It may have hit the mid-pandemic headlines as reality stars and influencers’ hideaway of choice, but there’s a reason this showy and audacious UAE city continues to beckon visitors from beyond the cast of TOWIE.
There’s nowhere on earth quite like Dubai; the Emirate is home to more than 20,000 millionaires, is both futuristic and deeply traditional, and brilliantly bizarre experiences lie all around – swimming with sharks and skiing in a shopping mall are everyday occurrences here.
I’ve seen cheetahs hanging their heads out of moving SUVs, watched barmen slice the top off Champagne bottles with Arabian swords, and witnessed robot jockeys ride camels. It’s a place to embrace the bling and outlandishness you may find in Vegas, but with aromas of apple shisha and labyrinthine souks, instead of slot machines and Elvis chapels.
To grasp the excess of the place, tourists must try the city’s signature opulent brunches, but also embrace life like Emiratis – with a sense of adventure – from “dune bashing” in the desert to dining with a vertigo-inducing view of the world’s tallest building. Follow our top tips to navigate a weekend or more in the most visited place in the Middle East.
What to do
Visit the creek
For a little less of the glitz and glam that appears on postcards and a little more of the city’s history, head to the Emirate’s first major port, Dubai Creek, where you’ll find traditional dhow boats skimming between the souks either side of the water, and a more pedestrian atmosphere than most areas in this car-heavy destination. Here you can also visit Dubai’s Al Fahidi historical district, complete with traditional buildings and museums. Some buildings, such as XVA, also hide galleries-cum-cafes, where you can take a break from the more hectic elements of the city.
Get your adventure on
Though it’s better known for its rich-kids-of-Instagram party scene, there are some serious adrenaline-filled activities to keep adventure junkies busy. Try a skydive over the city’s iconic palm-shaped island, whizz 170 metres in the air above Dubai Marina on the world’s longest urban zipline, or strap on a flyboard and blast out of the water like a Marvel character. If you’re not keen to throw yourself off or out of things, a dune-bashing 4×4 experience in the desert brings all of the thrills with slightly less of the fear factor (we’d advise you to bring along a sense of humour though, and possibly a sick bag, as it’s a bumpy ride).
Hit up the Expo
Running through to March, the Dubai Expo is astoundingly big. You could spend weeks here and not see everything but expect everything from slam poetry and Riverdance (yes, the Riverdance) to educational programmes, talking robot guides (with varying degrees of friendliness), music, art, fountains (naturally), and more food and drink options than you can shake a stick at. If you have time, get a multi-day pass. If you don’t, plan your visit carefully so you can see as much as possible.
Take a mosque tour
Dubai’s Jumeirah Mosque offers daily tours at 10am and 2pm for visitors (apart from on Fridays). During a tour, you can have a peek inside the building, learn about the religion and rituals performed there and even grab some Emirati refreshments ahead of the tour (arrive half an hour beforehand if you’re looking to sample some). There’s no need to book ahead of time, but check for Covid-related changes to the booking policy.
Where to stay
If you’re looking to push the boat out and stay out of the city’s busier areas, Anantara The Palm is the perfect hideaway. Rooms overlook the ocean or the lagoon-like swimming pool (some rooms have steps into the pool for a bit of night swimming), the surroundings are verdant and peaceful, and the spa is out-of-this-world zen. A number of decent food offerings and bars for sundowners mean you never really have to leave the hotel, so expect plenty of honeymooners and people looking for peace. Doubles from £169 off-season or from £300 when the weather’s good. anantara.com/en/palm-dubai
Off the island, the set-up at Ritz Carlton JBR is right in the hustle and bustle of The Walk – a stone’s throw from tons of restaurants, shops, bars, and salons. It’s also a great people-watching spot where you’ll see the millionaires cruising their supercars of an evening and grabbing a roadside bite to eat. The hotel is also a blissfully green spot in this desert city and has more swimming pools than you can visit in a day, plus a path straight out onto the beach for unbeatable seaside vibes. Doubles from £300 off-season, or from £700 during peak times. ritzcarlton.com
If you’re looking to see Dubai without dropping all your holiday money on rooms, there are a number of decent Airbnbs, serviced apartments, and basic hotel offerings. Citymax Al Barsha, near the humungous Mall of the Emirates, puts you slap bang in the middle of the action for a reasonable price. Don’t expect miracles – it’s business-basic but gets the job done. Doubles from £51 a night. citymaxhotels.com
Where to eat
It’s a genuine struggle to find a bad meal in Dubai. From mouthwatering Middle Eastern cuisine to a whole host of international big-name offerings, you’ll find pretty much every cuisine on the planet (and, most importantly, options to suit every price range).
If you’re keen to splash the cash and spend a weekend like an Emirati expat, hit up a Friday brunch. They’re hosted at the majority of big hotels, and all have free-flowing fizz, cocktails and more food than you can reasonably hope to polish off in your four-hour slot. Dubai Creek’s Traiteur brunch, at the Park Hyatt, is something of an extravaganza: tables overlook the Creek, there’s an entire room dedicated to cheese, and they’re very generous with the fizz. Plus, you’d be hard pushed to find a cuisine that isn’t on offer. Carb up if you’re hoping to last past 4pm.
If day-drinking over tiny burgers and cakes doesn’t sound appealing, there are evening, brunch-style all-you-can-eats to be found – a great way to sample lots of different dishes. The night brunch at JBR’s Blue Jade restaurant pulls out all the stops.
For informal, authentic Lebanese, head to Al Safadi off Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s a chain of sorts but hugely popular, family friendly and does delicious, fresh dishes at reasonable prices. Or, if you’re keen for a bit of booze with your dinner, Lebanese seafood joint Ibn AlBahr on the Palm serves up super fresh catches of the day with a stunning waterfront view.
And it wouldn’t be Dubai without a little spectacle. Billionaire Dubai cooks up superb food – although the Japanese/Italian menu combo is a little unusual, it works – as circus-burlesque style singers and dancers perform, including a bizarre performance involving a champagne bathtub.
The Time Out Food Market, which opened earlier this year, is also well worth a visit, if only to appease any indecisive dining companions. There are 17 different food vendors here (along with three bars), and the open-plan, relaxed vibe is a nice change from some of the higher-end restaurants in the city. That said, there’s no compromising on quality, and the prices are reasonable.
Where to drink
The rowdy, shot-slinging Barasti beach bar is a Dubai institution. It’s been open for decades (quite a claim in a city obsessed with all things new) and has everything from sundowners and live sports to DJs and a pool, all of which attract a hugely fun crowd. Some of its popularity may also be to do with the fact that it’s open until 3am on weekends.
For something slightly less hectic, hit Pier 7’s Atelier M, where the rooftop bar offers (somewhat vertigo-inducing) panoramic views over the Marina. It’s a great spot to grab drinks at sunset – book a table if you can to avoid jostling for space at peak times. Just close your eyes when you head up in the glass elevator.
Where to shop
Dubai is jam-packed with malls – from those that feature just shops and a smattering of restaurants to the Mall of the Emirates, slightly dated but enormous with a giant ski-slope inside it, and the glossy Dubai Mall, with a shark-infested aquarium. Although it is definitely worth a stroll through the larger malls if you’re after high fashion or your usual high-street shops, you’d be missing a trick if you didn’t hit the souks in Deira. There you’ll find everything from spices and traditional slippers to designer handbag knock-offs, oil burners, furniture, lighting, gold and jewellery.
It’s worth picking up some basic Arabic if you’re planning on spending a long time in the souks, in order to avoid the persistent sales techniques (which are dialled down slightly the less you look like a tourist). There are also some genuine bargains to be found if you’re happy to haggle, and can remember that a good price means both parties leave happy.
For tourist tat, head to Souk Madinat, where you’ll find everything from overpriced dates to camel-shaped magnets and Burj Khalifa keyrings. There are also a few genuinely good finds here – again, price is often negotiable, so ask before you buy.
That’d be the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – at 2,717ft. The 160-storey tower dominates the skyline, but it’s not the only structure worth a visit. The emirate is also home to some truly bizarre creations, from the Dubai Frame (an inexplicably giant picture frame you can walk across the top of) to the striking and aptly named Museum of the Future.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
United Arab Emirates Dirham (AED).
What language do they speak?
The country’s official language is Arabic, but English is very widely spoken.
Should I tip?
Service is often included, but if it isn’t you should add 10-15 per cent to your bill (and remember to tip in hotels and taxis too).
What’s the time difference?
How should I get around?
There is public transport in Dubai, but it won’t take you everywhere. Although the addition of the tram in recent years has helped somewhat around the Marina end of town, unless you’re staying along the (limited) train route, you’ll need a set of wheels or be willing to hop in a taxi.
What’s the best view?
Looking at, or from, the tallest building in the world is pretty difficult to top. But, if the Burj Khalifa doesn’t float your boat, the views onto Dubai from The Palm are pretty spectacular at sunset.
Hit the beaches in the early hours of the day – in cooler months because it’s nice to have the beach all to yourself, and in hotter months because you won’t die of heatstroke.
Trying to fly less?
You’ll really struggle to reach Dubai without hopping on a plane from the UK. That said, if you’re desperate to see the city and have the time, inclination and a shedload of cash, there are world cruises that include stops in Dubai and neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi.
Fine with flying?
British Airways and Emirates both run direct daily flights to Dubai from London. Flights also run from Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, and Glasgow (although prices vary).