Once a sleepy fishing village, Dubai has risen like a Phoenix from the desert sands.
More liberal than its neighbours and willing to blend time-old traditions with free market capitalism, the city entices visitors with promises of desert adventure, endless opulent options for relaxation and incredible shopping.
There are direct flights from most Australian capital cities to Dubai, making it perfect as a stopover destination on the way to Europe. However, the city has plenty to offer holidaymakers in its own right.
Enjoy this Dubai travel guide.
Bedouin tribes once drifted between oases by camel, conserving limited water.
Now, over two billion litres of water are churned out every day by huge desalination plants, and traffic streams over freeways across the city.
Dubai was known for its pearl exports until the Great Depression stifled demand in the 1930s. Oil was discovered in 1966 and helped kick-start modern development. To gain an appreciation of ‘the old way of life’, wander the alleys and laneways of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and enjoy thick Arabic coffee in one of the many cafes.
Retrace ancient steps over the dunes with Red Sand Tourism. Strap into your four-wheel drive and hold on as the driver pushes their vehicle to limits only they understand. Complete some of the journey by camel and surf the dunes before dining under the stars surrounded by music, dancing and hazy smoke from shisha pipes bubbling above burning embers.
For a more leisurely pace, Platinum Heritage will carry you over the dunes in vintage Land Rovers. Combine this with an early morning hot air balloon ride as the sun rises over the majestic Al Hajar Mountains.
Nothing symbolises the Dubai of the present like Burj Khalifa. It offers the highest open air observation decks in the world — stay at level 124 for a multimedia history lesson or go higher to level 148 for even better views. Having weathered a boom and a spectacular bust, cranes once again dominate the city skyline.
Although Dubai welcomes the world with open arms, socially the UAE is conservative by western standards.
Be mindful and respectful as you explore this fascinating city. Hotel restaurants and bars serve alcohol, but otherwise most restaurants are dry. There is no BYO. Staggering around the streets or fumbling into a taxi will get you into strife. Behave!
Life revolves around Islam and locals are called to prayer five times a day from the minarets of mosques scattered across the country. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involves a month of fasting from dawn until sunset. Activities can be limited during this period.
You’re invited to tour the stunning Jumeirah Mosque. Visiting is a privilege as this is the only mosque in Dubai that allows non-Muslim guests. Note: Women are required to wear a head scarf as a mark of respect.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to do in Dubai:
There’s no shortage of ways to relax and rejuvenate in Dubai.
The city is quite spread out and while taxis are inexpensive, a hop on/hop off bus is an easy way to explore.
Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis The Palm on Palm Jumeirah island offers a great family day out. While mum and dad relax on sunbeds, the kids can swim and slide to their hearts’ content. The Leap of Faith waterslide will drop you almost vertically nine stories, before you level out under the water surrounded by sharks and rays!
Back on the mainland, Barasti Beach Bar pumps out the music day and night. For a more relaxed vibe, head to Sunset Beach and laze on the white sand or swim in crystal clear water.
Luxurious spa treatments are a perfect interlude during the heat of the day. Treat yourself to a day of pampering at the Guerlain Spa at One&Only on the Palm Dubai, before floating out to cocktails on the deck at the 101 bar. You’ll find it hard to drag yourself away. So don’t! Book for the extractions menu at STAY: five courses prepared by three Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno. The fruit and vegetable ‘extractions’ paired with stunning cuisine will knock your socks off.
With lush and green fairways weaving around six lakes, the nine-hole Meydan Golf Course sits in the shadow of the 60,000 seat Meydan racecourse stadium — the longest single structure in the world. There is no membership here and everyone is welcome on a pay and play basis, night and day. Be warned: the greens are fast!
Dubai’s traditional souks (marketplaces) are where people go to buy, sell, socialise and sip coffee.
At the famous Gold Souk you’ll need your sunglasses — all that glitters here is gold. Be patient, be prepared to haggle and you’ll find it difficult not to walk out dripping in bling.
Follow your nose to the Spice Souk, where mounds of red, orange, yellow and green and the aromas of chilli, saffron and vanilla surround you. The delicate dried flowers used for herbal teas are perfect for a cuppa back at your hotel.
Oud from agarwood is a highly regarded scent in Arabic culture: woody, musky and quite intense. At the Perfume Souk you can pick and combine the essences. Nothing screams ‘decadent’ more than your own personal fragrance!
An abra (water taxi) will whisk you across Dubai Creek to the Textile Souk in Bur Dubai. It’s 1 dirham (35 cents), paid to the driver.
There are malls and there is The Dubai Mall — 1,200 shops, more than 200 food and beverage outlets, and a giant fish tank holding ten million litres of water and 140 species of fish as a centrepiece. Here at The Dubai Aquarium go shark diving, cage snorkelling or walk through the tunnel to enjoy the 270 degree panorama. Avoid weekends. It gets seriously busy!
If one mall is like any other to you, then cross the bridge to Souk Al Bahar. Get lost as you weave in and out amongst colourful silks, ornate lanterns and boutiques. Waterside restaurants have uninterrupted views of the fountain shows in the pool meandering between the souk, The Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa.
Dubai is the place to get diamond rings designed or remodelled. Cara Jewellers at the Gold and Diamond Park comes highly recommended.
It may be 45 degrees outside, but most restaurants and bars require long pants and shoes for men (no runners or sandals) and discreet dress for women.
Friday brunch is the way to kick off the weekend. Many venues offer packages, which generally include bubbles and range from feeding frenzies to more elegant affairs. The Hollywood Brunch at Delphine at the H Hotel combines Gatsby glamour and butler service. If you have kids in tow, the Bubbalicious Brunch across the Westin Dubai’s multiple restaurants will keep you fed and watered, while the petting zoo, PlayStation room and kids’ corner will keep your entourage entertained for hours.
Walk into Burj Al Hamam past the baklava and desserts on display and head out to the terrace. Located on the first floor of The Dubai Mall, you can almost touch the towering Burj Khalifa. The casual surroundings are home to the vibrant flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine. Enjoy fattoush and tabbouleh like you’ve never tasted before.
New kid on the block Fish Beach Taverna is a breath of fresh Aegean air, with its whitewashed walls and blue cushions. It’s perfectly positioned to take in the incredible sunsets over the shimmering Arabian Sea, and the menu adapts to the seasons.
Jutting out over the Arabian Sea at the end of a pier that has been beautifully fashioned out of wood and glass, Pierchic offers uninterrupted ocean views (the Burj Al Arab seems to float nearby) and oozes refined elegance. This is seafood heaven, where the menu and presentation are second to none. The seafood comes from sustainable sources and there are plenty of gluten-free choices. Pop into the bar for a sunset cocktail before dinner, and try to nab a spot in the al fresco dining area. The set menus won’t break the bank.
There’s nothing like a great Indian curry, and Farsi Cafe on Dubai City Walk takes the cuisine of the subcontinent to another level. Enjoy a coupling of spectacular presentation and various molecular gastronomic twists. Delicate foam lingers before disappearing into dishes, while wisps of smoke create a sense of illusion and theatre.
Five tours we love
This half day tour will introduce you to Dubai’s key sights and historical points of interest. See the city’s famous landmarks, including the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab hotel and the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque. You’ll also enjoy free time in the Deira Gold Souq.
Take your Dubai sightseeing to the next level, with an entrance ticket to the Burj Khalifa’s ‘At the Top’ observation deck. Enjoy mind-blowing views from the skyscraper’s 124th floor.
Enjoy a delicious guided stroll through the laneways and market squares that line the Dubai Creek. You’ll try a range of local specialties from street food vendors.
Experience the red dunes of Arabia on this 6-hour 4WD desert adventure. You’ll have the option to take a camel ride or puff on an authentic shisha pipe, before you enjoy a sumptuous BBQ buffet dinner beneath the stars.
Book a 15 or 25-minute Dubai helicopter flight and soar over the man-made archipelagos of Palm Jumeirah and The World.
Do you have any tips to add to our Dubai travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food and find different angles from which to cover his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore and London. Currently living in Bangkok, Neil splits his time between Thailand and London. He would be in heaven joining the Bizarre Foods team, having tried horse meat tartare in Tokyo, lobster sashimi in Manila and the perfect ceviche in Havana. More a traveller than a tourist, he prefers to mix it with the locals, learn their history and culture and walk the back streets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise on the global stage or quiet moments of private reflection.