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Bucket list destination:

Last updated: 19 June, 2023
Expert travel writer: Nicola Chilton

The city-state of Dubai is the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), located on the south coast of the Arabian Gulf.

Yet it’s a total one-off; from audacious architecture and shiny mega-malls to busy Dubai Creek and its glittering gold souk, this cosmopolitan Arabian hub is a shrine to excess like no other. By day, it’s all about soaking up the sunshine on the city’s many long, golden beaches and splashing in the turquoise sea.

After dark, you’ll be losing yourself in the souks and haggling for carpets, feasting on Arabic food, and enjoying the balmy nightlife. Casual diners can snack on shawarma wraps and sip fresh mango juice, while luxe-loving jetsetters can savour degustation menus by internationally-renowned chefs, and drink cocktails at some of the world’s best hotels.

Dubai for families

By many standards Dubai is an exceptional place – when they do something here it’s usually either the biggest in the world, or a world first. Perhaps not surprising then that few, if any, cities can rival Dubai for a family holiday.

Hotels are exceptionally family-friendly, with plenty of bed and bedroom configurations, kids’ meals, space for play and facilities galore (including kids’ clubs). Then, there’s a prevalence of good weather, golden sand beaches and waterparks – a heady mix for any kid.

Even a trip to the shopping mall – usually an occasion of dread for the little nippers – can yield skiing, ice skating, giant aquariums, waterfalls, cinemas, oversized toy shops and more in Dubai’s mega shopping malls slash entertainment centres.

Last, but not least, there there are a ridiculous number of specialist family attractions and activities on offer. Here’s our round-up of some of the best.

Orientation

Dubai is split into different areas, all with their own attractions and personalities.

The old heart, with its souks and budget eateries, centres around Dubai Creek and the districts of Bur Dubai and Deira.

West of there, the Sheikh Zayed Road runs parallel with the sandy coast, a superhighway lined with mega-malls and skyscrapers. Downtown, home to Dubai Mall, is centred on the tallest of them all, the Burj Khalifa (828m).

Hotels and resorts line up along Dubai’s coast, which stretches for 30km between Dubai Creek, the Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina.

Culture & Customs

Historically a fishing, pearl-diving and trading port, Dubai’s culture is rooted in Arabic traditions, Bedouin heritage, and Islamic customs, such as giving hospitality to strangers.

Emiratis comprise less than 10 per cent of Dubai’s population but their culture is strong, with many still practicing Muslims.

Bargaining is expected in souks but not malls; once the salesperson agrees to your offer, pay up.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to wear in Dubai, but this is a Muslim country so you should respect local Islamic customs by wearing trousers, knee-length skirts, and shirts with sleeves, and avoiding showing too much skin. Swimwear is fine at the city’s many resorts and even on the public beaches, but cover up before you wander off to one of the many seaside food trucks and cafés.

Note that the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday in Dubai, with Sunday a normal working day. Many workers only get Fridays off, and as a result, the parks, malls and attractions are often packed then.

The holy month of Ramadan can be an interesting time to visit Dubai, but be aware that some restaurants will only serve food after sunset and outdoor venues may be closed during daytime hours in deference to those fasting. The usual timetable turns on its head during Ramadan with people out on the street late at night – it’s not unusual to find yourself in a traffic jam at 2am.

Tours, tickets & transfers

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

Jet Ski Tour of Dubai: Burj Al Arab, Dubai Marina, Atlantis, Palm & Burj Khalifa

Dubai

Jet Ski Tour of Dubai: Burj Al Arab, Dubai Marina, Atlantis, Palm & Burj Khalifa
60 minute Jet Ski Tour of Dubai. Speed on your own jet ski from our Marina to Burj Al Arab, Dubai's Sheik Island, and Dubai Yacht, Dubai Marina & JBR. Stop on a beach near the Palm Jumeirah for a photo break and back to our base. Our certified guide will lead the tour, and you will follow him on your own jet ski. He will make sure you don't miss anything from Dubai sea view and that you have a safe ride.

Price: $155

Min age: 16

Rating 4.94 / 5 [2690 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

Viator Logo

Big Bus Dubai Hop-On Hop-Off Tour

Dubai

Big Bus Dubai Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
Explore Dubai at your own pace on a double-decker, open-top Big Bus Dubai tour. Admire top Dubai attractions including the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al-Arab, and Old Dubai, and hop on and off at any of the stops around the city to visit souks, malls, and museums as you please. Choose from a 1-day Discover, 2-day Essential, or an Explore 5-day unlimited attraction pass. Tickets include an array of extras like a Dubai Creek cruise, entrance to the Ambassadors Lagoon and Lost Chambers Aquarium and a Desert Safari. Hop-on hop-off Big Bus sightseeing tour of Dubai by open-top bus Choose from a 1-, 2-, or 5-day ticket to suit your independent sightseeing schedule Create your own personalized sightseeing itinerary and explore Dubai at leisure See top Dubai attractions including Al Fahidi Fort, Gold Souk, Spice Souk, and the Burj Khalifa Hop on and off as many times as you like on different routes around Dubai Make use of additional benefits such as an Arabian Dhow Cruise

Price: $78

Min age: 5

Rating 4.40 / 5 [2505 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

Viator Logo

30 Mins Jet Ski Tour Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa, Dowtown Dubai

Dubai

30 Mins Jet Ski Tour Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa, Dowtown Dubai
Popeye Jetski Introduces you to the pleasure of jetskiing with our latest model of overpowering jetski (Yamaha 1800cc 1 jet can take 2 people), during the ride our guides take a picture of you at the foot of the iconic most luxurious hotel in the world. Burj Al Arab (photo taken with iphone and share for free at the end of the session). All the facilities are available at the station (shower, changing cubicle, locker, coffee machine and water available.

Price: $98

Min age: 16

Rating 4.97 / 5 [2481 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

Viator Logo

30-Minute Jet Ski Tour of Dubai: Burj Al Arab

Dubai

30-Minute Jet Ski Tour of Dubai: Burj Al Arab
30-minute Jet Ski Tour of Dubai. Speed on your own jet ski from our Marina to Burj Al Arab, Dubai's Sheik Island, and Dubai Yacht. Enjoy a special jet ski experience and discover Dubai from the sea. Our certified guide will lead the tour, and you will follow him on your own jet ski. He will make sure you don't miss anything from Dubai sea view and that you have a safe ride.

Price: $79

Min age: 16

Rating 4.93 / 5 [1622 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

Viator Logo

Dubai Guided Sightseeing Boat Tours

Dubai

Dubai Guided Sightseeing Boat Tours
Speed around Dubai’s coastline on a 99, 75 or 60 minutes cruise by RIB (rigid-inflatable boat), and see Dubai Marina, the man-made archipelago of Palm Jumeirah, and more. The boat is designed to maneuver with speed, as you enjoy close-up, unobstructed views of top Dubai attractions from the water. Pass prestigious hotels including Atlantis The Palm and Burj Al Arab, as well as several royal palaces and a Dubai lagoon. Key Highlights (99 Minutes) - The Original Tour - Dubai Marina, Ain Dubai, JBR, Bluewater, Palm Jumeirah, Atlantis, Royal Atlantis & Burj Al Arab. Key Highlights (75 Minutes) - Atlantis Tour - Dubai Marina, Ain Dubai, JBR, Bluewater, Palm Jumeirah & Atlantis. Key Highlights (60 Minutes) - Marina Cruise - Dubai Marina, JBR, Ain Dubai & Bluewater.

Price: A149

Min age: 5

Rating 4.85 / 5 [809 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

Viator Logo

Travel advice

When to go

Dubai is busiest (and most expensive) in high season in winter, when it’s warm enough to lie by the pool by day, but the cool evenings require an extra layer. Winter is lively, with locals out on the streets; the rest of the year they’re hibernating in the air-conditioned cool.

The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are splendid if you like the heat, but only the hardiest travellers visit during the scorching summer, when temperatures regularly hit the mid 40s Celsius, with surprisingly high humidity.

Getting there and away

While Dubai’s sleek Metro now links Dubai International Airport to many parts of the city, the most convenient way to get to your hotel is by taxi, Uber or the local equivalent, Careem.

You’ll find a long line of metered cabs outside arrivals, 24 hours a day. Many hotels offer free shuttles as part of packages so check when you book.

Getting around

The gleaming Dubai Metro is impressive and will swiftly move you between malls while the abras (water taxis) will zip you across the Creek. Unless you’re staying at a hotel with a shuttle service, you’ll otherwise have to rely on taxis, Uber or Careem, but at least they’re plentiful and affordable.

For day trips, hire a car. The roads are superb and well signposted – it’s the drivers you need to worry about, so keep your wits about you.

Where to stay

There’s a wide range of quality accommodation all over the city, so where you stay in Dubai depends on your interests.

If you’re here to work on your tan, base yourself at a beach resort on the Jumeirah coast, Dubai Marina or The Palm. If shopping is a higher priority, opt for a hotel around Downtown Dubai, or near a Metro stop.

For travellers more interested in heritage and culture, check into a charming boutique hotel in Al Fahidi, beside Dubai Creek. Budget travellers will find bargains in Deira and Bur Dubai.

Where to eat or drink

Excellent cafés and restaurants can be found all over Dubai. For cheap eats such as curries and kebabs, head to Bur Dubai or Deira. Downtown, DIFC and the Marina are home to the fanciest options.

If you want an alcoholic drink, head to a hotel, club or free zone, such as DIFC or Media City, which are the only places where alcohol can legally be served.

There are plenty of rooftop and beach bars for sundowners with sea views along the coastal strip, beach clubs where you can soak up the sun (and cocktails) all day, and night clubs in some of the city’s hotels where you can dance until the small hours.

Friday brunch is something of an institution in Dubai, with most hotels laying on weekly all-you-can-eat feasts of Bacchanalian proportions, with unlimited alcohol thrown in too.

Where to shop

The most atmospheric places to shop for souvenirs are the traditional souks (bazaars) in Deira and Bur Dubai on either side of Dubai Creek, although the vendors can be annoyingly persistent at times.

Shopping malls are dotted all over the city, including the monumental Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates found off Sheikh Zayed Road.

For many visitors, the big malls are destinations in themselves, mini-cities within the city, home to entertainment zones and hundreds of restaurants.

What to buy

Must-buy souvenirs include carpets, Arabian attars (perfumes), brass coffee pots, Aladdin-style slippers, Bedouin jewellery, antique khanjar daggers, Gulf-style incense burners, dates, and fluffy toy camels for kids.

Health & Safety

The United Arab Emirates is consistently ranked as being among the safest destinations in the world. You can drink the water, leave doors unlocked and stroll the city late at night. Roads are in very good condition but the driving can be erratic by most Western standards.

The desert sun can be scorching, so wear long loose clothing, a hat, and slather on plenty of sunblock. Consider bringing a shawl or jacket as the air-conditioning can be icy in malls, restaurants and bars, and winter evenings can be cool, especially out in the desert.

Unsurprisingly, summers are very hot, but the winter months are a delight. If you do visit in summer, you can avoid the worst of the heat and sightsee after 5pm when it’s cooler, and when the locals head out. Spend your mornings by the hotel pool, lunch at a restaurant, and afternoons at an air-conditioned mall or museum.