Dubai. Long synonymous for forced layovers and desolate desert, the largest city of the United Arab Emirates has recently come into its own as a tourist destination in itself (obviously).
Boasting the world’s highest structure, the world’s largest indoor theme park, the world’s largest choreographed fountain show, and plenty of other ‘bests’ and ‘firsts’, this is a city that deals exclusively in the opulent and the unparalleled.
If you’re partial to a gleaming skyscraper, a sports car with an exotic animal in the passenger’s seat (think cheetah, tiger, panther… anything feline, quite dangerous and highly illegal) and man-made islands struggling under the weight of the world’s most expensive real estate: welcome to paradise.
*I wrote this article, in a nicer form, for thespinoff.co.nz
Take in the buildings and architecture
Whether you hand over some cash to a listless taxi driver or hire a car yourself, some of the most impressive aspects of Dubai is in the architecture. After all, this is home to the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped building that houses the world’s only 7-star hotel, the Burj Khalifa, the Atlantis on the man-made Palm Jumeirah (feat. underwater restaurant and suite if you’re the kind of traveler with wads of Franklins in their wallet), and some of the planet’s most impressive skyscrapers.
Try some local fare
Emirati food is something of a strange anomaly in the city, and it can be hard to find. But there are plenty of great Lebanese and Middle Eastern eateries around serving up authentic regional fare – and unlike most other things in Dubai, it’s usually pretty cheap. Venture out from the well-heeled areas and into the older districts like Deira or Bur Dubai for a fill of falafel, hummus, shish touak and tabbouleh for about $10 a head.
Our recommendations: Aroos Damascus (seriously, the best restaurant in the city. By a mile), Karachi Darbar and Ravi’s.
Take a trip up the Burj Khalifa
Everyone knows the Burj Khalifa, in fact, let’s be honest – it’s probably the only reason you know Dubai. The haphazard needle-shaped skyscraper piercing the high heavens, dwarfing every other towering, architectural masterpiece on any which side, the world’s tallest structure at 830 metres high, the Burj Khalifa is worth a jaunt into if only to rub shoulders with the city’s elite. But also, for the elevator, which we hasten to admit was the most impressive part of the whole experience. The thing takes 22 seconds to fly you 120 storeys up – and that, my friends, is technology.
But if you’re loathe to stump up for the entry fee (about $47 for the level 125 observation deck, and $130 for level 48), why not head to At.Mosphere on Level 122, the world’s tallest restaurant. It’s also expensive, though. Just go up for a water?
Next-door, one of the world’s largest malls, Dubai Mall, offers 1200 shops, a Diplodocus skeleton and an indoor skifield. Yes, really.
Buy tickets for At The Top here.
Consider trying out At.Mosphere’s gold-dusted ‘Billionaire’s Burger’ here.
Catch the world’s largest dancing fountain show
Head into the desert
Whether you want to try a simple camel or dune buggy ride, or go full hog with an overnight camping safari, there’s plenty to do among the sand dunes. Besides, it’s not really camping anyway: being at one with nature in the UAE is nothing short of glamping. Lodgings? A vast yurt with a bed plusher than your one at home. Dinner? A gourmet full-cooked spread, via waiter. No Spam here.
Day Two (or three or four, if you’re not a complete idiot and did the above in 24 hours)
Start your day with a morning dip
Dubai has plenty of beautiful sandy beaches, and the water is pleasant year-round (aside from summer, when it’s like taking a dip in piping-hot soup). First thing in the morning, before the beach clubs open, they’re tranquil areas where you’ll spot the locals with their families. After that, expect the tanned and taut (and drunk, sometimes).
Ride a rollercoaster, indoors
Here’s one for the whole family. Unsurprisingly, Dubai is home to the largest temperature controlled indoor theme park in the world (due to the country being almost uninhabitable outdoors during its summer months).
IMG Worlds of Adventure offers four zones dedicated to the Marvel Universe, Cartoon Network, and IMG-created IMG Boulevard and the Lost Valley. There’s plenty of rides and rollercoasters spanning the age groups, shops and restaurants, and a 12-screen cinema complex.
Try a brunch
But simultaneously, forget whatever you knew about brunches. The Dubai breakfast/ lunch affair is all about overindulgence (much like the city of itself): unlimited alcohol, unlimited food, and unlimited Instagram opportunities (I hate that I just said that). Basically, you roll up to one of the city’s lavish restaurants – often located in a 5-star hotel – dressed in your best weekend garb, pay a small fortune (between $120 and $300) and unleash yourselves on three or so hours of bingeing.
And by all of the above, we mean all of the above. I can’t tell you how many brunches I’ve been to, thinking I’ve dressed relatively nice, only to be shunted out of the line for the sushi counter by an endless array of women in their Louboutins, their Prada sunglasses and their fake tans.
I still don’t understand it: why would you want anything without a stretchy waist band, material that will soak up liquids, and comfy flats for boosting around as many stations as you can in three hours?
But this is no amateur hour; the buffet table will be laden with gourmet treats and the drinks bar stocked with top-shelf booze. This is Dubai, after all.
Take in old Dubai from an abra
Much to many visitors’ surprise, Dubai does have older area where traditional life still abounds (as much as it can for a country borne in the 1970s). But this isn’t to say that this is the suburb where everyone is rolling around in flares and John Lennon glasses – the 1970s may have been a time of rapid urbanisation and wealth, but in Old Dubai it’s very much like none of that ever happened.
If you head to the south of the city, near the airport, to Al Bastakiya and Dubai Creek, you’ll find the Gold Souk and the Textiles Souk. While it has become rather touristy, it’s still a place where some semblance of a less complicated life reins free. However, don’t expect the Grand Bazaar or old Marrakech. And don’t expect huge discounts, either.
Possibly the best thing to do here, is to hop on a traditional abra and cross Dubai Creek for a single dirham (40 cents). It’s a beautiful sight, heading down the waterway and taking in the sights and sounds of Old Dubai, and you can bet – while there will be tourists around – you’ll largely be surrounded by locals.
Observe the culture
Sure, this is the land of glaring wealth and overindulgence, but cultural traditions still run deep in many places. Be mindful of the masses assembled outside the mosques as the muezzins wail the call to prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. Judge your surroundings and dress appropriately if you’re in a more traditional suburb – this means covering your shoulders and your knees and not wearing anything too tight.
But Dubai as a whole has become much more liberal in recent years, and you don’t need to worry about modesty clothing in most areas.
However, know your audience.