In the past four years I have lived in Dubai I have been privy to a remarkable boom, followed by a crash and, ultimately, recovery. If I was living outside of Dubai my impression would be that all construction had suddenly stopped, all the expats left and that the high life in Dubai ceased to exist. But nothing could be further from the truth.
While the economy has delayed some construction plans, such as the massive entertainment complex Dubai Land, other high-end projects are being driven to completion with even more urgency and focus. Dubai is still a thriving metropolis with world-class attractions on its doorstep. The best thing about them is their sheer accessibility. The city stretches some 25 miles along the coast, a straight up-and-down journey from one place to the next. Taxis are cheap and plentiful and now, with the metro up and running, getting around is very easy.
A couple of tips for aspiring tourists: It is a Muslim country and should be respected as such. So while there is plenty of alcohol to be had, one should not be found rolling around the streets in a stupor. Also the weather is often very hot, but that does not excuse wearing next to nothing in public places such as shopping malls, where the temperature can be as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the end, act respectfully and you will be treated with kindness, high levels of service and enjoy a nearly crime-free environment. Leaving your car unlocked with little chance of theft is a delicious pleasure rarely enjoyed elsewhere in the world.
If you ask anyone in Dubai what things they would do if they had guests to visit, their answers will have changed dramatically over the last four years. The construction boom has borne the many fruits of Dubai’s aspiration to be home to the biggest and best of a multitude of things. Heres my top 10.
The Burj Khalifa
The tallest structure on the planet is impossible to miss from the moment you arrive in Dubai. Soaring above the city like a giant needle-shaped spacecraft, it really is a wonder of modern technology and design. The opportunity to view the city from the observation deck on the 134th floor is not to be missed, and day or night the view is truly spectacular. I think it is best described as being on the wing of an airplane. Insider tip: Book your visit a few days in advance online and you’ll save considerably over the “instant access” tickets on the door.
The Dubai Mall
Dubai is famous for its shopping malls, but this mall has to be seen to be believed. It is simply huge, with something for everyone inside. The shopping and eating are almost a side attraction. With a 22-screen cinema; an indoor theme park, called Sega World; a world for children, called Kidzania; a giant Aquarium with an underwater zoo; and a full-sized ice rink you, will want for little. Just be sure to be wearing comfortable shoes. The topping on this treat is the Dubai Fountain, which has shows every evening starting at 6 p.m. that easily rival anything that the Bellagio in Las Vegas has to offer. Insider tip: Get a table outside (weather permitting) from one of the many restaurants bordering the fountain at the mall or at the nearby Souk Al Baher. From these vantage points you can relax and enjoy the shows away from the crowds.
Skiing at the Mall of the Emirates
Telling your friends that you went skiing in the desert is quite a boast, but Ski Dubai in Mall of the Emirates offers a genuinely great ski experience, with the longest run at around 1,300 feet. You can rent all the ski gear you need, and there are plenty of lockers. Insider tip: If you have kids with you, hit the snow park and let them slide down the slopes on inflated inner tubes. I recently took my 4-year-old nephew, and his squeals of delight remain with me to this day.
Hang out at the Walk
The largest single-phase residential construction in the world is the Jumeirah Beach Walk, locally known as JBR. It consists of a wall of 36 towers along the beach front in the Dubai Marina. Along the front of the JBR is a lovely, wide promenade flanked on one side by shops, cafes and restaurants and on the other by a single-lane road. This is the ideal spot to enjoy a leisurely meal while people- and car-watching. I can guarantee you will see things that you would not have thought possible–like a gold-plated Porsche Cayenne or a two-tone Ferrari.
Everyone wants to know where to go for that special meal when they are in Dubai. You wont be short of options; nearly every conceivable cuisine is available in a variety of price ranges. However, for that one special night out, my recommendation would be Zuma, a Japanese restaurant with a vibrant bar and lounge area. The open kitchen and excellent staff ensure a memorable dining experience. Reservations are absolutely essential. Insider tip: Be sure not to miss out on their signature black cod dish, Gindara no saikyo miso yaki.
The Lost City
I have witnessed an island being created from nothing with the construction of the Palm Jumeirah, and quite fittingly the Atlantis hotel sits at the very top of the Palm and makes for a spectacular landmark as you drive down the central “stem.” The Atlantis is a five-star hotel resort hosting numerous restaurants and a night club for adult fun. There is also a world-class water park, called Aquaventure, where you have to try the “Leap of Faith” slide for an exhilarating experience. You can meet dolphins up close and personal and, for the kids, there is fantastic children’s play area and a man-made beach to relax on. If, like me, you love aquariums, then your pass for the water park also allows you free entry to the “Lost World” inside the hotel.
Weekends in Dubai start on Thursday nights, and it has almost become a tradition for restaurants to put on an all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch at Friday lunchtime. The various establishments battle for which can put on display the most elaborate array of dishes and beverages, and the choices can at times bewilder you. The very top-end buffets put others I have been to in Las Vegas or Asia to shame, but you can get by spending far less and still walk away satiated. Insider tip: The brunch at the Al Qasr Hotel or Bubblicious at the Westin Hotel score highest for high-falutin dining, with more relaxed affairs at the either the Shangri La or Spectrum on One at the Fairmont Hotel. All of these get popular, so book early.
There are numerous tour companies who will collect you from your hotel and take you out for a tour in the desert, a camel ride and a traditional Arabic meal with a belly dancer. This can be a little formulaic, but provides an accessible display of traditional Bedouin life. If youre more adventurous, rent a 4×4 and bring a copy of the UAE Off-Road Explorer and youll be bathing in the natural rock pools of Hatta in under an hour or splashing around at Wadi Wurrayah, home of the UAE’s only natural waterfall. This really is a taste of the UAE that tourists rarely get to enjoy. Insider tip: Its always best to go to such places in a convoy of at least two vehicles, and heed the advice given in the guide book: The desert can be a dangerous place for the unprepared.
If at any time in your life you wanted to buy gold, there are few better places to do that than in the Old Gold Souk (or market) in Dubai. Be very specific with the taxi driver that you want the “old” souk, otherwise you may end up in one of the newer indoor gold souks, which do not have the same charm. Walking around the Gold Souk you will see dazzling window displays of gold on a scale rarely seen in the Western world. You will be even more surprised when you are left alone to browse a whole tray full of solid gold bracelets or necklaces. Such are the joys of an essentially crime-free city. Be sure to haggle and barter where appropriate, and steer clear of the guys trying to sell you fake watches and handbags. They never have the same shine when you get them home.
Burj Al Arab
The world’s only seven-star hotel since its construction has been an icon for Dubai. Despite the many new fancy hotels, the Burj Al Arab still has a lure and is on the recommend list of many Dubai residents. From the aquariums that flank the escalator to the underwater seafood restaurant or the exotic glass elevator, it is all eye candy for new visitors. Definitely stop in for high tea or cocktails in the Skyview Bar, but book at least a week in advance. The vista across old Dubai’s Jumeirah and Umm Suqeim neighborhoods gives a tantalizing glimpse back to the Dubai prior to the explosive growth that started in 2005. If after that heady view you are keen to get wet, then the excellent water park, called Wild Wadi, is just a moments walk from the hotel. Insider tip: Tourists turning up at the door to the Burj Al Arab hoping to have a look around inside will be sadly disappointed, as a reservation for one of the restaurants or bars is required for entry. Having said this, there are excellent photo opportunities to be had outside or from the nearby Madinat restaurant and shopping complex next door, built in the style of an old Arabian souk which can offer a fun afternoon of exploration.