Dubai is the most spectacular playground on Earth. The desire to make everything bigger and brighter and better has created a city of superlatives – and for wide-eyed children and their even wider-eyed parents, it’s a destination that's hard to beat. But unless you’re here for a month and have the budget of an Emirati oil sheikh, you’ll need to plan your visit carefully. Here, Keith Drew points you in the right direction.
In a city that holds the world record for holding the most world records, where better to start than the tallest building on Earth? To say that the Burj Khalifa dominates the downtown skyline is something of an understatement.
Topping out at 828m, it is twice as tall as any of its neighbours. And where they seem squat and stunted, the Burj Khalifa rises like a sparkling rocket. It has also been likened to a hypodermic needle, but that’s a rather less child-friendly analogy.
The fastest lifts in the world shuttle you 124 floors up to the At The Top observation deck, where the views are simply sensational.
Set in the shadow of the landmark sail-shaped Burj al Arab, Wild Wadi waterpark features more than 30 rides and attractions.
Toddlers will be quite content waddling between the wave pool and the family play area – focused around a “dhow”, with climbing nets, water cannons, sedate slides and a dumping bucket – and taking the occasional float down the lazy river on a rubber ring.
Slightly older children will enjoy the “master blasters” that propel you uphill on a circuit around the perimeter of the park. Or more confident youngsters can test their skills on a couple of FlowRider surf machines.
Only adrenaline junkies should tackle Tantrum Alley, where four-person inflatables get spun through a series of funnels. The gut-wrenching Jumeirah Sceirah, which drops you out of a capsule down a 120m slide at 80kph, is not one for the faint of heart either.
For most children, the idea of being dragged round a shopping mall by their parents won’t sound like much fun. Especially when the shopping mall is the biggest in the world, with more than 1200 stores. But this is no ordinary shopping mall.
Come in the main entrance and you’ll be greeted by an enormous fish tank that stretches from floor to ceiling and houses over 30,000 fish. Poke your head into the Souk and you’ll find the skeleton of a 150-million-year-old diplodocus.
On the second floor, children get to run their own city at the educational KidZania, a role-playing attraction that takes playing doctors and nurses to a new level. Then there’s also the 22-screen cinema complex and the Olympic-sized ice rink.
After all that, pop into Candylicious, the world’s biggest sweet shop, before heading outside to the world’s biggest fountain, where jets of water spout up to 140m – higher than the London Eye.
It’s worth reminding the kids that Dubai hasn't always been a city of soaring skyscrapers and on-tap entertainment. A morning spent exploring the old Iranian quarter of Bastakiya and the knot of souks across the Creek in Deira will reveal a traditional side of the city that can all too easily be overlooked.
Start in the glittering Gold Souk before wandering through the aromatic perfume and spice souks, where traders sell cinnamon, saffron and frankincense. Crossing the Creek in a little wooden abra is by far the best thing you can do in Dubai for a dirham.
Once in Bastakiya, in Bur Dubai, the oldest part of the city, head for the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding for a traditional Emirati meal served on rugs and cushions in the courtyard of one of the district’s fine old heritage houses.
It's rare to find a hotel that's both stylish and family-friendly, but the Jumeirah Beach Hotel – or JBH as it's more affectionately known – is exactly that.
Curling along the beachfront like some glassy cresting wave, this landmark hotel combines elegantly furnished rooms with some of the best facilities in Dubai. In addition to its own two beautiful beaches, the JBH has five pools, including a family pool and a kids’ pool with slides, all set amidst its extensive palm-strewn grounds. Golf buggies are on hand to shuttle you around.
Activities range from tennis and climbing to sailing and windsurfing, while the on-site dive centre runs PADI courses and offers dives to shipwrecks in the Arabian Gulf. Guests can also enjoy unlimited (free) access to the adjoining Wild Wadi waterpark.
What’s more, the kids’ club stays open late, so parents can slip out for a quick cocktail and some stunning views at the rooftop Uptown bar, or follow the breakwater out into the resort’s marina to the aptly named 360˚, one of the city’s coolest bars.
Trading on images of space-age metro stations and a skyline spiked by skyscrapers, it's easy to forget that, beyond Dubai’s city limits, lie mile after mile of rocky scrub and sand dunes that eventually merge into the largest desert on the planet.
Tour operators won't venture too far. Most settle for an area of dunes southeast of the city, near the border with Oman – but it’s still a surreal experience, so close to a twenty-first-century megalopolis.
Kids will enjoy the thrill of roaring up and down the dunes in a 4WD, and the novelty of sand boarding if they get the chance. For a deeper experience of the desert, leave the day-trippers behind and book an overnight stay.
Top image © RastoS/Shutterstock
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Lijoma.com. Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.