Dubai runs on superlatives, from the glitziest, biggest malls on earth to the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. Check out the exhibit on the building’s history, then take the fastest (of course) lift in the world. Hold on to your hat – it only takes a few seconds. It’s not for the faint-hearted but is well worth it, as the views will blow your mind. If you’re a serious photographer, you can even take a tripod with you to capture the endless panoramas towards the beach and over the city. Go at sunset if you can, as you get to see both day and night from the top.
Opening times: Daily, 8am – 3pm (‘non-prime hours’) & 3pm – 6.30pm (‘prime hours’). Early opening from 5.30am Fri & Sat.
2. Dubai Creek
After the ultra-modern heights of the Burj, there’s nothing like the contrast of a simple abra ride on Dubai Creek. Take one of these beautiful old roofed boats from Bur Dubai Abra Station on the southern side, and ride across the creek for just one dirham at sunset, as the evening call to prayer is singing out across the mosque minarets. Close your eyes and you could be back in the 1960s when the city began. At the other side you’ll be met with the aromas of Dubai’s spice souk, the place to buy an incense burner and a handful of frankincense. Make time for a stroll around the old area of Deira while you’re here, with its quirky alleyways and skinny alley cats.
3. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
If you’ve always wanted to know about Islam but were too afraid to ask, this is your chance. Founded by an Emirati man who married a European woman and hosted by the charismatic general manager Nasif, the centre is a great place for a cross-cultural experience, as the name suggests. Don’t be surprised if you leave with a whole new understanding and appreciation of the Muslim world. Traditional Emirati cuisine also makes it a treat for breakfast or lunch, or just to pick up a bar of Camel chocolate on the way out. If you’re feeling bold, when everyone has left, ask kindly if they would mind you climbing on to the roof to admire the views over the old Persian district, the Bastakia Quarter. Time it right and you can be up there when the call to prayer is sung at sunset – a real goosebumps moment.
Opening times: Sun to Thurs 9am – 5pm, Sat 9am to 1pm. Breakfast every Monday & Wednesday at 10:00am; Lunch every Sunday through Thursday at 1:00pm; Dinner every Sun, Tues & Thurs at 7:00pm; Cultural Brunch every Sat at 10:30am.
4. Dubai’s public parks
Parks might not be the first thing you associate with Dubai, but the city boasts some of the most beautiful, tranquil, clean, green parks anywhere. Pay a 5dhs fee to enter a place quite different to other cities’ public spaces, and see Filipino, Pakistani, Indian, Emirati, Arabic and European families barbecuing and playing ball games side by side. Try Safa Park on Sheikh Zayed Road for a sprawling 150 acres of lawns, waterfalls and hills made for jogging and sports like rounders. Mushrif Park Khawaneej Road is good.
One for die-hard curry fans and among Dubai’s longest-serving restaurants, Ravi deserves a place of its own in our top ten. Usually full with diners from all over the world, there are no white tablecloths, wine lists or snooty waiters, just honest Pakistani curry served up by friendly staff. Favourite dishes include chicken boti, mutton tika, daal and mutton kebab, and the bread is fresh, fluffy and hot. A whole family can eat here for less than 100dhs. Ravi has recently been refurbished, with the addition of a ‘family’ area, but it’s often more fun to sit outside or in the main area to soak up the atmosphere.
Opening times: Daily, 5am – 2am.
6. Burj Al Arab
The Burj calls itself ‘the world’s only 7-star hotel’ and, whether or not you agree, it’s certainly one of the most iconic buildings in Dubai. Soaring to a height of 321 metres over the coastline of Umm Suqeim, the Burj is designed to resemble a billowing sail. There are various viewpoints but one of the best is from the public beach next to it, for the ultimate Dubai selfie on the beach, with the Burj in the background. It is one of the most photographed structures in the world, and consistently voted the world’s most luxurious hotel, so naturally it’s rather expensive for the average visitor. Here’s a good tip however: go for a drink at the Dhow and Anchor in the hotel opposite, Jumeirah Beach hotel, and sit out on the terrace for an even better photo opp.
7. Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates
Want to visit the desert and hit the ski slopes in the same weekend away? Don’t miss Ski Dubai, a huge ski slope situated in Mall of the Emirates at the Marina end of the city. It’s a bit of a shock to go from the 50°C desert heat to below zero temperatures but you can hire all equipment, clothing and ski lessons you need so you don’t have to pack your skis. There’s even a café-bar halfway up the ski slope in true mountain style, so you can stop for a bumper hot chocolate and watch the fun unfold. For more tips on where to find great skiing destinations across the world, even in the spring and summer,
Opening times: Sun to Wed 10.00 am – 11.00 pm; Thurs 10.00 am – 12.00am; Fri 9.00 am – 12.00am; Sat 9.00 am – 11.00 pm.
Location: Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Rd.
8. Jumeirah Beach Residence Walk and Dubai Marina
Built in the last few years, Dubai Marina throngs with spectacular twisting skyscrapers, while just next door is the effortless glamour of Jumeirah Beach Residence walk (or ‘JBR walk’ if you want to sound like a local). Like a city within a city, this area owns some prime people-watching cafés, sociable bars and some of the best restaurants in Dubai. Look out for Frankie Dettori’s Frankie’s Italian Bar & Grill and try Gary Rhodes’ Twenty10 for a mixed grill to remember (220dhms, or around £40). During the day, you’ll see plenty of joggers taking advantage of the marina views and behind the Address Hotel you can take the Dubai ferry out to sea, which passes the Atlantis Hotel, its famous arch standing like a gateway to the leaf-shaped island of Palm Jumeirah.
9. Take a safari in the desert
A desert safari offers the chance to get a flavour of the Bedouin lifestyle, from a time when the Dubai skyline was more sand than super-city. Numerous companies offer desert safaris but check them out before booking: ask what time you’ll be dropped back at your hotel and whether they plan to stop anywhere on the way, especially what food there will be and any extras you may need to pay for. Most start with a 4×4 drive to an authentic Bedouin campsite where you can try ‘hubbly bubbly’ (shisha tobacco) and indulge in fresh barbecued shawarma. Opt for a thrill ride around the dunes by Land Rover or camel depending on the tempo you want, while after sunset, it’s a magical experience just to sit in the darkness and stare at the many, many stars visible away from the city lights. Companies like Arabian Nights include options like falcon-handling and belly-dancing entertainment for an afternoon to evening safari.
10. Dubai fountains
Spectacular, exciting and – best of all – free! If you’ve seen the Belaggio fountains in Vegas and thought you’d seen it all, Dubai does it taller, bigger, louder and with an incredible light show at night. The musical repertoire of the fountain show includes Sama Dubai, Baba Yetu (an award-winning song in Swahili), the Arab world’s top-selling dance number Shik Shak Shok, and the signature piece of world-renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Con te partiro: Time to Say Goodbye. The fountains are situated outside the Dubai Mall, surrounded by a lively hub of restaurants with frontrow views – book ahead to dine on the terrace and see the fountains in all their glory. The Thai cuisine at the Mango Tree in Souk Al Bahar is a standout. The fountains operate Saturday to Thursday 1pm and 1.30pm; 6 to 11pm every 30 minutes, and Friday 1.30pm and 2pm; 6 to 11pm every 30 minutes.
11. Wild Wadi Water Park
Unleash your inner child at this spectacular water park, more like a miniature world of its own, right next to the sea. If you’ve never experienced an ‘aquatic roller coaster’ or a state-of-the-art surf machine, then add this place to your list of things to do in Dubai. You could easily spend days on the whirling Tantrum Alley, and Burj Surj tube slides, while kids will love the splash-tastic water guns and racing slides at the Dhow and Lagoon. Be prepared to get very very wet, over and over again.
Opening times: Daily, 10am – 6pm.
12. Shop ’til you drop
Not for nothing is Dubai frequently called the world’s best shopping destination, and if you like nothing better than indulging in some retail therapy on a weekend away, then get stuck in! Dubai has an incredible selection of malls, including the largest in the world, The Dubai Mall, so much so that it’s hard to choose. If you’re after a bargain or two, head to the Dubai Outlet Mall, which offers up to 90% off original prices, or hang out in style at the BurJuman in the business district – if you can’t afford Louis Vuitton or Burberry, take in an IMAX movie at the hi-tech Vox Cinemas.
13. Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
If shopping in the biggest and best just isn’t enough, The Dubai Mall also hosts the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo. Observe Dubai’s fascinating nocturnal desert animals, come face to face with huge saltwater crocodiles, walk beneath a 48-metre aquarium tunnel…all without getting a drop on you. For those happy to take the plunge, there’s shark diving and cage snorkelling, plus many other imaginative ways to dive in. Don’t miss the ‘VRZOO’, a simulated virtual reality experience that lets you travel to the jungles of Asia or the African Savannah without taking a step.
Opening times: Weekdays 10am to 11pm; Weekends 10am to 12am.
14. Step back in time in Al Bastakiya
The Bastakiya Quarter of Dubai offers a freeze frame of life that was, a nineteenth century merchant town facing off modern Dubai’s sleek cityscape. Sometimes called the Al Fahidi historical area, it’s a pleasure simply getting lost here, wending your way through narrow alleyways, past palm-wood houses and ‘wind towers’ (an early Arabian ventilation system) and through silent squares as though you’ve skipped back a couple of centuries. Peer in painter’s studios, galleries and bookshops and stop in at the Arabian Tea House for a quick cuppa – there are over 100 blends to choose from! It’s officially a government conservation area so may feel slightly like an inauthentic theme park at times, but it’s still a welcome contrast to the glitzy consumerism over the other side of the creek.
15. Dubai Museum & Al Fahidi Fort
Make sense of it all at the Dubai Museum, which explains a little more about how a desert fishing community transformed, through oil and investment, into a high-flying mega-tropolis in the space of half a century. The building itself is an eighteenth century fort built to protect the ruling sheikh, complete with stout defensive towers, and you can see a full scale traditional Dhow boat in the courtyard.
Opening times: Sat to Thurs, 8:30am – 8:30pm, Fri 2:30pm – 8:30pm.