I am truly fascinated by this place. Dubai is without doubt one of the world’s glitziest cities, full of futuristic skyscrapers and man-made islands. It has become synonymous with luxury shopping, glamorous restaurants and hotels, a burgeoning art scene, incredible architecture and beautiful beaches.
It has been fascinating to see the city’s dramatic change since my first visit nearly twenty years ago (yes, I can’t believe it either). I remember driving into the city from our hotel in Jebel Ali during that first visit. Along the way, we had to stop to let pass several wild roaming camels crossing the street. We drove most of the way into Dubai along sandy dunes and only few other cars were on the road.
Only two decades later, Dubai has undergone a transformation like almost no other city. Entire new neighbourhoods have been created, including the downtown area around the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa.
To me, however, one of the most intriguing aspects of Dubai is the contrast between the new, fancy and often glamorous buildings and the traditional side of the city, and how both are woven into each other.
Here are some of the things not to miss in Dubai, especially if you are visiting for the first time.
The world’s tallest building (862 metres high) is stunning to admire from any point in Dubai. However, make sure to not miss the view from the top. The building has two observation decks that offer breathtaking views over the city and surrounding desert: the main one on the 124th floor and a slightly more exclusive one (where you have to pay a higher fee to access) on the 148th floor. Make sure you book your ticket in advance, otherwise you might not get to the top at your preferred time (or not at all given the high visitor numbers each day). In case you feel generous, instead of going to the observation deck, book a table at the At.mosphere restaurant on the 122nd floor, currently the world’s highest restaurant.
Clearly, you cannot miss the world’s largest shopping mall. Take a stroll through the fashion district, where all the luxury fashion brands are located – if not for buying anything than at least to soak in the quaint atmosphere of luxury. Situated within the fashion district on the first floor you will also find Armani Café, and absolute favourite of mine. Either opt for a coffee or cold drink (no alcohol as it’s in the public), have a dolce (typical Italian dessert) or go for a light lunch or dinner Italian-style.
Another attraction of Dubai Mall is the Dubai Aquarium and underwater zoo, the largest suspended aquarium in the world. There’s a huge variety of sea creatures to be marvelled at. The aquarium also has the world’s biggest collection of tiger sharks.
If you are not done with shopping after a visit to Dubai mall, there are many other large malls located throughout the city. And if you feel go skiing, Mall of Emirates located at interchange four of the Sheikh Zayed road close to Jumeirah district, hosts an indoor ski slope.
In front of Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, Dubai Fountains are a huge attraction to locals and tourists alike. In the afternoon and evenings and on weekends, the fountains will perform the world’s largest fountain show every 30 minutes. If you like to get real close (and don’t mind to get wet), hop on one of the traditional abra boats that cruise on the lake or walk the newly added fountain walkway directly on Burj Lake.
Explore the ‘old’ Dubai along Dubai Creek
Though Dubai stands for a skyline of stunning modern skyscrapers, there is another side to the city that’s more than worth being explored. The ‘old’ Dubai around Dubai Creek continuous to offer a glimpse into the traditional life and culture of Dubai.
Dubai Creek is a nine-mile long stretch of water coming from the Persian Gulf into Dubai. It divides the city into the two traditional neighbourhoods of Deira and Bur Dubai. To cross the Creek from one side to the other, use the traditional abra taxis.
Dubai Creek once was the home of a busy trading port and today you will still see traditional dhows along the creek, carrying goods into the city from across the Middle East.
Visit the old Souks
Tucked away in the old neighbourhoods, you will find Dubai’s traditional Souks. Expect a sensory explosion walking the old Spice Souk at Deira. Filled with bag after bag of colourful exotic spices, it is the perfect place to stock up on the finest spices in the world. Personally, I cannot walk away without at least a bag (or two) of local saffron.
On the other side of the Creek at Bur Dubai, the old textile Souk offers lots of fabrics, alongside some spices as well.
Go to the Bastakiya district
Whilst chasing Dubai’s history, make sure you pay a visit to the Bastakiya. It’s particularly known for tis many wind towers, designed to provide air conditioning in the past. Today, the area boasts many art galleries and various art shops.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood district and Dubai Museum
Another historic neighbourhood of Dubai, Al Fahidi features traditional sand coloured buildings with iconic wind towers. Al Fahidi Fort was built in 1787 and is said to be the oldest surviving structure in the city. It used to be the palace of Dubai’s ruler, a prison and also a garrison.
Today the fort is home to Dubai Museum, which is one of the best places if you want to learn more about Dubai’s history and traditions and the incredible transformation the city made over the past few decades.
Dubai Heritage Village
This complex is open to visitors from October to April (when temperatures are less scorching than during the remaining months of the year). It offers a great insight into Bedouin culture and traditional local industries like pearl diving.
Go to Jumeirah Beach
One of the newer neighbourhoods well worth a trip is Jumeirah with its beautiful white sandy beach.
Directly behind the beach you will find Jumeirah The Walk, a nearly two kilometre long strip offering lots of shops and restaurants – and beautiful street art.
Make a trip to the desert
You have to experience driving up and down the endless sand dunes in a 4×4 at least once. There are several specialized tour operators offering half-day or full-day desert safaris. The dune bashing part is a real fun experience and it feels very different from driving through the desert on asphalt roads (like when you go from one place in the UAE to another, which gives you a good idea about the width and beauty of the desert but still feeling a bit detached).
Some additional useful travel tips
When should you go: Dubai is a location with sunshine almost guaranteed anytime. Temperatures during the day usually do not fall below 20°C even in winter, whilst during the summer months it can get well above 40°C during the day and often still above 30°C in the night. If you want to do more than enjoying the beach, the best time to visit Dubai is from around October to May.
What should you wear: Make sure you wear appropriate clothes. Skirts should at least cover your knees and shirts should cover your shoulder. I am often amazed what some tourists are wearing. Although most locals will simply ignore inappropriate clothes, do the right thing and honour the local dress code. Also keep in mind that whilst outside temperatures can get fairly high, as soon as you go indoors, air conditioning can sometimes be heavy. Hence do not forget to carry a jacket. Bathing clothes are fine when you are at a private beach or at the hotel pool.
How to get around Dubai: Dubai has a fairly new metro network that will bring you close to all the attractions the city has to offer. However, if you want to keep it the most flexible possible, taxi prices in Dubai are moderate. If you plan a trip outside the city, or need a transfer to another emirate or into the desert, ask your hotel to arrange a private driver. Again, it’s fairly economic.
Can you drink alcohol in Dubai? Yes, you can. Most hotels and restaurants will have licences and offer alcoholic beverages. However, drinking in the public is not allowed.
Have you been to Dubai yet? Let me know about your experience.