Part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai occupies a unique place in the Middle East when it comes to culture and tourism. Avoiding some of the strict traditions and regulations of its fellow Emirates, Dubai is considered to be one of the most progressive states in the region. Development here has grown at a tremendous pace over the last few years and this desert city is now one of the top holiday and business destinations in the region.
As it is just a five hour flight from Europe, Dubai has become a popular destination for those who want to soak up the sun, make the most of the great shopping facilities, the amazing beaches and hotels, world class dining and plenty of sporting activities to suit all tastes.
The city is divided into a number of different districts including the popular Marina area – filled with skyscrapers and home to some great restaurants and hotels. The district of Jumeirah is a culturally diverse part of the city with residents living here from all over the world and where get a real sense of the luxury and opulence of the region. Areas such as the Satwa district are home to the traditional souks that are a delight when you want a little retail therapy. As development continues in the region the city is expanding and the skyline is now reminiscent of cities such as New York or Shanghai and the commercial nature of the city means that it is now a popular place for businesses to have a base.
However, look beyond this modernization and you will find a rich and interesting culture. Visitors can still enjoy haggling in the souks, camel rides in the desert and sailing past the beautiful beaches on a dhow.
The best time (weather-wise!) to visit is between November and March, when the temperatures are a little more moderate. Dubai is famous for its great weather but sometimes the temperatures can get a little too high, with the average between June and September at more than 40°C.
Getting around Dubai is very easy as there are so many options open to visitors. The system of public transport is considered to be one of the Middle East’s best and certainly one of the most up to date.
Metro – Visitors can pick up a day pass for the metro that can also be used on the buses. These can be purchased at metro stations and bus stations and for those who are going to be in Dubai for more than a day, the Silver card is a great option because it covers other forms of transport too. The metro network in Dubai covers around 75km. The Red Line covers 52 km and was only the third metro line to be opened in the Arab world. The metro trains are driverless and everything is automated. Visitors cannot reach the old city centre on the metro but it will take you along the coastline and to other places such as the airport. The Red Line was joined in September 2011 by the Green Line and there are further lines that are currently under construction.
Tram – The tram system has been open since November 2014 and links up the marina district to Burj Al Arab and the popular Mall of the Emirates. The tram system has been designed to link up with the Metro system. Fixed fares are in place regardless of how far you travel.
Bus – The large bus network in Dubai is a very inexpensive way of getting around the region. The Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai publishes details of routes, timetables and a map of the system online. Some routes have an infrequent service so check on availability before setting off. It is also worth noting that the front seats on buses are reserved for women. For tourists, Line 8 runs from the Gold Souk through to Heritage Village, along Jumeirah Road and then up to Burj al-Arab. There are also specific tourist buses that can be taken that will take visitors to many of the main attractions.
Taxi – For many visitors the main way of getting around the city is by taxi. These are fairly easy to spot and while it is possible to flag a taxi down at random, at busy times it will be very difficult. You should never have to haggle in a taxi because there is a standard rate and this covers all taxi companies. Standing charges vary depending upon where you are and what time of the day it is. Visitors should watch out for the unmarked taxis that frequent hotels because they are not regulated and therefore are not tied to the standard rate. Taxis can be pre-booked for a small fee and in many cases you only have to give a few minutes’ notice. Women should always travel in the back of the taxi
Car – Car rental is a great option for those who are visiting Dubai. Here you can enjoy cheap rental rates and far less paperwork than you might expect. Some companies will not rent you a car in Dubai without an International Driving Permit so you need to check on this and arrange one in advance. Be aware that the ongoing development work in the region can make getting around difficult as road layouts are continually changing. A good tip is to avoid driving at peak hours as there are often many delays due to the sheer volume of traffic. There are some toll roads in Dubai but when you rent a car you may be provided with a Salik tag that will cover the cost and you will be charged for these costs when you return the car to the rental company.
Shopping is one of the reasons that many people visit Dubai. There are many bargains to be had here but you do have to shop carefully. There are many western stores here that are selling items still with western price tags on them but the price that they charge in dirhams is far higher so in many cases these are best avoided. Some of the best things to pick up here include gold, textiles and even electronic equipment. Remember that many shops have no store room – when you walk in what you see is all there is on that day so in many cases there is no point asking for sizes and colours that you cannot see on display.
However, you can spend much longer shopping in Dubai as most shops stay open until at least 10 pm each day. Things to look out for include locally-made goods or goods from around the Middle East and India. You can pick up carpets and rugs, lamps, jewellery, carved wood items and tapestries as souvenirs. Perfume oils (known as attars) are also a good souvenir and come in gold and silver bottles decorated with gems.
Souks – this is where you can put your haggling skills to good use! Always ask about a discount because you are almost guaranteed to be able to get money off. If you just ask about the best price you will find that the vendor will cut an extraordinary amount of money off a product. One of the most popular is the Gold Souk. This is an historic market that dates back to the earliest days of the city. It can be found at the mouth of Dubai Creek and here you can pick up gold and jewellery. Be aware that much of the gold is expensive although you can haggle with the vendors. The gold is generally sold by weight and there is a charge on top for the making of the item. You should ensure that you know what the current price of gold is. Another souk that dates back to the early days of the city is the Spice Souk. It is close to the Gold Souk but has been seeing fewer shoppers in recent years as the supermarkets are taking over. Generally the cost of spices here is higher than in the supermarkets. Dress modestly when visiting the souks as they are not considered to be part of the tourist areas. Consider too the Bur Dubai Souk which is famous for textile and fabric outlets. This is a good place to start if you want beautiful fabrics and it can be found along the Dubai Creek. Close to the Gold Souk there is also a group of perfume shops that have been branded the Perfume Souk where you can pick up a bargain or two.
Malls – remember that prices in the malls are set and you cannot negotiate. The Dubai Mall is the largest in the region and here you will find more than 1200 stores with brand names that you are sure to recognise. At the present time it is also the largest shopping mall in the world. There are also entertainments here such as an aquarium and ice rink. Conveniently located next to the Burj Khalifah, the tallest building in the world, it is a great place to include when sightseeing. More traditional shops can be found at the Souk Al Bahar, a modern building designed to look old and filled with less well-known stores and top quality restaurants. Mercato is the mall to head to if you want a little European flavour in your trip. While you will find plenty of top brand names here you will also be able to enjoy one of the many European fairs that take place. Mall of the Emirates used to be the largest mall in the area until the Dubai Mall opened. Again, there are many well-known brand names here as well as local souvenir shops.
Dubai Shopping Festival – this is the largest event of its type in the Middle East Region and take place in January and February each year. All shops have sales and people can save a lot of money by shopping at this time. There is also a summer version of the shopping festival that is growing in popularity.
Textile shops – head to the district of Satwa where there are numerous shops selling textiles. Again, you can benefit from haggling with the vendors. You can pick up bargains here such as raw silk and there are even tailoring shops in the area where you can have an item of clothing made up after you have chosen your material.
While many people come to enjoy the beaches, shops, bars and restaurants, it would be a shame to miss out on some of the attractions that the city has to offer. When you see the modern city and all the recent development work, it is difficult to remember that the city dates back centuries. As a result there are plenty of historic attractions for you to visit along with the contemporary ones.
Head over to the Bastakiya District where there are many buildings that have been created in a traditional style. The area has a great atmosphere and there are cafes and art galleries.
The Dubai Museum should be high on the itinerary for anyone interested in the history of the region. Start at the al-Fahidi fort then move on to the contemporary extension found underneath the fort that offer reconstructions of ancient souks and interactive exhibit.
The Jumeirah Mosque is the largest mosque in the city and it is one of the few that non-Muslims are allowed to visit. Special tours are set for non-Muslims and run by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. These are at specific times and you get the opportunity to ask questions afterwards. Visit in the evening when the building is beautifully lit.
A cruise along Dubai Creek will enable you to see something of the history of the city with plenty of the original buildings lining the creek. There are organised tours or you can rent a private boat. The creek divides the city and was the original heart of the city with the first settlers coming here for fishing and pearl diving. The original settlers made their home here around 4000 years ago and cargo is still brought into the city on dhows. You can take a tour of one of the dhows to find out more about how the traditional sailors live and work.
When it comes to the contemporary side of the city the Burj Khalifa is also a must for a visit. It stands at 828 metres and has 160 floors. This is the largest building in the world and there is an observation deck located on the 124th floor. This building stands out in the city’s skyline and contains no less than nine hotels and a fountain system that would not look out of place in Las Vegas. Enter via the Dubai Mall. Timed tickets are cheaper than non-timed tickets and as they can sell out well in advance you should book ahead of time online.
The Dubai Marina area is one of the most recent developments and there are some great features here. Visitors can rent a yacht to take a cruise around the marina and coast and there are a couple of walkways where you can access shops, restaurants and market stalls during certain times of the year.
It is also worth a trip to see the Palm Islands which represent the most innovative and modern of the developments in Dubai. These are large artificial islands built just off the coast. Each one has been designed in the shape of a palm and the ‘trunk’ connects the islands to the mainland. Only one of these is open at the minute – the Palm Jumeirah – where you will find resorts, designer shopping areas and marinas.
A trip to the Dubai Aquarium is a must, particularly for those taking a holiday here with children. There are more than 140 different species of marine life here. The aquarium is an enormous suspended tank that can be found on the ground floor in the Dubai Mall. You can view this free from the mall but you can also go via the Underwater zoo. The Aquarium also offers the opportunity to get a bit close to the sea creatures, with shark diving and cage snorkelling on offer.
Heritage House is an attraction that is definitely worth a visit. Here you can see the traditional home of a wealthy Iranian merchant. It was built in 1890 but in 1910 passed into the hands of Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk, one of the most famous pear merchants in the city. The building underwent restoration in 1994 and visitors can now see how people used to live. Heritage House can be found in the Deira district of the city.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Dubai is all about the shops, hotels and beaches. There is far more to the city than that and if you want to be a little more active on your visit there is bound to be something for you to do.
Water sports – The beautiful beaches and clear waters offer plenty of opportunities for those who want to indulge a passion for water sports. The water temperatures can be as high as 35°C during the summer months. Parasailing is becoming a very popular activity in the area and it has long been popular with divers, although with some of the construction work taking place off the coast it means a long trip to a good dive site.
Fishing – There are plenty of organised fishing trips in Dubai and some of the boat have accommodation so you can be at sea for a few days while you enjoy your hobby. You can catch barracuda, tuna and queen fish on one of these trips and most boats are fully equipped with everything that you need, both for fishing and general health and safety.
Explore the region – You might not think that there is much to do in the region outside of the city but you would be wrong. You can go on a desert safari – there are plenty of operators in the city. You can explore the city using a 4×4, dune buggy or quad bike on an organised trip.
Visit a park – While the city may look to be very modern, there are some green spaces if you know where to look. The Al Safa Park is one of the oldest parks in the city and it is a great place for those who like sports. Here you can play tennis, soccer and volleyball and there are video arcades for the kids as well as fairground rides. You can make the most of your time here by enjoying a picnic or BBQ. Alternatively try the Dubai Miracle Garden, a park that can be found in Dubailand. Here you will be able to see more than 45 million flowers and some great traditional topiary and displays. Another place to escape the busy city atmosphere is the Mushrif Park. This is a natural ghaf forest and covers 124 hectares. Fountains, lakes and swimming pools can be found here and there are plenty of activity areas for children. The park is also well-known for providing a natural habitat for many types of wildlife, particularly birds.
Camel racing – This is not something you are going to see everywhere so while you are in Dubai why not go along to the Camel Race Track? During the winter months there are races held on Thursdays and Fridays and you can also pick up a souvenir or two from one of the vendors.
Golf – The golfing enthusiast can try one of the standard courses in the city where a lot of time, effort and money is spent on keeping the grass very green or you can give sand golf a try for something a little more challenging!
Skiing – Despite the high temperatures, skiing is an option in Dubai, although it is the indoor version. The Mall of the Emirates is home to a snow skiing centre where you can try snowboarding as well as skiing. It covers a large area and you can hire all the equipment that you need.