Dubai is the land of superlatives – tallest this, biggest that. It’s easy to dismiss it as a city of excess wealth and glamour, and while this is somewhat accurate, it’s only partly true. The pavements aren’t made of gold, not everyone drives a Porsche (although a disproportional number of people do) and not everyone owns diamond shoes (but that would be kind of cool).
The older areas of the city, such as Deira and Bur Dubai, are less visited than the usual attractions, and if you head there you won’t find the typical flashiness. But this is where the city’s story actually began, and any traveller worth his/her salt will make sure they will go and take a look to see the other side of the coin.
There’s no denying, however, that a visit to Dubai does give you a peek in to how the other half lives. High disposable incomes for both expats and locals alike mean that this is a consumerist’s dream town – every brand you can imagine is here, and people aren’t afraid to spend their cash. You’ll see supercars at every turn and designer handbags on the majority of women’s arms.
Dubai’s iconic skylines are also futuristic and mesmerising. The city is currently home to the world’s tallest building, as well as the Palm Jumeirah (man made island), Burj Al Arab and other impressive feats of engineering.
When I tell people that I lived in Dubai for seven years, I’m surprised to still get questions such as “but aren’t you supposed to cover up as a woman to live there?” and “can you drink alcohol?” I guess because of the country’s geographical location and the fact it’s an Islamic country people still have certain misconceptions. However, the reality is no, I don’t need to cover up (although some people should really cover up a little more – always be sensitive to a country’s cultural traditions) and yes, I can drink (although some should really rein in their booze-induced behaviour).
In one word: Flashy.
Expect to see: A ridiculous amount of supercars.
Don’t expect to see: Homeless people.
City style: OTT. Think sequins, designer labels, Swarovski crystals, and designer shades all rolled into one. More is definitely more.
The city’s pièce de résistance: The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
Skip…the Burj Al Arab…and go see…Bastakiya.
Must eat: Chicken shawarma (spit-grilled chicken inside a wrap with veggies and toppings such as tahini).
Must drink: Date milk.
Never say…wow, you look Iranian … to a local.
Catch the sunset at: 360 – a bar that’s at the end of a pier in the middle of the sea. Stunning views but overpriced cocktails.
Fake it like a local and…wear massive shades, speak on your phone through a bluetooth earpiece and make sure you smell great at all times.
If you like malls, crazy skyscrapers, 5-star hotels, top restaurants and lounging on the beach while you’re spritzed with Evian then this is the place for you. What the city lacks in history and, dare I say it, character, it makes it up with its larger than life persona and flashy buildings that make you go ‘wow – are they serious with this?’
It’s the land of make belief; man-made Palm shaped islands, Arabian souq replicas that look like the set of Aladdin, the world’s only ‘seven-star’ hotel. But if you find yourself in Dubai and you’re in search of something a bit rawer, you can find it – you just need to know where to look (refer to the Bastakiya section of this guide).
Dubai Mall (plus Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo/The Dubai Fountain)
Even if you hate malls, it’s worth taking a look at this one. While you will find the usual designer brands and high street stores, Dubai Mall also has one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums. The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo is a world of Nemos and his friends – here you’ll find anything from a croc through to jellyfish, and you can even arrange for a dive in the tank. The aquarium is a lot of fun, especially if you have kids, and entry prices start from Dh 70 (roughly $20) for adults.
Also if dancing water fountains happen to be your thing, this is the place to be – the Dubai Fountain, which is located just outside the mall, shoots water as high as 150 metres to a mixture of Arabic songs and, erm, Michael Jackson hits. It sounds tacky because it is, but it’s one of the things that makes Dubai Dubai. And people love it.
This is the daddy of UAE waterparks. The imaginations of the park’s designers had no limits, as rides such as Leap of Faith – a near-vertical plunge into a shark-filled lagoon that’s protected by a transparent tunnel, proves. Dubai’s year-round blue skies mean that it’s almost essential that a trip to this place is on your itinerary. For more info click here.
The truth is, the Dubai we know today has not been around for too long. And while the city is definitely known for its eye-watering skylines, there is still a lot of history to be found if you know where to look. Bastakiya and its labyrinth of narrow streets hails to a Dubai of humbler times. Located close to the creek, this area is teeming with character; the houses here are from a bygone era before electricity and air conditioning, and used to be cooled by wind towers. You can visit some of these restored homes, as well as the Dubai Museum and some of the city’s most charming cafés.
If you’re an art lover, stop by the XVA Gallery, which offers a selection of work that has an emphasis on the Arab world. A hotel and café also form part of the gallery (the mint lemonade is a must-try). Close by you’ll also find loads of small shops selling souvenirs such as ceramics, shawls and lanterns.
It’s also imperative that you take an abra and cross the creek, where you’ll find Deira. The gold and spice souks are worth a visit, even if it’s just for the photo opportunities.
While bohemian is not a word you’d use to describe Dubai, it’s certainly a word you’d use to describe this area of the city. For more information, you can check out Ankit’s photo essay of Bastakiya here.
It’s been described as everything from a needle in the sky to the world’s largest phallic symbol, but truth be told, you can’t help but marvel at the damn thing when you see it. It’s shiny, tall and in your face – in other words, it’s very Dubai. The tower’s observation deck is located on the 124 floor, and can be accessed for Dh 125 (roughly $35) for adults (tip – make sure you book ahead using this link, otherwise you’ll have to pay almost four times the amount to gain instant access).
The views from up there are pretty impressive, however, visibility in the summer may be low due to humidity. Best time of year to visit is from November to April.
When I first visited this place, all I could think was that it looked like the set of Aladdin (yes, yes I know that it was a cartoon, but you get the gist). Although it obviously isn’t really an old traditional Arabian town, it does feel a bit magical in a Disney-esque way. There are little shops that sell anything from designer swimming costumes to little trinkets, but I recommend that unless you’re feeling flush you should avoid them as they are on the expensive side. I do, however, suggest you take a little abra ride around the development for the photo opportunities.
It’s also a great place from which to take photos of its neighbour – the 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel – another Dubai landmark.
Like a King
– Skyview Bar (afternoon tea): No visit to Dubai is complete without afternoon tea at Skyview Bar in the Burj Al Arab. The experience is exceptional from the minute you walk in, and so it should be – at Dh 560 per head (approximately $152) it ain’t cheap, but if you have the money, it’s definitely worth it. And it’s oh, oh, OH so Dubai.
Burj Al Arab, +971 4 301 7600
Alcohol available? Yes
– Nobu: The signature black cod in miso is what most people head here for, and yes, it’s worth it. Also check out the tuna tataki sashimi salad with Matsuhisa soy sauce dressing.
Atlantis, The Palm, +971 4 426 2626 Alcohol available? Yes
–Pierchic: Now this is a venue that not only serves up great food but really offers something special in terms of setting. It’s romantic. So romantic that I guarantee you’ll feel odd if you turn up with a friend. But I still wouldn’t let this put you off going if you’re sans an other half. The restaurant is located at the bottom of a pier, in the middle of the sea, which you reach on a golf buggy. It’s like a fairy tale, complete with twinkly lights, the sound of waves crashing against the shore and the Dubai skyline in the background. The emphasis here cuisine-wise is on seafood.
Al Qasr Hotel, +971 4 366 6730
Alcohol available? Yes
Note: the restaurant is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen early October 2014.
Like a Prince
–Maria Bonita’s: Dubai has a reputation for being expensive, and while that’s true to a certain extent, there are also plenty of restaurants serving up great food at reasonable prices. Maria Bonita’s is an excellent example of this. This place has managed to stay a favourite among expats and visitors a like for years – quite the feat considering how many restaurants come and go in Dubai. Must try? The baja fish burrito.
Jumeirah 3, +971 4 395 5576
Alcohol available? No
– Gazebo: The city has a sizeable Indian expat population, so it’s only natural that the place it teeming with great Indian restaurants. Gazebo is an example of this, and we cannot recommend their biryanis enough, which come served in clay pots. Prepare yourself for the dizzying menu, though. So much choice, so little belly space.
Various locations, +971 4 359 8555
Alcohol available? No
–Tom&Serg: Perfect lattes, perfect eggs, perfect place. Having only opened in 2014, Tom&Serg is a relative newcomer, however it’s already garnered a lot of popularity from Dubai expats. So this place is very much off visitors’ radar – until now. Head to this place for lunch – we recommend the Morning After Wrap.
Al Quoz, +971 4 338 8934
Alcohol available? No
–Al Safadi: While Emirati cuisine is somewhat sparsely found in the UAE (ironic, I know), Lebanese food is available in abundance, and boy, is it good. Al Safadi serves up great portions of the stuff. The grills are especially good, as is the hummus and fattoush salad. And this is also a good place to try shisha (flavoured tobacco). The prices are also extremely reasonable for Dubai.
Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 4 343 5333 Alcohol available? No
Like A Pauper
–Ravi Restaurant: If you’re a fan of street food, Ravi’s may be the closest you’ll get to it in Dubai. Although technically it’s not actually cooked on the street, the sentiment is the same: plastic tables and chairs spill out onto the pavement, and there are certainly no frills here. From cab drivers to rich kids, everyone loves Ravi. If you tell one of the waiters your food preferences, they’ll make some suggestions for you on what to order.
Satwa, +971 4 331 5353
Alcohol available? No
–Taqado: If Dubai had street food stalls, Taqado would certainly be one. Well-made, hearty ‘Mexi-Cali’ food is the name of the game here, and their pulled beef burrito is something you will sing about for days. If you ever find yourself shopping in Mall of the Emirates, this is a pit stop you must make. In fact, I’d even recommend you make the trip there just to try this place.
Mall of the Emirates food court,+971 4 409 9000 Alcohol available? No
–Al Reef Bakery: A favourite among both locals and expats, Al Reef Bakery serves a variety of manakish (think similar to pizza, but with thicker bases), shawarma and grills for ridiculously cheap prices – and trust us, prices like these are hard to come by in Dubai.
Jumeirah, +971 4 394 5200 Alcohol available? No
If you want to really see the ‘other’ Dubai – you know, the one that’s not all glitter, glitz and glamour, then a walking food tour by Frying Pan Adventures is a must. Founder Arva Ahmed takes you on a journey through the old neighbourhoods of Deira and Bur Dubai on a quest to sample a variety of dishes from various restaurants. There are different tours on offer – we recommend the Middle Eastern tour so that you get the chance to try out a few Emirati specialties. Prices start from Dh 280 per person ($76)
Frying Pan Adventures, www.fryingpanadventures.com
When in Rome, you scoff pizza and visit the Colosseum. When in Dubai, you go on desert safari. In all honesty, before I moved here I didn’t see the appeal of the desert, as it sounded pretty boring to me. But boy, I was wrong – the natural beauty of the desert is, well, here comes the clichéd word: breathtaking.
There are plenty of companies offering desert safaris, but the itinerary is usually the same: you’re picked up from your hotel, taken in a 4×4 in to the desert where you go dune bashing (note: not for the faint hearted – I actually screamed the first time I tried it), following which you’re taken to a ‘camp’ where you feast on Arabic food, watch a belly dancer, smoke shisha, have a camel ride, and act all Lawrence of Arabia for the evening. It’s tacky and it’s fun.
We recommend Lama Tours. Approximately $54 per person.
Like it’s 1999
In all honesty, Ankit and I haven’t been partying for a very long time, so we’re probably not the best people to advise on this! But here’s a list of places that we hear are great when you want to make like Prince.
Mahiki, Jumeirah Beach Hotel, +971 4 380 7731
Cirque Le Soir Dubai, Fairmont Hotel, +971 4 332 4900
VIP Room, JW Marriott Marquis, +971 4 388 1500
Societe Dubai, Marina Byblos Hotel, +971 5 035 71126
What party? Just pass me a quiet drink.
Fibber McGees: Known as ‘Fibbers’ by expats, this teeny tiny pub is located in a back alley on Sheikh Zayed Road, which makes it feel somewhat forbidden. The ‘craic‘ here is as good as it is in most Irish pubs around the world, and they serve a damn good chilli con carne. Reasonable prices, too. Great place for a low-key pint if that’s your sort of thing.
Sheikh Zayed Road (behind Radisson Royal Hotel), +971 4 332 2400
Q43: The views from this ‘New York loft’ styled bar are its main selling point. On a clear day you can see right across the Palm Jumeirah, and it’s the perfect spot for some sundowners when starting a night out. They do some pretty good cocktails, too. Standard Dubai bar prices.
Media 1 Hotel, +971 4 443 5403
Neos: Art deco decor and stunning views of the Burj Khalifa make this a must-visit venue if you have some cash to splash. The drinks are expensive, but if you can afford a slightly extravagant night out, go to this place. Tip: get there in time to watch the sun go down – it’s really something.
The Address Downtown Dubai, +971 4 888 3444
Park Hyatt Dubai: While there are plenty of options for splurging on accommodation in Dubai, we personally recommend this hotel. While at the Park Hyatt you’ll feel like you’re actually on a Greek island – think blue-domed, white buildings and simple decor. The hotel also has a great selection of restaurants, including Traiteur, which does a great Friday brunch, and The Thai Kitchen.
Pros: Stunning property, great staff, five-star experience.
Cons: The price – strictly for those looking to splurge.
Deira, +971 4 602 1234
XVA Art Hotel: If you’re looking for something with a bit more individuality, this is the place for you. Truth is, there aren’t many boutique hotels with character in Dubai – XVA Art Hotel addresses that. Located in charming Bastakiya, the hotel’s rooms are designed according to various local themes. For example, there’s the dishdash (Emirati traditional clothing for a guy) room, the henna room and so on.
Pros: Full of character, charming location.
Cons: Location is prone to traffic, so can be a bit difficult to get in and out at times.
Bur Dubai, +971 4 353 5383
Dubai Youth Hostel: Good, budget accommodation is really difficult to find in Dubai, but the Dubai Youth Hostel caters to this market. Expect no frills but clean, comfortable rooms.
Pros: Close to the metro and airport, cheap.
Cons: A little far out, needs a new lick of paint.
Certain nationalities need a visa to enter, while others can get a visa on arrival. Click here to find out what you need.
The currency in Dubai is the UAE dirham.
Best time of year to visit
The UAE has a tropical desert climate, so while that means year-round sunshine (boy, have we loved that), it also means that the summer is un-bear-a-ble. Unless you enjoy sauna-like weather, it’s best to avoid coming from June until October. November, in my opinion, is the perfect month.
Dubai’s public transport system is getting better, although there is definitely a lot of room for improvement. The metro currently has two main lines, with more planned for the future. It’s a good way of getting from one end of town to another, but you’ll find more often than not that you’ll need to also get a cab to get to your final destination.
Dubai taxis are not too badly priced considering this is a big city. You can generally hail them on the street, but if you’d like to pre-book one you’ll need to call 04 208 0808.
Dubai also has a fairly comprehensive, cheap and clean bus network. You can find out details on timetables and routes here.
This really is a very safe city; crime is extremely low and if you’re a woman travelling solo you’ll barely if ever feel threatened or unsafe. However, this is not to say that there is zero crime, so like with any cities you should keep your wits about you at all time and avoid any behaviour that puts you at risk.
There have been reports in the Western media of various rapes, for example, so don’t put your guard down just because you’re in a reportedly safe place.
That Alcohol Question
Many people are shocked to hear that you can drink alcohol in Dubai. Yes, alcohol is readily available, but you must exercise caution when downing those pints in the emirates. This is an Islamic country, and you can be arrested for causing a disturbance or for inappropriate behaviour. While I know plenty of people who get extremely drunk every weekend without fail and have never encountered any problems, it really is best not to go OTT while you’re here.