Dubai – the ultimate holiday playground

Accept no substitute.

Does Dubai need an introduction? Yes – but only if you had been living on Mars for the last 15 years. Since the late 1990s, Dubai has managed to grab headlines in every newspaper and current affairs programme all over the world. Magically transformed to a Las Vegas-esque metropolis minus the gambling, Dubai has caught everyone’s eye with some of the craziest awe-inspiring projects of our age. The Dubai dream has become the centre of a modern day gold rush. It has had an unrivalled infrastructure programme, a tourism boom, and led the rejuvenation of the region. But after the boom and the rising from the sands came all the negative press.  Ironically, that didn’t damage the tourism trade and paved the way for a globally central holiday destination that only continues to grow. This is the beginning of Dubai, and this is the beginning of the Dubai Travel Guide, the ultimate guidebook to the ultimate holiday destination.

Dubai certainly is the ultimate holiday destination for those who love sun, sand and sea with a splash of bling thrown in. Painted as a modern day mirage, the city is littered with gleaming, sparkly hotels whose magnificence seems to be that of another age. But this is not a city of a time gone by. The modern Dubai is a city of the now, of the future, one that has risen from the sand dunes in a matter of years to create a 21st century miracle. It was probably the ambition that Dubai had that helped the new wave of non-Western cities rethink the impossible – and so here we are – a fantastic city for those that enjoy the finer things in life.

How can it be possible that one city can stir up so much emotion from so many people? Simple – opulence and ambition. The growth of a ‘bling society’ has created a ‘Marmite’ type situation, one where you either love or hate Dubai. But is this fair?  Dubai is a monumental insignia to the modern day conurbation with a growth throughout the nineties and noughties and watched at every step of the way by a global audience.

Dubai’s achievement in creating a haven for modernist excess is absolutely mind blowing. There will be many more cities that attempt to do what Dubai has done, but Dubai was the first to court the phenomenal levels of cash investment to create tower upon tower of real estate, to create a new destination for tourist from both the East and West and to establish a city within Arabia that neither aspires to be Western nor shuns the traditionalism of the East. Dubai is a city for a new era – a pinnacle for what the Nouveau Arabia might be.

Modern Dubai is the vision and foresight of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum. While many believe Dubai to be built on oil money, that’s a fallacy. Most of the oil is in the Emirate next door, Abu Dhabi. Much of the investment did come from Abu Dhabi, that’s true, but the vision was a complicated one that had been a long time coming. It was one of necessity – reinvent Dubai for the modern age or descend to Arabian obscurity. ‘Sheikh Mo’, as he’s lovingly referred to in these parts, chose the former path – and in a big way. Focus on tourism and business – and make it big and brash. Brand Dubai was born. Whether you have viewed Dubai from afar, frequented its various guises over the years or call it a home or second home – you will have your own opinion. But no one can dispute its determination.

Dubai plays to the needs of many – it’s a marrying of multiple parties: the Emiratis, the locals who are reinventing their economy into a modern day trading hub; the predominantly Indian subcontinent workers who have built this great city from sand to the sky; and the new residents who have settled in Dubai to make it home. Couple this with the tourist contingent lured by the honeypot of glitz, glam and sun and you have the making of new age cultural knife edge balancing itself on the differing ideals of all. Such is the reason for Dubai’s controversy, and as with humans, adolescence is navigated to a ripe and fruitful youth. This is the stage of Dubai, a city that has come, almost from nowhere, to place itself at the forefront of everyone’s attention. And while Dubai has had its share of controversy, some of it disproportionately unfair, amazing things have come from nothing in less than a couple of decades.

Part of the United Arab Emirates, formed in 1971, Dubai trod a worldly path and with the advent of the Burj Al Arab (the most expensive hotel, at the time) in 1999, the vision started to be realised. In the years that have followed, Dubai has aimed to be the best it can be – and, for its size, it punches way above its weight. Funded by foreign investors and its sister Emirate, Abu Dhabi, next door, Dubai has become a contemporary urban haven in the desert, with high rises trumped by the largest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. That alone is an amazing feat of human ingenuity, but the early 2000s were about other mega projects, some of which didn’t quite make it past the drawing board. One mega project that did make it created a whole new level of exclusivity – The Palm Jumeirah. It was the pinnacle of property speculation, for which Dubai was becoming known, but for those who secured their villa on the man made island, that was them made. And that was Dubai made. At the end of the Palm is the Atlantis Dubai, an ‘uber’ hotel that takes extravagance to the next level, which is just about affordable for those who have a little money. This is the balance that Dubai has achieved. If you have a little money to spend, you will spend it in Dubai. If you have a lot of money to spend, you can quite easily spend it in Dubai, and if you don’t have any money, you’ll take the money that you earned in Dubai back to where you came from – and be a king or queen – and you will have made it in Dubai.

Visiting Dubai is somewhat indescribable. From the Palm and the World, the reclaimed islands off the coast of Dubai, to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world to the Burj Al Arab, one of the most iconic hotels in the world – the façade needs to be seen to be believed . The list goes on, and when you think a record can’t be broken, Dubai does it again. A trip to Dubai is a must for anyone who wants to see the modern Middle East or Nouveau Arabia, as we like to put it. No doubt, many will have seen an olden day Dubai or passed through its gleaming airport at some point.  If you have visited Dubai before, you will be aghast at what has changed. Any business trip to the region warrants the excuse of some additional downtime in Dubai.  Many who have visited Dubai now use it as a global central destination for corporate meet ups – Dubai is centrally located, modernised and offers great facilities. Dubai is also the unofficial tourist capital of the Gulf States. There are hundreds of things to do in Dubai and it is difficult to single out the top things to do. We have provided a long list of the many things you could do across this guide as well as giving you our unique view on things worth doing – and indeed, not doing.

But Dubai is awash with great facilities, from amazing hotels, to world class restaurants, golf courses and unique shopping. It’s also a fantastic place to bring the kids.  But you’ll be spoilt for choice in Dubai, be assured. And let us be your guide. Dubai – there is no substitute!

First time visitors to Dubai are usually not too sure what to expect from this 21st century city – but one thing is certain, you’re going to get some sun – and lots of it. However, Dubai is more than just sun and sand. Our highlights give you a flavour of what we believe shows Dubai off and will make your vacation to this special place, both memorable and magical.

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall – the largest mall in the world

If you manage to escape visiting Dubai Mall, we will certainly be surprised. Be under no illusion – Dubai Mall is no ordinary mall, it is another world and you can spend days here before realising that your whole holiday was taken away from you. We say that you should embrace the shopping heaven/hell with open credit card and intense planning. While there, enjoy the Dubai Aquarium, Candilicious, the largest sweet shop in the world and Sega Republic for the kids and big kids in us. Top off your day by dining next to the Dubai Fountain, a musical extravaganza treat to a diverse set of music. Some females – and indeed some males – become “DubaiMallaholics”. It’s not healthy. But in all seriousness, with all the things you can do in Dubai Mall, this is one of the top 5 things to do in Dubai and a must visit. Dubai mall also houses the entrance for Burj Khalifa’s At the Top which brings us nicely on to our next highlight.

View from the Burj Khalifa

View from the Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world

The 21st century version of the Tower of Babel draws you in from wherever you are in Dubai. Certainly not for acrophobics, try and book your tickets in advance to get that billion dirham view from the sky. If you haven’t got the time or inclination to go sky high, get your picture taken with the Burj in the background. And if your camera doesn’t quite capture the Burj and your heads all in one picture, there are official photographers who can do the professional pictures from some of the best spots. Burj Khalifa by dusk is a great spot to be.

burj al arab by dusk

Burj Al Arab by Dusk

Be amazed by the Burj Al Arab & the Atlantis

The Burj Al Arab hotel, the epitome of ‘bling’, was the ambition of Dubai as a stake in the ground. The Atlantis, as the pinnacle at the end of the Palm, a man made island, was the ambition realised. Both are synonymous with Dubai and present luxury and availability. The everyman will probably be able to afford a cup of tea at the Burj while watching the gold decorated architecture. The Atlantis, however, allows entry to all comers. Try some of the most awesome restaurants available in Dubai, spend a day at the Aquaventure water park playing with the dolphins, or just walk around the lobby areas with the thousands of tourist who do the same every day.

Golden Overdose & Souk Haggling

There is a reason why Dubai is called the city of gold – and the gold souk is something one must see this lifetime. With huge amounts of gold traded here daily, there are hundreds of shops selling jewellery. Even if you don’t want to buy, just walking through the gold souk in Dubai is an experience. The other traditional souks as well as some of the faux souks will leave you “souked out”. Bargain like you’re a skilled negotiator – it’s all part of the fun!


Gold at the Gold Souk Dubai

Exploring the Real Old Town Dubai

Wander around Bastakia and get a feel for what parts of Dubai used to be like before money. Encapsulating a truly Arabic feel, with wind towers and traditional guest houses, this is one of our favourite areas of Dubai. Visit the galleries and make sure you stop for some refreshments at one of our recommended cafes. Either follow one of our walking tours or go for an official one. The area is small but is as close as you will get to a heritage area, which is a world apart from the “New Dubai”

Fresh Bread Bastikiya

Fresh bread being baked in Bastikiya

Enjoy some Gastronomical Feasts

Food glorious food is in epic abundance in Dubai, from fine dining at the best hotels to street food of shawarmas and mezze, there is something for everyone. Your opportunity to overindulge will be at a typically Dubai Friday brunch where all you can eat (and drink) buffets are gobbled (and guzzled) over a lazy afternoon. If you want your holiday to be belly full, try one of our recommended brunches.


Desert Safari in Dubai

Balancing 4×4 dune bashing with the pleasantries of observing the sunset in silence makes for a very touristy day of fun. Spend half a day on a desert safari and enjoy the rollercoaster through the dunes, visit the nomads at the camel farms, before enjoying some sand surfing. Then watch the sunset over some desert mezze – and a non authentic nubile belly dancer. It’s all a lot of fun and recommended trip if this is your first Dubai holiday.

Indian Subcontinent Workers in Dubai

Indian Subcontinent workers enjoying their day off near Meena Bazaar

Enjoy Authentic India in Dubai

Experience Indian culture in the heart of old Dubai – Meena Bazaar is your perfect way to get a feel for how a whole community lives. Get some clothes tailored, enjoy some masala tea – and treat yourself to the best and cheapest Indian food this side of India. Dubai doesn’t have to be expensive and Souk Al Kabir, as Meena Bazaar, is a hubbub of colour in this hodge podge of a bazaar.

All in One Dubai

The Big Bus Tour gives you the opportunity to see 80% of what you need to see in a whistle-stop tour of the Emirate. For those of you that value your tan more than the sights, you can see it all in one day or less on this hop on hop off extravaganza. Or if you are a ‘rockstar’, take the 30 minute helicopter tour.

The Unofficial Tour of Dubai

Another way to see Dubai is to get on the driverless metro and sit in the front seat for a bird’s eye view from the beginning to the end of the line. And once you have done that, drive through the traffic of the Sheikh Zayed Road, to experience the sheer scale of the skyscraper race to the heavens.


Shiekh Zayed Road on a Traffic Free Day

New Dubai

Dubai Marina didn’t exist last century, and for the beginning part of this one, its construction site was poster of Dubai and where all the cranes in the world lived. It’s now a lovely new part of Dubai. Stroll down The Walk- Jumeirah Beach Residence and soak up a different vibe.

Cross the Creek

Get a real feel for Dubai of times gone by crossing Dubai creek in an abra (water taxi). You can also take a bigger Dhow for a ride, but if you want, you can hire the abra for a solo trip up and down the creek, gondola style. This is one of the experiences of Dubai that you will never forget.

abras on dubai creek

Abras waiting for passengers at the Dubai Creek

Skiing in Dubai

The rumours are true – you can ski in the desert. The very fact that you are in the desert and are skiing could seem a contradiction, but that is the lure to the whole experience that is Ski Dubai. With prices covering the rental of all equipment and clothing, this is the perfect cool down escape from the midday sun.

Get Away

The UAE is so much more than Dubai and the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah offer a different alternative with a more conservative attitude and traditional focus. Head the other way and Abu Dhabi is cementing its own stage with the Ferrari World theme park and our favourite place of them all – The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Magnificent is not a strong enough word for this place. And if Arabia has piqued your interest, why not twin a further trip with somewhere like Oman, whose natural beauty is a secret we should really keep to ourselves.


Sheikh Zayed Mosque Abu Dhabi

The Big Smoke!

While we aren’t one to condone inhaling smoke into your lungs, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the fruit infused sweet smells of the hubbly bubbly in the evening air. If you do indulge, we’re sure you’ll make the smart choice and choose the cool taste of grape shisha. It’s what the cool cats smoke, y’know? Whether you do or don’t, we hope that you enjoy your trip, grapeshisha style.

Dubai – our highlights

Dubai - does Dubai need an introduction?

Our need to see list of things to do in Dubai