Dubai: city guide. Where to shop, stay and play from the spectacular Burj Khalifa to the Burj Al Arab

Dubai hotels and holidays: not just for the super rich
Dubai hotels and holidays: not just for the super rich
Why go

There isn’t a city in recent years that has captured the world’s imagination more than Dubai. From a sandy pearl fishing village to a global commercial hub, in under 50 years, Dubai has changed the face of the Middle East.

Home to the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, an indoor ski slope with real snow and some of the fanciest hotels you’ll ever book into, everything in this city competes to be the biggest, boldest and brightest.

Dubai Burj Al Arab
The Burj Al Arab

And if that’s too much for you, relax on a lounger by a pool and enjoy a resort style holiday, it is after all a city on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. Dubai is a true multicultural hotspot and a cosmopolitan way to explore the different cultures of the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East.

What to do
Dubai Mall of The Emirates - Central Galleria
Go shopping in the world’s biggest mall, Dubai Mall

Where to start? From teeing off on international golf courses to hiring jet skis, outdoor types won’t get bored. Shoppers have the world’s biggest mall on their doorstep at Dubai Mall or if it’s culture you’re after head to industrial Al Quoz for the city’s surprisingly vibrant art scene. Or just relax, book yourself a spa ‘ritual’ at one of the many five star spas and be massaged and spoilt for hours.

Where to stay

We could write a whole guide on just this section. For a beach resort head to the areas around Dubai Marina or Jumeirah. The Jumeirah Zabeel Saray is located on the Palm and has one of the largest and most luxurious spas in the Middle East with three traditional hammams. 

Jumeirah Zabeel Sara's Ottoman Spa in Dubai
Jumeirah Zabeel Sara’s Ottoman Spa in Dubai

To be near the shops, book into a hotel in Downtown. For a more budget stay, Al Barsha has chains like Novotel and Ibis. B&Bs and boutique hotels don’t really exist here, but XVA Hotel in the cultural heritage area Bastikiya is a small, locally inspired, design lead property.

Where to eat
At.mosphere restaurant at Burj Khalifa
The highest restaurant in the world At.mosphere at Burj Khalifa

There are endless fine dining options in every hotel in Dubai but for something a little different try Al Nafoorah at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on Palm Jumeirah, and taste local Emirati dishes in Arabic splendour, Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire in Festival City is a once in a lifetime molecular gastronomy evening or book into Pier Chic for a romantic seafood meal out at sea.

At.mosphere, in Burj Khalifa, is the highest restaurant in the world, pop in for an afternoon tea and see just how spread out the city really is. Local café chain Lime Tree Café serves unbeatable carrot cake for when you need a breather.

Getting around

The Metro is useful (and very cheap) but the stations can be a bit of a walk from your final destination. Beige coloured cabs are the most popular form of transport and can be booked or hailed. Ladies only taxis exist and are flagged bright pink.

 When to go

October to April is the best time to visit, although January can be wet and windy, if not cold. The summer months see temperatures soar well above 40C with up to 90% humidity, so is best avoided.

 Three things we like
Abra on Dubai Creek
Take a traditional wooden ‘dhow’ boat across the Creek
  1. Take a walk around the pedestrianised Dubai Marina. You’ll pass plenty of places for a cool drink or lunch such as Dubai Yacht Club or settle in the evening and watch the boats return with a shisha.
  2. The Dubai fountains. Based on the famous Las Vegas Bellagio’s waterjets, the music and light syncronised fountains in Downtown are higher (obviously) and draw huge crowds every day. Go at dusk for the best photo opportunities.
  3. Head to the Dubai Creek, the oldest part of town to discover gold and spice souks and take a ride on a traditional wooden ‘dhow’ boat across the Creek. You’ll get a sense of what the city used to be like.
 Something we don’t like

The traffic. From bad drivers to the rush hour traffic jams, Dubai’s roads might be new but they’re a hassle.

 Don’t miss

A new development, the beachside mall at The Walk, Dubai Marina has revolutionised the beach going experience in the city, with beachside cafes, facilities and ice cream sellers.

Sundowners. Find a beach bar and snap the quick sunset around 6pm almost every day of the year. Jetty Lounge at the One & Only Royal Mirage is a refined, elegant option.

Brunch has been taken to new levels in the city. It really means an all you can drink and eat feast every Friday lunch time. While not cheap it’s probably the only time you can combine everything from lobster, curry, Champagne and anything else your stomach fancies in one sitting.

High50 insider tips
Dubai Camels in the desert
Take a ride into the desert on a camel
  • When asked at a hotel entrance if you want a taxi, specify a normal, metered cab, otherwise you’ll be given a much more expensive ‘executive’ car.
  • Don’t miss the desert! It’s easy to forget that just beyond the construction lies mile after mile of orange hued sand. Take a day tour into the desert to ride camels, watch falconry displays or go dune bashing.
  • If you want to experience the view from the top of Burj Khalifa, head to the restaurant one level under the viewing platform, it’s a cheaper and more pleasant experience.
    Travelling with family

    Dubai is geared up to be family friendly. There is so much geared for kids, from interactive play brand KidZania at Dubai Mall to kids’ meals pretty much everywhere. Sadly breast-feeding in public however remains a little contentious, be discreet.

    Dubai Burj Khalifa
    The extraordinary Dubai skyline with the world’s largest skyscraper the Burj Khalifa
    Need to know
    • Average flight time is seven hours from the UK.
    • Timezone: UTC/GMT +3 (or +4 in winter) – the UAE doesn’t change its clocks.
    • The UAE’s currency is the Dirham – sometimes written as Dhs or AED.
    • British visitors can get a 30 day visitors’ visa on arrival. Be prepared for long queues at immigration.
    • Tipping is expected as standard, from between 10-15% in cafes and restaurants and generally around Dhs5 for a good taxi ride.
    • Plugs are a law unto themselves in Dubai. Some are European style two pin while others are the British three pin. Bring an adaptor.
    • Dubai’s weekend is Friday and Saturday.
    • You’ll need to arrange your own travel or medical insurance as visitors aren’t covered by the country. At times Dubai has played with making this mandatory to get a tourist visa, but it is rarely enforced.
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