I’d been through Dubai airport a couple of times before, but I’d never ventured past the (very impressive) airport surroundings. Now, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity for going somewhere new. So when I booked flights for a holiday to India, I decided to take advantage of Emirates’ free stopover policy and spend a few days soaking up the sun and swankiness in Dubai.
I didn’t know much about Dubai at the time. I knew that there’d be guaranteed sunshine. I knew that the city is home to the world’s tallest building (hello, Burj Khalifa); the world’s first 7 star hotel (oh hello to YOU, Burj Al-Arab) and world’s largest shopping mall (stay away from me and my credit card, Dubai Mall).
What I was expecting was a big, showy city, full of modernity and skyscrapers. And I wasn’t disappointed. Think Las Vegas meets Bangkok – a big city in the middle of the desert, without the tackiness and haggling.
Dubai: city of modernity and skyscrapers
But there’s another side to Dubai too. Head north to Bur Dubai and Deira and you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, winding your way through spice souks and marvelling at the dhows and agras on the creek, while aromas of South Asian cuisine – a reminder of how multicultural Dubai really is – fill the air.
Dubai really is the perfect place to escape to for some serious relaxing in sunny luxury. If you’re flying with Emirates somewhere long-haul, then you have to stop over for a few days. If you want to escape winter in the UK, then you definitely have to go. Here’s your beginner’s guide to Dubai.
Everything you need to know to make the most of your time in Dubai
Getting there and away
Did I mention Emirates fly to Dubai? Better than that, they’re based there, hence why all of their flights go via Dubai, and why you can take advantage of their free stopovers if you’re heading on to Asia or Australia.
From the airport, it’s a 10 minute taxi ride to the city centre, or around 30 minutes to Deira or Jumeirah Beach. Alternatively, you can hop on the bus or the Metro.
Where to stay
You want beach adjacent glitz and glamour? Head to Jumeirah Beach. For 5* glamour, check out the Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach. Want to be in the thick of it all? Stay on the Sheikh Zayed Road, between the World Trade Centre and Dubai Financial Centre. Want a glimpse of the ‘old’ Dubai? Then head to Deira – this is where I stayed, at the Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa, right next to the Dubai Museum.
Stay on Jumeirah Beach and this could be your sunset
Eating and drinking
Where to begin? Well, if you’re there over a weekend (that’s Friday and Saturday in the UAE), you can’t miss one of the famous hotel brunches. They’re generally served buffet style, all-you-can-eat-and-drink, and full of every cuisine you can imagine (want some sushi with your eggs? Why not!). Time Out Dubai reckons Traiteur at the Park Hyatt does the best brunch around, and it starts at around 465 dirham (or £75). If you’re on a budget, check out Bu Qtair, a Dubai institution that serves simple sea food to a high standard that’s friendly on the wallet. Oh, and the restaurant looks like a Portaloo.
When it comes to drinking, remember that Dubai is a Muslim country. So you can’t just walk into a supermarket and buy a six pack to drink on the beach. What you will find it a multitude of bars (rooftop/underground/beach adjacent/with a view) and nightclubs to keep you dancing ‘til dawn. The Jetty Lounge at the One&Only Royal Mirage one Time Out’s Best Outdoor Bar award last year, so it’s well worth a visit. For a drink with a view, pay a visit to 360° at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel – you’ll be treated to a view of the Arabian Gulf and stunning Burj Al Arab.
To get from A to B, you’ll find taxis the quickest and easiest form of transport, not to mention the coolest. If you’re visiting in June or July, don’t even attempt to walk; you’ll be soaked in sweat as soon you leave the building. You’ll find that everyone seems to get taxis in Dubai. Good job they’re pretty cheap.
There is a Metro system in Dubai – and it’s the longest, unmanned, fully automated Metro system in the world (obviously). There are currently 2 lines, and it’ll get you from one end of the city to the other.
A ride on a water taxi is an unmissable way to see the buildings that border the Creek up close, while the Big Bus tour is great to get a feel for the city.
Jump in a water taxi to catch a glimpse of the old Dubai
What to see
The beach is a good place to start. The big hotels have their own beach clubs, which you can pay to use, but Jumeirah Beach Park is considered the best public beach, and comes complete with dressing rooms, clean toilets, a swimming pool and volleyball courts.
If history’s your thing, you’ll find it in the Dubai Museum in Deira. While you’re in the old town, stop by the Gold and Spice Souks – traditional Arabian markets that are a happy assault on the senses.
Lose yourself in Deira's spice souks
Even if you’re not into shopping, you can’t fail to be impressed by the ginormous Dubai Mall. Don’t miss the Dubai Fountain outside; it puts on daily afternoon and evening shows where it appears to dance to classical and Arabian music. And yes, it’s the world’s biggest dancing fountain (how many times have I written ‘world’s biggest’ in this article? Seriously Dubai, we get it. You’re pioneering).
If you get sick of the city, there’s no better way to escape than on a 4WD desert safari. Totally unique and fun, and you can even stay overnight in the desert at a Bedouin camp and sleep under the stars.
Dubai has two seasons: hot and hotter. The best time to visit Dubai is between October and April, when it’ll be hot (24 – 30°C ) but not unbearably hot; the mercury creeps up to 40°C in July and August. Basically, it’s the perfect place to head when the British winter all gets a bit much. Can’t think of a better cure for SAD.