Forget the seven-star hotel (Burj Khalifa), the world’s tallest tower (Burj Al Arab), man-made islands (Palm Jumeirah), and underwater hotels…. The city of Dubai really knows how to attract tourists even when Iraq and Iran are right next doors. On a popular belief Dubai is associated with world-class shopping but there is so much more to see and experience here than just wandering around and buying gold. Dubai has something for everyone – be it culture, art, history, architecture, food… so if you find yourself with 24 hours in Dubai, you’ll have no shortage of things to do. We bring you the definitive list of Dubai “must do” for your next visit.
Where to Eat
Dubai is a city of both – the super rich and the super poor. And the best way to experience both the extremes is through your stomach. For the five-star dining experience head over to Hilton Dubai Creek, Raffles Hotel or Grosvenor House Hotel where you can share the floor with the high-end crowds at the rate of $150 per person.
And if you wish to feel the taste of Dubai street food, Al Dhiyafah Road is the best bet. Many restaurants serving food from Lebanon, Iran and the India can be found on the sidewalk. Pars Iranian Kitchen serves fresh seafood and lamb from its outdoor grill. Not to miss is the curry at most popular Pakistani Ravi Restaurant and grill food from Sidra. Although you won’t get alcohol in these sidewalk restaurants but at the price of $30 for a meal for two, it’s a steep bargain.
Once your stomach is full with the Dubai delights, you can start exploring the city shopping malls. It’s a myth that shopping is cheap in Dubai if you compare it to places like New York or Paris. But the whole experience you get while shopping is something out of the world.
The Souk Madinat inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel, has its own waterway to transfer people from its shops, bars and restaurants to the neighboring hotels. The Gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope with real snow.
All that glitters is surely GOLD here
Dubai is known for really cheap gold — but you’ll have to bargain for it. Whether or not you’re ready to buy, a walk through the dazzling Gold Souq is a must. The stores also offer platinum, diamonds and silver jewelry with the genuine quality assurance. This is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy gold. Prices constantly fluctuate according to the market, with electronic signs throughout the souq display the current rate.
The Spice Souq is a two-minute walk from the Gold Souq, and worth a visit if you’re in the area. Almost every spice imaginable is on display as you wander the narrow alleys. An exotic buy is fine Iranian saffron, worth more per gram than gold.
Although Dubai is a Muslim state but you won’t be left thirsty. Alcohol flows liberally in almost all the hotels. And make sure you are staying in Dubai on a Friday afternoon (from noon to 3 pm) to experience champagne brunch when restaurants offer unlimited champagne with oysters and prawns.
Fairmont Dubai was the first hotel in the city to popularize Friday Brunch over ten years ago. Every Friday the renowned restaurant Spectrum on One turns into “Brunch in the city”, one of the most popular and chic Dubai Brunches. Also Le Meridien’s Yalumba , offers unlimited champagne (Moët and Laurent Perrier) every Friday. They now offer even the Non-alcoholic Brunches which showcases a full range of culinary feats, including fine international cheeses, an ice bar stocked with freshly shucked oysters in the half shell, traditional roasts, king crab legs, lobster and crispy Peking duck, plus a selection of creative mocktails and fresh juices priced at AED 345 per person. And for the price of AED 670 per person you can get all the above offerings, plus unlimited pourings of Moet & Chandon Rose.
Burj Al Arab
Although there is no such thing as a seven-star hotel; The Burj Al Arab’s seven-star rating is myth that got out of hand. However, it is that one building which dominates the Dubai Skyline being the world’s 4th tallest hotel (1,053 feet high) with a fleet of white Rolls Royces on the forecourt and fireworks to announce the arrival of VVIPs (VIP holds no value here). If you wish to get inside without paying for a room, you need to book a table at one of the hotel’s expensive restaurants. Try Al Muntaha on the top floor or Al Mahara, which is an expensive fish restaurant with an aquarium larger than most people’s apartments. Best of the lot is the beach-based Majlis Al Bahar from where you can admire the beauty of the hotel. Burj Al Arab stands on an artificial island from Jumeirah beach and is connected to the mainland by a private curving bridge. The shape of the structure is designed to mimic the sail of a ship. Sometimes referred to as “the world’s only 7-Star hotel”, its star rating is disputed.
The Real Dubai
To those who say Dubai is “not real,” I say: Get out of the hotels and malls. Venture down to one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai—Al Bastakia Quarter. Here, you’ll step into Dubai’s past and get a glimpse of what Dubai looked like in the days before oil.
While most of the old city has been demolished in the relentless drive toward the modern architecture, one neighborhood takes you back to the quiet fishing village that once was. If you wish to meet the soul of Dubai, head over to the Bastakia Quarter, which squeezes itself between the Dubai Creek and the buzzing Bur Dubai district.
Traditionally a stronghold of rich merchant residents, Bastakia dates back to the 1890s when it was settled by pearl and textile traders from the Bastak region of Iran.
Start your visit by walking through the Bastakia Quarter, which has the traditional houses, two stories high, with large central courtyards and the wind towers. The traditional carved doors with wood will surely take you back in time. This area today have been transformed into art galleries, small museums, heritage houses, souvenir shops, spice stores and cafes. Then continue your walk and visit the small Dubai Museum. Take a dhow (a local wooden boat) to cross the creek and visit the Diera area to shop at the spice and gold souks.
Whether it is the palm-tree shaped Palm Jumeirah, which the city boasts as the eighth wonder of the world or the up-coming Jebel Ali and Deira Islands, Dubai will amaze you in its architecture. Ostentatiously carving up the ocean in the shape of a huge palm tree, it’s one of the few man-made structures that can be seen from space.
In an outlandish stroke, Jebel Ali will feature a breakwater that spells out a line of poetry by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (“Take wisdom from the wise, It takes a man of vision to write on water, Not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey, Great men rise to greater challenges“).
Not to miss The World, an archipelago of islands that forms a world map in miniature; the islands are for sale, so if you can afford it, you can buy a “country” for yourself.
The Desert Safari
A desert safari is a quick and easy way to experience the traditional Bedouin lifestyle in the deserts along with the adventurous “dune bashing”. A typical desert safari involves half a day and includes a pick and drop from Dubai, fun-filled dune bashing, camel riding, belly dance performances in a desert camp, sheesha-smoking, Arabic coffee and dinner (under a star lit sky)
Golf is more than an obsession in Dubai. If you want to rub elbows with celebrities on the green grass, try the courses designed by Colin Montgomerie and Ernie Els. Better yet, head to the city’s most famous course, the Emirates Golf Club
At the Top, Burj Khalifa
Yes, at 828 meters, it’s the world’s tallest building. Yes, the panorama is jaw dropping. And, yes, if you’re afraid of heights a visit probably isn’t a good idea. Burj Khalifa – the pride of Dubai is also the world’s tallest man-made structure. Hold on to your hat as you take the fastest lift in the world – it only takes a few seconds to travel 160 floors. It is not for the faint-hearted but is well worth it, as the views will blow your mind. Tickets can be booked online in advance and try go at sunset, as you get to see both day and night from the top.
Tip: Book online before you go and save 275 dirhams (US$74).
Adult price: Pre-booked cost is 125 Dirham per person, on arrival 400 dirhams.
Children (4-12): Pre-booked is 95 Dirham, on arrival 400.
Children under 3: Free
The Jumeirah mosque is the only mosque in the UAE which is open to the general public and women. During this visit a local volunteer takes you around the different beautiful parts of the mosque, explains the customs and rituals and then answers all your queries on Islam.
Atlantis Underwater Suite
Where else in the world can you hire an underwater suite? At Atlantis The Palm you’ll gaze out at more than 65,000 different marine species in the Ambassador Lagoon at the price of Dirhams 45,000 per night.
Behold the world’s largest choreographed fountain, in the shadow of the world’s tallest building. The daily light and water spectacle lasts just about five minutes and is accompanied by an amazing soundtrack that varies depending on the show timing.
Location: The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai
Desert Palm, Lime Spa
It’s true that Dubai is all about artificial beauty. Try Desert Palm’s Lime Spa for something a little special: hot steamy session, sauna, ice room, cold plunge, heated lounges, therapeutic showers and private rooms in which to unwind.
Neos at Address Hotel
Admire the glittering Dubai cityscape from above while you sip on a cocktail at this sleek 63rd floor bar. The bar doubles up as a dining room if you wish to stay longer..
You’ll get perfect views of the Burj Al Arab (around 4pm) from this circular, rooftop bar. Located on the Gulf, it offers a blissful escape from downtown Dubai. Its dark sea views, together with a relaxing sheesha on the bar’s oversized sofas, make it a rejuvenating stop on a night out.
Puffing on a sheesha (flavored tobacco smoked out of a water pipe) is a must in Dubai. You’ll have no problems finding bars, restaurants and dedicated cafes that will set up a sheesha for you. For a late night smoke, try Mazaj, a Lebanese restaurant with lovely terrace views.
Ever been to Dubai? What were your favorite sites to visit? Any recommendations?
This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)
The tale of modern day Dubai probably starts a bit before 1966, the year oil was discovered in the emirate. Forty-five years later the Dubai brand is defined by a series of “city building” projects that aimed to create a beautiful global city. These illustrative plans accelerated development and with the help of ‘oil money’ and ‘trade money’ built a contemporary dessert city in just a few decades.
Most notably, Dubai is home to the Burj Al Khalifa – the world’s tallest building. It’s so tall it’s almost impossible to fit in one shot.
The famed Burj Al Arab – a vessel-shaped 7-star hotel that stands on an artificial island is also located in Dubai, as is the man-made palm island – now one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods of the city.
Those not lucky enough to live in either of these locations can always settle for one of the many resorts that line the shoreline with views to the Palm and the Burj Al Arab.
Dubai has a fairly sophisticated transportation system: a state-of-the-art metro system (pictured above), solar-powered air-conditioned bus stops (some, not all), and a well-built road network. However, it also has its shortcomings, which my recent trip to the city demonstrated to me. Access to metro stations was not always clear. It was easy to see the station but it was not easy to see the access point, or even if there was a critical mass of people using the system. I was also perplexed by the road exit/off-ramp design. The designs used make it difficult to navigate the city. In Dubai, missing an exit or taking the wrong exit can become a longer detour than is necessary. I tried following the logic behind the design and the only thing I could rationalize is that the road layout looks great from a plane, but functionally it was, at times, a nightmare.
Once, when we wandered off the main expat communities and tourist zones, we got came across a few single-family home neighborhoods that resemble American suburbs in density and urban design. I do not always find American suburbs bland, but these neighborhoods truly were. They were devoid of activity on the street, and the only sounds to be heard were the car engines humming away at stoplights.
Jumeirah Beach Residence was my favorite neighborhood. It had the most street life, even during Ramadan, and there were always people at the cafes socializing and people watching. It feels like a real neighborhood where you can get out of your car and enjoy the warm summer night while strolling down the promenade of shops.