Riverland is much more than simply the gateway to the three theme parks, water park and hotel that make up Dubai Parks and Resorts. It is also home to 34 new cafes, restaurants and shops, with another 22 set to open by the end of May.
You do not even need a ticket for any of the parks to soak up the holiday atmosphere along Riverland’s kilometre-long waterway, complete with music, street entertainers and occasional free themed events at weekends.
“We like to believe that Riverland is an attraction by itself,” says Dubai Parks and Resorts’ vice president of hospitality, and retail, Klaus Assmann.
Riverland opened on October 31, and new outlets have been opening regularly.
“Every week, we open something new,” says Assmann. “We wanted to bring some completely new concepts to Dubai.”
To entice evening diners, the normal minimum Dh50 parking charge does not apply to those who arrive after 6.30pm.
Riverland is spread across four architecturally distinct zones linked by winding riverside pedestrian streets and bridges.
The gateway to Bollywood Parks, this zone resembles 1920s colonial India. The striking centrepiece is a statue of four giant henna-decorated arms, rising from the ground.
Making its debut here is Indian vegetarian fusion restaurant Bol Gappa, which specialises in Indian street food, and also offers Chinese and Italian dishes.
The Maharaja gift store is full of knick-knacks, from traditional tea sets to pirate dolls.
Al Mashowa, housed in a replica of an Emirati fisherman’s hut, claims to be the only restaurant in the UAE serving authentic Emirati seafood. Their king fried fish with Emirati spiced rice (Dh65) is a popular local speciality that is likely to be a big hit with customers from the region.
“This is the real UAE experience,” says Assmann. “A local lady gave us all the traditional recipes passed down from generation to generation.”
Step back in time to 17th century France, with cobbled walkways, pebbled bridges and even a quaint waterwheel – plus the less historically accurate Starbucks and McDonald’s – in a replica of Medieval Dijon, in Burgundy.
“We flew our maisons out there,” says Assmann. “They touched the buildings, took pictures and then replicated them completely here in French Village.”
As you stroll past 300-year-old olive trees and through meandering alleyways, the European ambience is heightened by the continuously playing classical music. Most of the food outlets are Mediterranean-inspired, too, including French bakeries Le Pain Quotidien and Pascal Tepper, plus Italian-American restaurant Olive Garden.
For shoppers, Gallery One will appeal to art aficionados, while Brazilian brand Havaianas offers flip-flops, and Wired Up will craft your name into wire jewellery.
Factory buildings from the industrial revolution inspired the look of this zone.
The four licensed restaurants here boast picturesque waterside dining, while the grassy central plaza is the setting for regular festivals.
Dubai favourite The Irish Village opened here last week, and the next to open will be Parlé, a Mediterranean-French restaurant from Dogus group, the people behind Zuma and La Petite Maison.
Big Chefs, a family-friendly option, has a large, glass-enclosed kids room with play kitchen and toys.
This 1950s-style American boardwalk, complete with retro neon signs, leads to the Hollywood-inspired Motiongate theme park. “Think Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe – that’s the ideal we want to bring back to life,” says Assmann.
The interiors of many of the outlets here have a 50s vibe, too, including ice cream parlour Ella’s Creamery, and Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory – an old-fashioned sweet shop. Check out its Monster Apple toffee apples (Dh40) and Giant Marshmallows dipped in chocolate (Dh18). Across the street is the region’s first Super Chix, a Texan fried-chicken restaurant. Its signature frozen custard is worth a try.
Upcoming weekend events
There are free festivities throughout the year at Riverland.
Next up is Fairy Tales on the River (March 2 to 4), offering workshops and shows for little ones.
Rhythm on the River (April 6 to 8) will have rock music, a New Orleans marching band, a UAE group with traditional dancers, and an Indian band.
Circus on the River (October 12 to 14) will feature street-circus acts, workshops and a circus show.
Pets on the River (November 16 to 18) will have a petting zoo and workshops to raise awareness of animal welfare.