Once a sleepy fishing village, then trading port, Dubai has risen like a phoenix from the desert sands.
More liberal than its neighbours and willing to blend time-old traditions with free market capitalism, the city entices visitors with promises of desert adventure, endless opulent options for relaxation and incredible shopping.
There are direct flights from most Australian capital cities to Dubai, making it perfect as a stopover destination on the way to Europe. However, the city has plenty to offer holidaymakers in its own right.
This Dubai city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of United Arab Emirates day tours and guided experiences. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Life for the bedouin tribes that once inhabited the region was driven by the need to conserve limited water.
Today, billions of litres of water are pumped out by huge desalination plants to meet the needs of the city’s 3.5 million residents.
Dubai developed as a trading hub around the turn of the 20th century. It was also known for its pearl exports until the Great Depression stifled demand. Oil was discovered in the 1960s, which kick-started the modern development that has defined the city ever since.
However, it’s not hard to gain an appreciation of ‘the old way of life’. Wander the alleys and laneways of Old Dubai and the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood on a guided walking tour, and stop for a thick Arabic coffee in one of the precinct’s many traditional cafes.
You can retrace ancient steps over the dunes on a Dubai Desert Safari. Strap into your four-wheel drive and hold on as the driver pushes their vehicle to limits only they understand. Complete some of the journey by camel and surf the dunes before dining under the stars surrounded by music, dancing and hazy smoke from shisha pipes bubbling above burning embers.
For a more leisurely pace, Platinum Heritage will carry you over the dunes in vintage Land Rovers. Combine this with an early morning hot air balloon ride as the sun rises over the majestic Al Hajar Mountains.
Nothing symbolises the Dubai of the present like Burj Khalifa. It offers the highest open air observation decks in the world — stay at Level 124 for a multimedia history lesson or go higher to Level 148 for even better views. Having weathered a boom and a spectacular bust, cranes once again dominate the city skyline.
Top cultural activities in Dubai
Although Dubai welcomes the world with open arms, socially the UAE is conservative by western standards.
Be mindful and respectful as you explore this fascinating city. Hotel restaurants and bars serve alcohol, but otherwise most restaurants are dry. There is no BYO. Staggering around the streets or fumbling into a taxi will get you into strife. Behave!
Life revolves around Islam and locals are called to prayer five times a day from the minarets of mosques scattered across the country. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involves a month of fasting from dawn until sunset. Tourist activities can be limited during this period.
You’re invited to tour the stunning Jumeirah Mosque. Visiting is a privilege as this is the only mosque in Dubai that allows non-Muslim guests. Note: Women are required to wear a head scarf as a mark of respect.
Dubai offers a growing cultural programme. The impressive Dubai Opera is situated in the Downtown Dubai tourism hub and hosts lavish productions. The pre-opera menu at Atmosphere Burj Khalifa is the perfect way to start your evening.
Great places to eat in Dubai
It may be 45 degrees outside, but most restaurants and bars require long pants and shoes for men (no runners or sandals) and discreet dress for women.
Friday brunch is the way to kick off the weekend. Many venues offer packages, which generally include bubbles and range from feeding frenzies to more elegant affairs. If you have kids in tow, the Bubbalicious Brunch across the Westin Dubai’s multiple restaurants will keep you fed and watered, while the petting zoo, PlayStation room, and kids’ corner will keep your entourage entertained for hours.
Walk into Burj Al Hamam past the baklava and desserts on display and head out to the terrace. Located on the first floor of The Dubai Mall, you can almost touch the towering Burj Khalifa. The casual surroundings are home to the vibrant flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine. Enjoy fattoush and tabbouleh like you’ve never tasted before.
Lovers of Aegean-style cuisine will adore Fish Dubai, which sets the scene for your meal with whitewashed walls, blue cushions, and a breezy vibe. This eatery is perfectly positioned to take in the incredible sunsets over the shimmering Arabian Sea, and the menu adapts to the seasons.
Jutting out over the Arabian Sea at the end of a pier that has been beautifully fashioned out of wood and glass, Pierchic offers uninterrupted ocean views (the Burj Al Arab seems to float nearby) and oozes refined elegance. At this esteemed Italian restaurant, the menu and presentation are second to none. The seafood comes from sustainable sources and there are plenty of gluten-free choices. Pop into the bar for a sunset cocktail before dinner, and try to nab a spot in the al fresco dining area. The set menus won’t break the bank.
There’s nothing like a great Indian curry, and Farzi Cafe on Dubai City Walk takes the cuisine of the subcontinent to another level. Enjoy a coupling of spectacular presentation and various molecular gastronomic twists. Delicate foam lingers before disappearing into dishes, while wisps of smoke create a sense of illusion and theatre.
Where to shop in Dubai
Dubai’s traditional souks (marketplaces) are where people go to buy, sell, socialise, and sip coffee.
Keep your sunglasses handy at the famous Gold Souk, where all that glitters is gold. Be patient, be prepared to haggle, and you’ll find it difficult not to walk out dripping in bling.
From there, follow your nose to the Spice Souk and wander amongst mounds of red, orange, yellow, and green seasonings. Take a pouch of the delicate dried flowers used in herbal teas back to your hotel and brew a cuppa.
Oud from agarwood is a highly regarded scent in Arabic culture — woody, musky, and quite intense — and you can combine it with other essences at the Perfume Souk. Nothing screams ‘decadent’ quite like creating your own personal fragrance!
An abra (water taxi) will whisk you across Dubai Creek to the Textile Souk in Bur Dubai, where you can shop for exotic fabrics and traditional fashions. It’s a fabulous place to learn more about the distinctive styles of UAE dress on display around you.
There are malls and there is The Dubai Mall — 1,200 shops, more than 200 food and beverage outlets, and the Dubai Aquarium as its grand centrepiece — a giant fish tank holding ten million litres of water and 140 species of fish. Go shark diving, cage snorkelling, or walk through a tunnel and enjoy the 270-degree underwater panorama. Avoid weekends; it gets seriously busy!
If one mall is like any other to you, then cross the bridge to Souk Al Bahar. Get lost as you weave in and out amongst colourful silks, ornate lanterns, and boutiques. Waterside restaurants have uninterrupted views of the fountain shows in the pool meandering between the souk, The Dubai Mall, and the Burj Khalifa.
Ways to relax in Dubai
There’s no shortage of ways to relax and rejuvenate in Dubai.
The city is quite spread out and while taxis are inexpensive, a hop on hop off bus is an easy way to explore.
Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis The Palm on Palm Jumeirah island offers a great family day out. While mum and dad relax on sunbeds, the kids can swim and slide to their hearts’ content. The Leap of Faith waterslide will drop you almost vertically nine stories, before you level out under the water surrounded by sharks and rays!
For a bird’s-eye view of Palm Jumeirah and The World islands, splash out on a scenic flight by helicopter. It’s the only way to truly appreciate the scope of these man-made archipelagos.
Back on the mainland, Barasti Beach Bar pumps out the music day and night. For a more relaxed vibe, head to Sunset Beach and laze on the white sand or swim in crystal clear water.
Spa treatments provide a refreshing interlude during the heat of the day. Treat yourself to some pampering at One & Only Royal Mirage Dubai’s Guerlain Spa on the Palm Dubai, before floating out to cocktails on the deck at the 101 Bar. You’ll find it hard to drag yourself away. So don’t! Book for dinner at Stay and enjoy classic French cuisine crafted by multi-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno.
With lush and green fairways weaving around six lakes, the nine-hole Meydan Golf Course sits in the shadow of the 60,000 seat Meydan Racecourse — the longest single structure in the world. There is no membership here and everyone is welcome on a pay and play basis, night and day. Be warned: the greens are fast!
Where to stay in Dubai
Rove Dubai Marina
When travelling to a new city, most of us want a place to stay that is central, cosy, friendly and secure. We want comfortable beds, and rooms with large windows, air conditioning, and clean bathrooms. We’d also like cooperative staff, delicious room service options, good Wi-Fi, and 24-hour facilities. Rove Dubai Marina has all that and much more!
The design vibe at Rove Dubai Marina is funky, creative, colourful, and fresh, with fun and thoughtful touches throughout that will make you feel that extra bit welcome. The room numbers are displayed on boat number plates, the ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs read ‘Dreaming in Progress’, notepads by the beds are labelled #expressyourself, and letters above the bed spell out phrases such as ‘My space in the city’.
Facilities at the hotel include a 24-hour gym, all day room service and a 24-hour snack bar/convenience store, a coin operated laundry, a computer bar, a swimming pool, and even a small art gallery.
Situated, as the name suggests, by the marina, in a couple of minutes you can be by the water stretching your legs with a pleasant walk or an invigorating jog past luxury boats, the Al Rahim mosque, playgrounds and contemporary high rises. Here you’ll also find dozens of options for coffee and al fresco dining, should you want to stay close to the hotel.
Feel like hob-nobbing or dancing off your jet-lag? It’s a 20-minute stroll or 7-minutes taxi ride to Pier 7. Each floor has a different restaurant/bar vibe and theme, complete with DJs and an international crowd.
The best part of all is that this top-of-the-range 3-star hotel is affordable in what can be a pricey city. Use your saved dirhams to head out and discover Dubai. Oh, and checkout time is a leisurely 2pm. Free luggage lockers allow you to store your suitcase and enjoy the rest of your final day with ease.
Browse our range of Dubai tours and experiences here.
Do you have any tips to add to our Dubai city guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia, and has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she’s probably tap dancing. She’s a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew and a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project, which records and performs in Paris and beyond. Ruby’s books — The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris (White Owl Books) — are available in bookshops and to order online.