Dubai is one of the planet’s most exciting urban destinations. The world’s fastest-growing city. A place which, literally, changes before your eyes on an almost daily basis. This is where you’ll find some of the 21st century’s most memorable landmarks: the world’s tallest building, largest artificial island and biggest mall, to name just three. There’s plenty of glitz, glam and seven-star luxury, including opulent hotels, gorgeous restaurants and bars, and some truly spectacular shopping. And there’s also a surprising amount of history and culture too in the old centre, with its bustling souks, distinctive old wind-towered house and fleet of chuntering Arabian dhows.
Popular images of Dubai tend to focus on the city’s spectacular modern mega-developments. The iconic, sail-shaped Burj al Arab “seven-star” hotel has become the de facto emblem of the city, now rivalled by the needle-thin, supersized Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The massed high-rises of Sheikh Zayed Road and Dubai Marina feature some of the 21st century’s most futuristic skylines and zaniest contemporary architecture, a memorable mix of the good, the bad and the downright odd – which could also describe the endless fronds of the palm-shaped Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island, bounded by the zany Atlantis resort.
Old Dubai, by contrast, gets only a fraction of the publicity garnered by the city’s modern mega-developments, but is every bit as interesting. Centred around the breezy Dubai Creek, still busy at any time of the day or night with majestic old wooden dhows loading and unloading cargo, and with flotillas of abras ferrying passengers across the water. South of the Creek, historic Bur Dubai is the oldest past of the city, centred around the atmospheric Bur Dubai Old Souk, and with dozens of beautifully restored wind-towered, coral-stone traditional houses in the old Iranian district of Bastakiya and the Creekside Shindagha area. North of the Creek, helter-skelter Deira is still the city’s traditional mercantile heart, with an endless sprawl of souks selling everything from gold, spices and traditional perfumes through to smartphones and belly-dancing constumes.
There are plenty of further attractions within easy striking distance of the city. Few visitors miss the chance to get out into the surrounding desert on one of the cheesy but enjoyable “sunset safaris” offered by tour agents around the city, although for a real sense of the local bedouin heritage it’s worth taking a day-trip to Al Ain, with its dozens of old mud-brick forts and spawling oases. Nearby Sharjah, self-styled “cultural capital of the UAE”, is home to numerous museums and well-preserved traditional architecture, while further afield (just do-able as a long daytrip, although better as an overnight stay) oil-rich Abu Dhabi is home to a further glut of attractions, including the monumental Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the glittering Emirates Palace hotel.
There’s not much argument about the best time to visit Dubai. Go, if possible, during the winter months from December through to February, when the city enjoys a pleasantly Mediterranean climate, with average daily temperatures in the mid-70s (mid-20s °C) – although days in January and February can sometimes be rather overcast, and there’s also occasional (and sometimes surprisingly heavy) rain. Room rates and visitor number reach a peak during this period, and hotel bargain’s are hardest to find, particularly in the big beachfront resorts.
Temperatures rise significantly during March–April and October–November, with temperature’s regularly climbing up into the high-80s °F (30°s C) – hot but bearable.
Dubai during the summer months from May to September is strictly for heat-freaks. July and August are especially suffocating, with average temperatures nuding up towards 100°F (high 30s to low 40s °C) – or higher). Even darkness brings little relief from the stifling heat. The good news is that room rates at many hotels drop significantly (often by a third, sometimes more), although don’t expect to do much apart from lounge by a pool or hop one air-conditioned venue and the next.
You can see Dubai’s top highlights in about three (busy) days, making it a perfect stopover destination. Day one can be spent exploring the old town, day two can be spent around Downtown Dubai and Sheikh Zayed Road, and on day 3 you can head down to the Burj al Arab, Madinat Jumeirah and Dubai Marina – with perhaps a sunset safari into the desert squeezed in somewhere.
A week would give you the chance to get to some more offbeat attractions within the city, and to do one or two day-trips out of the city to Sharjah, Al Ain or Abu Dhabi.
In two weeks you can get to know the city well, and maybe also spend a couple of days in Abu Dhabi, as well as visiting Sharjah and Al Ain.
High season in Dubai runs during the cooler months from around the beginning of November through to the end of February. This is when hotel rates are at their highest (particularly in January and February), beaches at their most crowded and popular restaurants most heavily booked. It’s also when the city is at in quasi-Mediterranean best, with streets, souks and cafes busy throughout the day and on until late at night. Note, too, that room rates (and flights) can get particularly high during European school holidays, particularly those in the UK (one of Dubai’s biggest tourist markets).
Low season runs from April through to September. It’s punishingly hot, yes, but room rates can tumble, with prices around one-third lower than in high season (sometimes higher). On the downside, most outdoor bars and restaurants pack up for the duration, those beautiful outdoor terraces with stunning Burj views become sweatboxes even after dark and the whole city goes into a sort of reverse hibernation, with everyone bar mad dogs and Englishmen hiding away in the air-conditioned buildings until the cooler weather arrives.
All hotel rooms in Dubai are air-conditioned, irrespective of price, so whatever the weather you’ll at least sleep cool.
There three public holidays in Dubai with fixed dates, plus six Islamic holidays whose dates change annually, falling about 11 days earlier in the calendar on each successive year.
New Year’s Day (January 1)
Martyrs’ Day (Nov 30)
National Day December 2
Annually changing holidays
Leilat al Meiraj (Ascent of the Prophet; May 5 in 2016)
Eid al Fitr (the end of Ramadan; July 7 & 8 in 2016)
Arafat (Haj) Day (Sept 10 in 2016)
Eid al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice; Sept 11–13, 2016)
Islamic New Year (Oct 2, 2016)
The Prophet’s Birthday (Mouloud; Dec 12 in 2016)
Major events and festivals
Ramadam Changing dates (June 6th–July 5th, 2016; May 27th–June 25th, 2017; May 16th–June 14th, 2018; May 6th–June 4th, 2019).
Dubai Shopping Festival Early Jan–early Feb
Dubai Desert Classic Feb
Dubai International Jazz Festival Feb
Dubai Tennis Open Feb
Dubai World Cup March
Dubai Summer Surprises July–Sept
Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix Late Nov/early Dec
Dubai Rugby Sevens Early Dec
Dubai International Film Festival Early Dec
Dubai is 4hr ahead of GMT (and 3hr ahead of British Summer Time), 9hr ahead of North American Eastern Standard Time, 12hr ahead of North American Western Standard Time, and 6hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. There is no daylight saving in Dubai.
Light, loose cotton clothing is best in the heat. Covering up protects you from sunburn and is also the culturally sensitive thing to do. It’s also a good idea to bring a light jumper during the winter months, when evenings and nights can get pleasantly cool. Plenty of sunscreen and good quality sunglasses are also essential. Fortunately, there are few insects and no threatening diseases, so you won’t need to worry about tropical diseases or mosquito bites.
An unlocked GSM mobile (cell) phone if you plan to buy a local SIM card – although basic mobiles can also be bought cheaply in Dubai. CDMA phones won’t work in Dubai.
Alcohol is much less widely available than in the West and isn’t sold in shops anywhere – and is generally pricey wherever you go. Bring in some duty-free if you want to booze on the cheap.
What not to bring: the importation of many medicines (including even seemingly innocuous ones) is banned in Dubai. If in doubt check with your local UAE embassy or consultate before travel. If you do need to bring prescription medicines with you, it’s best to keep them in their original packaging and to carry a covering letter from your doctor.
No one’s pretending that Dubai is cheap – although equally it’s not necessarily as expensive as you might think, unless you really want to splurge out, in which case you can get through a lot of cash very quickly. In general, though, visiting Dubai is no more expensive than visiting most major European, North American or Australian cities – or many other larger cities in Asia, for that matter.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $1 per person
$$ => Tickets $1-5 per person
$$$ => Tickets $5 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $100–250 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $250 for a double
$ => $1-10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $10-25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $25 per person
For latest exchange rates, visit xe.com.
Airfares to Dubai start at around £330 from the UK, and from around $800/$1200 from the east/west coast of the USA.
Car rental rates start from around 100dh per day for the smallest models.
A basic insurance policy should suffice for Dubai – but check there’s adequate medical cover (essential) and, if you’re taking anything expensive with you, have a look at the maximum amount you’ll be allowed to claim for a single item. Note that you’ll need to pay extra to get cover if you’re planning on taking part in so-called “dangerous sports” or suchlike activities, which is Dubai might include skiing at Ski Dubai, quad-biking, sky-diving, motor-sports at the Dubai Autodrome or dune-bashing in the desert.
The UAE currency is the dirham (officially abbreviated to ‘AED’, although you’ll also often see ‘dh’, which is what we use), with each dirham further subdivided into 100 fils. Coins come in 1 AED, 50 fils, and 25 fils. Notes come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000dh. The dirham is pegged to the dollar at a rate of $1= AED 3.6725.
At the time of writing, other exchange rates were roughly £1 = 5.5dh, E1 = 3.9dh, CDN$1 = 2.75dh, and A$ = 2.7dh. For latest rates, see www.xe.com.
There are ATMs all over the city, including in all shopping malls. Virtually all of them accept foreign Visa and MasterCards.
Dubai is a pretty plastic-friendly city. Visa and MasterCard are accepted pretty much everywhere except in the smallest and grungiest shops and cafes. American Express is also widely accepted, and a lot of places even take Diners Club nowadays.
All banks change major international currencies. Some will also change travelersâ checks, although generally these are now best avoided. Most larger hotels also have foreign currency exchange facilities, although rates are generally lousy â better to head for one of the many official bureaux de change dotted around the city. Youâll find these in all large shopping malls, usually including a branch of the leading Al Ansari chain, which has branches across the city and the rest of the UAE.
Dubai and the UAE doesn’t have a massive tipping culture. Taxi drivers, waiters and hotel porters won’t necessarily expect a tip, although of course it’s always appreciated, especially by the city’s legion of overworked and underpaid expat workers from India, the Philippines and elsewhere, most of whom work long long hours for pretty basic wages.
Hotels and restaurants commonly levy various taxes. A 10% government tax comes as standard, while a lot of more upmarket places also add a 10% service charge to the bill in lieu of a tip (although how much of this actually goes to waiters or hotel staff is a moot point, and you might want to leave an additional tip anyway if service has been good). In addition, hotels charge a small tourism tax (the so-called “tourism dirham”) of between 7dh and 20dh per night depending on the price of the room you’re staying in.
Note that hotels (rather naughtily) often quote room rates without tax, so check carefully before booking whether these are included or not. Restaurant menus usually – but not always – quote prices inclusive of taxes, but again, it pays to keep an eye open, since the unexpected addition of 20% to the final bill for a meal can come as an expensive and unwelcome surprise.
Undisputed airport capital of the Gulf and Middle East, modern Dubai is about as well connected as anywhere on the planet, with direct flights to myriad cities in Europe, North America and Asia, making it super-accessible either as a destination in its own right or as a stopover en route to somewhere else.
Getting around the city has also become massively easier in recent years following the opening of the superb metro system, the Dubai Tram and the Palm Monorail. Plentiful inexpensive taxis, meanwhile, fill the increasingly few gaps in the transport network, while assorted boats and ferries offer a slower but scenic alternative means of getting from A to B.
Dubai has established itself as the Middle East’s major airline hub, meaning that you’ll be spoilt for choice when flying to the city, with a host of airlines battling for custom along competing routes.
There are all sorts of different ways of flying between the UK and Dubai – although fewer direct flights than you might expect. Flying time is around 7hr, with fares starting from around £330. Non-stop flights from Heathrow are currently available with Emirates, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Royal Brunei Airways, while there are all sorts of indirect services with many other carriers. Emirates also runs direct flights to Dubai from London Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, and Glasgow.
Emirates also runs a good selection of non-stop flights from North America (some of them code-sharing with JetBlue) including services from New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto. There are numerous other one- and two-stop options with myriad airlines. From the east coast it’s quickest to fly via Europe, while from the west coast you might do better travelling via Asia. From New York and Toronto, flying time is roughly 13 hr, with fares starting at around $800; from the west coast, count on 16hr flying time, with fares from $1,200.
Travelling overland, options are more limited. The UAE shares its border with Saudi Arabia and Oman. The Saudi border is completely shut to casual Western visitors, although there are numerous crossing points between the UAE and Oman, with visas available on arrival at the border.
Getting to Dubai by sea is another possibility, with increasing numbers of cruises docking at the city.
Dubai is very spread out – well over 20km from top to bottom – and away from the compact old centre you’ll need to use public transport to explore. The city’s plentiful taxis and state-of-the-art new metro provide the staple means of getting around; buses are another option, although generally much less useful. Crossing the Creek, you have a choice between the city’s old-fashioned abras and modern water taxis. There’s a helpful online travel planner available at http://wojhati.rta.ae.
Roads, particularly around the old city, often descend into gridlock during the morning and evening rush-hours – it’s particularlly worth avoiding the bridges across the Creek, which are notorious bottlenecks, and also the road between Dubai and Sharjah.
Opened in late 2009, Dubai’s gleaming modern metro system offers easily the fastest and easiest way of getting around the city. There are two lines: the 52km Red Line and the 22km Green Line; the two lines intersect at Union and BurJuman stations.
The Red Line runs west from the airport to the old city centre before arrowing south alongside Sheikh Zayed Road all the way to Jebel Ali on the far southern edge of the city, with 29 stations en route. Useful stops include Airport Terminal 1 and Airport Terminal 3, Union (for Deira and the Green Line), BurJuman (for Bur Dubai and the Green Line), Emirates Towers and Financial Centre (for northern and southern Sheikh Zayed Road respectively), Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, DAMAC Properties (for Dubai Marina) and Ibn Battuta.
The Green Line starts slightly north of the airport at Etisalat station and loops through the old city centre, terminating at the Creek in Al Jadaf. Useful stations include Union (for Deira and the Red Line), Al Ras (for the Gold Souk and Spice Souk), Al Ghubaiba (for Shindagha), BurJuman (for Bur Dubai and the Red Line) and Oud Metha.
Trains run Sat–Weds roughly 5.30am–midnight, Thurs 5.30am–1am and Fri 10am–1am (the exact times of last trains from various stations vary). There are departures every five to ten minutes. Tickets are issued as part of the Nol scheme. Children under 5 or shorter than 0.9m travel free.
All trains have a more expensive “Gold Class” compartment at either the front or back of the train – these have slightly plusher seating and décor, although the main benefit is that they’re usually fairly empty, meaning that you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat. Fares in Gold Class cost double those of a ride in a standard compartment. All trains also have a dedicated carriage for women and children next to the Gold Class carriage (look for the signs above the platform barriers). Again, these are often significantly less crowded than standard compartments.
For a helpful introduction to the system, pick up a copy of “The Handy Guide to Using Dubai Metro” from any station (or download from www.rta.ae).
DUBAI TRAM AND THE PALM MONORAIL
The sparkling new Dubai Tram has further enhanced travel around the ever-expanding southern city, looping around the Marina and then heading up past the Palm Jumeirah (with the intention of eventually reaching all the way up to the Burj al Arab, although it currently stops a couple of miles short).
The tram is essentially an extension of the metro (although considerably slower), connecting seamlessly with the Red Line at Jumeirah Lakes Towers and DAMAC Properties stations. Trams run Sat–Thurs 6.30am–1am and Fri 9am–1am, with services every 8min. Fares are covered by the Nol system and, as on the metro, all trams include a Gold Class and women-and-children-only carriages.
The tram, in turn, connects directly (at Palm Jumeirah station) with the enjoyable Palm Monorail (www.palm-monorail.com), which runs the length of the Palm Jumeirah island, from the mainland to the Atlantis resort – a spectacular fifteen-minute journey along the elevated tracks, offering sweeping views of the Palm Jumeirah and coast en route. The monorail is not part of the Nol system – buy a ticket at the station before boarding. Fares are 15dh single, or 25dh return. Services run 10am–10pm daily, with 2–3 departures every hour.
Away from the metro, getting around usually means catching a cab. There are usually plenty of taxis around pretty much everywhere in the city and at all times of day and night except in Bur Dubai and Deira, where you might sometimes struggle to find a cab, particularly during the morning and evening rush hours and after dark. Large malls and big hotels are always good places to pick up a cab; if not, just stand on the street and wave at anything that passes.
Fares are reasonable. There’s a minimum charge of 12dh per ride, with a basic flag fare of 5dh, plus around 1.7dh per kilometre; the exception is in taxis picked up from the airport, where a 20dh flag fare is imposed. Booking by phone adds an extra 3dh to the fare (or 6dh from 10pm–6am). If you want a taxi to wait for you, it costs 0.5dh per minute. You’ll also be charged an extra 20dh if you take a taxi into Sharjah.
Taxis are operated by various companies and come in assorted colours, though all have yellow taxi signs on the roof, illuminated when the vehicle is available for hire. You can book a cab from any of the main companies by calling 208 08 08.
Dubai has an efficient and modern bus network, although it’s aimed mainly at local low-income expat workers living in the suburbs and is of little use to tourists, with the possible exception of bus route #7, which runs south roughly every 20min from Bur Dubai to Jumeirah and on to Madinat Jumeirah – a part of the city not served by although either metro or tram. The two main hubs of the networks are Deira’s Gold Souk Station and Bur Dubai’s Al Ghubaiba Terminal. In addition, regular inter-city buses leave Al Ghubaiba for Al Ain (roughly every hour) and Abu Dhabi and Sharjah (roughly every 20 minutes). There are also buses to Sharjah from Al Sabkha Bus Station in the middle of Deira, and Abu Dhabi buses from outside Ibn Battuta metro station in the far south of the city.
One of the most enjoyable things you can do in Dubai is take a ride across the Creek in one of the city’s abras, the old-fashioned little wooden boats which are traditionally used to ferry locals from one side of the city centre to the other. There are two main abra routes: one from the Deira Old Souk Abra Station (next to the Spice Souk entrance) to the Bur Dubai Abra Station (at the north end of the Textile Souk), and another from Al Sabkha Abra Station (at the southern end of the Dhow Wharfage in Deira) to the Bur Dubai Old Souk Abra Station (in the middle of the Textile Souk). There’s also a third abra route from Al Seef station in Bur Dubai to Baniyas Station in Deira.
It’s a pleasantly breezy ride even in the heat of the day, offering matchless views up and down the Creek, with its fascinating tangle of traditional minarets and wind towers muddled up with gleaming contemporary high-rises. You’ll also find an entertainingly cosmopolitan cross-section of Dubaian society scrunched up on board, from local Emiratis in flowing white dishdashas through to Indian labourers, African traders and the occasional Western tourist.
The fare is a measly 1dh per crossing. Boats leave as soon as full (usually meaning every couple of minutes); the trip takes around five minutes. Abras run from 6am to midnight, and 24hr on the route from Bur Dubai Old Souk to Al Sabkha (though with a reduced service between midnight and 6am). It’s also possible to charter an abra for your own personal use for 120dh/hr (the official set rate, although abra boatmen might try to haggle for more).
WATER TAXIS and the DUBAI FERRY
Abras apart, there are also a couple of more modern ways of getting on the water in Dubai. A network of water taxis operate across the city, although there are no timetabled services – you’ll have to charter your own taxi by calling 800 90 90. Water taxis operate daily 10am–10pm and can be hired to take you between any of the 32 stations spread across the city. Fares start at a relatively modest 60dh per boat for the shortest trips.
It’s also well worth taking a ride on the ?smooth modern Dubai Ferry. Regular services run between Bur Dubai and the Dubai Marina (3 daily; 75min), from the Marina out around the Palm Jumeirah towards the Burj al Arab (1 daily), and from Bur Dubai up the Creek (1 daily). Fares are AED 50.
Dubai’s metro, tram and city buses are all covered by the integrated Nol ticketing system (www.nol.ae). To ride the metro, tram or any bus you’ll need to buy a pre-paid Nol card or ticket ahead of travel; no tickets are sold on board any form of transport.
There are three types of Nol card (Silver, Gold and Blue), and one type of Nol ticket (Red). The three Nol cards are rechargeable plastic cards, valid for five years; they can be bought at any metro station and able to store up to 500dh worth of credit. Cards can be topped up at all metro stations; at one of the machines located at numerous bus stops around the city; and at branches of Carrefour, Spinneys, Waitrose and the Emirates NBD bank.
All three cards are valid for travel on all parts of the metro, tram and bus networks. The Gold Card also allows you to travel in Gold Class compartments on the metro and tram. Both Silver and Gold cards cost 25dh, including 19dh credit. The Blue Card costs 70dh (including 20dh credit) and offers additional benefits, although ?it’s not available over the counter and ?is issued only to Emiratis and Dubai residents upon submission of a written or online application.
An alternative is the Nol Red Ticket. This has been specifically designed for tourists, costs just 2dh and is valid for 90 days. The Red Ticket has to be pre-paid with the correct fare for each journey and can only be recharged up to a maximum of ten times, making it significantly less convenient than a Nol card. The upside is that it allows you to buy the useful one-day travel pass, which you can’t purchase using a Nol card.
Fares are excellent value, and are identical across metro, tram and bus networks, with prices calculated according to a zonal system. The cost of a short trip starts from 3dh (6dh in Gold Class on the metro/tram) rising to a maximum of 7.5dh for the longest journeys. Fares are a tiny bit more expensive using a red Nol ticket (4–8.5dh per trip, or 10–19dh in Gold Class). Having a red Nol ticket also allows you to buy a handy one-day pass (20/40dh in Standard/Gold Class), valid for unlimited travel across the network.
Parts of Dubai can feel like almost indistinguishable from Europe or North America, and the city is generally a permissive and tolerant place. However, some forms of behaviour which are accepted (or at least tolerated) in the West are strict no-no’s in the UAE.
“Indecent” behaviour Public demonstrations of physical affection can cause considerable offence to native Emiratis. Holding hands or a quick kiss on the cheek is okay, but kissing on the mouth (or any other form of physical intimacy) should be absolutely avoided except in the privacy of your own room – foreigners have been arrested and imprisoned in the past for this sort of behaviour, even in the grounds of their own hotel.
Revealing clothing should be avoided except on the beach, around your hotel pool and perhaps in more hip and upmarket nightclubs. Even men wearing shorts can attract odd looks – from a local point of view, you’re basically walking around in your underwear.
Public drunkeness is another very quick and easy way to experience Dubai prison hospitality at first hand.
Offensive gestures are also to be avoided. Giving someone the finger when they’ve just cut you up in traffic or nearly flattened you in their Ferrari on a pedestrian crossing might be considered an appropriate response back home, but can actually land you in prison in the UAE.
Ramadan is particularly fraught with potential perils. During daylight hours you should not eat, drink or smoke in public. Playing music, dancing and swearing are also forbidden.
www.visitdubai.com Official website of the government’s Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing department.
www.timeoutdubai.com Detailed, up-to-the-second reviews and listings from Dubai’s leading magazine.
www.thenational.ae Based in Abu Dhabi, The National is the UAE’s best English-language newspaper, with all the latest news from around the Gulf, including extensive coverage of Dubai.
www.gulfnews.com Dubai’s leading English-language daily, and another good source of news from the region.
www.dubaiconfidential.ae Long-running expat blog, with heaps of news, reviews and listings.
http://tcaabudhabi.ae Official government tourism website of Abu Dhabi.
www.timeoutabudhabi.com Definitive Abu Dhabi listings and reviews.