People often refer to Dubai as the Hong Kong of the Gulf, but it’s really more like Vegas.
With rows of skyscrapers lining the Sheikh Zayed road, multiple mega malls and many multi-million pound offshore developments, Dubai may look like a temple to the petrodollar but, as anyone who spends more than a few days here will tell you, there’s far more to the city than that.
Dubai has an old quarter too, most of it clustered around Al Satwa, Deira and Port Rashid, which teems with life and is home to the city’s oldest building – a 17th-century British fort.
It is here that you’ll get a taste of ‘real Arabia’ in the shape of the abra boats that ply the creek and the bustling spice and gold souks that have changed little over the years. Al Satwa and nearby Al Karama are a real melting pot, home to scores of Indian and Pakistani immigrants as well as ex-pats from Lebanon and Syria.
As a result, eating well and cheaply is easy, whether you’re in the market for the full Lebanese kebab and mezze experience or a visit to Ravi’s, an unprepossessing Indian establishment decorated with Formica tables, that has become a cult favourite with ex-pats. Immigrants dominate the city, with the majority of Westerners clustered in the upmarket Marina, the glamorous Palm or the almost entirely brand new Downtown Dubai.
The latter is home to one of Dubai’s most striking landmarks, the gargantuan Burj Khalifa tower, as well as the similarly enormous Dubai Mall. Set back from the sea, the area is awash with slick new hotels.
Back on Sheikh Zayed Road, not far from the airport, is the Wafi Mall, an Egyptian themed temple to shopping that is arguably Dubai’s nicest thanks to the presence of an upmarket souk beneath. Further south is Mall of the Emirates and Ibn Battuta Mall, both vast and selling everything from designer clothes to pungent Oudh (perfume).
But don’t get stuck in the shops. The city also boasts stunning beaches and (on the outskirts) spectacular desert scenery that would still be familiar to the Bedouins who once wandered this stretch of land.
Embark on a desert adventure
You can’t visit Dubai and not visit the desert, and there are a range of operators who will happily whisk you out of the city for camel rides and sandboard skids down the dunes. They’ll even chuck in a barbecue under the stars. Arabian Adventures (+971 4 303 4888; www.arabian-adventures.com) is one of the best-known operators.
Fire up the rubber
Dubai Autodrome (+ 971 (04) 367 8700; www.dubaiautodrome.com) on the outskirts of town is a comprehensive facility, featuring a 1.2km (0.5 miles) outdoor track and 620m (2,034ft) of indoor track, thus offering everything for seven-year-olds upwards. Happy rewing.
Hit the greens on the world’s most beautiful courses.
You don’t have to be Jordan Spieth to appreciate Dubai’s immaculate greens and fairways. The annual Race to Dubai is held at one of the city’s newer courses, the Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates (tel: +971 4 818 2000; www.jumeirahgolfèstates.com), while other courses include the nearby Els Club (tel:
Kickstart your senses at the spice souk
The tiny winding stone streets of the spice souk are one of Dubai’s most immersive experiences and a must for kitchen fiends and novices alike. Located in Deira, close to the Deira Old Souk Abra Station, it’s also just down the road from the Gold Souk, so don’t forget your wallet.
Shopping is undoubtedly one of Dubai’s greatest draw cards, with the city often regarded as the ‘Shopping Capital of the Middle East.
The souks, or traditional markets, are one of Dubai’s greatest attractions. They are located on both sides of Dubai Creek, with the most impressive on the Deira side.
Dubai’s souks offer an atmospheric shopping experience with sights, sounds and aromas that hint of yesteryear. The Spice Souk, Al-Sabkha Road, is more of a tourist attraction, while the buzzing Gold Souk, Sikkat al-Khali Street, offers some great deals on gold necklaces, rings, bangles, earrings and brooches, with gold prices among the lowest in the world. The gold souks are strictly regulated, so there is little chance of customers being ripped off in terms of quality, although prices do vary greatly and bargaining is essential.
The Electronics Souk, near Beniyas Square, might sound a slightly incongruous idea but this is Dubai, which means that, with shopping, anything goes.
If you love shopping, make it your mission to visit the “Big Five” which are Burjuman,
Deira City Centre, Dubai Mall, Ibn Buttuta and Mall of the Emirates.
Dubai’s shops are rarely closed although Friday morning is the one exception, when most stores are shut as it’s the holy day. Larger malls are open 1000-2200 and often even later during festival periods. Dubai’s souks are open Saturday-Thursday 0700 1200 and 1700-1900, and Friday from1700-1900.
Spices, gold, designer wear and electronics goods are among the popular souvenirs purchased in Dubai.
There is no sales tax in Dubai and the airport is renowned for having one of the finest duty-free opportunities in the world. This is open to both arriving and departing passengers.
As befits the city dubbed ‘the Las Vegas of the Middle East, there’s no shortage of things to do once the sun sets in Dubai – although gambling is not one of them. Most of the action happens in hotels, the only places allowed alcohol licences, but there’s no shortage of choice.
Prices range from the eye watering (anything at the Burj Dubai) to cheap and cheerful (Irish Village), and everything in between. The city is also home to several bars run by fashion houses, so dress up or get turfed out by the style police. Kissing on the dancefloor will get you chucked out by the real police, so keep your hands to yourself.
Bars in Dubai
One of Dubai’s most popular expat hangouts, Barasti sits on the beach outside the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi hotel and specialises in screening sports events. Its theme nights are also popular, as are the cheap drinks and the laidback vibe. Don’t expect to get much in the way of table service on Thursday nights when it’s crammed with revellers.
Huge and seriously hip, the Buddha Bar is one of the many places in Dubai to see and be seen – all the while sipping on one of the bar’s excellent cocktails. Like other Buddha Bars, the music is chilled out and the décor ioriental, and a new facelift has given this popular spot a new lease of verve.
One of Downtown Dubai’s coolest bars, Calabar sits within The Address Hotel and has a fabulous terrace that overlooks the Dubai Fountain, Slick and modern in design, its bounty of beanbags give it a chilled out feel, as does the lounge-style beats played by the in-house DJ every night of the week.
Zero Gravity is an all-inclusive Beach, Restaurant and Bar ideally located in close proximity to Al Sufouh, Dubai media city and Dubai marina. The complex also includes pools, lounges and gardens to suit your every mood, whether you’re looking for an atmosphere or just a quiet place to relax.
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