The ultimate list of pavilions and watering holes to visit at Dubai’s Expo 2020

Despite COVID-19 enforced delays, the Dubai Expo 2020 has managed to open and how. Around till March 2022, the magnanimous exhibition is guaranteed to satiate both travel and culinary wanderlust

I had originally planned to call this article ‘Around the world in 80 minutes’. However, with 200 pavilions, 191 of which are participating countries, the Dubai Expo will take you days of dedicated trekking and stamina to cover in its entirety. And even then, you might miss out on some of the constant updates and attractions. 

With 170 years of World Expo history and anticipation for the residents of UAE building since 2013, the Dubai Expo had a lot to deliver. Eight years, and seven billion dollars later, it did. They’ve managed to create a platform for countries to showcase their greatest innovations, and a slice of the future. 

This Expo marks the first time for an event of this global scale to be conducted across Middle Eastern countries. Fittingly, this is also the first time in World Expo history that every participating country has its own pavilion. It clearly couldn’t have come at a better time, with the pandemic halting all travel plans, and the Expo safely catering to the same. Even a single day will provide sufficient immersive cultural experiences, and the opportunity to discover what makes each country unique. 

The exciting architectural installations begin right from the entrance to the expo 2020, a promising start to an eventuful day
The exciting architectural installations begin right from the entrance to the Expo 2020, a promising start to an eventuful day

Divided into the Sustainability, Opportunity, and Mobility districts, the pavilions in each section espouse the philosophies of their location. Fair warning, it can get a little (actually, a lot!) overwhelming. After running through dozens of the pavilions, things do start to look the same. The flashy LED screens, CGI, technologies, robots, sounds, images, and oodles of information displays can leave you a little dizzy. So if you’re operating on limited time like I did, it’s imperative to make a coherent itinerary to get around the Expo. 

And of course, keep your nutrition and energy levels up with some great food – but more on that later.

For starters, I headed towards the Sustainability district, as it’s a cause close to my heart. In there, each country showcases advanced technological feats that champion sustainable living and potentially determine the future of our planet. 

At Czech Republic, the pristine white pavilion takes you through the country’s rich history and advancements made in the sustainable vein. Located smack at the entrance of the district, there’s a rotating exhibition that showcases Czech culture and feats, including their use of solar power for environmentally friendly innovations.

These tiny robots are scattered acros the expo, each serving a different purpose but ubiquitous in the delight factor
These tiny robots are scattered acros the Expo, each serving a different purpose but ubiquitous in the delight factor

The New Zealand pavilion is a surreal experience that brings forth the significant importance of kaitiakitanga. Through an immersive 360 degree showcase, visitors are invited to learn about the guardianship of New Zealand’s rivers, land, and sky, which have fundamental rights. Furthermore, taste the authentic flavours of diverse cultures at the world-class Tiaki Restaurant for a rounded experience.  

Personally, however, the highlight of the Sustainability district at the Expo has to be The Netherlands pavilion. The long queues end up being worth the wait, with the opportunity to discover a locally sourced, sustainably built pavilion. The country’s best architects, designers, and artists have come together to showcase their advancements. Harvesting water, energy, and food through a cone-shaped vertical farm, they’ve truly embodied the district’s philosophy in a futuristic manner. There’s also a perfumed oil reminiscent of the fresh, natural scents of the country running through the pavilion for visitors to try. 

In staying true to my roots, I was sure to visit the massive Indian pavilion located in the Opportunity district. In keeping with the district’s vein of interconnected lives and actions, the long queue promised an exciting and unusual opportunity to explore my community from a global lens at the Expo. 

What followed, however, was a massive disappointment – and that’s an understatement. Upon entry, what immediately hits you is the pavilion’s likeness to a school exhibition. The overload of information and yoga displays convey more of the country’s obsession with education than any actual feats. In comparison to the immersive exhibitions and futuristic messages of hope and connection by other countries, the installations here are just bland. 

Standing over three floors, the entire pavilion reads like a blatant ruling party and Prime Minister propaganda machine. Among the more bizarre things is an entire floor dedicated to Uttar Pradesh and all of its developments, in line with the previous propaganda. Right before exiting, a massive screen showcases what’s meant to be a cultural insight into the country, but is evidently a poorly cobbled video comprising what appears to be stock footage. By the time you get to the Retail Plaza, you honestly cannot even be bothered with what may have excited you at another time. 

Moving on to better things, a listing of the most remarkable pavilions at the Expo 2020 would be incomplete without mention of the UAE in Al Forsan. With falcon wings that stay open through the day, and can close in just three minutes, it’s a visual treat from the get go. Inside the pavilion, a cinema room features a beautiful animation representing UAE culture, and the country’s journey from its past to the future.

The solar powered panel at the uae pavilion are designed to symbolize a falcon's wings, making it a remarkable cornerstone of the expo 2020
The solar powered panel at the UAE pavilion are designed to symbolize a falcon’s wings, making it a remarkable cornerstone of the Expo 2020

Additionally, there’s several other attractions and architectural marvels at the Expo you just can’t miss. From the sensory powered Dynamo in Spain, to the slide in Luxembourg, there’s enough to keep your head going in every direction. 

Just like an actual visit to the Expo, listing down the highlights of the exhibition could go on for days. However, if you had to visit just one pavilion, it should be Japan. A role-model pavilion for all other countries, the one-hour tour is timed with perfect attention to detail. The origami-inspired architecture is truly a sight to behold, in humble and minimalistic contrast to other grandiose pavilions. Preferring to let the innovative and immersive feats speak for itself, the polite staff and outstanding tour are bound to leave a lasting impression.

As all the travel leaves you tired yet inexplicably wanting a taste of more, a culinary journey into the future awaits around every corner. With signature dishes from all over the world, there’s plenty of street food, haute cuisine, family friendly meals, sustainable and experiential dining options for everyone. 

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For those looking for a luxurious and gourmet food stop on their Expo visit, there’s kaiten sushi chain Sushiro’s first restaurant in the Middle East located at the Japan pavilion. If Italian fine-dining is more up your alley, legacy restaurant Cafe Milano in the Mobility district is definitely worth a visit. For vegans and plant-based lovers, celebrity chef Mathew Kenney’s Veg’d in the Sustainability district offers the best of healthy fast-food. 

Helmed by chef pina, the cafe milano pop-up at expo 2020 promises authentic italian fine-dining
Helmed by Chef Pina, the Cafe Milano pop-up at Expo 2020 promises authentic Italian fine-dining

What’s striking straight off the bat is each eatery’s commitment to their design and menu that honours the individuality of the region, cuisine and chef. 

We leapt at the opportunity to grab what was Alkebulan Hotdog Stand’s last piece. Curated by former opera singer-turned-restaurateur, Alexander Smalls, Alkebulan at the Expo is a celebration of African cuisine and features almost a dozen chef-led concepts from across the African continent.

For lovers of homegrown food, and tourists, there’s classic favourites like Kulfilicious, Al Reef Lebanese Bakery, and the trending Al Baik as well to devour at the Expo. Talabat also makes an impressive appearance with their cloud kitchen, featuring over 30 brands and 15 different cuisines for every kind of appetite.

Alkebulan at the expo is a celebration of african cuisine and features almost a dozen chef-led concepts from across the african continent.
Alkebulan at the Expo is a celebration of African cuisine and features almost a dozen chef-led concepts from across the African continent.

If you like your meals with a side of immersive theatrics, be sure to purchase tickets to The Future of Food: Epochal Banquet. A never-before-seen multi-course experience cooked up by UK-based multi-sensory experience design studio Bompas & Parr, it’s an expensive but exquisite dining experience. Diners will have the opportunity to taste super-light delicacies formed using the same technique that NASA uses to collect comet dust, where edible creations glow in the dark, and desserts change flavours.

Trust me when I say, this still barely manages to scratch the surface of everything the Expo has to offer. Even standing at a queue doesn’t get boring, with plenty of dancing the Expo mascots always out and about to entertain. With so much going on at any given point, here’s a chance to curate your own itinerary and travel, explore, learn, and eat to your heart’s content. In a seemingly endless pandemic, this is truly the chance of a lifetime.

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