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.
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. Yellow boats will take you to see the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj al Arab and the Marina on a single trip.
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. There's a vast array of diversions for children, too. Dubai Ice Rink offers a range of open-to-all public sessions, the aquarium is wonderful and iFly Dubai allows you to don a flying suit and take to the air.
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.
Beyond Dubai, there's endless expanses of desert to explore. Go dune-bashing in an off-road vehicle, or try your hand at sand-skiing. You can even book onto a Desert Safari, with BBQ, falconry, a camel ride and sandboarding all included.
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.
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.
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.
Kitsch and eye-poppingly extravagant, this mile-long mall takes its inspiration from the journeys of Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta.
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.
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.
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Fringing the southern and eastern edges of the city centre – and separating it from the more modern areas beyond – is a necklace of low-key suburbs: Garhoud, Oud Metha, Karama and Satwa. Southeast of Deira, workaday Garhoud is home to the Dubai Creek Golf Club, with its famously futuristic clubhouse, and the adjacent yacht club, where you’ll find a string of attractive waterside restaurants alongside the lovely Park Hyatt hotel. Directly over the Creek, Oud Metha is home to the quirky Wafi complex and the lavish Khan Murjan Souk, while west of here the enjoyably downmarket suburbs of Karama and Satwa are both interesting places to get off the tourist trail and see something of local life among the city’s Indian and Filipino expats, with plenty of cheap curry houses and shops selling designer fakes.
A handful of additional attractions can be found slightly further afield. Just beyond Oud Metha the suburb of Jaddaf is home to the city’s last surviving traditional dhow-building yard, while over the Creek rises the shiny new Festival City development. A few kilometres further along the Creek, the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary protects a rare surviving patch of undeveloped wetland, home to colourful flocks of flamingo, while a short drive southwest from here brings you to the spectacular Meydan Racecourse, home to the Dubai Cup, the world’s richest horse race.
The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula were among the greatest seafarers of medieval times, using innovative shipbuilding techniques and navigational instruments to establish extensive maritime trading connections. Early Arab traders established outposts as far afield as India, Sri Lanka and East Africa, and the legacy of these early adventurers can still be seen in the religious and cultural heritage of places like Lamu in Kenya and Zanzibar in Tanzania, where the distinctive form of the lateen-sailed Arabian dhow survives to this day.
The word “dhow” itself is simply a generic name used to apply to all boats of Arabian design. Classic designs include the sambuq, a sizeable ocean-going vessel incorporating Indian and European features, including a square stern which is thought to have been influenced by old Portuguese galleons (traditional Arabian dhows are tapered at both ends), and the boom, another large seafaring dhow. Other smaller dhows still in use around the Gulf include the shu’ai and the jalibut, both formerly used for trading, pearling and fishing, as well as the abra, hundreds of which still ply the Creek today.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the traditional dhow was its so-called stitched construction – planks, usually of teak, were literally “sewn” together using coconut rope. Nails were increasingly used after European ships began to visit the region, although stitched boats were made right up until World War II. Traditional dhows are also unusual in being built “outside-in”, with exterior planking being nailed together before the internal framework is added (the exact opposite of European boat-building techniques).
The traditional dhow’s most visually notable feature was its distinctive triangular lateen sails, which allows boats to sail closer to the wind when travelling against the monsoon breezes. These have now disappeared on commercial vessels around the Gulf following the introduction of engines, though they can still be seen on local racing dhows.
Traditional wooden dhows still play an important part in the local economy, and continue to prove an efficient and cost-effective way of shipping goods around the Gulf and, particularly, over to Iran – as well as finding a new lease of life as tourist pleasure boats. There are still a number of traditional dhow-building yards around the UAE: in Dubai at Jaddaf, and in the neighbouring emirates of Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah, although the incredibly labour-intensive production costs and a gradual loss of the traditional skills required in dhow-construction (local boat-builders are famed for their ability to work without plans, building entirely by eye and experience) may eventually drive old-style dhow-building into extinction.
Facing Jaddaf on the opposite side of the Creek, Festival City is one of Dubai’s newest and largest purpose-built neighbourhoods – a self-contained city within a city, complete with villas and apartments, offices, golf course, marina, shopping mall and a pair of swanky five-star hotels.
Centrepiece of the development is the bright Festival Centre shopping mall. There’s nothing here that you won’t find (and generally done better) at other malls around the city, although the canalside cafés at the Creek end of the centre are pleasant enough, and there are also “sofa boats” for rent if you fancy a sedate turn around the waterways. Best of all are the sweeping views from the waterfront promenade (next to the mall and the adjacent Crowne Plaza and InterContinental hotels) over the Creek to the dhow-building yard at Jaddaf and the long line of skyscrapers beyond. The panorama is particularly fine towards dusk, when the sun sets behind the Burj Khalifa and towers along Sheikh Zayed Road, turning them a smoky grey, like the outline of some kind of surreal bar chart.
Covering the area between the airport and the Creek, the suburb of Garhoud is an interesting mishmash of up- and downmarket attractions. The Deira City Centre mall is the main draw for locals, eternally popular with an eclectic crowd running the gamut from Gulf Arabs and Russian bargain-hunters through to the many expat Indians and Filipinos who live in the down-at-heel suburbs on the far side of the airport.
On the southern edge of Oud Metha, the district of Jaddaf is home to the very last of Dubai’s traditional dhow-building yards, where you may be lucky enough to see craftsmen at work constructing these magnificent ocean-going vessels using carpentry skills which appear not to have changed for generations. The yards aren’t really set up for visitors and are essentially places of work, rather than tourist attractions, while there’s also a certain degree of pot luck involved depending on how many vessels are under construction at any given time – although the mainly Indian workforce are usually happy to chat to visitors and the yard owners don’t generally mind visitors having a look around.
Karama is the classic Dubai inner-city suburb, home to some of the legions of Indian, Pakistani and Filipino expatriate workers – waitresses, taxi drivers, builders and shopkeepers – who supply so much of the city’s labour. The district is centred on Kuwait Street and the bustling little Karama Centre, one of the city’s pokiest malls, with colourful little shops selling shalwar kameez and flouncy Indian-style jewellery. At the end of Kuwait Street lies the lively Karama Park, surrounded by cheap and cheery Indian restaurants and usually busy with a dozen simultaneous cricket matches after dark.
Just south of Karama Park is the district’s main tourist attraction, the Karama Souk, an unprepossessing concrete mall of hundreds of small shops stuffed full of fake designer clothes, watches, glasses, DVDs and other items (or “copy watches” and “copy bags” as the souk’s enthusiastic touts euphemistically describe them).
Around 4km south of Ras al Khor, the vast Meydan complex provides conclusive proof of the ruling Maktoum family’s passion – bordering on obsession – for all things equine. Centrepiece of the complex is the superb racecourse, opened in 2010 to replace the old track at nearby Nad al Sheba and provide a new and more fitting venue for the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race with a massive US$10 million in prize money. The complex also contains the usual fancy five-star hotel along with a few other buildings in a mixed residential and business development which is eventually intended to form a self-contained “city” along the lines of Festival City down the road.
Ruler and architect of contemporary Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is also celebrated in racing circles as one of today’s leading owners and breeders of thoroughbreds in his role as the founder of Godolphin, established in 1994 and now one of the world’s largest and most successful racing stables. Sheikh Mohammed’s love of horses runs deep: he is said to have shared his breakfast with his horse en route to school as a boy, to have competed in his first horse race aged 12, and to have been able to tame wild horses considered unrideable by others. His love of the turf dates back to his time as a student at Cambridge in England in the 1960s, and within a decade he and his brothers Hamdan and Ahmed all had horses in training at nearby Newmarket. The first of many Maktoum family triumphs came in 1982, when Hamdan’s Touching Wood won that year’s St Leger classic at Doncaster, followed up by Derby wins in 1989 and 1994.
Godolphin now have over 1500 horses in training across the globe and have won more than three thousand races in fourteen different countries, becoming one of the biggest buyers and breeders of racehorses on the planet, with a total investment in bloodstock, stud farms and various related properties now worth over US$2.45 billion. In 2013, they also had the less enviable distinction of finding themselves at the centre of what The Economist described as "the biggest doping scandal in racing history" when it was discovered that 22 horses at their Newmarket stables had been dosed with anabolic steroids by their head trainer, Mahmood al Zarooni. Al Zarooni was immediately dismissed and prompt action was taken to clear Godolphin's global reputation, and in 2014 the stables went on to enjoy easily their most successful year ever, with a staggering 361 wins worldwide.
Across the Creek from Garhoud, the rather formless suburb of Oud Metha is home to assorted malls, hotels and lowbrow leisure attractions, including the old-fashioned Lamcy Plaza and the even more old-fashioned Al Nasr Leisureland amusement park. Nearby, the serene Ismaili Centre sits amid attractive gardens on land donated by Sheikh Rashid in 1982. It’s one of Dubai’s most beautiful places of worship, combining hints of Morocco and Egypt in its elegantly understated architecture, although sadly entry is restricted to Ismaili–Muslims, so most visitors will be able to see only those parts of the building visible from the street.
Hidden away between Wafi and Raffles, Khan Murjan Souk is one of Dubai’s finest “traditional” developments, allegedly modelled after the fabled fourteenth-century Khan Murjan Souk in Baghdad. The souk is divided into four sections – Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Turkish (not that you can really tell the difference) – spread over two underground levels with a lovely outdoor restaurant at its centre and some 125 shops selling all manner of traditional wares. It’s a great (albeit pricey) place to shop, while the faux-Arabian decor is impressively done, with lavish detailing ranging from intricately carved wooden balconies to enormous Moroccan lanterns and colourful tilework. Of course, it’s all about as authentic as a Mulberry bag from Karama – indeed, if the city authorities are serious about clamping down on the local trade in fakes and forgeries, they could do worse than start here. Still, the whole thing has been done with such enormous panache and at, presumably, such enormous expense that it’s hard not to be at least a little bit impressed.
Oud Metha's leading attraction is the wacky Egyptian-themed Wafi complex, a little slice of Vegas in Dubai, dotted with assorted random obelisks, Pharaonic statues, random hieroglyphs and miniature pyramids, and with a good selection of shops and restaurants inside. The Egyptian theme is continued in the opulent Raffles hotel next door, built in the form of a vast pyramid complete with glass-capped summit – particularly spectacular when lit up after dark. The hotel is also exactly the same height (139m) as the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza in Egypt, which puts the incredible size of that ancient wonder of the world into remarkable perspective.
Some 5km southwest of Festival City, the Dubai Creek flows into Ras al Khor, an extensive inland lagoon dotted with mangroves and surrounded by intertidal salt and mud flats – a unique area of unspoilt nature close to the city centre. As its name, "Head of the Creek", suggests, Ras al Khor originally marked the end of Dubai's principal waterway, although the Creek has now been extended a further 7km or so all the way to Business Bay, with further works planned as part of the Dubai Canal project which will eventually take it all the way back to the sea at Jumeirah – meaning that by 2017 Ras al Khor will no longer be anywhere near the head of the Creek, but more like about halfway round.
The southern end of the lagoon provides, for now at least, a home for the low-key Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, best known for its aquatic birdlife. The sanctuary is an important stopover on winter migratory routes from East Africa to West Asia, and almost seventy different species have been spotted here. It’s best known for the colourful flocks of bright pink flamingoes which nest here – one of Dubai’s most surreal sights when seen perched against the smoggy outlines of the city skyscrapers beyond. You can’t actually go into the sanctuary, but you can birdwatch from one of two hides on its edge. Signage for the hides is minimal and you’ll need a car to reach them, but don’t expect taxi drivers to know where they are. Free binoculars are provided, although the roar of the nearby motorways isn’t particularly conducive to the relaxed contemplation of nature. The two hides are Fantir (“Flamingo”) hide on the west side of the sanctuary, beside the Oud Metha road (E66) just north of the junction with the Hatta road (E44); and Gum (“Mangrove”) hide on the south side of the sanctuary, on the north side of the Hatta road – although to reach it from central Dubai you’ll need to do an annoying 8km loop to get back on the correct side of the highway.
The unpretentious district of Satwa is the southernmost of Dubai’s predominantly low-rise, low-income inner suburbs before you reach the giant skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road and the beginnings of the supersized modern city beyond. It’s also one of the few places in Dubai where the city’s different ethnic groups really rub shoulders, with its mix of Arab, Indian, Filipino and even a few European residents reflected in an unusually eclectic selection of places to eat, from cheap-and-cheerful curry houses to Lebanese shwarma cafés and Western fast-food joints.
At the centre of the district lies Satwa Roundabout, overlooked by the Chelsea Plaza hotel. The streets south of here are mainly occupied by Indian and Pakistani shops and cafés, including the well-known Ravi’s. West from the roundabout stretches Satwa’s principal thoroughfare, the tree-lined 2nd December Street (still widely referred to by its old name, Al Diyafah Street), one of the nicest in Dubai – and one of the few outside the city centre with any real street life – with wide pavements, dozens of cafés and restaurants and an interestingly cosmopolitan atmosphere. It all feels rather Mediterranean, especially after dark, when the cafés get going, the crowds come out, and young men in expensive cars start driving round and round the block in a vain effort to impress.