In less than 50 years, Dubai has gone from backwater port to international trendsetter; Dubai is an oasis of flash and fun in the desert. To get the most out of this UAE jewel, here’s our Dubai city guide.
Modern Dubai has developed a reputation for opulent 7-star hotels, world class shopping and an exuberant attitude. And Dubai continues to defy its hot and unwelcoming desert environment; the city has built an indoor alpine ski area and huge areas of green space, so there is plenty to tempt the active traveller.
Top five things to do in Dubai
Dubai’s beaches are just as dynamic as the people who call this city home. The public and private beaches may vary widely in facilities but they all have a couple of things in common; pristine white sand and excellent views of the city’s impressive skyline. Jumeirah Beach is lined with palm trees and its many barbeque pits make it the ideal place for a picnic. It also plays host to a women and children only day every Saturday. Kite Beach is a bare-bones beach with no facilities, but offers endless hours of entertainment watching the kite surfers ply their trade. Open Beach is the city’s busiest and is popular with tourists, expats and guest workers. Umm Suqeim Beach gets the surfers and family crowd but is probably most famous for its views of the architectural wonder Burj Al Arab. For those seeking something a bit more upmarket, head to the Al Mamzar Beach where private chalets with barbeque pits can be hired.
These graceful wooden boats are a throwback to the days before Dubai became the modern metropolis it is now. The dhows are indigenous to Dubai and are still active in fishing, cargo and ferry service. The dhows come in all shapes, sizes and ages and are usually a combination of their natural wood colour and a bright turquoise. Seeing these traditional boats cruise up and down Dubai creek against a highly untraditional backdrop of glass and steel is a sight to see. Dhow cruises are available and other than being a really chilled way to spend an hour or two, make for great photo ops. Just riding on a dhow is an experience in itself.
While a trip to the museum in any city is always a good idea, in Dubai it is almost mandatory. No other city on earth has changed as much as Dubai has in the past 50 years and the museum does a good job of charting the city’s fascinating history. From backwater port of call to the uber-modern Arab trendsetter it is today, getting a bit of the background on Dubai will help you enjoy the city all that much more. The museum itself is one huge piece of history as it is situated in the Al-Fahidi Fort which was built in 1790 and is widely believed to be the oldest building in Dubai.
Dubai’s markets, like its beaches, come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, Dubai would be a far duller place without them. Most of the markets (or souqs in the local lingo) are located in the Deira area of Dubai but are not limited to this bustling district. From the Perfume Souq where local women sample traditional smoky perfumes (think incense) to the more traditional Naif Souq, where locals and expats hunt for imitation clothing, there are markets for anything you may be looking for and countless other items you never even knew existed. Even if you aren’t looking to buy anything, the souqs are a great way to get a feel for the local culture and chatting with the friendly merchants is always good fun. Wandering the narrow alleys of Deira is one of the better days out in Dubai.
Dubai Creek-side Park
Over 96 palm-shaded hectares make up this beautiful park on the west shore of the highly entertaining Dubai Creek. The park is a green paradise smack dab in the middle of a hot and hectic metropolis and a great place to get out from under the hot Arabic sun. The park is home to an 18-hole mini-golf course, an amphitheatre, beaches on the creek and loads of picnic areas, great for throwing around a Frisbee or kicking a football. The botanical gardens in the park contain over 280 species of plants. There is also a desert garden with a ‘fallaj’ (a traditional irrigation system), flower gardens and even three spots for fishing.
Where to stay in Dubai
If you happen to be ridiculously wealthy, you are in luck because there is no shortage of luxurious accommodation in Dubai. If however, you are on a budget and are not a member of the Hilton family, accommodation in Dubai can take its toll on the travel budget. The Deira area is a good place to start looking. It is loaded with the city’s budget hotels and is home to one of its only youth hostels (if not the only). The Dubai Youth Hostel is a steal and comes highly recommended although you do have to be a member which comes with a heavy price tag. If you are only going to be in town two to three nights, you’d be better off finding one of the cheaper hotels. The Bur Dubai area is full of places in between luxury and budget. If you are looking for posh, head to the Jumeirah part of town. This place drips with luxury and is home to the Burj al Arab, the world’s only 7-star hotel. Your credit card will be maxed out quicker than you can say “boo” but you won’t soon forget the complimentary arrival in a Rolls Royce.
Where to eat and drink in Dubai
You can thank Dubai’s building boom for its huge variety of restaurants. From the guest workers from India and Pakistan to the highflying international executives who all call Dubai home, there is no craving that can’t be satisfied. Like the hotel situation, finding affordable restaurants in Dubai can be difficult. The cheapest and one of the most delicious ways to get around the 5-star hotel restaurants is to eat at the Lebanese restaurants. Full meals are tasty and cheap (for Dubai). Al Dhiyafa Road is a good place to fill up. Cafés are another good place to eat without breaking the bank and one of the city’s better ones is the Basta Art Café on Al-Fahidi Street. Asian noodle houses are another of the city’s more reasonable ways to eat. If you are looking for fine dining there is literally no end to your options here. Jumeirah Road has fine Italian and vegetarian restaurants and Bur Dubai has a steakhouse or two that will satisfy any carnivore in the group. One way to avoid huge bar tabs (bars can be expensive and booze isn’t sold in stores) is to get your drink at the airport arrivals lounge. Having a few drinks at the hotel/hostel with you friends is a good way to save some cash. Most of the nightspots are in hotels as they are the only places that can sell alcohol. If you are looking to get away from the flash of the hotel clubs, head to the rock bars Jimmy Dix and Rock Bottom. The laid back crowd here will be as refreshing as the air-conditioning.
How to get around Dubai
Dubai has your standard modes of transport found in most modern cities. The cheapest way to get around is by city bus. The bus system covers the entire city and is seldom used by tourists. A one-way ticket to anywhere in the city is refreshingly inexpensive and the service is frequent. Taxis are the speediest option and not as expensive as you would expect. If you are in a hurry, a taxi is the only way to go. The best way to get around is on the water. Abras are small motorised dhows that seat up to 20 people. Other than the low cost of a ride, the abras will give you a front row seat into the local culture while soaking up the sun. They operate between four stations and while not always practical, they are always fun. You can also hire one for a private hour-long cruise. For less than the cost of a drink, you’ll have your own private dhow complete with a storytelling driver… not too shabby.
The best time to visit Dubai
It should really be more like when NOT to visit Dubai. Between May and September the desert heat is unbearable and most travellers would be forced to spend most of their time in the safety of air-conditioning. The word oppressive comes to mind! The only good thing about this time of year is the discounted hotel rates. November to April are the coolest months and ideal for visiting, still hot but in a more tolerable sense. Ramadan is also a good time to avoid Dubai as almost everything shuts down for large chunks of the day. It is also rude to eat, smoke and drink in public from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan changes every year but lasts for one month in autumn.
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