At the heart of the metropolis on the south side of the breezy Creek, Bur Dubai is the oldest part of the city and offers a fascinating insight into Dubai’s traditional roots. This is where you’ll find many of the city’s most interesting Arabian heritage houses, clustered in the beautiful old Iranian quarter of Bastakiya and the waterfront Shindagha district, as well as the excellent Dubai Museum and the atmospheric Textile Souk. On the opposite side of the Creek, the bustling district of Deira is the centre of Dubai’s traditional commercial activity, much of it still conducted in the area’s vibrant array of old-fashioned souks, including the famous Gold and Spice souks. Fringing Deira and Bur Dubai lie Dubai’s inner suburbs, with a varied array of attractions ranging from the absorbingly workaday suburbs of Karama and Satwa – home to dozens of no-frills Indian curry houses, low-rent souks and some of the city’s most entertaining street life – through to impressive modern developments like the kitsch Wafi complex and adjacent Khan Murjan Souk, both exercises in faux-Arabian nostalgia.
A few kilometres south of the old city centre, modern Dubai begins in spectacular style with Sheikh Zayed Road, home to a neck-cricking array of skyscrapers including the glittering Emirates Towers. Even these, however, are outshone by the massive Downtown Dubai development at the southern end of the strip, centred on the stupendous new Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, flanked by further record-breaking attractions including the gargantuan Dubai Mall and spectacular Dubai Fountain. West of the Sheikh Zayed Road, the sprawling beachside suburb of Jumeirah is the traditional address-of-choice for Dubai’s European expats, its endless swathes of walled villas dotted with half a dozen shopping malls and a smattering of low-key sights.
At the southern end of Jumeirah, there are more iconic sights in the sleepy suburb of Umm Suqeim, including the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the extraordinary mock-Arabian Madinat Jumeirah complex and the unforgettable Burj al Arab hotel. South of the Burj stretches the spectacular Dubai Marina development, with its densely packed forest of glassy skyscrapers, while offshore lies the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island, which ends in a flourish at the gigantic Atlantis resort.
A little over an hour’s drive down the coast, the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, offers an intriguing contrast to its freewheeling neighbour – slightly smaller, and considerably more sedate, although here too a string of huge new developments are gradually transforming the city landscape. Leading attractions include the extravagant Emirates Palace hotel and the even more spectacular Sheikh Zayed Mosque, while the various attractions of Yas Island, home to the vast Ferrari World theme park, lie just down the road.
Elsewhere, there are a number of rewarding day-trips from Dubai, all offering an interesting alternative take on life in the twenty-first-century Gulf. Just 10km up the coast, the more conservative city of Sharjah hosts a rewarding selection of museums devoted to cultural and religious matters, including the excellent Museum of Islamic Civilization. Further afield, somnolent Al Ain, the UAE’s only major inland city, offers a complete change of pace from life on the coast, with traditional mud-brick forts, old-fashioned souks and the country’s finest oasis. Across country, it’s only a two-hour drive from Dubai to the UAE’s even more laidback east coast, with a string of beautiful and still largely deserted beaches to crash out on, backdropped by the dramatically craggy Hajar mountains.