The New Urban Marvel
Dubai attracts rich pockets and poor taste as a place where everything must be big to be relevant. It's worked hard to have the world's tallest building, the most luxurious hotel, the largest shopping mall... It's something of a Middle Eastern Las Vegas and that's what makes it so captivating to so many people. It's a sprawling city that's half resort half building site on its way to becoming a major global hub and urban marvel.
South Asians make up more than half of the population and Emiratis are only about 10% of the total. Everyone else comes from everywhere else, and you're more likely to hear English and other languages on the street than Arabic.
Except for accommodation, the city isn't as expensive as you'd imagine (the most reasonably-priced hotels are clustered in the older Deira and Bur Dubai districts) and it hopes to attract 15 million visitors per year. Once the gaudy, the opulent and the excess settle, it will be the splendid cityscape views, the beaches and poolside terraces that will keep them coming in the future. As a major city rising from almost nothing, Dubai offers visitors the chance to witness history in the making, marveling at the new and the newer.
Whether you're going for a weekend or a week, these are the things you must see and do in the city:
Top Sights and Attractions
Look for the hotel or hostel that best matches your budget, type of trip or personality. Here you can guarantee a room but you do NOT pay anything at the time of booking. Payments are only made at the hotel and there are no booking fees.
Most hotels allow cancellations with no penalty if done up to 24 or 48 hours in advance. You'll see that information at the time of booking and again in the confirmation email.
For the most authentic and inexpensive places to eat head to the Creek and Deira whose narrow streets are lined with ethnic restaurants. Downtown and Jumeirah Beach Road have good cafes while the best restaurants (and bars and clubs) are found in 5-star hotels. Those are the best-designed spaces and cater to Western crowds for being among the few spots where alcohol is served. If you're looking for high-end dining, you'll be glad to know that Michelin-star chefs have opened restaurants here to appeal to a more discerning clientele.
A particularly attractive destination for eating and drinking is the Madinat Jumeirah souk with views of the Burj Al Arab. Designed like a traditional Arabian town, it houses dozens of restaurants, from casual and reasonably-priced, to expensive fine dining, many facing a courtyard.
By the marina, along the beach, is the kilometer-long "The Walk," a strip of alfresco restaurants and cafes but also one of the best places in town for people-watching.
Dubai is a tax-free shopping paradise but the scorching-high temperatures outside mean that most of the stores are found in malls. And those malls are predictably huge (Dubai Mall is the largest in the world), although they mostly appeal to other Middle Easterners and Asians and less to Westerners who already know most of the shops from their own hometowns. In addition to shopping, these mega-malls also offer some rather tacky experiences like indoor ski (at the Mall of the Emirates) and major attractions (the aquarium at the Dubai Mall).
The most fun shopping may therefore be found at the souks, mostly for their atmosphere. Look for the Spice Souk which is nothing more than a few shops down one street but offers pleasant smells and atmosphere. Nearby, past souvenir stalls, is the Gold Souk with fixed prices based on workmanship and the daily price of gold per gram.
The best time for a shopping spree is January during the Dubai Shopping Festival under milder temperatures.
Airport and Transportation