Visiting Dubai: what are the best things to do and see in the “city of excess”?
Dubai. The mere mention of this name is enough to bring up images of an oasis of high-end hotels, world-renowned restaurants and frankly bizarre attractions, all in the middle of the desert. Dubai is not a city that rests on its laurels, constantly moving forward (and towards the sky), there is always something new to see and to do in Dubai.
Dubai is also a city that offers a lot of outdoor activities, sports activities and, as surprising as it may seem, a few outdoor nature oriented activities. A crossroads between East and West, it embodies the Arab dream and enjoys an ever-increasing reputation on the world tourist scene as the place where you can do anything. Dubai is known as a high-end destination, tailored towards people that are looking for luxury and extravagance and the prices reflect that. It is possible to visit Dubai while pinching pennies, that’s what we did during our own trip, but the city certainly isn’t renowned for that or quite that suitable. We would recommend Dubai as a great destination if you are looking to splurge and indulge in many pleasures, and are ready to pay the bill afterwards.
One more thing to pay attention to is the timing of your trip. Dubai get scorching hot in the Summer, with temperatures reaching 122 F° and humidity over 90%. Simply put, being outside in direct sunlight in the early afternoon is exhausting and you will need to find shelter quickly. It cools down in the evening but it will still be warm, so there will be no need to pack any kind of warm clothing and you should constantly hydrate.
Finally, Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, a country which follows Ramadan and as such, there are legal obligations to follow during that period of the year. During Ramadan, you will not be allowed to drink (including water) or eat in public, will be expected to wear decent clothing (foreign non-Muslim women will not be required to wear a veil, but will be asked to cover themselves more than usual). A rule of thumb for women is that if you have a long sleeved top then you can wear a medium length skirt, and if you wear a strict long skirt then you can wear a slightly lighter top. You will also risk a fine if you display any signs of affection to your SO during Ramadan.
Dubai is a tourist destination but will still require you to follow the law of the land, with a few accommodations. Typically, “expat” restaurants will be open during the day but will serve food behind closed doors and blinds, so it can sometimes be hard to know whether they are open or not. You can always drink water (be sure to hydrate as the heat is sweltering) behind closed doors in private and everything will be open during the evening after Iftar, including many pop up tents that will offer lavish Iftar feasts. This only applies during Ramadan, which is only about a month every year, and it makes for an interesting experience rather than a poor one, so there is no bad time to visit Dubai, just think about the period and read about what to expect!
So what to do in Dubai, where to start in this insatiable city? Here is our guide to the best things to do and visit in Dubai, just to enlighten you for a first stay in this surprising city.
1. Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is literally the first thing you will see when entering the city. At 2,717 feet, over half a mile high, it towers over the tallest of skyscrapers in the city. It provides for an unmissable way point, an easy way to find you way in the city, though its sheer size can be deceiving and it will often look much loser than it really is. Even people that live in big cities and are used to skyscrapers will have to adapt their perspective and sense of distance. The Burj Khalifa is just that tall. Towards the top, on its 124th floor, you will find an observation platforms, the Burj Khalifa’s “At The Top” : a spectacular viewpoint, very popular with visitors (think of getting skip the line tickets to avoid long queues). A remarkable engineering feat, this tower, which gives the impression of piercing the sky, is simply the tallest building in the world, ahead of Shanghai Tower. Completed in just six years, it now illustrates Dubai’s desire to reach new heights and has succeeded in putting Dubai on the map as a major tourist destination.
2. Deïra, the old town
How about starting with an authentic and typical outing to Deira, often overshadowed by the flashy new downtown? In Deïra, the old city of Dubai, you will forget about the skyscrapers and other traces of modernity: Deïra offers you a face with a thousand and one scents and flavors! From spice stands to local specialties, taste the country’s gastronomy while enjoying the good deals of the souk and its joyful hubbub. The Dubai Museum will offer you a quick cultural break on the history of this small fishing village that has become the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates. Many areas in Deira will thankfully be shaded, and the Dubai Museum provides for some AC and will help you cool off, while being pretty interesting in itself, especially if you are unfamiliar with the history of Dubai or of the region in general.
3. Gold Market
Visiting Dubai without going through its riches is, so to speak, unthinkable. Beyond the over-sized hotels, shops and attractions, the city is home to the world’s largest gold market! Still in Deïra, take advantage of your walk to discover this unique and above all authentic place where enthusiasts, curious, locals and tourists bargain for opulence with goods ranging from 18 to 22 carats. The jewelry and various objects here are scrupulously approved by United Arab Emirates government officials before being put up for sale, in order to authenticate the purchases. If gold has the upper hand, precious stones, silver but also diamonds have made their way to the market stands, dressing it a little more abundantly and giving it some diversity while remaining in the domain of opulence.
4. A safari in the desert
Adventurers to the core, don’t look any further for what to do in Dubai during your stay! As the gateway to the desert, the city has some sporting activities to experience along the dunes. By car or camel, take advantage of a safari to discover the desert landscapes, dine in the middle of nowhere, sleep under the stars or meet the Bedouin people. Most tour operators will include some sand drifting in a all terrain truck, which can be pretty impressive and a little bit like your own private roller coaster, before taking you to a small souvenir concession where you can ride a quad, try your hand at falconry or sit in the shade and watch other people try! Finally, you’ll typically end up in a little village where you’ll get to enjoy a barbecue in the sand or try sandboarding, desert surfing. Take advantage of this moment to enjoy the absolute silence of the desert, facing the sunset. A fantastic change of scenery from the busy city center!
5. A ski session
Yes, you read correctly: it is possible to ski in Dubai in the middle of the desert. To do this, you have to go to Ski Dubai, a covered ski resort in a gigantic dome located inside the vast Mall of the Emirates shopping center.
Hosting 5 slopes with different difficulties, Ski Dubai has its own ski school, ski lifts and equipment rental companies! So why not take a first ski lesson if you are a beginner (just imagine telling your friends you learned how to ski in Dubai of all places)? Lovers of sledging or snowboarding can also indulge in this decadent and absurd showing of human hubris. At the end of your session, enjoy a hot chocolate in the resort’s coffee bar and then go and meet the penguins that are kept in this same resort, to conclude this thoroughly unreal experience.
6. Dubai Mall
If the ski resort in Mall of the Emirates is enough to impress, Dubai Mall has much more to offer its visitors. The shopping center, the city’s flagship symbol, is none other than the world’s largest shopping center. And for good reason, it houses no less than 1200 shops and its surfaces is equivalent to 190 football fields! Among there must-see attractions in addition to its luxurious shops, you will find the world’s largest indoor aquarium, a 22-screen cinema, The Address Dubai Mall luxury hotel, and an Olympic skating rink. Without a doubt, if you walk through the doors of this capitalistic wet dream, you will not have time to get bored. The Dubai mall is both a unique place in the world and is also everywhere in the world. You will find food and shops from every corner of the world and you will be reminded of home, wherever home is, while also feeling like you’re on an other planet. The question is, where are you going to start? You can get bread from a renowned French bakery, fresh Italian pasta made from actual Italian chefs or fast food from any of your favorite places from Canada, the UK or either coast of the USA.
7. The beach and the Burj Al Arab
Spend some time at the beach next to Burj Al Arab, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world that has been built to look like a standing sail. Here you can take the famous picture of yourself, standing on the sand, with the skyscraper in the background. From its height of 321 meters, it has become one of Dubai’s most emblematic symbols and makes a great backdrop if you get the timing right and get there towards sunset. The beaches have fine sand, are generally very clean and the waters can get up to 100F°. Bring flip flops and large beach towels because you don not want to touch the sand even briefly, it will scald your feet in minutes. To give you an idea of the heat, from the time we left the seawater and got to our spot just a dozen feet away, we were already completely dry and didn’t even need our towels anymore. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing, and you will also want to get dressed as soon as you leave the beach, as walking through shops or even on the boardwalk in a bathing suite is frowned upon and could even get you in trouble during Ramadan for instance.
8. An abra cruise
This is one of the least “over the top” visits in Dubai: an abra tour (taxi boat) on Dubai Creek. Your traditional boat will take you to the old city divided into two districts (Bur Dubai and Deïra) where you will discover a totally different atmosphere from modern Dubai, notably through various emblematic sites and monuments such as the Women’s Museum. The visit will continue to the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Palace via the World Trade Center in Dubai, the Jumeirah Mosque and the Museum of Islamic Art. An experience rich in discoveries that will make you discover, among other things, the history of the city through time. A cheaper alternative could be to take one of the many public boats that take locals and workers from Deira to Oud Metha. You will still get the view of the beautiful buildings on the shore and it will cost you a fraction of what a guided tour would, though you also won’t enjoy the commentary and historical background.
9. The mosque of Jumeirah
Non-Muslims are rarely allowed to see the inside of a mosque, but the Jumeirah mosque is part of a program called “Open Doors. Open Minds” which allows you to visit it. Ideally, you should join a guided tour because not only can you discover the vast interior of this Fatimid-style architectural wonder, but you can also ask the guide questions and they will keep from straying in the more private areas. Decent clothing is of course required, traditional clothing can be lent at the entrance if deemed necessary. Both an active place of worship and a pedagogical center for cross cultural and multi faith exchange and communication, the Jumeirah Mosque is one of the older buildings on this list, though it dates only from 1979.
10. The Dubai Fountain
The Dubai Fountain is actually a set of fountains that are located in the Burj Khalifa Lake. They are the largest dancing fountains on the planet, measuring 275 meters long and projecting water to 275 meters high (150 meters previously). There are shows every day in the early afternoon and every 30 minutes from 6pm to 10pm but also boat rides on the lake from where you can admire the famous fountains show! The fountains will create intricate patterns and sway to music, depending on the hour of the day and which show you catch. If you want to get a great and free view of the show, head to the Dubai Mall and get up to the Apple store, it has a well ventilated balcony with some shade, and if you get there early enough you will have one of the best possible unfettered views of the fountain dance!
11. The city’s parks
In Dubai, there are many green parks where you can walk and relax. If you want to jog or walk, parks like Dubai Creek Park, Zabeel Park, Safa Park, or Al Mamzar Beach Park are good choices. Excellent for picnics and meeting people of all nationalities, these places are lively because they are very popular with visitors and locals. This of course applies for the off season mostly, for these same pleasant parks become extremely hot and humid in the summer, so we wouldn’t advise you to head there unless it’s the early morning or evening and it’s a bit fresher outside.
It is also pleasant to stroll along the Jumeirah Beach Residence (an area where you can also book your accommodation) and the Dubai Marina, with many cafés and restaurants to sit in.
12. Dubai Marina
Want to visit Dubai at its best? Appreciated by locals and visitors alike, Dubai Marina reveals the modern side of the city. Considered as the “New Dubai” The district has many new buildings within it, including many hotels, shopping malls and supermarkets.
Dubai Marina, renowned for its dynamic and lively atmosphere, is a must-see meeting place in Dubai: people love to stroll, eat, party or simply observe its play of light once night falls. Those who love thrills can book a jet ski session here while others can enjoy idleness on board a yacht for a luxury cruise. Dubai in general tends to be new buildings and new developments and nowhere is this truer than in the Marina, the entire are is only years old and restaurants and shops are still sprouting. You will find small but pleasant beaches, a long boardwalk and all the amenities you can expect in a beach resort, just all sparkling new and packed in this small area.
And if you like urban panoramas, go up to the 52nd floor of Hotel Dubai Marriott Harbor: in addition to hosting ideal suites for an unforgettable stay, the latter houses the bar-restaurant “The Observatory” which promises you a breathtaking view of Dubai Marina!
13. Sheikh Mohammed Center
The aim of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for cultural understanding is to broaden awareness and understanding between the different cultures that exist in Dubai. Created under the same project as the Jumeirah Mosque “open doors, open minds” program, this intercultural center attempts to break down barriers between people of different nationalities by raising public awareness of the culture, customs and religion of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is a multicultural metropolis but follows a different model than many others, one that is worth studying or at least getting a glimpse of and this center will do a great job at that.
In general, you can go there for a cultural lunch to discover the local traditional cuisine: a privileged moment in which the exchange leads to meetings and intercultural communication.
14. The amusement parks
To delight young and old, Dubai obviously has a lot of amusement parks and other activities full of thrills:
– Aquaventure Waterpark is part of the gigantic Atlantis, The Palm resort. Over a mile of river rapids, dozens of slides and waterfalls, basins with dolphins, sharks, manta rays… The water resort has a lot to offer for all publics, for the thrill seeking to those who ant to hop on a tube and relax on a lazy river. This all-inclusive resort stands out from most others as it is located on its own man-made island, shaped into a palm tree, and has its own 5 star hotel. This is one of the most family friendly places in Dubai, with many activities for kids of all ages while parents can partake or get some time alone in the resort’s spa, beaches or numerous other luxurious facilities.
– “Legoland“: passionate about the emblematic little plastic bricks, why not immerse yourself in the world of your dreams? Head to Legoland, the amusement park with 15,000 buildings made of more than 60 million LEGO bricks. On the program, a lot of attractions, 6 different worlds and a visit to the LEGO factory. A little anecdote: you can take your LEGOLAND licence at the park’s official driving school!
– “Children’s City“: Chidren’s City is a theme park that got everything right. It is ideal for children aged 2 to 15. Educational and fun, the park houses learning spaces such as a planetarium, a nature center and a space reserved for the discovery of the human body.
– “Motiongate Dubai“: what can you do in Dubai as lovers of the dark rooms that you are? Set off on a cinematic adventure at Montiongate Dubai located 25 minutes from Dubai Marina. Home to three film studios (Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate), the amusement park takes you behind the scenes of the big screen through 27 rides and 15 multimedia experiences! To extend the experience, you can enjoy the show in the Hollywood theater. Are you ready? Action!
– Wild Wadi Water Park” or “Aquaventure”: a huge water park in which rivers, waves and rapids call for adrenaline and fun. Dolphin lovers, for their part, can even enjoy an exceptional moment while swimming with these smart and friendly mammals.
– “Green Planet“: a world tour of tropical fauna and flora, how could you resist? To do this, go to Green Planet. With its own ecosystem, the educational facility shelters an enchanting world where 3000 species and animals live in harmony. From birds to bats, snakes and monkeys, Green Planet invites young and old to discover the wonders of the Earth and builds appreciation for nature while instilling in them the need to preserve these treasures.
15. Fly overs of Dubai
As impressive as it is to be at he bottom of some of these immense skyscrapers and while Dubaite architecture is picturesque and an interesting combination of modern and design with environmental constraints, the most impressive way to see the city is from the sky. It doesn’t get trendier than seeing Dubai from far above and the stark contrast between desert and high rise buildings is absolutely iconic and unique to this city that literally sprouted out of the desert in a manner of decades. There are many different options available and all will guarantee quite a show!
– By helicopter: probably the most famous kind of fly-overs available, used by media and professional photographers alike for its flexibility and speed, helicopters are understandably the pioneers of fly-overs. View the city from the sky in ways you never have before and do so with complete privacy, and enjoy a privileged moment that will surely leave you with your head in the clouds.
– By hot air balloon: in Dubai, everything is possible, everything is an option. So if you’ve always dreamed of boarding a hot air balloon, why not enjoy an extraordinary safari? From the air, enjoy an incredible view of the Dubai desert! On landing, a gourmet breakfast will await you before taking the road aboard a Land Rover towards the Dubai Nature Reserve.
– Seaplane: another emerging trend and not the least, you can get on a seaplane flight. From the Dubai waters, enjoy an installation with an individual window aboard a seaplane that will take you over the most beautiful sites in the city. A unique panorama for an experience that is just as unique.
16. Al Quoz
Rather discreet, often in the shadow of extravagance, Dubai’s artistic heritage is nevertheless worth a visit. To discover it, go to Al Quoz, the cultural and artistic district par excellence that seduces both design lovers and contemporary enthusiasts. The district highlights art galleries where young emerging talents and undisputed established artists express their work on a real life stage. In addition to exhibitions, Al Quoz also hosts cultural events, concept stores, bars and other organic and vegan restaurants. This is how the alternative way to visit Dubai, from another angle, and a way to escape the commercial activity in the center that can be at times overwhelming.
17. Abu Dhabi
If you’re wondering what to do in Dubai to get away from its classics, head for Abu Dhabi. A little less known but just as interesting, the capital of the United Arab Emirates also has its share of riches and must-see attractions. During an excursion from Dubai, discover this oil-bearing city that fascinates every traveler who walks through its doors.
Beyond its economic reputation, Abu Dhabi is home to the Great Mosque (or Sheikh Zayed Mosque) with 1000 columns and 80 domes. The fruit of a titanic work, the Great Mosque has been part of Abu Dhabi’s must-see buildings since 2007, giving a new lease of life to its tourism. And for good reason, we often compare its size with Mecca! From Dubai, there are excursions to Abu Dhabi to visit the Great Mosque: remember in any case to bring a covered and adapted outfit to the site, it is open to visitors but you will to obey the strict dress code, something that is a theme in the country.
While Abu Dhabi hosts the Emirates Palace Hotel, the most expensive hotel in the world that can be visited, there are some reasonable places to stay in Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s main competitor and friendly rival also offers beautiful walks for free along its famous Corniche. You can also take a cultural break at Heritage Village, an open-air museum that tells the history of the premises before the discovery of oil, or dive into the world of the famous red car at Ferrari World.
How to get to Dubai?
Flights to Dubai will typically either be quite pricey or include a layover. We found that the most convenient and affordable option was to stop in Saudi Arabia. Other choices involved going out of our way and included overnight layovers in Moscow and increased the total length of the trip by quite a bit. You will find Saudi Arline flights leaving from New York and London, and they will usually be among the cheapest options available. They will take you to Jeddah for a short layover and will then move on to Dubai. We found the flight itself to be surprisingly comfortable, Saudi Airlines just renewed most of their fleet so your plane will be modern and they are definitely trying to win people over with their on-board service. You will find the cheapest tickets for Saudi Airlines flights to Dubai on Skyscanner.
How to get around Dubai?
Once at the airport, you have a choice of several options to reach downtown Dubai, which is about 20 minutes away by car.
- The metro
Terminals 1 and 3 of the airport have a metro station each serving the red line. Once in the train, the journey is direct to the city center! You can therefore get off at the Dubai Mall or the Emirates Towers without changing lines. A very popular means of transport, the metro is synonymous with convenience during a stay in Dubai with a visit every 10 minutes from 5:30 am to midnight on weekdays and until 2 am on Thursday and Friday.
- The car
If you are not interested in public transport and are looking for autonomy to enjoy Dubai and its surroundings, you can rent a car as soon as you arrive at the airport. From the luxurious Dubaite models to the more traditional family sedans, you will have a large choice and it can be hard to resist the sirens of getting a fancy sport scar to blend in.
You should also know that apart from the freedom of movement that car rental offers, it is an economical means of transport: in Dubai, the price of petrol is very low and most car parks are free.
- The private transfer
The last option and not the least popular, the private transfer. From the airport, you can opt for a taxi that will take you straight to the place of your choice: convenient for a stress-free stay!
Where to stay in Dubai?
Staying in Dubai is a little more expensive. Youth hostels are not really numerous but some offer nights from 25 to 40 euros per person. They tend to pop up during the Summer, although not technically hostels you will find that some enterprising expats rent out large luxury condos and make them into temporary hostels. Their services appear legitimate and the location we’ve tried ourselves was quite comfortable and extremely well located, with surprising amenities for a youth hostel. Just be aware that you’re really staying in a revamped condo, which explains the mix of luxury and dorm beds. If you want to save money, you can stay in a hostel in the nearby town of Sharjah (see Sharjah Hotels), but you will have to take transportation every day, which can be tiring.
Otherwise, Dubai has more than a thousand hotels, and thanks to this competition, it is still possible to find good offers in world-class hotels. To find your accommodation at the best price, book your hotel room or suite online, the earlier the better. You should know though that Dubai is considered the second most expensive city in the world for hotels, though much of that is sue to its extremely high end segments and other options are available, though usually targeted towards guests looking for high-end amenities and tourists that came to Dubai to have a good time, spend lavishly and not think about money. Even the cheapest options will thus offer a high level of comfort.
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