Dubai dazzles visitors with a unique combination of futuristic infrastructure and ancient traditions. Behind the stunning skyline and adventurous architecture, the history and culture of the nomadic Bedouin people—the first to inhabit the Dubai desert—still linger.
The United Arab Emirates’ largest city, Dubai is a business gateway for the Middle East and Africa. Its economy was originally built on oil revenues, but they now account for less than 5% of its gross domestic product. Today, the economy is focused on tourism. Exhibitions, conferences, sporting events and shopping malls attracted 14.9 million visitors to Dubai in 2016.
Getting to and from the airport
Dubai International Airport is southeast of Dubai, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the city center. Many hotels offer free airport transfers. Otherwise, the best option is an official taxi run by the Dubai Taxi Corp. from the rank outside the airport terminal. DTC taxis are cream-colored, and all journeys are metered. You can also take the Dubai Metro, which runs from terminals 1 and 3 of the airport.
Getting around Dubai
The Metro is comfortable, clean and air-conditioned. Check fares and use the route planner on the Dubai Metro website. A single trip that stays within one zone costs three Arab Emirates dirham (3AED is equivalent to US$0.82, using the exchange rate US$1 = AED3.67) for a standard fare.
If you plan to use both the Dubai Metro and the Emirates’ extensive bus network, consider buying a NOL card, sold at Metro ticket offices and some vending machines. The silver card is the best option for visitors. It costs AED25 (US$6.81) and can be topped up with additional funds.
It can be difficult to flag a taxi in the street during peak hours, although a hotel doorman should be able to call one for you.
Where to stay
For luxury and upscale accommodation, try Conrad Dubai (Sheikh Zayed Road; Ph: 971-4-444-7444), Fairmont The Palm Dubai (Palm Jumeirah Lane; Ph: 971-4-457-3388) or Millennium Plaza Hotel Dubai (Sheikh Zayed Road; Ph: 971-4-387-7777). Midscale and economy options include Courtyard Dubai Green Community (Green Community; Ph: 971-4-885-2222), Holiday Inn Dubai Downtown (Al Rigga Road; Ph: 971-4-228-8889) and Ibis Al Barsha (Sheikh Zayed Road, Ph: 971-4-399-6699).
Things to see and do
Going to the top of the world’s tallest building is a must for visitors. Allow at least 60 minutes to enjoy the spectacular views from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa. Tickets depend on the time of day and the experience you choose. Hours vary by season.
Dubai’s beaches are excellent. The warm, aquamarine waters of the Arabian Sea are perfect for taking a dip. If you’re not staying in a hotel with a private beach, head to popular public beaches such as Open Beach or Umm Suqeim.
To educate yourself on Dubai’s history and culture, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which offers guided tours of the ancient Bastakiya quarter of Dubai, Jumeirah Mosque visits and cultural breakfasts and lunches. Contact the center for a full program of activities.
For an adrenaline rush, visit the Dubai Autodrome where you can zoom around in a racecar (wearing provided safety gear, of course). Or get your thrills on a desert safari. A number of outfitters offer dune buggy or quad bike adventures. Allow at least half a day; a full day is best.
Deira City Centre offers hundreds of shopping, dining and entertainment options under one roof. But traditional markets (souks) are still very popular, especially in the evening. You’ll find find souks specializing in perfume, gold, spices and textiles.
Where to eat
Let’s start with some tips on culture and etiquette. Locals eat late in Dubai. If you dine before 8 p.m., you’ll probably be surrounded by empty tables. Be aware of and respect local laws and norms. Dress modestly. Wear clothing with sleeves, and avoid clothing that’s too tight or revealing. Alcohol is available in hotel bars and restaurants, but it’s against the law to be intoxicated in public.
Marina Social offers fine dining and a prime view on the marina. Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton creates gourmet Mediterranean dishes. Come with a group, as most menu items are designed to be shared. Find it at Bay Central Dubai Marina, Al Sufouh Road; Ph: 971-4-446-6664.
The At.mosphere lounge and grill on Floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa offers a memorable dining experience. What’s marketed as the highest restaurant in the world treats diners to an international menu. There’s even high tea in the afternoons. It’s at Burj Khalifa, downtown Dubai; Ph: 971-4-888-3828.
For a touch of Las Vegas style, check out the Caramel Restaurant and Lounge. You’ll find Chilean sea bass, sushi and grilled mango tacos on the menu. There’s a DJ, so you can dance off your baked Alaska dessert. Find it at Dubai International Financial Centre, Unit 1, Balcony Level, Building 3; Ph: 971-4-425-6677.