If you rise early to wander the streets of Dubai’s old quarter, Bastakiya, with its perfectly preserved merchants’ houses and minarets launching the distant calls of imams, or mix with crowds of locals in their white kandura robes, you could almost imagine you’ve stepped back in time, writes Pete Croft. But not for long.
Only 50 years ago, Dubai consisted of a few fishing villages on either side of the Creek, with pearl diving the most important industry and a harbour just big enough for dhows from India and East Africa. Then they found oil and everything changed. Since then, the city has grown and evolved at a breathtaking pace. Today, soaring skyscrapers sit alongside man-made beaches that can be seen from space and world-class shopping malls that attract more visitors than New York.
A wealth of choice
Built on oil money with a vision of major tourism, the city is a pulsating destination that offers the world’s most comprehensive set of possibilities. If you’ve only got a couple of days, you’re going to have to be selective.
To learn about history, the old town is a great place to start. The Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort will give you the story – if you’re not too distracted by haggling for a fake designer handbag at Karama Market. Then take an abra to Deira to drink in the atmosphere of the traditional Gold and Spice Souks. At the Fish, Meat and Vegetable Market you’ll get a real sense of the city’s original culture, as well as coming face to face with varieties of fish you’ve never seen before.
Then it’s time to go back to the future with a trip Downtown. For turbocharged shopping, the Dubai Mall has 1,200 outlets and, with 75 million visitors a year at the last count, it’s the world’s most visited leisure and shopping destination.
On the ground floor, 33,000 marine animals occupy the Aquarium and Underwater Zoo – its walk-though tunnel is a close encounter not to miss. Part of the same complex, the Burj Khalifa, reaches for the sky. The tallest man-made structure in the world by a long way, it’s broken a lot of records. So, have a drink in the world’s highest bar, At.mosphere, after taking in the view from the world’s highest observation deck, and time your trip to catch the world’s largest choreographed fountain show, where water shoots 152m into the air.
The draw of the desert
Beaches are an important part of life in the city and there’s a mix of municipal facilities and private ones owned by hotels for their guests and paying visitors. Kite and JBR beaches are free, with activities such as surfing and paddle boarding – the latter has cafés and restaurants too. Private beaches, like the stretch at Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Hotel, have loungers, waiter service and more activities, but they can cost up to £90 per person per day.
So if you want a private beach, choose a hotel that has one.
Eating out in Dubai is as diverse as you’d expect, with fine dining in Dubai International Financial Centre at La Petite Maison or Zuma, or mid-market options at the Dubai Marina Mall and the marina’s Pier 7. There are also good places to eat on the beach, such as the Salt food truck (noon to 10pm) at Kite beach and Eat Greek on JBR beach. Don’t forget that outside hotels and bars, many restaurants don’t serve alcohol, so choose carefully and book in advance. With so many visitors, the best places get busy.
FLIGHT CENTRE RECOMMENDS
Anything from a half-day falconry safari to an overnight stay complete with dinner, or a visit to a camel farm and a Bedouin camp. If you’ve time to fit in a desert excursion, you won’t forget it.
Family fun at Aquaventure at the Atlantis The Palm resort or Wild Wadi on Jumeirah Beach. At Wild Wadi, 30 themed rides include Tantrum Alley, its latest addition complete with three water tornadoes.
Dubai’s thriving modern art scene is based in the warehouses of Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, where the hippest galleries include Grey Noise, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde and Green Art Gallery. An extension is set to open this autumn.
A remarkable indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai maintains 22,500 sq m of real snow slopes at -2ºC all year (despite 50ºC temperatures outside) and the world’s first indoor black run.
If you’re in Dubai on a Friday or Saturday, do brunch. There are options all over town, but beware: while it’s fine to drink in a licensed restaurant, it’s illegal to be drunk outside. Book a cab or eat in your hotel.