-day snack bar next to the restaurant, and a swimming pool open until 10pm. From £110 per night with breakfast. Visit rovehotels.com

How to plan your trip

For more information on the destination, go to visitdubai.com/en.

A one-day ticket to Expo costs from £19.96. Visit expo2020dubai.com.

Anyone booking flights with Emirates will receive a free ticket. Visit emirates.com.

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