Dubai is like nowhere else on the planet and is a fascinating place to visit. Often claimed to be the world’s fastest-growing city, over the past four decades it has metamorphosed from a small Gulf trading centre to become one of the world’s most glamorous, spectacular and futuristic urban destinations, fuelled by a heady cocktail of petrodollars, visionary commercial acumen and naked ambition. Visit Dubai for a week or just a short stopover, and you’ll be blown away by the clash of cultures, extreme luxury and world famous architecture. Find out what this unique city has to offer with the best travel guide to Dubai.
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Things to see in Dubai
Dubai’s ability to dream (and then achieve) the impossible has ripped up expectations and rewritten the record books, as evidenced by stunning developments such as the soaring Burj Khalifa, the beautiful Burj al Arab and the vast Palm Jumeirah island – a testament to the ruling sheikhs’ determination to make the city one of the world’s essential travel destinations for the twenty-first century.
Modern Dubai is frequently seen as a panegyric to consumerist luxury: a self-indulgent haven of magical hotels, superlative restaurants and extravagantly themed shopping malls. Perhaps not surprisingly, the city is often stereotyped as a vacuous consumerist fleshpot, appealing only to those with more cash than culture, although this one-eyed cliché does absolutely no justice to Dubai’s beguiling contrasts and rich cultural make-up. The city’s headline-grabbing mega-projects have also deflected attention from Dubai’s role in providing the Islamic world with a model of political stability and religious tolerance, showing what can be achieved by a peaceful and progressive regime in one of the planet’s most troubled regions.
For the visitor, there’s far more to Dubai than designer boutiques and five-star hotels – although of course if all you’re looking for is a luxurious dose of sun, sand and shopping, the city takes some beating. If you want to step beyond the tourist clichés, however, you’ll find that Dubai has much more to offer than you might think, ranging from the fascinating old city centre, with its higgledy-piggledy labyrinth of bustling souks interspersed with fine old traditional Arabian houses, to the memorably quirky postmodern architectural skylines of the southern parts of the city.
Dubai’s human geography is no less memorable, featuring a cosmopolitan assortment of Emiratis, Arabs, Iranians, Indians, Filipinos and Europeans – a fascinating patchwork of peoples and languages that gives the city its uniquely varied cultural appeal. The credit crunch may have pushed Dubai to the verge of bankruptcy but pronouncements of its imminent demise proved wildly premature, and the city remains one of the twenty-first century’s most fascinating and vibrant urban experiments in progress. Visit Dubai now to see history, literally, in the making.
Where to stay in Dubai
Dubai has a vast range of accommodation, much of it aimed squarely at big spenders. There's also a decent selection of mid-range places, although nothing for real budget travellers.
At the top end of the market, the city has some of the most stunning hotels on the planet, from the futuristic Burj al Arab to traditional Arabian-themed palaces such as Al Qasr and the One&Only Royal Mirage. When it comes to creature comforts, all of Dubai’s top hotels do outrageous luxury as standard, with sumptuous suites, indulgent spa treatments, spectacular bars and gorgeous private beaches. The size and style of the very best places makes them virtually tourist attractions in their own right – self-contained islands of indulgence in which it’s possible to spend day after day without ever feeling the need to leave. Click here to read more about where to stay in Dubai.
7 best places in Dubai
Astounding mock-Arabian city, home to a string of lavish hotels and leisure facilities – the quintessential Dubaian example of opulent kitsch on an epic scale.
At the heart of old Dubai, the district of Deira comprises an atmospheric tangle of bazaars, ranging from the Gold Souk’s glittering shop windows to the aromatic alleyways of the Spice Souk.
Home to hundreds of superb Arabian dhows moored up along the Deira creekside – one of central Dubai’s most incongruous but magical sights.
Al Ain Oasis
An idyllic retreat from the heat and dust of contemporary Al Ain, with peaceful little pedestrianized lanes running through shady plantations of luxuriant date palms.
Dubai’s most beautiful mosque – open to visitors during informative guided tours.
One of the city’s best-preserved heritage areas, with a fascinating little labyrinth of old houses topped by innumerable wind towers.
Ibn Battuta Mall
Kitsch and eye-poppingly extravagant, this mile-long mall takes its inspiration from the journeys of Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta.
Best time to travel to Dubai
The best time to visit Dubai is in the cooler winter months from December through to February, when the city enjoys a pleasantly Mediterranean climate, with average daily temperatures in the mid-20s °C. Not surprisingly, room rates (and demand) are at their peak during these months, though skies in January and February can sometimes be rather overcast, and it can even be surprisingly wet at times. Temperatures rise significantly from March through to April and in October and November, when the thermometer regularly nudges up into the 30s, though the heat is still relatively bearable, and shouldn’t stop you getting out and about.
During the summer months from May to September the city boils – July and August are especially suffocating – with average temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s (and frequently higher). Although the heat is intense (even after dark), room rates at most of the top hotels plummet by as much as 75 percent, making this an excellent time to enjoy some authentic Dubaian luxury at relatively affordable prices, so long as you don’t mind spending most of your time hopping between air-conditioned hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and clubs.
How to get to Dubai
Dubai is the Middle East’s largest airline hub, boasting excellent connections worldwide with the city’s own Emirates airline and other international carriers. These include numerous direct flights to various destinations in the UK, plus a number of places in the US and Australia.
Other options for getting to Dubai are contrastingly limited (for Western visitors, at least). It’s possible to travel overland into the UAE from several points in neighbouring Oman, but not Saudi Arabia. There are no regular ferry services to Dubai, although the city is a popular stop on many cruise itineraries. Click here to read more about how to get to Dubai.
Nationals of the UK, Ireland and most other Western European countries, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are issued a free thirty-day visa on arrival. Always check visa requirements direct with your UAE embassy or consulate as this information is subject to change. You’ll need a passport that will be valid for at least six months after the date of entry. Having an Israeli stamp in your passport shouldn’t be a problem. This visa can be extended for a further thirty days at a cost of 620dh by visiting the Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (DNRD), next to Bur Dubai Police Station, close to Al Jafiliya metro station (Sun–Wed 7.30am–7.30pm; T 04 313 9999 or T 800 5111, W dnrd.ae). Click here for more Dubai travel essentials.