The Dubai Guide
The rapid expansion of the young city of Dubai (the United Arab Emirates wasn’t formed until 1971)—which truly does seem to change each day—has challenged most expectations, and resulted in a futuristic skyline. Dubai lays claim to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building—there are plans to build an even taller one—and some of the most enormous shopping centers, including a mall with a ski resort inside. What’s more, the city is home to essentially every culture, language, and religion: While the UAE as a whole is an Islamic nation, in Dubai (one of the seven emirates), expats make up more than 80 percent of the population. So you’re likely to hear the Muslim call to prayer mingled among several different tongues, you can get any cuisine, and meet some of the most fascinating people on the planet.
That said, if what you’re looking for is a beach/poolside retreat or a desert escape (that’s further afield than, say, Miami or Palm Springs), you can also find that in Dubai, which is uniquely positioned between the Persian Gulf and an expansive desert landscape. For this reason, Dubai’s star as a warm-weather getaway has risen among Europeans. The Dubai airport, nearly a city unto itself, is said to be the busiest in terms of international passengers; Paris-Dubai-Tokyo is one popular route. For Americans, what makes it a more appealing stopover on the way to Asia is the fact that Emirates (a top-notch airline) flies direct from a dozen US cities.
A (longer than usual) note on logistics, as readers/friends who visit Dubai usually share a few questions: You can definitely pack standard Western clothes—you’ll see people wearing all manner of dress throughout the city. Common sense holds true when deciding what to wear when: It’s perfectly fine to wear a bikini at the beach, but if you’re visiting the mosque, opt for something along the lines of a maxi-skirt and a scarf to cover your shoulders/hair. Expats and tourists are allowed to drink—and there is a club scene in Dubai if that’s your thing—but for the most part, alcohol permits are limited to the hotels, so restaurants and bars tend to be clustered on hotel properties. (If you’re into mocktails, great choice of destination.) Most locations in town don’t have a numbered street address—one of the city’s many quirks. Taxis are readily available—you can also Uber—and drivers navigate by landmark; Google maps and an international data plan are enormously helpful. Some neighborhoods in Dubai are becoming walkable, which is cool, but you can’t get by on foot alone. The main areas you’re likely to want to see are: Downtown (where the Burj Khalifa stands), Bur Dubai/Deira (“the old city” where the souks are), Al Quoz (the industrial area that includes the arts-driven Alserkal Avenue), the Marina/JBR (on the water, and up-and-coming). Jumeirah (which means “beautiful” in Arabic) is a part of many neighborhood names; it’s also used to describe most of Dubai’s very long beachfront that runs parallel to the main Sheik Zayed Road, and encompasses places like the iconic hotel Burj al Arab (Dubai’s Eiffel Tower). Oh, and do venture out into the desert while you’re here—it’s stunning.
Ski DubaiE11 Sheikh Zayed Rd., Al Barsha | +971.4.409.4000
Going skiing at the mall could only be a thing in Dubai. The first indoor ski resort/snow park in the Middle East, Ski Dubai as it's called, is located inside the Mall of the Emirates—which isn't even the biggest shopping center in Dubai (see: Dubai Mall). Stop mid-mountain for hot chocolate.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural UnderstandingHouse 26, Al Mussallah Rd., Bur Dubai | +971.4.353.6666
One thing that's striking about Dubai is how brand-new everything is nearly everywhere in the city. The exception is the tip of the city that points toward Sharjah, sometimes referred to as—yes, Old Dubai. Water (Dubai Creek) divides this section into two main neighborhoods: Bur Dubai and Deira. Plan to spend a morning/afternoon exploring both, starting with SMCCU in the historic Fahidi district of Bur Dubai. Here, you'll see the oldest architecture in Dubai (meaning a couple hundreds years, but still, you'll feel a world away from the sleek Burj Khalifa—a mix of stone, tent, and palm tree structures that were home to the area's fishermen and pearl divers. The cultural center offers tours of the neighborhood, including Diwan Mosque (probably the only time women visitors will cover their hair—so it's a good idea to bring a scarf with you, but you can borrow one if you forget). What's really cool about SMCCU is they host breakfasts and lunches where visitors are invited to ask any and all questions about Emirati and Muslim culture. It can be a pretty fascinating experience—both learning more about different customs and traditions and also hearing the perceptions of other travelers. From Bur Dubai, you can catch a boat ride across the creek in Deira to shop the souks.
Desert SafariDubai Desert Conservation Reserve | +971.4.388.4044
The desert surrounding the city of Dubai is a preferred escape for many locals/expats, who will rent quads and trek out to walk around the dunes, picnic, and hang, or ride bikes around the Al Qudra tracks. For a more organized journey into the desert, check out the touring group Platinum Heritage. You can arrange to be collected from where you're staying (or from a convenient group pick-up spot), and a knowledgeable guide will drive you the hour or so out into the desert, which is incredibly majestic—rolling bronze dunes as far as the eye can see in every direction. There are two main tour options: with the Platinum, you ride in a luxury Range Rover, and in Heritage, it's vintage Land Rovers with more of an emphasis on learning about desert life. (If you get carsick easily, the Platinum is probably the safer bet, although many will take something to help prevent nausea before the trip.) You can do both around sunset, which adds to the magic. They also allow for camel rides if that's of interest, but you're likely to see some wandering wildlife, too—like the Arabian oryx, a white antelope with unicorn-like, long, doubled, curved horns, which had gone extinct in the wild in the 1960's/70's but has since been reintroduced. You'll also be able to eat a traditional Bedouin meal served around one of Platinum Heritage's desert campsites.
Burj Khalifa1, Mohammed Bin Rashid Blvd., Downtown | +971.4.888.8888
Sure, there's a lot of hype around going to the top of the world's tallest building—but when in Dubai...provided you aren't deathly afraid of heights, just do it. The view is knock-the-breath-out-of-you crazy. Built by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, excavation began in 2004, and the building, a series of rising, helix-shaped spires, officially debuted six years later, in 2010. It's 160 stories, or 2,716.5 feet (828 meters) tall. To put that into perspective: Shanghai Tower is 2,073 feet; One World Trade Center is 1,776 feet; and the Eiffel Tower is 984 feet. (Because it's Dubai, where more is frequently seen as more, an ever taller structure is in the works.) There are a few observation decks—stop at level 124, 125, 148—where you can look down at what appears to be an imaginative, sprawling paper city from that high up. At level 122, you can do high tea at At.Mosphere (it's about the view and the experience, not the food). Book in advance—even just to get up to the observation decks. While you're here: You can easily couple your tour of the Burj Khalifa with the adjacent Dubai Mall.
Dubai OperaSheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Blvd., Downtown | +971.4.440.8888
As a young city, Dubai is still building its cultural scene. Toward that goal, and the delight of many locals, the Dubai Opera house, which was under construction for a few years, opened at the end of 2016, a 5,800-square-foot marine-style, dhow-shaped building in the heart of downtown. The venue is the performance arts hub of the city, putting on a wide array of ballets, operas, plays, musicals, comedy shows, and concerts.
thejamjarAlserkal Ave., Al Quoz | +971.4.341.7303
A 4,000-square-foot loft group art space founded in 2005, thejamjar has an open painting studio that you can visit for two-, three-, and four-hour sessions. You choose your desired canvas size, and thejamjar provides all the other painting essentials, as well: easel, brushes, unlimited paint, coffee, tunes. Kid friendly, thejamjar can also be booked for parties, and they offer a series of educational events, including after-school courses via their Young Artist Programme (ages nine to fifteen), and the Art Academy for older students looking to build portfolios for art school. For adults, there are regular workshops taught by a variety of artists, including series like Abstract Acrylic Mondays.
Talise Ottoman SpaJumeirah Zabeel Saray, The Palm Jumeirah | +971.4.453.0456
Located inside the grandiose Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel, this spa is more of a palace than anything. The interior is decorated with pristine marble walls, ornate mosaic tiles, and grandiose chandeliers hanging above the baths. It's also enormous: The complex includes 42 treatment rooms, steam rooms, saunas, and two thalassotherapy pools for saltwater and seaweed treatments. In appropriately over-the-top Dubai style, both the men's and women's spa areas have "snow rooms" complete with ice fountains, which are maintained at four-degrees Celsius year-round.
The Warehouse GymUmm Suqeim Rd., Al Quoz | +971.4.323.2323
With an interior covered in tagging and graffiti murals (and with house music blaring constantly), The Warehouse Gym is an old-school boxing gym on steroids. The facility houses over 20,000 square feet of exercise space, expansive circuit training areas, and a full-size MMA boxing ring. There's a full schedule of classes, including CrossFit, cycling, boot camp, fitbox, and TRX, and a ladies-only gym space, too. Everyone says good things about the dragonfruit bowl in their cafe, too.
The Marina, The Walk, & JBRThe Walk, JBR | +971.4.390.0091
Dubai's Marina has become one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods—a lot of young expats live here—in part because the area, including the adjacent JBR, is so walkable, in a city that has typically revolved around drivers. To orient yourself: The Marina is the section that hugs the main Sheikh Zayed Road on one side and the interior waterway on the other. There are a few footbridges that connect the Marina to Jumeirah Beach Residence (called JBR), which is on the gulf side. The Walk at JBR is the name of the outdoor shopping promenade strip of Jumeirah Beach Residence. For a tour of the area, start by walking the waterway in the Marina, where you can watch the yachts going by, and then cross over to JBR toward the beach, where you'll find some of the best people watching in Dubai—a real cross section of the city's residents and visitors. Stop to eat while you're in JBR—see Blue Jade, Ramusake, and The Main.
Abu DhabiAbu Dhabi | +971.2.444.0444
The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is about ninety miles from Dubai, an hour and a half or so by car. If you have extra time in Dubai and you haven't explored the UAE before, it's worth the trip out; every emirate in the UAE is remarkably differently (also see Sharja/Aman). There aren't many mosques that non-Muslims can enter in Dubai (or the region), but the most stunning one, which happens to be open to visitors, is in Abu Dhabi—Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the original president of the UAE. An enormous, majestic place of prayer—built with more than 100,000 tons of white marble, to fit 40,000 worshippers—Sheikh Zayed Mosque has eighty-two domes, one thousand pillars, and four crowning minarets. The architecture and design borrows from diverse Islamic styles and includes subtle floral shapes cut with semi-precious stones and sharp, geometric details, that as a whole feel strikingly modern. Visitors can go inside the mosque as long as prayer isn't in session, where you can see the world's largest hand-knotted carpet (5,700 square meters that are said to be the work of 1,2000 craftsmen and took over a year to make). The emirate of Abu Dhabi is also home to the world's fastest roller coaster (Formula Rossa at Ferrari World on Yas Island), and the ambitious (fascinatingly challenged) eco-energy project Masdar City.
Kite BeachKite Beach, Jumeirah | +971.4.317.3999
Best known for its prime kitesurfing conditions, hence the name, this busy beach has something for everyone: Try your hand at the water sports (rentals available on the spot) or simply relax and take in the beautiful views of the Burj Al Arab. In addition, there's a dedicated kids area with trampolines, a climbing gym, and a skate park—plus favorite food joint, Salt. And if your phone is running low on juice, there are charging stations right on the beach.
Lawrie ShabibiUnit 21, Alserkal Avenue, Al-Quoz | +971.4.346.9906
A relative veteran by Dubai standards, Lawrie Shabibi's gallery has existed for more than five years, showing on the international circuit, throwing weight behind some important rising artists in the region. While you're in the neighborhood, it's also worth visiting the Green Art Gallery and The Third Line, both of which also operate on the international fair circuit and showcase some incredible Middle Eastern talent.
Sharjah + AjmanSharjah/Ajman, UAE
Dubai's northern border is shared with the emirate of Sharjah, and right above Sharjah sits the emirate of Ajman—both within driving distance should you want to see more of the UAE. Visiting Sharjah is a really interesting contrast to staying in Dubai—known as a more conservative emirate, Sharjah is dry (meaning absolutely no alcohol) and calls for modest dress (leave your crop top in Dubai/inside your suitcase). It's really a place to go to discover and learn about authentic Islamic culture. The historic old town is captivating; there are markets and souks to browse (that feel less touristy than the Dubai variation), and where you can see traditional Bedouin jewelry. Sharjah has a number of quality museums, including the smartly curated Museum of Islamic Civilization, which is in a converted souk on the water. Sharjah is also known for its three lagoons, and Al Majaz amphitheater event venue. Sharjah's northern neighbor, Ajman, is the smallest of the seven emirates and very scenic; Dubai locals come here for a weekend beach getaway. Also here: Ajman Museum—the former ruler residence/late eighteenth-century fort now serves as a glimpse into the emirate's past, including the once predominating pearling trade of the region.
Galleries at Gate VillageGate Village, Dubai International Finance Center
The village surrounding the DIFC's Arc de Triomphe lookalike, the gate, is also home to some of the city's best galleries. You'll find the classic upscale operations here (Christie's, for example, has their office in this area) as well as some local galleries that are more than worth touring, like Ayyam Gallery (they also have a location in Beirut). You can cover all the art spaces an hour or so, but check the calendar for their art nights, which bring live music and performance to the space in the evenings.