A place where the ultra-modern and super-luxe collide with age-old Arabian traditions and Islamic culture, Dubai is fascinating. Here’s our guide to Dubai’s best places to visit, things to do and where to eat and sleep for all budgets.
Having seen astonishing growth in the last thirty years – the famous Sheikh Zayed Road was but a sparse motorway with only a few high-rises in the early nineties – today Dubai is a modern playground for locals, expats and travellers alike.
You can trace its history through the city’s varied neighbourhoods, and its ultra-multicultural population means there’s a vast array of cuisines to indulge in.
5 essential things to do in Dubai
Every destination has its big-hitters and Dubai isn’t short of blockbuster attractions. Here are five things you shouldn’t miss on your trip to Dubai:
1. Get high at the Burj Khalifa
The skyscraper the city is most famous for, the Burj Khalifa truly is an incredible building. It’s 828 metres tall and clad with 26,000 glass panels for a mirror-finish. Take one of the world’s fastest elevators to the 124th floor to marvel at the spaghetti mess of highways and comparatively tiny buildings below. Entry is pricey, but the views are worth it – especially at sunset.
2. See it all at Dubai Mall
Yet another record-breaker, Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping centre at a whopping 13 million square feet in size. It’s not just about shopping here, though: there’s an aquarium, ice rink, Sonic the Hedgehog theme park, cinemas and a vast food court.
3. Take in Marina Walk
Come evening, Dubai’s Marina Walk is one of the prettiest places in the city, as the colourful lights from the high-rise apartment buildings twinkle on the waters of the man made canal. A 7km pedestrian walkway, lined by restaurants and shisha cafés, makes for a pleasant evening stroll.
4. Marvel at the Burj Al Arab
Eschew the expensive dinner and drinks available inside the world’s first 7-star hotel and hit any of the beach bars nearby; the best view isn’t from the Burj Al Arab but of it. Watch the sun set behind its billowing sail-inspired form with a drink in hand – there’s no finer way to end a day in Dubai.
5. Watch the Dubai Fountains dance
One of the best free attractions in the city, every day (afternoon and evening) the Dubai Fountains come alive to the sound of music. Accompanied by choreographed lighting, the water can reach up to 140 metres.
Image by A♥ on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
5 alternative things to do in Dubai
If you want to escape the crowds and try something a little different, head to some of these little-visited attractions:
1. For a breath of fresh air: Safa Park
A park is probably not the first thing you’d think of in the desert landscapes of the UAE, but Dubai has no shortage of gorgeous green space. Safa Park in particular is a wonderful 150-acre sprawl of foliage and lawns, with space for picnics alongside waterfalls and plenty of room for sports.
2. For arty types: Alserkal Avenue
Hidden away among the bleak, low-rise industrial district of Al Quoz is an unexpected hive of creativity. Alserkal Avenue is an old marble factory turned art and design district, with galleries, shops, cafés and a chocolate factory open for exploration.
Image by Lottie Gross
3. For foodies: Deira food tour
With so many cultures communing in one city, it’s inevitable that Dubai’s food scene is just as global. Take a Frying Pan Adventures food tour through Deira, one of the city’s oldest areas, to get a taste of the Middle Eastern cuisine and a better understanding of the various cultures that make up this modern metropolis.
4. For a bit of history: old Dubai
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is a far cry from the shiny skyscrapers and modern malls of today’s Dubai. This network of alleys and squares, lined by traditional homes dating back to the mid-19th century, is pleasantly quiet and offers insight into what the city was like before the building boom.
5. For shoppers: Madinat Jumeirah
Not as glitzy, or enormous, as Dubai Mall, and a far more relaxing experience than tackling the old souks in Bur Dubai, Madinat Jumeirah is one of the city’s finest shopping experiences. Combining traditional architecture with modern amenities, the complex is set around a man made creek, lined with restaurants and bars.
Dubai on the map
Plan your trip with this map of Dubai:
Where to stay in Dubai
1. For a sleek stay: The Armani Hotel, housed in the Burj Khalifa, has all the style you’d expect from fashion icon Giorgio Armani, plus incredibe views over Downtown Dubai. The signature restaurant serves exceptional Italian cuisine.
2. For a beach break: If opulence is your thing, the One&Only Royal Mirage will not fail to impress. The Arabian palace-inspired decor is enough to make any guest feel like royalty, plus there’s access to a gorgeous private beach.
3. For family fun: Atlantis, The Palm is one of Dubai’s most iconic buildings, soaring high above the man-made Palm Island. Its underwater theme and on-site water park make it a brilliant upmarket family resort.
On a budget:
1. For an arty escape: In the heart of the Al Fahidi Historical District, the XVA Art Hotel has a pretty tree-filled courtyard where breakfast is served, and simple but spotless rooms. The hotel doubles up as a gallery, with paintings and illustrations by locals hanging on the walls.
2. For a basic retreat: Among the hustle and bustle of Bur Dubai the the Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa is a pleasant escape. There’s a rooftop restaurant and Indian/Arabian-inspired decor throughout.
3. For affordable luxury: The reasonably priced Melia Dubai is a perfect compromise. It’s stylish, clean and has a rooftop pool for cooling off after a long hot day.
Where to eat in Dubai
1. For local fare: Head to Tawasol near the Deira clocktower for Emirati food in a traditional communal setting, or join the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding for a brunch with the locals.
2. For Friday brunch blowouts: All-you-can-eat-and-drink indulgence on a Friday afternoon is a weekly tradition among expats in Dubai. Book your spot at Zuma for sensational Japanese dishes, or head to the W Hotel for superb Mediterranean cuisine.
3. For fine-dining: At the end of the Al Qasr Hotel’s private pier, Pierchic has gorgeous sea views and sublime seafood. For Western-Chinese fusion, book a table at Zheng He’s in the pretty Madinat Jumeirah.
Insider travel tips
1. Get a discount: Invest in the Entertainer discount card for 450 AED and you can make back the cost and then some through huge discounts at restaurants and attractions throughout the city.
2. Be a lady: Tuesday is Ladies’ Night throughout Dubai, meaning women get free entry or free drinks in many of the popular bars and clubs.
3. Budget beaches: Don’t pay for the privilege of sunning yourself on private beaches in Dubai if you just want a day out on the sand. Head to Jumeirah Beach Park and Al Mamzar Beach Park (5 AED entry each) where there are plenty of seaside facilities at your disposal.
Dubai day trips
If you want to get out of the big city and discover more of the UAE, try one of these great day trips from Dubai:
1. Desert safaris
Just an hour out of the city a vast expanse of desert awaits exploration. Take a Platinum Heritage desert safari (with the option to stay overnight) to explore a wildlife reserve by vintage jeep, then watch a falconry display before tucking into traditional Arabian food at their Bedouin camp. Come darkness, the stars are the main event – a rare sight for Dubai city dwellers.
2. Abu Dhabi
Another record-breaking city, home to the world’s furthest-leaning manmade tower and the world’s largest hand-woven rug, is just 90 minutes by road from Dubai. Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, is another modern metropolis with three must-see attractions: the stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Abu Dhabi Louvre and the impressive Emirates Palace Hotel where you can stop for a coffee in ultra-opulent surroundings.
Image by Lottie Gross
3. Jebel Jais
In the far north of the UAE near the border with Oman, around 90 minutes’ drive from Dubai, is the country’s tallest mountain: Jebel Jais. Take a day trip with Safarak and drive through the desert to Ras Al Khaimah where you’ll ascend the spotless tarmac road that winds up the mountain, then settle in to watch the sunset behind the craggy peaks as you feast on a picnic of Middle Eastern salads and sweets.
The best time to visit Dubai
The summer months in Dubai (May-September) are often unbearably hot, sometimes topping 50°C. Plan your trip for the winter months (between October and February) if you don’t want to fry, though bear in mind December and January are peak season, so the beaches and hotels will be busy.
How to get there
Dubai is an international travel hub, with hundreds of daily flights in and out of the country to destinations all over the world.
The international airport, which is served by over 50 different airlines including most major carriers, is just 14km from Downtown Dubai and 33km to the Marina, and it has its own metro stop connecting the city to the skies.
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