I lived in Dubai for five years before the city became the pleasant and livable place that it is today, filled with nice promenades, parks, beaches and even an art district. When I was living there, we would often escape the city in the weekends because asking my friends about what to do in Dubai usually ended up with shopping, eating and going out.
There were no places to learn about the Emirate’s heritage, limited cultural activities, and very few outdoor options. The city was not then what it is now, and I have seen it evolve dramatically over the last decade.
Everytime I come back, I feel like I am rediscovering a new city as there are always new places to visit in Dubai that were not even there the last time I visited, despite that maybe even being less than six months before.
Since I moved away in 2011, I have been back dozens of times. I still own property and my best friend lives in Dubai, so I go to visit him often and use the city, and its airport, as a base to explore parts of Africa (Djibouti, Somaliland, Rwanda), Europe (Azerbaijan) and the Middle East. When I land at Dubai International Airport, I can’t help but always feel as if I am landing back home.
So in this post, I wanted to finally share a list of things to do in Dubai accumulated from the many years living there and the countless returns. I plan to keep it live too, adding new activities as the city evolves and grows up.
- A short introduction to Dubai
- The best things to do in Dubai
- Have tea, lunch, dinner, brunch or a drink at the Burj Al Arab
- Watch the Dubai Mall Fountain show
- Spot flamingos at Ras Al Khor
- Take an abra in the Creek
- Stand between old and new at the Dubai Frame
- Watch a show at the Dubai Opera
- Go to a hammam
- Watch the sunset in the desert
- Share the romance at the Madinat Jumeirah
- Stroll along The Walk at Jumeirah Beach
- Visit the Dubai Aquarium
- Dive with sharks in a massive fish tank
- Go on a desert safari
- Go quad biking in the desert
- Take a sunrise hot air balloon over the desert
- Have tea or dinner suspended in the air
- Shop at the Dubai Mall
- Get an art fix at Alserkal Avenue
- Watch an art film
- Watch an amazing acrobatic show on water
- Ski indoors
- Mingle with the local expats
- Try kitesurfing at Kite Beach
- Skydive or parasail above The Palm
- Take a helicopter tour above Dubai
- Fly above Dubai on a seaplane
- Visit a theme park
- Get wet at a waterpark
- Enjoy beachside living at La Mer
- Go on a yachting trip around The Palm
- Zip above the Marina (zipline)
- Go on a ferris wheel ride above The Palm
- Take a professional photography session
- See a camel race
- Be mesmerised by The Festival City light and water show
- Learn to play golf
- Drive a sports car
- Ride the Dubai Metro
- Learn more about falcons
- Eat your heart out on a Food tour
- Talk a cruise along the Dubai Canal
- Spend a day at The World
- Visit the Turtle Rehabilitation center
- Best places to visit in Dubai
- Best heritage areas and museums in Dubai
- Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
- Dubai Museum
- Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
- Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
- Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House
- Crossroads of Civilizations Museum
- Etihad Museum
- The Coffee Museum
- Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif
- Al Shindagha Museum – Dubai Creek House
- Al Shindagha Museum – House of Perfumes Museum
- Have amazing, unique and authentic food
- Get out – Best day trips from Dubai
- Where to stay in Dubai
- Practicalities – How to organise your trip to Dubai
A short introduction to Dubai
While there have been inhabitants in the Creek area of Dubai for thousands of years, Dubai as such was created in 1799 when the Bani Yas tribe settled there. In 1833, Dubai ibecame an independent Emirate with its own Sheikh, from the same Bani Yas clan and the Al Maktoum family who still rule the city.
When the pearl industry started to decline and the Great Depression hit the world stage, the Sheikh turned Dubai into a de-factor tax haven, similar to today’s status, by inviting traders from neighbouring Iran and India to settle in the port area and trade.
Luckily, oil was discovered in the 60s and with it came development, wealth and the ever changing landscape that the city has become famous for. Dubai joined forces with the other Emirates to create the United Arab Emirates in 1971 when the British left the Arabian Peninsula.
The best things to do in Dubai
This is a city of contrasts and while we all know the many tourist attractions in Dubai and can name the tallest building, the most luxurious hotel and the many other crazy Dubai sightseeing options, there are a host of activities in Dubai that are often overlooked so I wanted to create an extensive list which had them all.
Most visitors don’t realise that this is a widespread city which spans kilometers, so when thinking about what to do in Dubai, it is important to think geographically because this will save you a lot of time back and forth and hours of waiting in traffic. Sheikh Zayed Road, the main artery, can be totally clogged at peak hours and you don’t want to waste precious holiday time stuck in a jam.
Another thing to remember when plotting the best places to visit is that many of the best things to do in Dubai happen outdoors. But it is important to remember that the weather in Dubai can be brutal for 4-6 months of the year, so you need a good list of alternatives for when the thermometer reaches well past the 40 degree Celsius and being outside is just not an option.
Trust me, I lived through five summers and the weather is unpleasant to say the least. So I have tried to also include lots of Dubai tourist places that have indoor options or that are generally pleasant in the summer months, such as water parks, or museums.
Have tea, lunch, dinner, brunch or a drink at the Burj Al Arab
One of the most well known tourist attractions in Dubai is the Burj Al Arab. The famous seven star hotel sitting on its own manmade small island is iconic of the city and one of the features which catapulted it to stardom in the early 2000s.
Anyone visiting Dubai will want to get up and close with this gold, precious stone and rare material hotel where red, green and golden coexist in one of the tackiest yet most fascinating hotel lobbies in the world.
To get up and close with the Burj Al Arab you can either make a reservation for one of its duplex suites or take one of the two more modest options: afternoon tea, lunch, dinner, Friday brunch or a drink. The choice is all yours, or rather, your pocket’s.
The choice will determine the view and the expenditure. I used to like afternoon tea, which is served on the first floor of the hotel, better because the bar overlooks the mainland Jumeirah Beach and gave me the opportunity of spending time in the main hotel area, and appreciate the excesses and over-the-top design and decor.
Because this is probably the top thing to do in Dubai, I had “tea at the Burj” far too many times with every visitor who came to see me so I tried to move towards the Friday brunch option. Brunch is held at the top level SkyView Bar, this is also where the hotel now offers evening sunset drinks so you can enjoy the indulgence without having to stay for dinner.
At the top, you get less of a lobby feel and the decor is less over the top, as the views provide most of the entertainment. The buffet spread for Friday brunch is equally impressive with all you can eat seafoods and oysters and the drinks are prepared by the in-house mixologists.
But bear in mind that the restaurant faces the sea so your view is of the horizon unless you look to the right and down and then you can observe The World, The Palm and Jumeirah Beach.
The price was always twice as much for the brunch as for the afternoon tea, so this is to be considered, with afternoon tea at Skyview bar starting at AED 635 per person with an additional AED 100 for a window seat.
Watch the Dubai Mall Fountain show
Continuing on with the superlatives, one of the nicest things to see in Dubai is The Dubai Fountain. Located in front of the Dubai Mall and below the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, this is also, well, the largest performing fountain. Of course, because this is Dubai and they never do things halfway!
The fountain opened with the entire Downtown area and started by performing short but frequent songs. It is a very beautiful sight I must say, similar to the Bellagio in Macau or the ones in Las Vegas, and they change the show from time to time to dance to well known and amorous songs so it is quite romantic.
The Dubai Fountain can be seen from many places as it is obviously huge. The most obvious one is from the grounds around it or from the bridge that crosses to Souk Al Bahar. But here are a few suggestions from the years of visiting are.
One of the best and cheapest places to see the Dubai Fountain is the Apple store inside the Dubai Mall, it has uninterrupted views from behind the glass. Of course, this is a store so you should not be lingering around for long if you are not buying.
Another option is to see the entire sow while you are having dinner from one of the many restaurants that are in the Souk Al Bahar. The ones on the first floor are particularly good, pick a table closest to the fountain and call ahead to book, they will be able to advise on the best table. The restaurants on the ground floor are closest but beware some are on the walk, so tourists passing by can block the view.
Last but not least, the best way to experience the fountain is on an abra tour, right from the water, below the fountain, talk about front row seats! You can book your abra tour here. There is also a recent addition to the viewing experience. You can now also book tickets for the Viewing Platform of the Dubai Fountain and this gives you access to the best place. Tickets for this only cost AED 20 about $6 so they are worth it.
Spot flamingos at Ras Al Khor
Contrary to what you may expect, pink flamingos are in fact commonly found in arid parts of the world, for example, in Djibouti’s Lake Abbe, where I saw a fair few. The color of their feathers usually comes from what they eat, a small type of algae which turns their feathers pink.
Dubai is one of the places where you can see pink flamingos in the wild. The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, named after the Arabic for Cape of the Creek, is located inland from Dubai, at the beginning of the Creek, and by the side of Al Wasl Road, one of the main highways in the UAE, so you can even spot them from the car.
The reserve measures about 6 square kilometers and contains wetlands, a lagoon, mangroves and salt flats. Unlike other parts of the UAE, this is not man-made but natural.
The sanctuary was designated in 1985 and thanks to the protection and the non interference from humans, you can find flamingos in the winter and other migratory birds all year round.
Because access to the area is restricted, you can see the birds from one of the hide points along the perimeter which have been set up by the Dubai Municipality. The points have binoculars you can borrow so you don’t have to bring your own.
Each of them offers a view towards a different part of the park so you should check all three out. One of them is most suitable for spotting flamingos while there is one that faces the mangroves where you are more likely going to see birds of prey like eagles.
Access to these points is free and they are open during daylight hours. Just go the main entrance of the sanctuary and register as a visitor. They can also tell you more about what to expect at each of the viewing platforms as this varies by time of year.
If you don’t drive, the most efficient way to visit the reserve is by starting at the flamingo hide and then walking to the mangrove hide (the opposite is not allowed). You can take an Uber to and from.
For more information check their website.
Take an abra in the Creek
Dubai’s Creek is one of the few remaining parts of the city that still conserves the original charm from when Dubai was a pearl fishing settlement and the saltwater Creek connected the tribes living farther inland with the sea. In fact, the Creek’s shore is the place chosen by the ancestors of the current Sheikh to settle down, the Bani Yas tribe, in the 19th century.
Today, the Creek separates Bur Dubai from Deira, the two older parts of the city before all the development arrived, and goes all the way in towards Festival City and the Dubai Canal. The Creek has contracted and expanded through the years but the bottom part, closest to the Gold and Spice Souk, is still a functioning port and is lined with dhows, or traditional wooden boats, and merchant ships piled up with goods.
These traditional boats share the Creek’s shore with floating restaurants offering luxury lunch and dinner cruises on the water as well as the cheapest form of transportation in Dubai: the traditional abra wooden boats.
These water taxis connect the two sides of the Creek for just 1 Dirham and you can jump on them at one of the few abra stations along the Creek. The boats are small and simple and can maybe carry between 15 and 20 passengers.
They are floating structures without fences and with a thin roof that protects a bit from the sun and the journey across the Creek takes about five minutes.
If you want to enjoy the ride for a bit longer and explore the Creek and Dubai from a different angle, you can also rent them by the hour and go all the way up towards Festival City. As you ride among the larger commercial wooden boats and the towering skyscrapers in the distance, you may just understand a different side to the flashy and over the top Dubai that we all hear about.
Stand between old and new at the Dubai Frame
The Dubai Frame is one of the latest additions to the UAE list of unique attractions and one of the most fascinating places to visit in Dubai. Why? Because of what it stands for.
This is a great place to come for the views, of both new and old Dubai, as well as the Downtown area. And this is precisely what the frame stands for. The Sky deck very much looks like the tall tower in Riyadh, with a bridge connecting the two sides of the frame from where visitors can have panoramic views.
But there is more to that, this is also one of Dubai’s tourist places with the best mix of past, present and future. The 48 storey frame offers a glimpse into Dubai’s past through the Old Dubai Gallery exhibits. Here you can have a summarised perspective on the city’s evolution.
If you ever wanted to know what the future holds for this incredible city, the Future Dubai Gallery is filled with futuristic, sci-fi ready audiovisual displays that tell about a possible future.
You can buy tickets for the Dubai Frame online before your visit to avoid the queues. Don’t go to the wrong website for the Dubai Frame there is a dodgy site that appears as the official while it is not, here is the right one if you want more info.
Watch a show at the Dubai Opera
The Dubai Opera is one of the most recently opened buildings and one of the most interesting tourist attractions of late. Until now, Dubai did not really have a theatre or performance arena where shows could be presented but the Opera has sorted that with a space that can be used for all sorts of event.
The building is designed like an Arabian dhow boat and can be shaped to host concerts, operas and even events like fashion shows or exhibitions.
If you would rather learn more about the architecture of the building instead of watching a show, the Opera also offers tours including an option for a backstage tour that also has a drink at the cafe at the end and gives you more insights into what goes on in the background.
Go to a hammam
Some of the first luxury hotels to open along Jumeirah Beach are still, in my opinion, the best hotels in Dubai. They are charming, they have character and they were built at a time when bigger, grander, most impressive were not the slogan, so they are less artificially over the top and more old world Arabic hospitality.
In this category is one of my most favorite hotels in the city, the One&Only Royal Mirage. The hotel is fantastic for a meal, for a drink or, if you are lucky, for a wonderful stay. But if you cannot afford its prices, one of the best ways to enjoy its luxury is by booking a Royal Hammam treatment at the Spa.
This gives you the chance of checking out the hotel, which is absolutely magical, in the 1000 Nights way, and also indulge in a tradition that, while not Emirati but more Moroccan or Turkish, is perfected at the hotel. I can assure you this will be one of the most memorable things you will do in Dubai.
Here, the scrubbing is taken to a whole new level and done the original way, naked body on a marble slab vigorously scrubbed by a skilled large lady who knows how to purge layers of dead skin off you.
After the scrub comes the massage, equally vigorous and satisfying. You will leave as good as new, with the bright, clean and soft skin of royalty.
You can also book a 2h hammam treatment at the best day spas in Dubai here. For more relaxing and equally (if not more) indulging experiences that will leave you as good as new, book a 1 hour treatment at the Burj Khalifa spa.
Watch the sunset in the desert
Dubai is a city in the desert in every sense of the word. It was built in the desert, it is surrounded by sand dunes and it is as devoid of rain as you would imagine the desert to be. So much so that it usually rains five days a year, consecutively, and then not again for another year.
But while the city is surrounded by it, it is hard to enjoy the desert other than on a desert safari or a luxury desert resort stay. One of the best ways to get up and close with the magnificent dunes is by heading out into the desert, about half an hour from Dubai Marina, and having dinner under the stars at the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort.
This luxury hotel was one of the first ones to open in the UAE and a favorite of long term expats who no doubt take visiting friends and family over for a memorable yet classy experience and a great view of Dubai against the sand dunes.
The resort has a few dining options some with live belly dancing, henna tattoos, shisha and music all under the stars, while there are also indoor options for the summer months. You can book a trip that includes a return journey from Dubai to the hotel and dinner at Al Hadheerah restaurant which is the resort’s signature desert restaurant, located a few meters from the main building and made to look like a bedouin village.
If you want to do it independently, I would suggest you come for sunset first. The warm sun rays against the orange sand dunes and the dust that is always in the air of the desert create an aura around the city that makes it look almost out of a sci-fi movie. This was always my most favorite part of showing guests around and still remains one of the most romantic and beautiful places to see in Dubai.
The drive to Bab Al Shams is part of the experience and you should not miss the chance of seeing the city skyline against the sand dunes. More information on the rooftop bar here.
The Madinat Jumeirah is one of the oldest malls in Dubai although it is not really a mall in the traditional sense of the word but in the old Arabic way.
The Madinat as it is usually abbreviated to, is a development in between two luxury properties, the Al Qasr Hotel and the Mina Salam Hotel Hotel along Jumeirah Beach made of a souk surrounded by canals, restaurants, bars and even clubs. It is designed to look like an ancient city in the desert, in the color of sand and with wind towers, plus some water canals because, well, Dubai.
There are palm trees, waterways and abras taking people on short trips around the area. When I moved to Dubai this was one of my most favorite places in Dubai to have dinner. There was, and still is (14 years later!), a restaurant you could arrive at on a complimentary abra ride: Pad Thai, a Thai restaurant with nice outdoor seating on a wooden deck over the water.
Today, abra rides are available for fun too. Going on an abra ride through the Madinat is one of the fanciest ways to see how the rooms of the luxury hotels look like as they are spread across the entire area. They are also a fun activity in Dubai with kids.
The hotels that surround the Madinat offer a great friday brunch when several of their dining outlets combine their cuisines for a truly indulgent brunch after which all there is to do is nurse that food coma at the beach or with a siesta.
More information on the souk here.
Stroll along The Walk at Jumeirah Beach
When I moved to Dubai, there were no real beaches to speak of. The beach was there, but you would not really go, and if you did, you would stay with your clothes on as it was frequented mostly by South Asian workers and Emirati families and the atmosphere was conservative, bikinis were a big no. Strangely for a country surrounded by the sea, the beach was not really one of the most popular activities in Dubai.
As a resident, if you wanted to enjoy the beach, you had to pay for a hotel day pass. This was usually a good deal and included a buffet brunch and use of the facilities, it did also feel as if you were on a holiday, but it was not really what one would expect from a beachfront city like Dubai. For tourists, the sea and the beach was the most interesting attraction in Dubai and the reason why many Europeans would jump on a plane in the winter months when Dubai remained warm and sunny.
But this all changed when the Jumeirah Beach Residences real estate development opened up with a major dose of beach lifestyle. It took over 10 years for that vision to fully materialise but today, the Jumeirah Beach Residences area, colloquially known to everyone as JBR, is a true beach lifestyle.
The long promenade is lined with restaurants, bars, shops and food stalls. The beach is wide and always happening, with bootcamps, yoga classes, water sports and often live music. You can rent an umbrella and sun lounger and enjoy a true, and almost free, day at the beach.
JBR is today one of the most popular places to visit in Dubai and one of the favorite expat locations to live in. The beachfront setting, albeit most residential buildings are in fact on the other side of the road, the great lifestyle and the many dining and shopping options make this a very pleasant place to live, especially for families.
As a tourist, one of the best things to do in Dubai is to have a stroll along JBR. Be it during the day or at night, the area is always buzzing. Even in the summer months, when the weather is brutal and being outside is not really an option, JBR manages to still provide a bit of the beachside living it promises with outdoor fans and cooling machines.
Visit the Dubai Aquarium
The Dubai Aquarium is a fun place in Dubai for the whole family to explore. Located inside the Dubai Mall, the Aquarium has a huge array of tropical marine life from sharks to mantas to tropical fish and corals.
There is a glass tunnel you can walk through and be surrounded by the tank which is quite gorgeous and which will make kids happy. The fish can’t see you so you can’t scare them.
You can get your tickets here.
Dive with sharks in a massive fish tank
The Dubai Mall is one of the largest malls in the world and when I used to live in Dubai and the summer months arrived this was one of the few places you could come if you wanted to take a walk.
The mall has become one of the most important tourist attractions in Dubai and almost every tourist visiting will step inside at one point or another. But, besides the obvious shopping, the Dubai Mall is a destination where you can do lots of other different things, among which, diving inside the large fish tank of the Dubai Aquarium with sharks.
Now, only in Dubai can you dive with sharks inside a mall, this has to be one of the most ridiculous things to do in Dubai, up there with the other extraordinary activities the city offers.
The dive includes all the equipment and you don’t even need to be a certified diver as the aquarium has partners with Al Boo Divers, one of the most well established diving centers in Dubai, to give you a short introductory course. And if anything goes wrong, well, just stick your head out of the water.
More information on the various option available can be found on the website. They also have less scary options where you are not that close to the animals. The Aquarium only allows 4 guests per dive and there are three a day so spaces are limited.
Go on a desert safari
The most popular of all the tourist attractions in Dubai has to be the desert safari. And by safari, we do not actually mean you are going to see any wildlife, unless you consider other tourists.
Desert safari adventures are the only way to get up and close with the desert, unless you go on a hot air balloon or stay at one of the desert properties, as access to the desert wildlife reserve in Dubai is restricted only to the tour companies that the government has given permits too.
This is a half day tour that starts after lunch and ends after dinner so it’s quite long. You will be picked up from the hotel or designated points in Dubai and taken first on a dune bashing safari around the desert.
This usually includes driving up and down dunes, sliding down very tall ones, etc. Occasionally, cars get stuck in the sand and others have to come to the rescue, but don’t worry the drivers are very well trained and know exactly how to get the car out. You may spot some oryx if you are lucky.
You are then taken to a desert camp where there are a number of activities followed by dinner in a bedouin style, with carpets on the floor and an Arabic buffet dinner. There is a belly dancing show, you can ride a camel, go sand boarding, and there are usually falconry demonstrations too.
Nowadays, there are many different operators offering desert safaris, and many options beyond just the afternoon/dinner slot. But here are a few things to consider when picking the right safari for you:
- Sand boarding is usually available in the day time safaris
- Belly dancing is usually available in the evening safaris
- It can be excruciatingly hot in the desert heat from April till November so consider the evening safari if you are visiting Dubai at that time of year
- Bring sunglasses no matter the type of safari you pick, the sun reflects on the sand and creates a very tough glare. Bring a hat and sunscreen too
- Wear sandals as the sand will get everywhere but beware if you are going during the day as the sand can get really hot under the sun
With this being said, I highly recommend splurging a bit and going for the premium evening safari options like this one. They are the most complete, the nicest and the most memorable. For morning safaris, this one is complete and also premium.
If you want to feel the real magic of the desert, stay overnight at the camp. You have never seen so many stars in your life. I have done this in several parts of the world, from Jordan to Oman, and it is one of the most memorable ways to go to sleep and wake up.
Go quad biking in the desert
If you don’t mind the meal and just want the adventure part, you can also go on a quad biking adventure in the sand dunes, add in a bit of a camel ride and maybe some sandboarding and make it a morning of desert adventures.
There are tours that will pick you up, take you to some of the most impressive sand dunes, and take you back to your hotel. Here is one entirely focused on the adventure part.
Take a sunrise hot air balloon over the desert
What can be more romantic than a sunrise hot air balloon ride? I absolutely love them. I have enjoyed hot air balloons in Bagan in Myanmar, above Napa Valley and in the Masai Mara in Kenya, and the desert always offers an extra dose of romanticism with the red sunes and the warm hues of the sun.
For the ultimate in an exclusive morning, combine the hot air balloon sunrise journey with a breakfast of smoked salmon and caviar, followed by a desert safari on a vintage 1950s Range Rover to spot some wildlife and slide down large orange sand dunes. This is the best morning you will spend in Dubai. The tour is available here.
There are also more affordable options which offer just the hot air balloon with breakfast. Equally stunning but if you plan to go on a desert safari, this may be the best option. Although I do love the evening desert safaris that end in a meal under the stars.
Have tea or dinner suspended in the air
Dinner in the Sky is the local franchise of the global experience that is available in Dubai during the winter months from October to May and lifts a group of guests 45-50m up on a crane to enjoy afternoon tea or dinner suspended above the Jumeirah Beach and Marina area. The views are incredible and the experience quite exhilarating, literally.
Each session is for 90 minutes and goes on from 2pm till 11pm daily with a maximum of 22 guests at the table. The crane is located in the Mina Seyahi Hotel grounds and the food is prepared by the hotel chefs so you can expect something quite nice.
You will choose the menu from a set of choices ahead of time and an assistant will be with you up there to help out through the experience.
Don’t worry about safety, you will strapped to the seat and the rest of the team is wearing a harness so everyone is safe.
Shop at the Dubai Mall
The Dubai Mall is one of the largest malls in the world and receives 80 million visitors a year, this also makes it the world’s most visited. As such, it is a maze of 1,300 shops, department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and many other of Dubai’s best tourist attractions.
You could spend a week at the mall and never tire of new things to do, trust me, I spent many a summer in Dubai when the Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates were the only options available for weekend entertainment. That is, before the city became such a happening place with so many tourist attractions that are also interesting for locals.
The Dubai Mall is where you can find all the premium brands in the world, from Chanel to Dior, from Jimmy Choo to Louboutin, it can be quite dangerous when it’s hot outside and there are less things to do, look at my shoe collection and you will know what I mean.
But it is not all shopping, there are also many other activities here, from the Aquarium which I touched up already, to the Kidzania children area, a cinema and an ice rink. I told you, you could spend a week here and never run out of things to do.
Get an art fix at Alserkal Avenue
Alserkal Avenue is one of the most exciting places to visit in Dubai not just because of the programming and the many events and exhibitions taking place but also because it is a landmark development in a city that did not use to have much going on with regards to art and creativity.
Alserkal is located in Al Quoz, a primarily industrial warehousing area on the other side of Sheikh Zayed road near The Mall of the Emirates that did not use to be a place anyone would visit. This changed in 2007 when the art hub opened and a lot has been happening since then.
The area now comprises of local art galleries, design studios, community spaces, restaurants and cafes, local outposts of international galleries, centers that promote regional art, and an ever changing and expanding program of events.
Some of the galleries and spaces close on Friday so avoid going on that day so you can enjoy the full range. Try chocolates at Mirzam Chocolate Makers, the coffee from Nightjar and the genuine and globally inspired tea from Project Chaiwala at Akil Cinema (see next section for more details). For car lovers, Nostalgia has a huge showroom filled with classic cars.
Watch an art film
Cinema Akil is the first cinema arthouse in the Gulf. After dozens of pop up events, they finally have a permanent home at Alserkal Avenue where they screen regional Arab and international movies to an avid cinema base.
Here you won’t find the Hollywood hits, but rather the under the radar art movies that tell more of a story and that are much more unique. You can find their calendar of screenings on their website.
Watch an amazing acrobatic show on water
This is a must visit show in Dubai for all fans of Cirque du Soleil and the like. In fact, the founder of the acrobatic epic, Franco Dragone, has also worked on Cirque du Soleil, Le Rêve in Las Vegas, The House of Dancing Water in Macau, as well as performances with Celine Dion. With such a famous theatre cache, it’s by far Dubai’s number 1 performance.
It’s a show that uses Dubai’s aspirational feats as a muse to create something part immersive artistic performance, part visual extravaganza and part technological mastery. The seating is 270-degrees in an aqua theatre, so the stage becomes flooded during the performance. It really is an aesthetic thrill ride.
You can book a show online here.
Dubai became ever so famous when Ski Dubai opened in 2005, a year before I moved to Dubai.
This has to be the most over the top Dubai attraction and one of the most talked about points about the city for the years that followed. No doubt this is a must do attraction in Dubai, especially for families, even if just because it is quite impressive to have snow in a place that reaches over 40 degrees Celsius for several months of the year.
You can get your 2h tickets for the slopes here. But Ski Dubai is so much more than just skiing, you can also have a host of other snow related experiences. You can build a snowman with your kids, or friends, and go sledging and tobogganing. Basically all the snow activities you would have in the mountains are available, plus some other unique things like the penguins which would require a farther and more expensive holiday than the Alps. Here is a pass you can book online.
I hate skiing, I have tried it many times, including in Andorra, in the Catalan Pyrenees and also in Ski Dubai as a team activity, and it is just not my thing. I always say that I have too much common sense now to do certain life-threatening things. But Ski Dubai is one of the easiest places to learn the basis because it is a controlled environment and there are plenty of instructors at hand.
Ski Dubai is really well organised so you don’t need to bring any clothes or equipment with you, everything is available for rent, from the socks, gloves and jackets to the boots and skies. And if you plan to continue skiing after, you can also buy some of the equipment.
One of the nicest ways to enjoy the skiing feeling without actually getting cold or wet, is the Apres Ski Cafe in the Dubai Mall. This Swiss Alps inspired cafe serves the usual suspects, as if the weather was as cold as it would be there, and you get views of the slope, so it is quite scenic.
It is also a great place to come and relax while waiting for a friend who insisted in trying the indoor skiing option.
Mingle with the local expats
When I moved to Dubai there were very few places to go out and those that were have either closed now, or have become real institutions. After all, being open for 15 years in a city that is so fast paced and changing as Dubai is quite a merit. Barasti Bar is one such place, although it has evolved and changed quite a bit through the years.
This is the place to go if you want to mingle with expats living in Dubai, especially during the weekend or when a big sport game is showing. It is the go-to casual place to go for an after work drinks or on Ladies Night.
The bar is located inside Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, which is now also connected with The Westin and is one of the first hotels to open in Jumeirah beach, well before expats or tourists arrived in Dubai.
While this is now an overdeveloped part of Dubai popular with expats working in the nearby Internet and Media Cities, the entire stretch of beach going through to the end of JBR was empty beach when I moved to Dubai.
Because Barasti is part of a luxury hotel, alcohol is served and the bar is fully licensed. There are both indoor and outdoor areas, the outdoor with a pool open to the public and turned into a pool party destination.
The indoor section is good for watching sports games and for an after work drink when it is already too hot outside.
Try kitesurfing at Kite Beach
With wind speeds easily reaching up to 60km per hour, kite surfing has become quite a popular activity in Dubai. Pull over to Kite Surf School Dubai (KSD) to hire all your gear. There are also SUPs, surf boards and kayaks to rent and even a yoga SUP class!
The waves aren’t very big so it’s also a nice spot to learn how to hang ten. Surf House Dubai is another local company that rents/sells boards and equipment.
For those who don’t want to get wet and have to wait around, Kite Beach is a perfect spot for spectacular sunsets providing great views of Atlantis on the Palm and the Burj al Arab.
Skydive or parasail above The Palm
Seeing Dubai from the sky isn’t difficult having the tallest building in the world and all. But avid thrill seekers will no doubt look for something a bit more extreme a la Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. While I would never suggest jumping out of a plane, I’m sure the view along with the thrill is absolutely exhilarating.
For those who aren’t willing to risk their life but still want a fun adventure from above, the safer option is to parasail in the waters around the Palm. You can book your activity here.
Take a helicopter tour above Dubai
Is there anything more must-do in Dubai than a helicopter tour? Exactly.
The city is best viewed from above where you can fully understand the shape of some of the areas, the tall buildings, the most important landmarks and the incredible development the city has gone through.
A helicopter tour is one of the best activities in Dubai. Depart from The Palm helipad and return to the same spot after a trip all the way to the Burj Khalifa on this 15min tour.
Fly above Dubai on a seaplane
If you have been to the maldives you will know what it is like to take off and land from water above the stunning islands of the Maldives on a seaplane. If you have never done it before, this is your chance.
Seaplane rides in Dubai take off from water and land on water and while in the air, you get to see what Dubai looks like from above. As you can see there are a lot of cool experiences in Dubai which take to the skies but this is probably one of the coolest.
Visit a theme park
Dubai has many a theme park, some individually, like the IMG Worlds of Adventure Park, some part of the Dubai Parks and Resorts complex which includes even a hotel and acts as the local version of a Disney World, minus the Disney characters. This is a place you could come for the weekend and be occupied.
Dubai Parks and Resorts
Dubai Parks and Resorts is made up of five parks, Legoland, Legoland Water Park, Riberland, Bollywood and Motiongate. Each of these parks has a very different audience and theme but they are all great for children and for adults (I mean who doesn’t love Legos?). In order to have enough time to visit them all, a 2-day pass would be the best ticket to buy.
Legoland is set around the famous toy, Bollywood is a world’s first and one of the most unique tourist attractions in Dubai. The park is themed around the famous movie industry and looks a bit like the Venetian in Macau or Las Vegas, with a reproduction of the landmarks and backdrops some of India’s most famous movies, like the markets of Mumbai or the Rajasthan villages that appear in Lagaan.
Motiongate is the theme park that focuses on the film industry of Hollywood so instead of Bollywood, it showcases DreamWorks Animation, Columbia Pictures and Lionsgate movies through rides and all sorts of attractions.
The last one of the parks is Riverland which is water-based and set around the canals. This is not so much a theme park as it is the retail and dining part of the park, so you don’t need a ticket for this.
IMG Worlds of adventure
IMG Worlds of Adventure is another theme park and a great family tourist attraction in Dubai. The park is themed around IMG’s sagas, like Marvel characters such as Spiderman, The Hulk, Thor, or The Avengers, or Cartoon Network like the Powerpuff Girls or Ben10.
There is also a section themed around dinosaurs and a cinema. The park has plenty of dining options as well and is best visited on a day pass. You can get your park passes here.
Get wet at a waterpark
Dubai can get quite hot during half the year so a waterpark is one of the best things to do in Dubai, especially in the summer, to weather the heat. There are several waterparks in Dubai but perhaps the two most famous ones are Wild Wadi which has been there for as long as I can remember and pretty much since the Madinat Jumeirah resorts opened, and the more recent Atlantic Aquapark, which is even more impressive and over the top.
Possibly the best thing to do in Dubai for families on a blistering hot day is to visit a waterpark. The Wild Wadi Water Park is an outdoor water park located in Jumeirah, and operated by Jumeirah International. The cutesy quiche theme comes from Arabian folklore with the tale of Juha.
There are over 30 rides and attractions from floating on a rubber donut right up to tornado-like Tantrum Alley or the vertical drop of the Jumeirah Sceirah. Wild Wadi’s claim to fame though is its wave pool with a fully functioning artificial wave to surf on. So if the surf is low, you can head here.
Billed as the best waterpark in Dubai, Aquapark is more than just a bunch of rides and also includes a variety of other activities so it is a place where you can easily spend the whole day.
Besides the water park rides there is also an aquarium where you can also dive with the sharks (like at the Dubai Mall), snorkel with the marine life, and the Lost Chambers Aquarium which talks about the myth of Atlantis, the theme after which the resort is designed. They even offer tours to this part so that you can find out all the secrets. For the ultimate yoga experience, there are sessions at the Lost Chambers, surrounded by the fish, talk about a cool activity in Dubai!
If you are looking to visit the Aquapark, you can buy tickets just for the waterpark, for the combo of the park and the Lost Chambers or other variations. For the ultimate experience, you can also stay at the Atlantis The Palm and get unlimited access to the parks.
Enjoy beachside living at La Mer
La Mer is one of the latest developments along the beach in Dubai. Located further from the Marina area and towards Deira, on top of a great beach, La Mer is a dining and entertainment hub made of shops, eateries, lots of beach fun, a waterpark and plenty of pedestrian streets. It is similar to JBR in concept minus the tall condos.
Here is where you can enjoy Dubai’s beaches to the maximum. Rent a daybed or a room (yes a room) and enjoy beachlife. You don’t even need to bring anything with you, umbrellas and towels are also available, so La Mer makes for the perfect tourist attraction in Dubai.
The day rooms are available for rent for the whole day and make for a good option if you want a bit of air conditioned releave from the heat. Because they have fridges, you can bring your favorite drinks and food for the whole day. Or you can use the discount voucher you get with your booking and get some food from the many options.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable and fun parts of La Mer are the colorful changing rooms that are available at the beach. Located under shady palm trees, coming in all the colors of the rainbow, and in the usual wood shack look, they are truly instagrammable and make for cool shots, most people back home might think you are in South Beach not in Dubai!
Go on a yachting trip around The Palm
If you wander around the Marina areas you will see lots of luxury yachts anchored there. Nothing screams luxury life like a condo by the water and a yacht at your doorstep. Granted, I had some friends who own small boats in Dubai and they confirmed that there are two moments of happiness with a boat: When you buy it and when you sell it.
But you don’t have to own one to enjoy the beauty of sailing around the Marina or the The Palm, you can simply hop on a 60 or 90 minute yachting trip around the Palm and have a new perspective from the water.
There are group, but semi-private 2-3h yacht tour options which take you around in relatively posh surroundings and include a BBQ or breakfast, depending on the time of the day you book. I would suggest sunset to be the best time as that is when Dubai glows..
Or for a more DIY and casual option, check out the tours on zodiac-style inflatable boat options which are a bit more rough and fun.
Zip above the Marina (zipline)
A cheaper and less time-consuming alternative to skydiving, ziplining is a fun way to explore the Marina from above. The XLine is the world’s longest urban zipline, which means a nice long ride from start to finish. There are also a few lines next to each other making it a family-friendly affair as participants can ride in tandem.
The thrill is in the speed and the height of the zipline. The highest part stands at 170m above ground level and the fastest speed is 80km/h. This is sure to make dreams come true for adrenaline junky families. More information is here.
Go on a ferris wheel ride above The Palm
Similar to the London Eye, Ain Dubai (or the Dubai Eye) will take (when it opens) riders 210 meters above the ground to witness breathtaking views. And because this is Dubai, it’s the tallest ferris wheel in the world, as expected.
It’s located on the Pearl Island off the coast of the JBR beach, so you’ll have great views of the skyscrapers along the JBR beach including the Palm Jumeirah. There are 48 capsules in total measuring 30sqm and can hold up to 40 people at a time. The capsules are made entirely of glass so they all provide the same 360 views.
A single ride in the air conditioned capsules lasts for 45 minutes, but don’t worry about getting bored as there are LED screens constantly providing information about what’s around you. There are even VIP capsules that can accommodate twelve people and also provide meals. See more information here.
Take a professional photography session
From honeymooners to influencers, vacationing families to business teams, hiring a professional photographer is a great way to capture your trip. You will get to chat to the photographer before and come up with a perfect location and timing for your personalised shoot. As Dubai is one of the most photogenic places in the world, this is a great idea for big occasions, so that your memories can last forever.
Book your personal photographer on GetYourGuide here.
See a camel race
When arriving in Dubai, it’s easy to forget that this glistening city filled with skyscrapers and malls actually has its roots in the Bedouin culture of a bygone era. One of the best ways to experience old Dubai is to watch a camel race.
The racing season is between October and April with races usually taking place on Friday and Saturday mornings, pretty early. While there are many tracks, the largest and most significant is the home of the Dubai Camel Racing Club, the Al Marmoom Camel Racetrack.
Unlike horse racing, there are no human jockeys weighing the camels down, but rather lightweight robot jockeys. It’s quite a show to see the robot jockey operators driving alongside the racing camels in SUVs honking their horn loudly. See more information here.
Be mesmerised by The Festival City light and water show
Dubai really comes alive at night when temperatures are cooler and entertainment is abound. IMAGINE is one of Dubai’s newest night-time attractions that utilises light, water, holograms and pyrotechnics, to offer a truly unique sensory experience. The show is made up from 30 fountains and a wonderful surround sound system to complete the experience. And of course, like everything else, it’s the largest screen projection in the world on the face of the InterContinental Hotel.
There are two different shows to catch. Star Dancer is at 7:00pm and 9:00pm all week and A Child’s Dream is at 8:00pm and 10:00pm on weekdays with an additional show at 11:00pm on weekends. More information here.
Learn to play golf
Golf in the desert? You bet! One of the most unreal activities in Dubai surely has to be playing a round of golf. I was always amazed at the ability of the few green golf courses to keep the grass lush such despite the heat and the lack of rain.
I am not talking about little rainfall, I am talking about down right draught for the entire year save for the week in February when it rains, and then it all floods because there is no drainage system.
But the golf courses in Dubai are as green as it gets and the rates are affordable too, both to play a round of 18 holes as well as to simply go and hit some balls in the driving range.
I took lessons in Dubai at the Emirates Golf Club and you could go to the driving range without an appointment and for a reasonable amount, borrow golf clubs and try your luck. Book a 30 or 50min lesson and get free driving range practice access for the entire day. There are several restaurants and bars with views over the green courses to feed you.
Emirates Golf Club is also one of the oldest membership and golf clubs in the UAE, set up in 1988 when there were practically no expats or golfers in the Emirates, and it is located where the first and most luxurious housing development for families, The Meadows, is.
For more information and to book lessons visit their website.
Drive a sports car
If there is one uber over the top activity in Dubai that has to be driving a race or supersports car. Perhaps one of the biggest incentives for sports lovers to move to the Emirates is the fact that owning an otherwise luxury and expensive supercar is relatively cheap here. It is also cheap to drive it, as petrol is subsidized and far more affordable. There are also long and straight roads, although the police have been cracking down on unsafe driving and now there are cameras all along the main roads preventing the 200km an hour that used to be so common when I was living there.
If you don’t live in Dubai or have a wealthy friend and would like to experience the adrenaline rush from driving a real fast car, really fast, you can simply book your slot and drive it in a race track at the Dubai Autodrome.
You can book your race slot here.
Ride the Dubai Metro
The Dubai Metro is quite a feat that took years to complete and then, when it opened it was not what I was expecting. It covers only two lines and the stations are far and few between so while it is a very affordable way to cross the city, you may have to walk a lot to get to the closest station.
Nonetheless, it is fun to ride it, especially along Sheikh Zayed Road, where the metro railways are elevated and glide above the traffic. You can take it at the Marina station and ride it all the way to Downtown Burj Dubai.
Learn more about falcons
The UAE has a special love for falcons. They are owned by the royal ruling families and they were historical used by the bedouin tribes. They are also featured in coins and stamps.
Falcons, especially peregrine falcons are the fastest birds and can fly at very high speeds. These beautiful birds of prey can see a prey from up to 2,5km away. Falcons are associated with the desert and thrive in the UAE where falconry is a popular sport.
One of the most uniquely Dubaian things to do is learning more about falcons and you can do so at the Dubai Falcon Museum, the Dubai Falcon Souk and through a falconry demonstration. This all happens at the Falcon & Heritage Sports Center.
The falcon souk is the only place where falcons can be legally sold and you can also see all the accessories and materials used to take care of and race these beautiful animals.
Or better yet, book a trip including visits to the museum and a 90min demonstration where you can get up and close to these majestic creatures. You have the opportunity to top the morning with breakfast at the Al Maha Desert resort which is stunning, I stayed there a few years back and the setting is sublime.
Eat your heart out on a Food tour
You’ll see below that I mention all the best things to eat in Dubai as well as my favorite restaurants, but in my experience, nothing beats eating like a local. If you have an adventurous palate like me and love sampling local and authentic delicacies, then you should definitely try going on a food tour of Dubai.
You’ll get to sample some out of the ordinary cuisine like saffron ice cream and even a camel burger as well as other food from various Middle Eastern cultures. This three hour food tour also takes participants on an abra across Dubai Creek, as well as various restaurants and areas that you would otherwise not have known about. It’s a great way to not only experience Dubai’s culinary scene, but also it’s lively culture.
Book your Dubai food tour here.
Talk a cruise along the Dubai Canal
While you can take a charming stroll along Dubai Canal, seeing the city by water is always a good idea to get a different perspective. Slowly cruising through Dubai’s artificial Water Canal is quite a particularly romantic experience, especially during sunset.
There’s a new man-made “waterfall” under Sheikh Zayed Road and you’ll get to see other famous landmarks along Dubai’s skyline like the Burj Khalifa, Business Bay Bridge, and Dubai Festival City Mall from the water.
There are various cruises to choose from, but two recommended ones would be a breakfast cruise on a luxury yacht where you get a freshly prepared BBQ onboard. This is a great option for families. A more romantic option would be a sunset cruise on a glass-encased dhow where you get a welcome kahwah (Arabic coffee) on arrival followed as well as chilled refreshments and dates. This becomes an indulgent Arabic dinner while watching a traditional tanoura dance providing sophisticated entertainment.
Spend a day at The World
The World is perhaps Dubai’s most outrageous development and one that has not been finished yet.
These islands offshore shaped like the globe were started when Dubai was at the height of its real estate development, in 2008, but as soon as the 2008 financial crisis hit the city, development stalled and they were never finished.
If you are interested in seeing them up close, your best bet is by taking a day trip to Lebanon, the only island that is accepting visitors for the day and first one to open.
You ticket includes boat transfers, access to the beach, a daybed, a towel and also the opportunity to get your own meals and drinks from the Royal Island Beach Club and Toro Blanco restaurant. It is not a fancy club but quite a unique experience.
Visit the Turtle Rehabilitation center
One of the nicest things to do in Dubai is to drop by a place filled with people who do good to save wildlife.
The Turtle Rehabilitation Project is an NGO in Dubai devoted to taking care of sick and injured turtles with the objective of healing them and releasing them back into the water. The majority of the turtles there are hawksbill and green turtles, which are the common species in Dubai waters, and both of whom are endangered species.
If you visit the project at Al Naseem Hotel you will be able to see them being taken care of. In addition to that, Wednesday 11am see the turtles being fed in a public education effort by the center to tell more about them and what threats they face. You can see more details about the feeding on their Facebook page but the center is always open if you want to drop by.
Best places to visit in Dubai
If you are looking for lots of fun and unique things to do in Dubai, the list is pretty long, as you have probably realised. But this is not all. The city is also known for its tourist landmarks and sightseeing opportunities and so the list of places to visit is equally long.
At the top of the Burj Khalifa
Moving on to another Burj, the Arabic word for castle, we find Burj Khalifa, the other renowned Dubai attraction. No sightseeing in Dubai can start until one has seen the view from the top.
Burj Khalifa’s shape is one of the most recognizable of the tourist places in Dubai but perhaps less than the shape of the Dubai fountain pools from above. The bright baby blue against the desert sand color is unmistakably Dubaiesque.
I was living in Dubai when the Burj Khalifa was being built, in fact, I used to live in the Old Town, the residential area in Dubai that surrounds the Burj. It was impressive to see it go up a floor a week. But what many may not remember is that the tower was not supposed to be called Burj Khalifa but Burj Dubai.
But then the 2008 crisis hit Dubai, more in 2009, in the middle of the building’s construction, and Emaar, the government owned real estate developer, could not face the debt and was at risk of bankruptcy, so big brother Abu Dhabi came to the rescue. In exchange, the tower was renamed after the Abu Dhabi Sheikh.
This happened quite close to the launch date of the building so when it opened, a lot of the billboards and marketing materials still had the former Burj Dubai name.
In this case, unlike Burj Al Arab, you can easily go up to the top and see not only the tower but also the view from above.
Burj Khalifa has a viewing platform on level 140 that is open to the public. You can go up on the elevator and get out to the outdoor area to enjoy the views. I have to say that they are spectacular but not for those who are afraid of heights, it is really really high up there and you can almost feel the building sway to the winds.
If you want something extra special you can also have a meal, a drink or afternoon tea at Atmosphere, the bar/restaurant on level 122 which has stunning views.
Dubai Miracle Garden
Dubai Miracle Garden is perhaps the most beautiful of all the tourist attractions in Dubai. This huge open air space is filled with thousands and thousands of flowers of all colors landscaped into pretty shapes, from Mickey Mouse to an Emirates plane, houses, arches, turtles, teddy bears, etc.
Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the garden is in full bloom from November to May when it closes as it gets too hot. There are 150 million flowers here and the pinks, yellows and purples prevail although all colors are on offer.
The garden is so unique that it has earned three Guinness World Records. You can buy tickets for the garden only or get a tour that includes the transfers or even better, a combo for the garden and the butterfly park (see next section).
Dubai Butterfly Park
Part of the Dubai Miracle Garden flower extravaganza, the Butterfly Park has 15,000 butterflies in an indoor space occupying several domes and you can spot 26 different kinds of butterflies. This is quite an endearing activity in Dubai, especially for kids.
Tickets need to be bought separately from the Miracle Garden but you can buy a combo with transfers here (both parks are a bit far from the main tourist area in Dubai).
One of the most iconic places to visit in Dubai is indeed the Jumeirah Mosque. This is the only mosque in the city that welcomes tourists and visitors of all faiths in so it is the only religious tourist attraction in Dubai.
Located along Jumeirah Road, the best way to visit the mosque is no doubt via a guideline tour by guides from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding which are available at 10am and at 2pm everyday but Friday which is the day of rest and prayer.
The tour aims to bring Islam closer to those of other faiths and debunk myths around the religion and its five pillars. The tours end with some snacks like dates and coffee.
Women need to cover their heads but there are scarfs to borrow.
Dubai Marina is perhaps the most famous skyline in Dubai. Located right by the two main and first free zones in Dubai, Media City and Internet City, the artificial marina area was the first development to attract expats in 2005.
The first six towers to be built there by famous developer Emaar are warmly known to any long term resident of Dubai as The Six Towers and started what will become the most popular residential area in Dubai. There are other bodies of water and other marinas in Dubai but when you say the Marina, everyone knows you refer to Dubai Marina.
While there are now several other parts of Dubai for expats to live in, from Kite Beach to the Old Town or even Jumeirah Lake Towers, when the first expats arrived, you could only choose from the large houses in The Springs, the larger ones in The Meadows, or the apartments in the Marina.
I moved into the second complex to open there after The Six Towers and lived surrounded by 24/7 constructions for the following years. Dubai Marina was a fascinating place to live in. While Dubai is an ever changing city that never looks the same from year to year, Dubai Marina has remained largely unchanged in all those years.
Flanked on one side by Sheikh Zayed Road and on the other by JBR, the Marina is where you can come to see how expat life in Dubai is like.
Before Dubai offered other alternatives, this is one one of the few parts of the city where you could walk around, by the water, away from traffic and construction. The Marina area is surrounded by a promenade and tall apartment complexes with eateries on the ground floor, most of which have outdoor seating close to the water.
Do as locals do and enjoy one of the best tourist attractions in Dubai: a dinner by the Marina followed by a stroll along the water and try to spot some of the beautiful yachts.
The Gold Souk
Located in the Deira side of the Creek, The Gold Souk is perhaps the most important and well known of the old souks in the city and it is also the oldest, opening its doors a century ago with with some of the shops dating back to the late 60s. The souk is filled with gold stores selling all sorts of jewelry in the brightest and yellowest of golds.
Some of the pieces on display are so impressive that they look fake. I always find myself getting up and close with them and leaving still wondering if they were real.
If you want to see something quite unique, the souk is home to world’s heaviest ring, the Star of Taiba, registered in the Guinness World Records and weighing 57 kg between gold and Swarovski stones and is valued at about $65 Million.
The Spice Souk
Of the three main souks in Dubai, the most interesting one to me is always the spice souk. I just can’t help but love to wander the narrow lanes among all the colorful spices. This is definitely a must place to visit in Dubai.
Here you can find all the usual suspects of any spice souk in Asia, such as dried chilli, all kinds of pepper powder, fragrant cinnamon, bright yellow turmeric, but, there are two items that are quite uniquely Middle Easter. One if the frankincense, and the other the saffron.
Frankincense is an expensive and priced item used across the Middle East as incense and in perfume. It is a historical object that was used in the past as bartering and currency, weight its price in gold. If you visit Oman, this is one of the most commonly found smells no matter where you go.
Saffron, so popular and famous of Spanish paellas, is a very pricy and delicate spice on sale not in the open air spice stalls but inside air conditioned premium shops that specialise in this only.
Dubai does not grow saffron, but is a great place to find it and buy as souvenir. The best saffron comes from countries in the Middle East and South Asia such as Iran which produces 90% of the world’s saffron.
Saffron is made from the dried stigmas and styles of a red flower which is collected and dried to be used as coloring for food, it does not actually have any smell or flavor.
Because saffron is practically weightless, delicate and time intensive to grow and collect, it commands very high prices, but just a small amount will do so you don’t need to buy a lot, a couple of stems will color an entire biryani
There are a lot of saffron stores in the Spice Souk but check out Bahraman Saffron Shop which is easy to find and easy to reach as it is located at the edge of the souk and learn more about Persian saffron.
Global Village is an entertainment and shopping park with rides, dining options, and pavilions for several countries in the world.
This is another of the old timers in Dubai. Global Village opened in 1996 but moved to its current location in Dubai Land in 2001 and has been improving significantly over the years to become a much nicer place to learn about the world’s cultures.
At the beginning it was a pretty uninviting place with not so interesting stalls and some really tacky items from some of the countries but, with time, it has become a much more exciting destination and one of the most interesting places to visit in Dubai with 75 countries showcasing something and 30 pavilions.
There are seasonal festivals like Chinese New Year or Carnival, and lots of entertainment options for families including fireworks, dancing fountains, street performances, etc. Entrance is just 15 Dhs and every year the activities change. In the 2018-2019 season there are replicas of bridges from all around the world.
The park closes in the summer as it is all outdoor and it is impossible to appreciate it when it is so hot. The park is also closed to men on Monday when only women and children are allowed.
Dubai Garden Glow
Dubai Garden Glow is something a bit different to do in the night that is sure to please traveling families. The massive complex is a recreation park that has a multitude of glow in the dark sculptures that utilise modern, eco-friendly technology to create an otherworldly experience.
Beyond the glowing fun there is also an Ice Park, Dinosaur Park with animatronic dinos, and an edutainment centre to keep the young ones entertained while teaching them about the benefits of living an eco-conscious existence.
The park is open from Sat-Thurs between 4:00-11:00pm and Fri between 4:00pm-12:00 AM. Tickets are AED 65 excl. VAT, but allows you access to all three parks. Children 3 get free access. See more information here.
Wafi City Mall
Wafi City Mall opened in 1997 making it one of the oldest malls in Dubai and when I moved there, it was practically the only one. This ancient Egyptian themed small shopping center is where you would come to get your gourmet food fix.
There are not that many shops here, only about 250 which is a fraction of what you find in the Mall of the Emirates or the Dubai Mall so it is quite cozy, but the Pharaoh themed atmosphere and its nostalgic old fashioned look is quite unique in a flash and new city like Dubai where everything is always newer and better.
Don’t miss the chance of seeing the glass pyramid that sits in the atrium style section of the complex, it is absolutely beautiful, and the Khan Murjan Souk on the basement level (not to be confused with the mall of the same name that is inside the Souk Al Bahar in the Downtown area) is a great place to shop for traditional items from across the Arab world, from Persian carpets to beautiful coffee pots.
Is another of the historical heroes of Dubai. The park was practically the only green space available in the 80s and 90s and has improved, expanded and become something much more appealing and exciting over the years, especially now that it sits across from the Dubai Canal.
The park was created in the 70s and was originally used by illegal immigrants from Asia who called it home. Because their cheap labor was used in the city, they were allowed to stay, until the 80s when the ruler of Dubai gave them amnesty and a new place to stay.
The park was emptied out and has undergone many redevelopments and expansions since, the most notable the partition of the park to connect the Dubai Canal with the sea. What was originally in the outskirts of the city is now right in the middle, and is made of several lakes, lots of greenery, trees, birds, and even a waterfall.
Safa Park is a great place to come on Saturdays when there is a flea market going on and you can buy second hand stuff and have some food in a completely laid back way, almost not very Dubaian.
Ibn Battuta Mall
This mall in the western part of Dubai is inspired by the travels of the famous explorer Ibn Battuta and is considered the world’s largest themed mall receiving 20 million visitors a year (that is a forth of the Dubai Mall).
The theme you ask? The six lands that Ibn Battuta visited in his adventure across the world: Persia, India, Egypt, Tunisia, Andalusia and China.
Each of the six differentiated areas is decorated like the specific country so you can find influences from India’s Mughal Empire with landmarks such as the Taj Mahal, a replica of a Chinese junk from Imperial times, or the domes of Iran’s beautiful mosques.
There are a multitude of shops and dining options in all six, just like in any other mall, but the theme is what sets this mall one apart. Ibn Battuta is also one of the oldest malls and one of the closest to the Marina before the Marina Mall opened, so it is one of the long-term staples in expat life.
Is this Dubai’s most romantic tourist attraction yet?
If you were wondering what to do in Dubai for an extra dose of romanticism, the Love Lakes might just be the answer. These heart shaped pair of interlaced lakes are the ultimate in settings for proposals. Seen from the sky they are even more amazing.
Located in the middle of the desert and near Al Qudra Lakes, these were practically made famous by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai Instagram shot, who else can get an aerial shot in a country where drones are banned. We thank him for it because the photo is quite stunning.
Best heritage areas and museums in Dubai
What to do in Dubai in the summer?
Why not visit one of the many heritage areas and museums. This section can becomequite handy if you snapped one of the great summer hotel rates without realising you would be cooking in the 45 degree heat.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
The area at the mouth of the Creek and near the Shindagha Tunnel has become Dubai’s answer to an old town, in the sense of the center of a city.
This was not always like this. When I lived in Dubai there was nothing of the sorts and no place to really call the old part of the city. Instead, Bur Dubai and Deira where what one would refer to as such, but they lacked history and in fact, any Emirati or Dubai feel to them. There was an incipient Bastakiya district which has now grown, expanded and renamed Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
The area between the Creek and Fahidi Street has dramatically changed with the renovation and reopening of several old buildings and is now a burgeoning district with museums, galleries, cafes and even some boutique hotels.
Al Fahidi is laid out and designed to look like the ancient Arabic villages, with tall walls providing privacy to those inside, wind towers that cleverly channel the wind and cool the houses down without air conditioning, and the beautiful interior courtyards.
The streets in Al Fahidi are narrow and the buildings in the traditional sand color, but inside, you can discover a world of heritage or simply some art or a nice coffee.
One of the best places to visit in Dubai is the newly opened Dubai Museum. Located at the heart of the Fahidi Heritage District, and housed in what is probably the oldest building in Dubai built in 1787, the Fahidi Fort is a great place to learn more about how it all started, right here by the Creek.
One of the most incredible parts of the museum is a set of aerial photos showing the development of Dubai. Only if you live in a place like Singapore where the evolution is equally dramatic, can you understand the magnitude of the change that Dubai has been through.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Adjacent to the Dubai Museum, Sheikh Mohammed Center of Cultural Understanding offers tours of the Fahidi District as well as other cultural exchanges, breakfast, tours of the Jumeirah Mosque and regular events all geared towards improving multi-cultural understanding, something which is essential in a city where the vast majority of the population is foreign.
While you can wander into the center and learn more on the spot, it is wise to join one of their tours as this is one of the best things to do in Dubai and an excellent way to explore the area. Book your traditional Emirati breakfast here.
Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
This is perhaps the most historically significant house in the entire historical district of Dubai. This is the where the grandfather of today’s Ruler of Dubai grew up and where the idea of Dubai started.
The house has been recently reopened to the public and you can see how structures were built in the past and have great views from the top of the wind towers, a traditional architectural feature of houses in the Arabian Peninsula.
Inside, there are lots of family portraits and other items that talk about the ruling family and the evolution of Dubai.
The house is undergoing renovations and you can find more information here.
Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House
This was one of the first houses to be built in Dubai, in 1916, and it is open to the public to visit and you can even get a guided tour for free. The house is not so much a museum with exhibits but rather a place to stop by and have a chat with the staff.
Crossroads of Civilizations Museum
The Crossroads of Civilizations Museum opened in 2104 and is now a group of three museums comprising the original plus the Rare Books, Manuscripts & Prints Museum, and The Armory Museum under the name of The Museum Group.
The museum is housed in the 19th century historic house of Sheikh Hashr Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, the brother of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, the current ruler of Dubai and constitutes the personal collection of Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori who used to display his objects at home.
Inside you can find three distinct spaces under one roof showcasing ancient objects found in Dubai and which are believed to have come through the global trade that the city saw in the last hundreds years. There are artifacts such as bowls, jewelry and documents. The armory section has swords, daggers and guns from all over the world.
The Etihad Museum is not devoted to the airline but to the origins of the UAE and translates to “together” in Arabic which is why it represents the unity of the United Arab Emirates.
Strange as it may sound, the museum only opened in 2017 so before that, there wasn’t much about the Emirates as a whole, each may have had their own museum, Dubai being the most prolific in that space, but there wasn’t one for the country.
The museum is located in the place where the country was formed, along Jumeirah Road, and has a very unique design. Inside, you can find modern displays and interactive sections talking about the seven Emirates that make up the UAE. You may be familiar with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but there are 5 more: Sharjah, Al Ain, Fujairah, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah.
After the visit, enjoy camel milk ice cream in the garden cafe.
The Coffee Museum
This free and small museum is all about coffee. Did you notice that coffee can be drunk, brewed and made very differently across countries? For example, coffee is boiled with milk in Chennai, is filtered in small individual containers in Vietnam and nowadays, it can be brewed even cold or with nitrogen.
The Coffee Museum in Dubai is where you can learn at least about three types of coffees, of the more traditional kind: Ethiopian, Arabic and Egyptian. You can also enjoy a cup or three at the end of the visit.
The museum is located in the historical district of Dubai and aims to educate the visitors on the growing, roasting and brewing processes of these three types. You can see lots of vintage brewing and grounding items too, hence the museum aspect to it.
The visit combined more interactive elements like videos, with the traditional kind of museum exhibits and for coffee lovers, there are books on sale too. This is also a good place to buy coffee brewing equipment, older or more modern.
Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif
The former residence of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the father of the current ruler of Dubai, was built in 1955 has been converted into a heritage building open to the public. This is where the Sheikh used to come alone to relax and disconnect from the busy life in the afternoons.
But it is also the place where he used to have meetings and make important decisions. The building has two floors and on the upper level there is a Maslij, or meeting room, where he would receive his advisors. The room is covered in carpets, in the traditional Arabic wind tower way, and pillows, just like the forts and palaces everywhere else in the Middle East, like Nizwa Fort in Oman.
The structure is surrounded by palm trees and some benches. Here is where the UAE National Day celebration takes place.
Al Shindagha Museum – Dubai Creek House
This is one of the best places in Dubai to learn more about the local origins of the city and how it all started. Recently opened in the area of Dubai where the rest of the heritage building and museums are, Al Shindagha Museum wants to tell more about the first people who arrived in Dubai.
The first inhabitants of Dubai were fishermen and bedouins and in this museum you can read more about what life was like when both the desert and the sea dictate your food, your traditions and your life.
As the museum is quite new, there are several interactive and multimedia sections where you can have a more immersive experience than at other museums. There is video and audio. There is also a children’s section designed with entertainment in mind.
The museum also has live performances of traditional singing and dancing which is also commonly seen in other Middle Eastern countries (I have seen similar dancing in Oman and in Saudi Arabia) as well as demonstrations of traditional crafts, like dhow making. There is also a schedule of changing temporary exhibitions.
More information about the museum here.
Al Shindagha Museum – House of Perfumes Museum
This newly opened museum is officially part of the Al Shindanga Museum Project although it is located in a separate building by the Creek instead of a row inland with the rest of the Shindaga project mentioned before.
The building where The House of Perfumes is located was the former residence of Shaikha Shaikha Bint Saeed Al Maktoum, sister of the Vice President of the UAE who died in 2017.
She was an expert perfumer herself and the museum is a small yet interactive and very interesting place to learn more about the importance of the perfume tradition in the UAE and across the Arab world. Some of her priced artefacts and archeological finds are also found at the museum including a large piece of oud that is priced at Dhs200,000.
The main hall contains a few sections for each of the main smells common in Arabic perfumes and you can read about the ingredients, where they come from and how the smell is extracted then also smell the various types. Frankincense, oud, rose and other typical smells lingering in malls and Arabic places are all explained here.
The museum also has a shop where you can buy some to take home.
Have amazing, unique and authentic food
This is a city of superlatives so one of the best things to do in Dubai is to dine in the many over the top, unique, extravagant and exclusive places the city has on offer. With a population made of 8% expats, the choice of cuisines and foods available in Dubai are mind blowing.
Aside from the global range of restaurants and the many one of a kind foodie experiences available in Dubai, I also wanted to provide recommendations for the places that are historic, that are known to the locals, that are uniquely Dubai.
And there are many reasons why something can be truly local in a city that can only be defined by multiculturality and extremes so let me give you some suggestions for the best foodie related experiences in Dubai.
Have zaatar pastries
One of my most favorite Middle Eastern spices is zaatar. Zaatar is a combination of ground dried thyme, oregano and marjoram mixed with toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sumac, another unique spice used in Lebanese cuisine, for example, to dress fattoush salads.
Usually, zaatar is sprinkled over breads, or used in baking savory items along with olive oil and cheese, but can also be used in salads, Arabic breads, and even on pizza. It also makes for an amazing dip when mixed with olive oil.
Zaatar is commonly found across menus everywhere in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, and in Dubai where a lot of Lebanese restaurants and bakeries have flourished. One of them is Al Reef Bakery which has been baking traditional Lebanese pastries and breads in house since 1986. While this may not seem like a very old business anywhere, it is in Dubai where everything is new.
At Al Reef Bakery you can buy sweet and sour biscuits, pastries and breads which are usually made using cheese, tomato, nuts and many of them contain zaatar. Don’t leave without trying the house specialty, the cheese manakish, served and eaten folded.
Oh and before I forget, Al Reef is open 24h so it is the most popular late night snack stop.
Eat where the Pakistani and Indian expats go
Let’s start by one of the most unassuming foods yet what really represents what Dubai is. Ravi is a real Dubai institution is the go-to place for Pakistani and Indian taxi drivers and anyone in the know.
The very affordable restaurant in one of the busiest streets in Satwa serves authentic Pakistani and Indian food in modest and humble surroundings. The food comes in plastic plates and can be enjoyed indoors or outdoors, in a sidewalk area flanked by bushes that protect diners from the buzzing traffic or in shared tables and chairs by the kitchen.
The atmosphere is friendly, welcoming and very casual. The menu is extensive and has all the usual favorites, with mutton kebabs, rice based dishes, chicken, dhal, curries and rotis or parathas.
Ask the staff to help you choose, they are best at giving recommendations and will do so with the widest smile. The food will come fast and hot.
Ravi is definitely not a place where tourists come, even expats do not usually make the trek down to Satwa which can take up to an hour in peak evening traffic, so you can expect the most authentic of meals. It’s long standing existence is also a testimony to its success among the community.
Do as the experts do and eat with your hands, dipping soft breads into spicy sauces or mixing rice dishes with the curry options. The restaurant does not have a license and it is not affiliated with any hotel so alcohol is not served.
As you tuck into delicious food, you may even forget you are in Dubai and instead feel in a side street in Delhi or Lahore.
More information here.
Have Emirati food at Al Bait Al Qadeem
After living in Dubai for many years, I actually had Emirati food very few times, perhaps less than half a dozen. This is because Emirati cuisine is hard to find in the UAE and in Dubai in particular, and is very rare outside the country, being overshadowed by the more popular Lebanese restaurants. However, having local food is one of the best experiences to have in Dubai.
But Al Bait Al Qadeem is one os the best places to try the local food not only because it is made using the traditional method but because the restaurant is housed in a historic building too.
Al Bait Al Qadeem comes from the Arabic for Old House and is located in an original 1909 location that used to belong to a pearl trader who donated it to the local government for rehabilitation and conversion into a museum and restaurant.
As soon as you walk in you will be asked if you prefer to sit outside or inside. If it is not too hot, make sure to sit outside, in the courtyard, where the atmosphere is more pleasant and the true vibe of the house can be felt. If it is the summertime, inside there is air condition.
The menu is quite extensive and has a few items that are not Emirati like other Arabic dishes and even some Persian ones like the ever present grilled meats. Emirati food is traditionally made for people of the desert and is rice and meat based.
On the menu are grilled meats, called kebabs, rice biryani dishes with meat and many other meat-based dishes. Mutton is a favorite meat across the region. You will also find a small note on the table that talks about a uniquely Emirati food: mahyaveh, a pungent anchovy sauce that is eaten with bread and which you can buy if you like it. The sauce is believed to have been brought by Portuguese sailors who came to the region and is thought to help bear intelligent children to women and increase stamina. Do not miss the chance to try it.
Go for brunch
Nothing is more quintessentially Dubai than Friday brunch. This local pilgrimage is one of the most typical and unique things to do in Dubai. No expat will go a week without enjoying a lavish, decadent and utterly indulging brunch buffet with so much alcohol and food that only a siesta can follow.
There are a lot of brunch options in Dubai and the city has certainly expanded the portfolio of options even more since I moved out but the truly traditional ones are the huge spread that the five star hotel put out. Those come with unlimited food, which often include seafood, and even oysters, and a choice of cocktails, mocktails, wines and even bubbly, hence the food coma that follows.
One of the most favorite and longest standing ones is the brunch at the Al Qasr Luxury Hotel which spread over the many restaurants and is set along the waterways. There is usually live music and a selection of food from many stations providing something for everyone. Mojitos and other cocktails ensure a fun time for everyone.
Another great alternative is Traiteur at the Park Hyatt which sits by the yacht club, in a quiet and classier part of town. When the weather is good, you can sit outside by the boats and the spread is equally amazing.
If you are looking for a non-alcoholic option, there is a brand of cafes in Dubai that existed even before local cafes were available, More Cafe. With Dubai having no freehold options and the majority of the cafes and restaurant being part of hotels of malls, More has always been one of the few independent cafe options, well at least since 2002.
The menu is huge, with pretty much anything and everything, and there are always magazines and a relaxed surrounding. There are several branches but the menu is the same across, as is the excellent coffee.
Dubai being Dubai, there are not one but two places where you can dine “underwater” and I put that word in between commas because, unlike the true underwater restaurant at the Conrad Rangali in the Maldives, you are not technically under the water here, just surrounded by it.
One of the most iconic places to visit in Dubai is the Burj Al Arab. I already told you about the afternoon tea and the Friday brunch affair. But perhaps the most elegant and refined way to visit the Burj is by booking dinner or lunch at Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara.
The hotel’s underwater restaurant is helmed by Michelin-starred British chef Nathan Outlaw and, while it is not technically under water, it sure feels like that when you are surrounded by a huge tank with tropical fish. Tables are located along the tank and the dimmed lights and seafood heavy meal will do the rest. If you book your set lunch via GetYourGuide you can make sure not to go overboard with the expense.
The other option for dining underwater, is Atlantis The Palm Ossiano. The restaurant used to be led by the daughter of Catalan Michelin awarded Chef Santi Santamaria, and I had dinner there several times, before he died of a heart attack in Dubai without an heir to his passion and talent in the kitchen.
The setting has not changed and the romance remains but the menu is now designed by Chef Grégoire Berger. The tank here is much larger than at the Burj Al Arab and you can even see stingrays and other larger fish. It is all a bit surreal, but isn’t this why people come to Dubai?
Have a romantic dinner over water
Pierchic has been in business for years and this is a lot to say from a restaurant in Dubai where the landscapes and the dining scene change as much as the weather.
Floating over the water with views over the Burj Al Arab and part of the Al Qasr Hotel, Pierchic is one of the most romantic restaurants in the world and was a favorite of mine when I used to live in Dubai.
Nothing screams special occasion like the classy rickshaw ride through the alleys of the Al Qasr and a short stroll over the pier leading to the restaurant. The views help too, as do the dimmed lights and the fine dining Mediterranean menu for dinner.
But this is also a great place to come for lunch when the views over the beach and the Burj are even more impressive and Friday brunch is fabulous too.
More information here.
Eat a whole fish with your hands
Bu Qtair is an unassuming and truly authentic fish shack by the beach serving up made to order, deep fried, whole fish or prawns which you must eat with your hands off plastic plates.
The restaurant was started by one of the fishermen and pearl divers in the 1980s when he realised that the entire stretch of beach in Jumeirah today filled with expensive houses and hotels had no eatery for these men. Initially, he served chai and parathas but this evolved into the fish restaurant that it is today when his Indian chef started to prepare fried fish with the special sauce that has made the restaurant famous.
The name Bu Qtair comes from the Arabic for sweet water, the place where the pearl divers would wash the salt off after a day at sea. The atmosphere has remained casual and unrushed, and you will have to wait long for your food, but it is one of the most unique experiences in Dubai.
In a city that is all flash and artificial and where modernity, expensive restaurants and one of a kind activities are the norm, it is nice to sit down by the side of the road to enjoy a really laid back meal made with simple ingredients and no complications.
To order your food walk into the building and queue up to the hole in the wall counter. There, you can select what you want and let the staff know. They will pick each piece, larger or smaller depending on what you prefer, and set them aside in a plate for the chef to cook it when your turn comes. Because the place is busy at meal times, you could be waiting a while.
If you want a drink, let the staff know or directly pick it up from the fridge. This is self-service, as if you were visiting a friend. Pay up and wait outside where your name will be called when the food is ready and you will have to go back in to pick it up.
If you don’t want to or are not used to eating with your hands bring your own cutlery. Tissues are provided. There is not much besides the specialty fried fish but this is all you will need.
Bu Qtair is usually filled with the local taxi drivers, especially in the indoor air conditioned area, whereas the outdoor section is favored by those who are not in such a rush to go back to work.
Get out – Best day trips from Dubai
When you live here, the city can become quite small and the options for activities in Dubai are soon over, so as an expat you always look for day excursions from the city as an alternative activity from Dubai.
Dubai is one of the seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates and there is plenty to see outside the city on easy day trips. If you are staying longer, one of the best things to do in Dubai is to rent a car and go on a day trip to either the nearby Emirates or to the natural formations and desert.
Hatta Fort and heritage village
Before true tourism development came to Dubai and the UAE, the one and only weekend escape for locals and residents of Dubai was Hatta.
This traditional enclave is part of the Dubai Emirates but about 130km inland. Hatta is surrounded by the Hajar Mountains and borders Oman and the other Emirates.
Because of its elevated location, the area has always had more temperate weather and drier conditions than the steaming hot city, so it was always a favorite place to visit in Dubai. I can’t remember how many times I have been to Hatta but it’s fair to say it is many.
Hatta has also developed with tourism growth in Dubai and now has a restored traditional village, several tourism hot spots and even luxury hotels.
A day trip to Hatta should include a visit to the Fort, the Mosque, the Al Sharia Site date plantations where you can see the traditional falaj water irrigation system (which I also saw in real life, still being used in Oman around the Alila Hotel) and the Hatta Heritage Village, which opened in 2001 as a reconstruction of what a traditional Emirati village would look like in the past.
The Fort itself is historical and was built in 1896 as a defensive structure and a house so you can see both a watch tower and a nice residential area including a courtyard. The fort was restored in 1995 which is why it has been a popular getaway for years. Today, you can even stay at the hotel.
You can also get active by cycling the many tracks available or by hiring kayaks at the manmade Hatta Dam. For a complete day, explore Hatta, Fujairah and Kalba, on a day trip from Dubai to the east coast of the UAE.
Visit a real oasis
Part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain has the UAE’s only UNESCO site consisting of six oases, a Bronze Age archeological site and the Jebel Hafeet Tombs. Because of the greenery that one can find in the middle of the desert, on the border with The Empty Quarter, the city is often referred to as the Garden of the Gulf.
This is also where the Ruler of Abu Dhabi grew up and where you can find the largest percentage of Emiratis among the residents, despite they are still outnumbered by expats.
Al Ain has a lot of important tourist attractions to visit on a day trip from Dubai. You can explore the 19th century Al Jahili Fort and the famous Al Ain Oasis which is made of several hundreds palm trees irrigated by the ancient system of falaj which brings subterranean water to the surface to keep vegetables, plants and trees alive and create the effect of a real oasis.
Apart from the oasis and the fort, Al Ain also has a palace and a museum and you can also learn more about the millennia old Bronze Age finds at the Hilli Archeological Park.
You can visit Al Ain independently, renting a car or taking Uber taxis, but you can also book a tour to all the main sites in Al Ain including the oasis, the fort, the museum where a lot of the objects from the 6th century are on display and get back to Dubai on time for the evening. This is a great tour option.
Mleiha Archeological Center
This is one of the most impressive, interesting and unique of the heritage sites in the UAE.
Located in the Emirate of Sharjah and dating back to the bronze Age, Mleiha is a combined of archeological sites and a visitor’s center which uncovers the ancient past of the UAE.
Start at the visitor center where you can have an overview and a more global perspective on the site and its evolution. Here you can also see what the UAE was like millennia ago. Then explore a few of the sites. Start with the Umm an-Nar tomb, near the center, which is large and quite unique and continue with the tombs at Jebel Faya. You can enter these tombs and see them inside.
Near the tombs you can also see the remains of a settlement that is seven millennia old and which can be viewed from platforms. The rest of the sites also provide important information about homo sapiens and the movement from Africa and into Arabia as the oldest stone tools found outside Africa were excavated here.
Follow the visit with the 2nd century AC Mleiha Fort which is believed to have belonged to a sort of ruler, the residential area nearby and the last set of tombs from the period. There are also larger village style excavations, more tombs and even a palace.
The archeological site and area also offers horse riding adventures, lessons, tours on a horseback and several other activities. There are also star gazing sessions and overnight camping options, with desert safari, comfortable camping tents and a BBQ dinner.
The site offers pick up and drop off services from Dubai making it the perfect place to visit in Dubai if you are looking to get out of the city. More information here.
The Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi
Ten years in the making, the Louvre’s first international outpost is an incredible building by Jean Nouvel housing a stunning universal collection held in loan from the Louvre as well as other institutions. This is a must see attraction near Dubai, especially if you are an art lover, but even if you are not, the building is worth it on its own.
The Museum is impressive as it large and truly one of a kind. You can find items from the time of the Egyptians and the Romans all the way to Leonardo’s or contemporary times.
You should allow for at least half a day to make the most of it and can perhaps end with lunch at the museum’s cafe which has stunning views. If you go in the evening, the sunset over the main area of the museum, the water and the domed area is absolutely magical.
The audio guide helps a lot and you need to download it on your phone and bring your own headsets. I went to the Louvre by Uber from Dubai, the journey takes about an hour and it is easy to get another taxi back. Or you can make it a day and explore the Museum and the grand Mosque on this tour.
Abu Dhabi day trip
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and far from the boring city that it once was it has been developing quite a bit, just like the rest of the UAE, into an art hub with the hopes of competing with Dubai’s entertainment and flash with a host of more refined alternatives.
The best way to explore Abu Dhabi is on a day trip from Dubai which takes you to all the major sites, including the Grand Mosque and the Louvre Museum mentioned above. Or you can skip the museum and focus on the mosque and the city’s main landmarks including the Etihad Towers in this small group tour of this full day tour.
If you prefer to have more fun and less heritage, there are tours that include the entertainment parks of Ferrari World, Warner Bros or the Yas Island Mall on top of a tour of the city.
I have put together an entire guide to Abu Dhabi with the major things to do and see and they can all be seen in a day. There are also lots of cool places to eat at and lots of beaches and entertainment parks in Abu Dhabi so you can never run out of options.
When we wanted to escape Dubai’s heat and looked for a bit of respite, one of the favorite activities in Dubai was to leave the city and head for the mountains and sea of Musandam.
You would think that we could have as well gone to the beach in Dubai, after all the city is sea facing, but in the summer months, the sea reaches bath temperatures and when the water is 36-37 degrees Celsius and the temperature soars to 45 degrees it is not pleasant to go to the beach. Private pools in apartment buildings are refrigerated to make them cooler and the sea in Musandam was always a few degrees lower and much more crystalline too.
Musandam Peninsula is part of Oman and is located at the Strait of Hormuz, surrounded by the UAE. It is the closest point between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran and the narrowest point in the Gulf Sea. Because this is technically Oman, you will need to cross the border and make sure that your car has the right insurance and that you bring your passports and have a visa if you need one.
When you get there, you can drive around the rugged mountains, visit the 17th century Portuguese Khasab Fort in the Musandam capital, or more commonly, go on a dolphin watching dhow cruise. This is the main reason why people come all the way here, especially families.
If you want to stay longer and make this a weekend trip, you would be hard pressed to find a more spectacular place than the Six Senses Zighy Bay, a fantastic Arabian village resort on the bay of the same name that is a luxury oasis in the desert and from where you can explore Musandam and the rest of the peninsula. You can read my review here, I have stayed there twice.
And if you want to make things easy, I always prefer to be driven so I can watch the world go by (or nod off in the car) there are day trips to Musandam too. These include the stunning rocky landscapes of Dibba as well as a dhow boat trip where you can spot dolphins.
Diving in Fujairah
If you like diving you can do so at the Dubai Mall where you can jump into the tank and spend some time with the fishes as the rest of the mall goers walk past or you can do the real thing and head to Fujairah’s many dive sites.
Diving in Fujairah is a long running activity and one of the best activities to do when you live in Dubai. Fujairah is technically another of the seven Emirates that make the UAE and its location towards the eastern coast of the country, in the Strait of Hormuz, make it a privileged position for diving.
There are several dive operators who will take you out to the few sites which are all near the coast. There are several reefs created by sinking various ships, cars and trucks so, although the wreck diving here is not technically made from wrecks, you can still explore some ships and other underwater structures.
If you like to get wet and swim but don’t want to dive, there are also snorkeling trips to Fujairah with a BBQ lunch.
The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and the city’s most recognizable landmark.
The mosque was commissioned by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former president of the UAE, and opened in 2007. It was designed by an Iranian architect taking inspiration from several other buildings among which Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque or the mosque of Alexandria.
The most impressive part of the mosque is the internal courtyard, made in pure white marble and with mother of pearl inlay floral motifs, similar to the Taj Mahal or the Golden temple in Amritsar.
It is incredibly beautiful, especially when the sun is setting and the warmer hues reflect on the building’s facade. But the building has several other first, largest, biggest, longest, as would be expected of the UAE.
Look out for the massive chandelier, made with thousands of Swarovski crystals, and which is considered the third largest in the world. The carpet is also the largest carpet ever made and weighs 35 tons.
The best way to visit the mosque is on a half day tour. There are several options available, including the simple half day tour of the mosque, the full day tour which combines the Louvre Museum (a must visit when in Dubai) or the best of all, a tour of the mosque with a professional photographer, trust me, you can get absolutely stunning photos here as the backdrop is beautiful.
And for the ultimate in opulence, majestic architecture and a truly luxurious experience, combine the visit to the mosque with a coffee or tea at The Emirates Palace hotel in the city, this is one of the most elegant and grand hotels you will ever see. The hotel looks like a fairytale palace and you may find yourself waiting for the princess to appear.
If you visit the mosque on your own, you should allow for a half day visit as it takes about an hour to get there from Dubai and you will probably need another hour to visit it. Women will have to borrow a long tunic that covers you from head to toe. More information here.
Al Jazirah Al Hamra
Al Jazira Al Hamra was once an island but is now connected to the rest of Ras Al Khaimah thanks to landfill. This is perhaps the only haunted spot in the UAE and believed to host ghosts and other spirits.
The site was abandoned in 1968 and nobody has lived there since. It became famous with locals through the movie Djinn which was produced by the local media company Image nation which is part of the group that also owns THe National newspaper and was directed by Poltergeist Tobe Hooper.
Al Hamra was once a buzzing town with pearl divers and traders but when the industry collapsed the local Sheikh tried to revive the village with agricultural development. But with the arrival of oil, the men emigrated to other countries in the Gulf in search of work opportunities.
As wealth arrived elsewhere, the village was abandoned and has remained pretty much as it was in 1968, giving a glimpse into how people lived before success and money came to the UAE.
Where to stay in Dubai
Dubai has so many luxury hotel properties that it is impossible to narrow it down to just a handful. This is where you can find the most incredible, expansive, over the top and luxurious properties in the world with beachfront Arabian palaces, the lost city of Atlantis at the end of the man-made The Palm, the world’s first and only 7-star hotel or a hotel in the world’s tallest tower.
Dubai is what luxury hotel dreams are made of and picking one is nearly an impossible feat. I have selected here the best of the best of Dubai’s hotels and resorts, the ones that have something truly unique.
|Hotel name||Nightly rates (US$)||Book now|
|Al Baleed by Anantara||$1200||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Burj Al Arab||$1200||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa||$500||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|The Bulgari Hotel||$500||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|One & Only Jumeirah Beach||$400||Booking.com | HotelsCombined|
|Emerald Palace Kempinski||$400||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Park Hyatt||$300||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|The Palace Downtown||$300||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Al Qasr Dubai||$300||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Atlantis The Palm||$260||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Jumeirah Emirates Towers||$200||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|The Address Dubai Marina||$160||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
Al Maha Desert Resort
Al Maha Resort is a luxurious accommodation right in the middle of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. It’s truly an oasis as the secluded property is nestled within the Hajar Mountain massif among the dunes.
There are 42 suites each with a private temperature-controlled swimming pool. The style is bedouin luxe where the rooms have more of a glamping than resort feel. In all suites you’ll find antique handcrafted Arabian furnishings, custom-made king size beds, walk in showers, even an easel with art materials if you’re inspired by the desert landscapes.
Activities on offer include horse riding, dune drives, desert safaris, camel trekking, nature walks, archery and falconry. There are also several dining options available from Al Diwaan serving Arabic and Mediterranean cuisine where you can dine alfresco on the veranda, to the sophisticated Hajar Terrace Bar to dining in the dunes or on your suite’s deck.
Burj Al Arab
Probably the most iconic hotel in Dubai, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah stands as a symbol of modern luxury and over the top extravagance. Guests can expect world-class service with an option of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and complimentary access to Wild Wadi Waterpark for the duration of their stay.
The hotel has its own private beach, three outdoor swimming pools, one indoor pool, Sinbad’s Kids Club, as well as the Talise Spa and fitness club. There are nine different dining destinations including the highly acclaimed “underwater” aquarium restaurant Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara.
There is a choice of 201 suites among the 56 floors of the building. Staying in the lavish suites is more like renting out a royal apartment than staying at a hotel. All the carpeted rooms are all decked out with Arabian divans, opulent sofas and bespoke furnishings. You can choose between ocean of cityscape views depending on your preference, but both are spectacular, especially from higher up.
Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa
The Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa is exactly what you would expect from two of the most lavish brands in the world. This hotel is the first from the fashion icon Giorgio Armani and is housed in the tallest building in the world. While most of the suites are on floors one through eight, there are a few premium suites on floors 38 and 39 of the 163 storey building. While Signiel hotel in Seoul is higher (occupying floors 87 – 101), it is still pretty high up!
The style, similar to Armani’s, is simple elegance. You won’t find any paintings on the wall or over the top decadence, but rather muted luxury that is calming and beautiful in its simplicity. Although “less is more” seems to be the hotel’s focus, there is an air of exclusivity. A table at the Armani Prive lounge, for example, starts at 3000. The lounge is topped with marble tables and a constant loop of Armani’s fashion shows are displayed on the largest LCD television in the world.
The beige and gray rooms are luxuriously zen and the Armani/SPA has an entire range of treats for the body from the relaxing to the invigorating. There is also a dining experience for every taste with a selection of six different options from Indian to Mediterranean and everything in between.
One & Only Royal Mirage
Located just one kilometer from the beach and a quick walk from Dubai Marina, the One & Only Royal Mirage is located in a true oasis among 65 acres of gorgeous landscaped garden. There is also a private beach with a host of fun-filled water activities, making it a great stay for families.
There several types of accommodation options to choose from, each one as lavish as the next. The Palace and the Arabian Court are both inspired by old Arabia with majlis styled sitting areas and intricately detailed floral designs. The Residence and Spa is a more intimate affair for couples who want to stay among lush gardens and the secluded Beach Garden Villas for the truly opulent.
Choose between eight different dining options from Indonesian to Moroccan to the seafood Beach Bar & Grill. Choices for rejuvenation include both the One&Only Spa or the traditional hammam (Turkish steam bath).
Atlantis The Palm
If you’re a traveling family in Dubai and are looking for a place to stay, then this should definitely be your first choice. From Aquaventure Waterpark, The Lost Chambers Aquarium, a Wave House with an artificial wave or even swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Bay, this is definitely a top destination for kids and water lovers. There’s even a summer camp available for the kids while the parents go for a relaxing spa-day or brave the heat and play some tennis.
Located on a stretch of beach at the tip of the man-made island of The Palm, Atlantis is a large complex that is themed after the fabled underground kingdom. You can expect coral and shell motifs with blue and orange hues in the suites overlooking the ocean. Making it even more family-friendly, 90% of the Deluxe Guest Rooms are also interconnecting.
There are so many restaurants to choose from that you probably won’t have a chance to eat at them all on your stay. You’ll find everything from Lebanese to Japanese, Italian to Chinese, basically something for everyone in the family. There’s even a Brazilian Carnival themed day complete with performances and an after-party at Wavehouse.
The Address Dubai Marina
Situated right on the Dubai Marina, The Address is one of the trendier hotels due to its convenient location in the heart of New Dubai right by the beach, that is directly linked to Dubai Marina Mall. It’s centrality makes it the perfect spot for both business and pleasure.
The suites are simple yet stylish and are also equipped with modern technological amenities like their iGENIE automated system where service is provided through a swipe of a finger on one of the in-room iPads.
Another standout feature is the 45m long outdoor pool with separate dedicated children’s pool that overlooks the Marina. As with other Dubai hotels, there is an array of restaurants to choose from with indoor and outdoor options as well the sports pub style Nezesaussi Grill.
Park Hyatt Dubai
Everything about the Park Hyatt Dubai screams leisure. From the massive lap pool overlooking the Lagoon in Dubai Creek to the extravagant Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, it is as luxurious as they come.
Each of the suites provide picturesque views of Dubai Creek all with their own private terrace or balcony. The Moorish and Mediterranean influences make the spacious rooms calming, with a simple elegance and dashes of extravagance.
Dining is a sophisticated affair with several options including a selection of Western, Thai and French cuisines, all with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Dubai Creek. There’s even a pastry boutique for diners with a sweet tooth and a Shisha Lounge for a truly Arabic experience.
The Palace Downtown
Another offer from the Address brand, The Palace Downtown is an oasis of palatial splendor right at the feet of the Burj Khalifa. If the Address Marina is a trendier option, the Palace is more regal for guests who want to experience living like royalty.
It’s a great location for those who have to be on the move as it’s located on the Old Town Island in the heart of Downtown Dubai. All the major sites, as well as business and financial institutions, are all within walking distance. Some of the rooms even overlook the Dubai Fountain for a free show at night.
Dining options come in the form of Argentinian steakhouse, Asian style seafood overlooking the Dubai Fountain or flamboyant Arabic and Oriental dishes served from live cooking stations. The spa is a sanctuary offering hammam slabs, steam rooms and monsoon showers.
Al Qasr Dubai
If you’ve ever wanted to know how Sheikh’s live, then a stay at the Al Qasr Dubai might be your answer. Drawing influences from a traditional Sheik’s summer residence, the hotel is both grand and majestic.
Like the Burj Al Arab, there is also complimentary access to the Wild Wadi Waterpark as well as access to the Talise Spa and Fitness areas. Further lifestyle experiences include Tai Chi and Kung Fu classes, yoga, and personalized lifestyle wellness medicine at DNA.
As Al Qasr is linked to Jumeirah Madinat there is an abundance of dining and drinking options, apparently over 50 of them, so there are almost unlimited choices for all foodies from family friendly to award winning options.
Emerald Palace Kempinski
Another option for a stay on the Palm Jumeirah, Emerald Palace Kempinski moves away from the usual Arabic style to a more Continental European look and feel. This comes complete with hand-crafted Italian finishings in each of the spacious rooms and suites.
The 500-metre private pool overlooking the beach and lagoon is a perfect way to wind down in the sweltering heat. If outside is still too hot for you, there is also an indoor pool at half the size with snacks from the poolside Vitamin Bar.
The spa and wellness centre is one of the largest in the country standing at over 3,000sqm. While you can choose from Italian to Asian cuisine, you should definitely opt for a meal at miX by Parisian Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. The haute cuisine restaurant features local produce as well as spectacular views overlooking the ocean.
The Bulgari Hotel Dubai
The Bulgari is for those who enjoy over-the-top luxury situated in a tranquil urban oasis away from the main rush of the city centre, even though its only 2mins from mainland.
Like all other properties around the world, The Bulgari Dubai was designed by Italian architectural firm Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel, so you can expect the same beauty albeit at a larger scale, 158,000sqm in total.
The property, set to mimic a Mediterranean village, not only features 173 sea facing apartments, but also 15 private mansions, as well as Bulgari’s first Marina and Yacht Club. Unlike other hotels in Dubai, The Bulgari focuses its attention of quality and exclusivity over quantity and choice when it comes to dining options like Il Ristorante – Niko Romito, the Il Café, Il Bar and the exclusive La Spiaggia beach club with a private.
Other facilities include a 1,700sqm spa with hammam, an indoor pool, fitness centre, as well as a beauty salon with a traditional barbershop and hairdresser. The bespoke brise soleil patterned like a winding coral is pleasing to the eyes and provides much needed shade in the blistering Dubai heat.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers
Jumeirah Emirates Towers is the go-to hotel of choice for those working in the financial industry. It’s a mere 5min drive from the Dubai World Trade Center (DWTC) and a quick 2mins from the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC).
The iconic twin skyscrapers are known for the gorgeously designed atriums where an elevator ride is a thrilling experience in its own. The technologically advanced meeting rooms overlooking the Dubai skyline are one of a kind.
Dine on Italian cuisine on the fifty-first floor at Alta Badia, fresh bites on the go at Flow, carnivorous creation at the Rib Room, or modern Lebanese fare at Al Nafoorah. There is also access to the Talise Spa and fitness club for facials, massages, waxing and tanning and unlimited complimentary access to Wild Wadi Waterpark.
Practicalities – How to organise your trip to Dubai
Dubai is a very unique place. A combination of a small local population with a huge expat community from various backgrounds, religions, cultures and income levels. This means that a lot of the aspects of living or visiting Dubai can be quite shocking to an outsider.
A while ago I wrote a post about things that may surprise you about Dubai. While the city has changed a lot since I moved there in 2006, a lot of the same things still prevail, and will still shock you. It is best to be prepared.
How to get to Dubai
No matter what you do in Dubai, you will most likely arrive by air.
Dubai’s International Airport (DXB) is the third largest, one of the least efficient (in my opinion) and most trafficked airports in the world. The airport was designed to accommodate 90 million passengers and is almost at peak capacity so it is always busy, especially in the middle of the night when the connections between Europe and Asia are at their peak.
The airport is so important to Dubai that it contributed to more than 25% of the Emirate’s GDP in 2011.
It is mostly designed for transfers, as the airport is a great connecting place for flights between Europe and Asia or the Pacific, so it takes a really long time to get out of the airport, collect your luggage and make it home. Don’t think that connections and transfers are much more efficient either.
There are three terminals at Dubai International Airport. Terminal 2 is used by Fly Dubai and other low cost airlines and is the worst of the three terminals. It is not connected to the other two and it’s set aside. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing, the terminal was filled with military personnel and flights but the terminal has evolved into a regular civilian airport since then.
There is a paid lounge that I don’t think is worth it, and a couple of cafeterias, a drug store and a few other stores but otherwise very little to entertain. There are also no sofas or places to sleep, not a single chair where you can lay down, and the terminal is quite dirty. This terminal is where you will find all the flights to the lesser known countries in the world and also to destinations you can’t even place on a continent. It is busiest in the middle of the night, like the rest of the terminals.
Terminal 3 is the largest terminal in the world and is exclusively devoted to Emirates. It has its own dedicated arrivals and departures area for Business and First Class passengers who go through a separate terminal. This is the newest and flashiest of the terminals but it is also the largest and most inefficient. There are rows and rows of check in counters which make the process smooth, but then you will have to walk a lot to get to your gates.
Terminal 1 is the terminal used by all airlines that are not Emirates or low cost. Here is where most of the Asian and European airlines fly. The terminal is old, it has been there for a long time, and the departures area is often chaotic. When you go in, immigration can take a while but inside you will find quite a few dining and shopping options.
As opposed to Changi Airport, in Singapore, chosen most efficient and best airport in the world, Dubai requires long walks, taking trains and then queuing up to go through immigration. Baggage always takes long too and at peak hours, getting a taxi adds up again.
All in all, it is not not rare to need an hour to get out of the airport. Some additional things to consider:
1. Terminal 1 and the rest are not connected so you will need to take a shuttle or a taxi
2. Dubai International Airport is located in Deira, so it will take about 30min without traffic to get to the Marina, about 20 to arrive at the Old Town Burj Dubai area
3. If you have flown Business Class make sure to get the pass from the airline that allows you to use the dedicated immigration lines as they will cut some waiting time
4. There are porters at arrivals areas ready to help you if you are traveling alone with little kids or have far too much luggage
5. You will have to put your personal belongings through a scan on the way into the luggage area and you may be asked to scan your checked in luggage too on your way out although in the hundreds of flights I took when I was living there, this only happened a couple of times
Dubai has another second airport, significantly smaller and designed to accommodate 7 million passengers only. This airport is called Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) after Dubai’s ruling family.
Al Maktoum International Airport is located at the other end of the city, towards Jebel Ali Port and is still largely unused. If you are flying Fly Dubai or some of the other low cost airlines, you may land here.
This airport is closer to the Marina area and because it is largely unused, it is swift and fast.
From either airport, you can grab a taxi at the exit or get a pick up so you are well taken care of. It is not difficult to find your way around Dubai and most taxi drivers will know the major hotels but if you like to be picked up, the service is available.
How to get around Dubai
Dubai is a very spread out city and with traffic, you can easily spend the day on the road if you do not plan your days properly so make sure that you organise your time in Dubai geographically.
There are three main areas for visitors in Dubai: the “real” old part of town, namely Satwa, Deira and Bur Dubai, the Downtown area around Burj Khalifa, which is not old but it is called like that because it resembles an old Arabian city, and the Marina/JBR area and surroundings.
What you do in Dubai each day should depend on the area you want to hit. It is advisable to consider traffic and not to make bookings for dinner or plan activities that require you to drive all the way from the Marina to the old parts of town in the peak after work hours. You will get stuck in traffic for over an hour.
The best way to get around the city is by taxi. Taxis are cheap, they are easily found everywhere and can be booked with Uber, Karim (the local version of Uber in the Middle East) or simply flagging them down.
All major landmarks will have taxis nearby and all malls have their own taxi queues where you can usually get a cab without much wait.
Taxis always use taximeters but the drivers may not always speak English 100% and may not always know exactly where you are going, although this has improved dramatically from when I was living there and there were no street names and new buildings were popping up everyday. If you think you are going to a lesser known place to visit in Dubai, then get an Uber so you are sure you will get to your destination.
The other way to get around is the Dubai Metro. The Dubai metro is quite fun and nice but it is not a metro like we are used to in the West. There are few stops and they are far from the main tourist attractions in Dubai.
So, while this is a cheap way to get around and cover large distances, it is not suitable in the summer when the 5-10min walk from the station to your destination is just not an option in the heat.
Another great way to see Dubai and get around, especially if you are short on time, is to buy a hop-on, hop-off Big Bus ticket and see the main highlights this way. Because Dubai is spread out, and it can get really hot from May to November, a hop-on, hop-off bus is not only economical but also very practical to see all the highlights.
How to dress in Dubai
One of the biggest misconceptions about Dubai is the dress code.
I regularly had friends coming to visit who would be convinced they had to cover up when visiting Dubai. Here are a few suggestions for women who want to explore Dubai:
1. Women don’t have to cover up, they don’t need to wear an abaya, and don’t have to cover their heads. Local Muslim women will do, but visitors are not expected to so you can leave the headscarf at home.
2. It is freezing indoors so bring a sweater and if your day includes a lot of time indoors, in malls, at the Atlantis, etc. make sure to bring something warm. I ironically had to buy lots of jackets and scarves in Dubai in the middle of the summer months. You never spend any time outside at that time of the year, and the air conditioning in the office and at the malls is set to freezing temperature so, while it was 45 degrees outside, the mall was probably set at 17.
3. Dubai is a conservative society and despite the fact that the vast majority of the population is expat, the local norms and customs indicate that you should cover your legs and shoulders out of respect, when in public. You don’t have to at the major hotels and resorts, where you can wear your swimsuits and do as you would anywhere else, but don’t think skimpy clothes are acceptable otherwise. The malls have signs specifying what is acceptable and what is not and will remind you to cover knees and shoulders.
4. Showing affection in public is a big no-no. This includes holding hands, kissing and any other form of PDA. You will not see anyone doing it and you shouldn’t either. It took me a few months to normalise this behavior. Being Spanish and used to a rather touchy-feely society, this was one of the aspects I had to initially put more emphasis on, to make sure I would not do it. And it took me a few months to go back to my usual behavior after leaving Dubai.
5. There is censure and porn, certain movies and TV series and many magazines do not make it to Dubai or are heavily censored. If you buy samples of female magazines you may often see pages covered in black marker. The markers hide female nudity or anything that is deemed inappropriate. Do you remember Sex and the City the Movie? it was technically filmed in Abu Dhabi, but in fact it was done in Morocco and the movie was banned in the UAE.
If you observe the above, which is really not that hard, I can guarantee you that you will have a great time and will be able to enjoy all the places to visit and things to do in Dubai without any issues.
This would be a great addition to your Dubai board!
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