There are so many crazy superlatives used to describe Dubai, but many people still see it as one giant glitzy air-conditioned shopping mall in the desert. Nothing could be further from the truth. In only a couple of decades Dubai has become a five star cosmopolitan city that offers more than enough for the perfect break. (And I have to say, living here isn’t too bad either).
It’s easy for me to have fun because I’ve been here a few years, but what about coming here on holiday? Worry no more, I’ve put together this comprehensive list to help make sure you have the most luxurious, fun time of your life. So without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
Who To Fly With
Your holiday starts before you even leave home. You might want to consider flying in on either Emirates, direct to the impressive Dubai airport or on Etihad, landing at the smaller but very efficient Abu Dhabi airport. They are first class airlines, usually offer very tempting deals for inbound tourists and if you need a visa, they will arrange it for you.
If it’s your first time to the UAE or even the region, and you’re a bit nervous, or you just want to race through customs and get the party started, book the Marhaba service. It’s a VIP fast track system that will have a person meeting you before customs and whipping you through it in about 20 minutes without any fuss, at any time of the day.
Once you’ve grabbed your bags, the first thing you need to do is load up on alcohol at Duty Free. You can’t casually buy alcohol in supermarkets or liquor stores. They do exist, but only for non-Muslim residents, and you need to have a liquor licence. It’s also much more expensive. Don’t worry though, you’ll meet more than enough people willing to help you around that and there are enough bars to top up in.
Find Your Ride
Pass through Nothing to Declare and you can arrange a car or a limo at one of the counters, or arrange one before you even arrive, through Dubai Exotic Limo or Dubai Stretch Limousine.
Or better yet, rent a convertible sports car to cruise through the city from Park Lane Rental or VIP Digits.
Otherwise you can always catch a taxi, they’re cheap, reliable and efficient. Walk out the front doors and turn left, you’ll find a large, well organised taxi stand. (The pink taxis are for women only by the way).
Where To Stay
Where you stay all depends on your budget of course, but the beauty of Dubai hotels is that most are new, modern and offer good room sizes (European closets they are not). You’ll want to be close to the action, which isn’t hard because Dubai is a small place, but essentially you have three options: On the beach, in the city or in the desert.
They all have their benefits and it really depends what you want from your holiday.
Of course there are the landmark hotels like the self-proclaimed 7 star Burj Al Arab and the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa to consider. And in a city with so many glamorous hotels, no list would ever be complete, but these are some of my favourites for the best in luxury, service and comfort.
This must be one of the most self-contained and luxurious city sanctuaries in the center of Dubai Marina. Grosvenor House also has Michelin-starred contemporary Indian dining along with celebrity chef Gary Rhodes’ award-winning Rhodes Mezzanine restaurant.
One & Only Royal Mirage
Spread over sixty acres with beautiful landscaped gardens, large outdoor swimming pools and lovely beaches, the One&Only Royal Mirage is one of the most low-key, elegant hotels in Dubai. Its Beach Bar & Grill restaurant and Jetty Lounge are bar are two of my favourite venues in the whole city.
With its beautiful waterfront setting on the Deira side of the creek, adjacent to the Dubai Creek Golf Club and the yacht club, the Park Hyatt’s a haven. It is a bit further away from the city’s nightlife, restaurants, and shopping, but it’s close to the real old Dubai.
One of Dubai’s most stylish boutique hotels, Desert Palm is situated on a 150-acre polo estate that feels a million miles away from the busy city. The hotel has a modern design, with a sophisticated interior that tastefully integrates an equestrian theme. My favourite part about this hotel though, is having lunch on the terrace when there’s a polo tournament on.
Not actually in Dubai, this is undoubtedly one of UAE’s signature resorts. Designed as a luxurious Bedouin encampment, the Al Maha Desert Resort combines the relaxed feeling of a tented desert safari lodge with the elegance of a five star luxury hotel. It’s only 45-minute drive from Dubai and guests can go on game-viewing drives every day.
The Best Places To Eat
Depending when you arrive, you’ll want to get out and get a taste of the city (literally). Fortunately, no matter what time of day you touch down, Dubai has plenty going on, so you’ll want to try out a couple of these places.
Lime Tree Café
The Lime Tree Café has become an institution with the ladies that (brunch and) lunch, known in Dubai as Jumeirah Janes. There are four branches but the Jumeirah one (right near the Jumeirah Mosque) is the best place to sit outside and indulge. They have a wide range of meals that are all top quality, and their carrot cake is legendary.
Jones The Grocer
A premium Australian gourmet food store, Jones the Grocer’s has a stylish, vibey café that is one of my favourite places to have brunch on the weekend. They have freshly baked breads and pastries, a European delicatessen, and a cheese counter so you can also take goodies home.
Al Qasr at Madinat Jumeirah
This is a tried and trusted favourite in the Madinat Jumeirah complex. It’s the first brunch I ever had, and I think it’s still the best. It is also one of the most expensive brunches. But the range and quality of food and drinks is superb, with everything from sushi to pizza. The venue is stylish and great for visiting friends and family.
Saffron at Atlantis
It’s a bit Vegas meets cheesy cruise liner, which isn’t surprising because the Atlantis hotel at the top of Palm Jumeirah is ridiculously kitsch. But the food and drinks are superb. It’s very well priced and the DJ keeps things rocking all afternoon.
The Dubai Polo Club
This is a sophisticated, but very laid-back outdoor option next to the polo fields. You can even take your kids along, because there’s a play area and staff on hand to keep them entertained.
Blue Marlin Ibiza
On the road to Abu Dhabi, this Spanish owned restaurant and beach club embraces the spirit of Ibiza. Arrive at the venue at 1pm, then stay on to party around the pool or on the beach, with loads of bikini-clad women. When the sun sets, the music is cranked up, so you can spend the night partying.
Lunch & Dinner
Like hotels, Dubai has its fair share of stunning restaurants and no list would be complete, but these are some of my favourites lunch and dinner venues. So let’s start with the only two restaurants in Dubai that made it into the World’s Top 100 restaurants in 2012, Zuma and Le Petit Maison.
Zuma’s Dubai restaurant is superbly run and the food and atmosphere is fantastic. The dishes are brought to the table whenever they’re ready, which makes the experience feel more informal. On weekend nights, you can’t move in the bar as the Dj gets the place rocking. My top tip? Sit in the lounge upstairs, and try their business lunch menu. It’s far more relaxed and you’ll get to sample their menu without spending a fortune.
Le Petit Maison
La Petite Maison which first opened in Nice in 1988, serves cuisine Nicoise from the old town of Nice. The brasserie can be expensive, and more than once the waiters have been accused of being pushy. But that doesn’t seem to have put people off and it has made a big impact in Dubai. The excellent menu must be one of Dubai’s largest, with around 28 starters, 24 main courses and 10 desserts.
Beach Bar & Grill
At One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel, this is one of my favourite beach restaurants. Like the hotel itself, it is low-key and sophisticated. Overlooking Palm Jumeirah, its outside deck is the perfect place to enjoy a long lunch or dinner. Many locals seem to forget about it for some reason, but it’s still one of the most romantic restaurants in Dubai. And it’s one of the few venues where you can actually dine by candlelight right on the beach.
Aprons & Hammers
The reason I love Aprons & Hammers is not only because it’s still unique in Dubai, but because it is the most casual and relaxed venue with incredible seafood. The restaurant itself is built on a renovated dhow that’s moored at the end of a pier at Mina Seyahi. The food is delicious and the prices, extremely reasonable. Book a table on the upper deck.
Pierchic is another restaurant that has one of the most romantic settings in Dubai. Styled as a wooden Emirati home, it is stylish and modern inside. Take a romantic walk down the very long pier and sit outside on the deck.
Okku is one of Dubai’s best places for contemporary, upscale Japanese cuisine (along with Zuma and Nobu). The dining area is split into the main area and private dining booths on a mezzanine level. After dinner, you can join the party as the resident DJ gets going later on.
Around the corner from Zuma and Le Petit Maison, Roberto’s is a relatively new kid on the DIFC block. It has a main dining room, Il Ristorante, the buzzing lounge, Il Salotto, and an open air terrace, La Terrazza. It’s a smart place, but has that casual, friendly Italian vibe
Table 9 by Nick & Scott
When Gordon Ramsey closed down Verre, in the Hilton on Dubai creek, two of his chefs Nick Alvis and Scott Price, set out on their own. Table 9 is less formal and the menu is made up of “smaller” and “larger” plates that gives you the freedom to create your own bespoke dining experience.
The awards have been coming thick and fast, and along with Middle East chef of the year accolades.
Where To Catch The Sunset (And Drink Afterwards)
Tips: As a general rule, only restaurants attached to hotels can serve alcohol. Also make sure you wear closed shoes after 6pm. Every city has its quirks, so no matter how fancy or expensive your sandals are, you’re not getting into most bars or clubs. With that out the way:
In the One & Only Royal Mirage, and a short walk from the Beach Bar & Grill, Jetty Lounge is like a chic European lounge cum beachside bar. It attracts a glam crowd, but it’s still laid back with sophisticated chill out lounge music to keep you company. The only downside is that they don’t have a proper restaurant and their snack platters aren’t anything to write home about.
The 360° bar is set on a circular platform at the end of a very long pier off the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. And yes, the rooftop bar does have an incredible 360-degree view from the Jumeirah Palm on one side round to Port Rashid on the other. You can chill out on one the many lounge chairs that run round the venue.
At.mosphere is on the 122nd floor of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, this is the world’s highest restaurant. (Only two levels below the observation deck, and far more comfortable). So what better place to watch the sun set over the Arabian Gulf?
Over the years, the late night party scene has grown dramatically and although much of Dubai (thankfully for this old coot) centers around relaxed lounge and cocktail bars, there are a few clubs where you can dance all night. They range from the laid back, to the ridiculously expensive and pretentious.
Tip: Some of you might like to know that Tuesday is ladies night everywhere in Dubai.
This Polynesian themed club is in the basement of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. But Mahiki is not nearly as tacky as it might sound. Laid back it may be, but it’s a stylish, cosy venue with a lounge area, and a dance floor that gets very busy. It’s probably not the best place if you’re claustrophobic though.
Part of the designer Armani hotel in the Burj Khalifa, Armani Prive on the ground floor is the haunt of the glamorous VIP set. It is divided into an outdoor veranda, a dance floor backed by a bar and semi-circular VIP booths that offer bottle service. (I really enjoy this area, it’s slick and stylish, but it is expensive).
Recently opened at the brand new JW Marriott Marquis in Business Bay, the VIP Room is the new kid in town. With sister clubs in Paris, St Tropez, Monaco and Cannes, the owners have brought a bit of French opulence to Dubai, and it’s already very popular.
The Cavalli Cub was inspired by, and launched in collaboration with, celebrated designer Roberto Cavalli. It is one of the most expensive nightclubs ever built. It cost about $30-million. Yes it’s gaudy and excessive, but it’s also extremely popular with local socialites, sheiks and extremely well dressed tourists.
Cirque du Soir
London’s most infamous celebrity hangout, has a Dubai venue. Cirque du Soir took over the old 400 Club (very popular with the moneyed Lebanese crowd) and re-opened with this circus-themed club. Expect circus folk; burlesque dancers on podiums, and jugglers serving tables. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Ok, so partying isn’t the only thing you came here for, so what are the big attractions and what’s worth seeing?
Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building. What other reason do you need?
Rising 828 metres (2,716.5 feet) and more than 160 stories into the sky, the architectural masterpiece (it really is beautiful) houses the Armani Hotel and residences and sits alongside Dubai Mall and the Dubai Fountain.
At The Top is Burj Khalifa’s observation deck 124 levels up, and the 57 superfast elevators, take only two minutes to reach the top. You can buy tickets at the lower ground floor reception area in Dubai Mall but DONT buy a last minute tickets, it is about four times more expensive. Rather buy online beforehand.
Better yet, head only two levels below to At.mosphere, naturally the world’s highest restaurant and bar. There’s a minimum spend per person, but it is much more comfortable and more of an experience to look down at the world below with cocktail in hand.
A short walk from the Al-Fahidi Fort and Dubai Museum is one of the oldest heritage sites and traditional Emirati neighbourhoods in Dubai. The tiny Bastakiya quarter was established at the end of the 19th century by wealthy textile and pearl traders from Bastak, Iran.
It was painstakingly renovated by the government and it’s narrow alleyways and traditional houses with tall wind-towers gives you an interesting glimpse of old Dubai. Shops, galleries, and charming restaurants now line the alleyways, and you can also take a look at the Bastakiya Mosque and Textile Souq nearby. Then hop on an abra (old wooden water taxi), and cross over to Deira to visit the Gold Souk and Spice Souk. It makes for a very interesting few hours in real old Dubai.
The Dubai Museum is situated in the Al-Fahidi Fort next to Bastakiya. The fort, built around 1787, is considered the city’s oldest building and was once the seat of government and residence of Dubai’s rulers.
The museum itself is small, but surprisingly slick and informative. Along with showcasing Dubai’s incredible growth from tiny trading port, to cosmopolitan city, they have a few dioramas that recreate Old Dubai, giving you an insight into a pre-oil Dubai.
The open-air markets or souks lining the creek near the dhow port are a living museum of Dubai’s trading history, and it’s possible to see them all in a few hours. (The evening is the most lively and exciting time to visit by the way).
If you combine your trip with a visit to Bastakiya and the Dubai Museum, you can start off at the textile souk nearby. Then catch an abra, (wooden water taxi), across the creek to the small spice souk next to the Old Baniyas Road abra station. It’s an amazing assault on the senses. Then head further into the wood-covered gold souk, where you can try some good-natured haggling for your jewellery. The creek in Bur Dubai and Deira is usually open 09:00 to 22:00.
The Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in Dubai that is open to the public and allows men and women who are not Muslim inside.
They work together with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and their “Open Doors, Open Minds” programme, hosts tours of the Jumeirah Mosque. You don’t need a reservation but dress modestly and arrive at the main entrance by 9.45am. Each tour lasts about 75 minutes.
Styled to resemble an ancient Arabian citadel, Madinat Jumeirah is a rambling development on the coast that houses two grand boutique hotels. The adjoining souk is very popular. It’s more of an air conditioned Arabian themed mall, packed with specially selected shops, restaurants and bars. Head right through and sit at a restaurant outside on the waterways.
This man-made island really is an incredible engineering feat. There isn’t really anything specific to see, but take a drive (or metro ride) to the Atlantis hotel, or one of the other hotels, just to get a sense of the scale of the project. There are a number of places you can stop off at for a drink or a bite to eat. Otherwise hire a yacht and sail all the way around it.
Shop ‘Till You Drop
If you love shopping, you’re in the right city, but you probably already knew that.
The world’s biggest mall. It is filled with luxury stores from every corner of the globe and includes a fashion avenue, Galleries Lafayette and Bloomingdales.
Step outside the mall to see Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in all its glory. Cross the bridge to Souk Al Bahar and book a table on the balcony at a Mango Tree or Rivington Grill to watch the spectacular musical fountain show.
Mall of The Emirates
Personally this is still my favourite mall. It’s cosy, just big enough not to feel overwhelmed and it has Harvey Nichols and the Dubai ski slope attached to it. What’s not to love?
This mall is a favourite with locals (although the gridlocked traffic in the area tends to deter tourists). It has all the high-end stores you’d expect, including Chanel, Hermès, Christian Dior, and the only Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai.
The Boulevard at Jumeirah Emirates Towers
This small exclusive mall has everything the discerning shopper needs. You’ll find a wide range of fashion outlets, including Boutique 1, the Middle East’s answer to Bloomingdale’s.
Gold & Diamonds
The malls do of course have dozens of high-end jewellery stores, but if you’d like to haggle for better prices on your gold, diamonds and precious stones, you’ll want to head to the Gold Souk on the creek or the Gold & Diamond Park.
The Gold Souk is fun to walk through and has more than 300 stalls of gold and jewellery where you can try your hand at haggling. They also have platinum, diamonds and occasionally silver, and the government keeps tight control over the quality of all the merchandise, so don’t worry, you can’t get ripped off.
Your best (though less atmospheric) bet however, is The Gold and Diamond Park near the Mall of the Emirates. It’s a far more comfortable air-conditioned experience, without the city chaos. It has plenty of stores and you’re more likely to find exactly what you want, or have it custom-made for an even lower price.
Shop around and don’t be scared to haggle. Just remember to start 50% less, work your way up from there and have plenty of stamina. The trick is to try wear the other person down.
Middle East Art
The art scene is definitely on the up in the region and there are two main areas in Dubai that have become hubs for art galleries.
This district of warehouses and small factories just off Sheikh Zayed Road offers galleries large industrial spaces and cheap rent, so it’s no wonder they’ve set up here. It’s not a place you can really walk around, except Alserkal Avenue, where some of the city’s most cutting-edge galleries are located, and specialise in work by emerging Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, and Arab talent. These galleries are well worth the effort:
The Third Line
The Jam Jar
Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC)
This large modern complex is home to the money traders of Dubai. Its annex is filled with high-end retail stores, restaurants (including Zuma and Le Petit Maison) and most of the city’s major art galleries. Unlike Al Quoz, this is a fantastic area to stroll from gallery to gallery and then stop off for lunch or dinner. Gulf Art Guide has listings of all the galleries, and everything you need to know.
So you’re sick of shopping, or you’re just trying to avoid it all together? Ok, well there’s plenty else to do. There are a few big operators that handle most outdoor activities, so you won’t have a problem
OK, this is actually indoors (but it’s outdoors in other countries so it counts), and yes it is a weird concept for the desert, but it’s also a lot of fun and a welcome respite from the heat. Ski Dubai, has 5 runs that vary in difficulty, height and gradient, the longest run being 400 meters with a fall of over 60 meters. You can try the world’s first indoor black run or, maybe learn to ski first, on the gentle beginner slopes. There’s a freestyle zone for snowboarders and a 3000 square meter Snow Park, which is the largest indoor one in the world.
Desert safaris are a lot of fun. Even jaded locals who have done it with every visiting friend and family member will tell you it’s worth doing more than once. A driver will pick you up from your hotel, late afternoon, in 4×4 and drive you out to the desert where you’ll watch the sun set. Then you’ll join a convoy of other vehicles, and after you’re strapped in, you’ll race at high speed across the dunes. Afterwards you’ll head to a faux-Bedouin tented camp where you can have dinner, ride a camel, and try shisha smoking. This really isn’t the highlight of the trip, because it’s all a bit cheesy and staged, so I would opt for a trip with the dune bashing only.
Two well known operators are Arabian Adventures and Arabia Horizons.
Dubai is a city that’s literally sprung from the desert, and is an amazing sight from above. There are a few operators around like, Heli Dubai, Dreamdays and Arabia Horizons.
Or if helicopters aren’t your thing you could always try a seaplane.
Surprisingly for a desert city, Dubai has its fair share of world-class golf courses.
The Yas Links golf course was voted one of Golf World’s top 100 courses in 2012, so it’s a good place to start.
Emirates Golf Club is home to the Desert Classic (part of the PGA European Tour).
The Montgomerie is a par 72 and has the world’s biggest green.
Dubai Creek Golf Club has stunning views and runs alongside the luxury Park Hyatt.
In Arabian Ranches, the 247-acre Desert Course is the longest in the city.
And the Al Badia course in Festival City has a terrace restaurant with panoramic views over the 18-hole course and Dubai Creek.
Try and book before you even arrive in Dubai if possible. Courses give priority to members, and it’s often impossible to get a place over the weekend. Some also have minimum handicap requirements. You can find out more at Dubai Golf.
If you’re in town during polo season, the two top places to watch it are the Dubai Polo Club and at Desert Palm Resort. They are an easy 15-20 minute drive, heading towards the desert.
At Dubai Polo Club, you can take your own picnic or choose from one of their Polo Picnic Boxes. Or book a table on the clubhouse terrace for brunch whilst watching a game.
At Desert Palm, you can also book a table on their terrace and tuck into good food while you watch a game.
If there aren’t any tournaments on, you can usually still spot horses being exercised and players practicing in the late afternoon.
With Skydive Dubai, you can choose whether you’d like to jump out of a plane over the desert or over the ocean, high above Palm Jumeirah in the heart of Dubai. If it’s your first time, do a tandem jump with an instructor.
Sailing & Deep Sea Fishing
The sun shines 360 days a year and the water is almost always calm, so Dubai is the perfect place to charter a boat for a couple of hours partying or fishing, or even a whole day out. This is something we do more often than we probably should and it’s always great. Try Xclusive Yachts or Dubai Ultimate Charter.
If you don’t mind heading out of Dubai, take a trip up the coast to Mussandam, Oman for a day of snorkeling.
Soak Up The Sun
If you’ve done enough running around, or don’t actually feel like doing any and you just want to lie on the beach, Dubai is a good place to do it. If you’re not staying at a beach hotel, I recommend a day or three at a beach club.
There are a couple of public beaches left, like Umm Suqeim, but beach clubs are very popular in Dubai and most carry a hefty annual fee. Fortunately, most of the clubs allow day visitors. You’ll still pay of course, but it’s a very comfortable way to spend the afternoon. These are my favourites and are a good place to start.
One&Only Royal Mirage
If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can buy day passes for the pool and beach facilities at Royal Mirage. There’s also a range of watersports on offer, including waterskiing and wakeboarding.
More famous for its Sandance parties, Nasimi Beach at Atlantis hotel lets you use their beach facilities if you eat lunch at their al fresco restaurant. If there’s a Sandance event on, stay after sunset and party.
Al Shalal Beach Club
Al Shalal on Palm Jumeirah is aiming to be the city’s most personalised boutique beach club. It has a great infinity pool and its Mediterranean restaurant, Gusto, is always on standby if you’re feeling peckish.
Dubai boasts some of the most spectacular spas in the world, and every top hotel has one, so you’ll have no trouble unwinding. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with these spas.
Amara Day Spa at Park Hyatt
One of Dubai’s most luxurious spas at the five star Park Hyatt hotel on the creek. They offer indulgent Givenchy beauty treatments and a popular Oriental hammam.
Talise Spa at Madinat Jumeirah
In the luxurious Madinat Jumeirah resort, the Talise Spa offers a wide range of beauty and spa treatments including volcanic stone baths and yoga lessons.
The Health & Beauty Institute
The One&Only Royal Mirage resort’s beautiful spa center, situated in the elegant entrance courtyard of the resort’s Beach Residence & Spa.
What’s On This Month
It doesn’t matter when you decide to travel to Dubai, you’ll have an amazing time. Yes, you may have to skip some things, but you’ll find there’s always something interesting, and more than enough, going on. So as a final word, all I’ll say is hop on a plane and if you want to know what’s on while you’re here, take a look when you land.
Photo of Burj Khalifa copyright mirror.co.uk. and thywalls.com. Zuma copyright elephantstyle.com. Jumeirah Palm copyright Nakheel. Polo copyright horsetalk.uae.com. Royal Mirage via wanderfly.com. Hyatt, Al Qasr and Al Maha copyright of each respective hotel.