Having transformed from a small trading port to one of the most glamorous destinations on the planet in just 40 years, Dubai can’t help but leave its visitors in awe. The ambition and futuristic innovation found around every corner defines this city. I mean, where else can you find a palm-shaped island, self-driving flying taxis, and an 828-metre-high skyscraper all in one place? But beneath the luxury and consumerist stereotypes there is also a rich history and culture to discover, a side to Dubai you won’t want to miss.
Head to the district of Bur Dubai - the oldest part of the city - to get a feel for Dubai’s roots before its dramatic development. Wander along the waterfront and explore the backstreets to drink in its old-fashioned charm before visiting the Dubai Museum to hone your knowledge of the city’s past. Entry to the museum is 3 AED for adults and 1 AED for children under 6. A short stroll from the museum will take you to Bastakiya, the old Persian quarter, where you’ll find many of the city’s original buildings. Today, the quarter is home to a great selection of galleries, cafes and boutique hotels nestled within the sand-coloured buildings.
Back in modern Dubai, shopping is a vital part of a trip to this metropolis. Hit up Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, to browse over 1,000 retailers, from high-street to high-fashion. Alternatively, for a more laid-back experience head to the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a modern take on a traditional Arabic souk (market). With a more modest 75 shops selling fashion, homeware, jewellery, and souvenirs, it’s decidedly more relaxed!
Zooming up to the observation decks of the Burj Khalifa is another activity on everyone’s Dubai bucket list. With viewing platforms on levels 124, 125 and 148, the panoramic views are spectacular regardless of how high up the world’s tallest building you dare to venture. Access to all the decks costs 370 AED.
A visit to one of Dubai’s many beaches offers a well-earned respite from busy sightseeing. For water sports, head to the aptly named Kite Beach, or spend the afternoon at Sunset Beach to snap the ultimate photo of the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel in the orange glow of the setting sun.
Other things to visit include the Etihad Museum, Palm Jumeirah island, the Dubai Fountain, and the Dubai Marina.
The lavish lifestyle of Dubai certainly extends to its food scene, with a vast array of fine dining options. Book a window table at At.mosphere, located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, for exceptional views while you dine. There are also plenty of options that won’t break the bank, many offering traditional Middle Eastern dishes or inexpensive curries thanks to the city’s Indian influences. For Emirati cuisine, head to Logma in Dubai’s trendy Boxpark to sample authentic, local dishes including falafels and shawarmas (a type of meat kebab).
Note: Alcohol licences are not the norm in Dubai, and are restricted to hotel and mall restaurants. Expect independent restaurants and cafes to be alcohol-free.
It’s important to remember that the dominant religion in Dubai is Islam, so there are a few things to bear in mind.
One of the most important things to be aware of is how to dress when you’re out and about. Although it is not rigidly defined what is considered indecent, you should dress modestly when in public to respect the surrounding culture. This means covering your knees and shoulders when in public places around Dubai, although it's totally fine to wear swimwear on the beach. In the more traditional areas of the city short skirts and revealing tops simply won’t be tolerated, so it’s best to cover up.
Public displays of affection are another taboo in Dubai. Holding hands with your loved one is just about okay for married couples, but kissing in public is considered a violation of the country’s decency laws and has led to a number of arrests.
Swearing and making rude gestures are also considered offences and can result in deportation or imprisonment. Be warned - even sticking your tongue out at someone is an offence in Dubai, so be on your best behaviour!