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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 03 December, 2022
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.

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.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Burj Khalifa

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

At 828m, the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building. Head up to the world’s highest outdoor observation deck for exceptional views of the city and desert beyond, and to learn Dubai history along the way.

Best for ages: 4+ | £30

Hot-air balloon flights over the desert

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Float above the Dubai desert at sunrise in a hot air balloon, for spectacular views of the dunes and – if you’re lucky – camels traversing the sands.

Best for ages: 12+ | £250 | 4-5 hours

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Dubai’s extraordinary shopping mega-malls

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Dubai’s extraordinary malls are a shopper’s heaven but so much more. They’re entertainment hubs, with cinema complexes, ski slopes, ice rinks, giant aquariums and regular live events.

Best for ages: 4+ | Free

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Dubai desert safaris

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

A must-do Dubai experience – experiencing the surrounding desert through outdoor adventure, desert dinner and traditional entertainment.

Best for ages: 10+ | £20 | 4+ hours

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Ain Dubai (Dubai Eye) tallest ferris wheel in the world on Bluewaters Island, JBR beach club with sunbeds in the foreground.
Experience

Ain Dubai

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The world’s highest Ferris wheel, Ain Dubai has recently opened in Dubai Marina, offering spectacular views of the waters of the Arabian Gulf and towering skyscrapers along the coastline.

Best for ages: 6+ | £30

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New desert cycle track at Al Qudra in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It's length is nearly 100km
Experience

Al Qudra Cycle Track

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

A serious, 86km cycling track out in the desert, head out for an early morning or evening ride and you might be lucky enough to spot gazelles or oryxes. Bike rental available from Hello Bike.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free | 1+ hours

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Woman in red dress enjoying art exhibition at the local gallery in Dubai
Experience

Alerskal Avenue art district

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

This warehouse district, a vibrant community of all things arts, continues to go from strength to strength. It features exceptional regional art across multiple galleries, as well as the region’s first arthouse cinema, and a handful of hip cafes and one-of-a-kind design boutiques.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Aquaventure Waterpark
Experience

Aquaventure Waterpark

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Colossal marine and waterpark located at Atlantis The Palm, featuring adrenalin-pumping slides, including 12 new slides added at Trident Tower. Heaven for kids and big kids; only the bravest dare to try the near-vertical ‘Leap of Faith’ waterslide.

Best for ages: 6+ | £70

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

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

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

Dubai

Popeye Jetski Introduces you to the pleasure of jetskiing with our latest model of overpowering jetski (Yamaha 1800cc 1 jet can take 2 peopl...

$98 | Rating 4.97 / 5 [2335 ratings]

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

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

Dubai

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 s...

$82 | Rating 4.93 / 5 [1450 ratings]

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90 Minutes Speedboat Tour: Dubai Marina, Atlantis and Burj Al Arab

90 Minutes Speedboat Tour: Dubai Marina, Atlantis and Burj Al Arab

Dubai

Whether you’re into sightseeing, action or water based activities you will surely enjoy this tour. This is the best sightseeing speed boat ...

$40 | Rating 4.62 / 5 [585 ratings]

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Big Bus Dubai Hop-On Hop-Off Tour

Big Bus Dubai Hop-On Hop-Off Tour

Dubai

Experience a true fusion of traditional Arabian charm and futuristic dynamism. Enjoy breath taking views of Dubai’s dramatic skyline, perfec...

$68 | Rating 4.41 / 5 [2246 ratings]

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

XVA Art Hotel

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Dubai’s only art-themed hotel in the historic Al Fahidi quarter is a must-stay for gallery fans, and a unique opportunity to experience Dubai’s historic neighbourhood.

Official star rating:

Rove La Mer Beach

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

A colourful seaside hotel on family-friendly La Mer beach, with a chilled Californian vibe, poolside sundeck and surrounded by dining and shopping options.

Official star rating:

Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

An atmospheric creekside hotel filled with retro design details, just a short walk from old Dubai and the city’s heritage areas.

Official star rating:

Queen Elizabeth 2

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

An iconic symbol of the golden age of travel, the QE2 is now a luxury hotel permanently harboured in Dubai. One of the city’s most unusual places to stay – and certainly it’s most unique.

Official star rating:

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.