Dubai is a spectacular urban destination. For the visitor it’s a hedonistic experience, combining sun, sand and sea with extravagant shopping malls, some of the planet’s best restaurants and eye-popping extras like an indoor ski resort and the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Get a taste of old Dubai in the area around Dubai Creek, which runs east through the city from Port Rashid. Bustling, business-oriented Deira lies on the river’s northern side and on the south bank is the calmer Bur Dubai, which includes the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood.
Parallel to the coastline, Sheikh Zayed Road runs 40 kilometres through the city’s spectacular modern towers, all the way to Abu Dhabi. Along this road you’ll find the DIFC financial district, with its restaurants, shops and art galleries; the Downtown area, which includes the iconic Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall; and the bustling waterways, restaurants and bars of the Dubai Marina neighbourhood.
You can haggle for pashminas and other gifts in the marketplace, or souk, of historic Bur Dubai, then hop on an abra, a small open ferry, for the princely sum of AED 1. That will take you to the souks of Deira, where on the wharfs the dhows (traditional Arabian trading vessels) make for a colourful photo opportunity.
In lively Downtown Dubai you’ll find the consumer haven of Dubai Mall. Right outside is one of the city’s best free shows – the Dubai Fountain, with its choreographed sound, light and water display running twice at lunchtime and every half hour in the evening. The Burj Khalifa tower dominating the city skyline provides a stunning backdrop, and next to it the Dubai Opera is the city’s premier performance venue.
Buzzy Dubai Marina offers waterside promenades and a gold-sand beach backed by skyscrapers. A modestly priced water bus can take you quickly around its many restaurants, bars and shops.
● Riding a dune buggy or a camel on a desert safari, with traditional entertainment to accompany your dinner from the barbecue.
● Visit the Dubai Miracle Garden, a flower garden with spectacular displays (winter only).
● Swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Bay marine habitat.
From upmarket resorts along the coastline, with private beaches and extensive grounds, to accommodation in the glitzy city centre, hotels in Dubai set a high standard.
Bordering lively Dubai Creek and close to the main airport, Bur Dubai and Deira make up the heart of the old city. Stay here for a culturally immersive experience, with sights, sounds and vibrant street life more reminiscent of a busy Asian city than the glitz and glamour generally associated with Dubai.
Hotels along Sheikh Zayed Road – the city’s central thoroughfare, which runs through Barsha and Downtown Dubai – make a great base for exploring, with easy access to Dubai’s top attractions.
At a quiet bend of Dubai Creek, away from the most hectic parts of town, Festival City has a wide choice of eateries and a large, modern mall.
For the liveliest areas, look to the Dubai Marina. There’s entertainment, shopping, eats, bars, spas and clubs all in one compact area, served by its own tram system and water buses.
It’s impossible not to eat well in Dubai, whatever your budget. Despite its ritzy reputation, the city’s full of bargain eateries, including shwarma stands and curry houses, and it has a huge range of fine-dining options as well.
The sheer number of foreigners living and working in multicultural Dubai means you can find almost any style of cuisine. Thai and Indian food is particularly well-represented, as are Lebanese-style grills and mezzes.
The best way to sample Dubai’s ethnic eats is an off-the-beaten-path foodie tour of the backstreets with Frying Pan Adventures. Every March, the Dubai Food Festival – a city-wide celebration of gastronomy – takes place at dozens of events and restaurants across town.
You can sample local treats at the food trucks that pop up around the city, particularly during events at the public Kite beach in Jumeirah, and at The Beach, the strip of restaurants and shops bordering the sea side of Dubai Marina.
Many restaurants offer Friday brunch, a Dubai institution that usually takes the form of a very sociable all-you-can-eat buffet.
● Shawarma: The classic Arabic fast-food sandwich, usually with grilled chicken or lamb, as well as salad, tahini, hot sauce and even fries inside flatbread.
● Shakshuka: Hunt down the local version of this dish of eggs poached in a spiced sauce of tomatoes, peppers, and onions.
● Fresh fish: Dubai has a busy fishing port, so take advantage. Popular local catches to look for are hamour, sherri (also known as sherry or shari) and kingfish.
Dubai has a deserved reputation as a great shopping destination. The malls are full of recognisable brands, from high end to high street. The best prices are on the streets, where you’ll find more traditional buys, as well as discount versions of the handbags and watches you admired in the malls.
You won’t want to miss Dubai Mall – the world's largest, with 1,200 shops plus a huge aquarium and full-size ice-skating rink.
Karama is full of small stores and eager – sometimes over-eager – salespeople. Haggling is the norm here; ask for the ‘best price’.
You can haggle happily for spices and household goods in the souks of Old Dubai. You should get a deal on pashminas, gold and other souvenirs as well.
For a calmer, more accessible approach to traditional goods – with higher prices and no haggling, but no hassling either – try the Souk Madinat Jumeirah.
● Some of the finest pashminas are available from Old Dubai’s souks. You might also consider the uber-comfortable Emirati wear of men’s dishdashas and women’s abayas.
● Shop for gold at Deira’s Gold Souk or the Gold and Diamond Park in Barsha. The price of gold is fixed, but retailers can add a markup for the work they put into it – that’s your opportunity to haggle for the best price.
It’s not all hedonistic relaxation and retail therapy in Dubai; whatever your tastes, there’s a busy schedule of entertainment year round, until things quieten down in the heat of summer.
Art in Dubai is booming, with many small galleries and a vibrant street art scene. Look out for the regular ‘Galleries Nights’ in Alserkal Avenue and Gate Village, when a number of galleries hold exhibition openings on the same evening.
There’s no shortage of live music either. For good open-mic nights, try Tr!beca in the Marina or the Gramercy in and DIFC. Local bands play live at the Music Room in Bur Dubai, and check out the Blue Bar or Jazz@PizzaExpress for jazz. If DJs and dance music are your thing, try Barasti.
You’ll find theatre shows, improv and comedy at Courtyard Playhouse and the Junction. There’s regular stand-up comedy in the pubs, too. The Laughter Factory hosts monthly tours by Western comics, while Dubomedy provides a locally-grown alternative.
● DIFC Gate Village, in the financial district, has a clutch of upmarket art galleries.
● Dubai Opera opened Downtown in 2016, providing the city with its first large multi-purpose performance space. It has a busy programme of top-notch opera, ballet and classical music.
It’s not all shopping and nightlife in Dubai. This city scores so highly because of the sheer variety of activities it offers – from beaches to ski slopes.
If your hotel doesn’t have its own beach, don’t worry – there are some excellent public beaches. Try Kite Beach, a long stretch of clean, white sand and clear, safe waters famous for kitesurfing. For a calmer vibe, Jumeirah Beach Park matches a lovely beach with lush green gardens.
The family-friendly Creekside Park in Bur Dubai has shaded lawns plus a variety of attractions -- some indoors, useful in hot times. Kids will love the cable car ride along Dubai Creek, plus the three-story ‘edutainment’ centre Children City.
● Hire a jetski or try your hand at flyboarding (rise above the sea on a jet of water) at SeaRide Dubai.
● Slide down five runs at Ski Dubai indoor ski centre, including the world’s first indoor black run, tube slides, jumps, ziplines and penguins.