Why go now?
There’s more to Dubai than its glitzy array of glamorous hotels and the ever-growing number of skyscrapers that shape the city skyline. Scratch the surface and you’ll uncover its authentic Emirati soul.
A good place to start is the Dubai Food Festival (dubaifoodfestival.com) held 6-28 February. It’s an extravaganza of pop-up food trucks, street artists, mystery dining tours, and the Beach Canteen – a shipping container-turned-restaurant at Kite Beach (1).
Dubai, a seven-hour flight from the UK, is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Qantas (0845 7747 767; qantas.com.au), Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and Emirates (0344 800 2777; emirates.com) – which also flies from Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Dublin. A 30-day visa is granted free of charge on arrival to British passport holders.
The airport is situated four kilometres north-east of the city centre and can be reached on the Metro (rta.ae) – the world’s longest driverless railway – between 5.50am and midnight. The red line runs from the airport to the city, stopping near most hotels, while the green line circles the Creek.
You must buy a red “No l” stored-value card for AED2 (35p), and then load it with anything from a single journey, starting at AED2.50 (40p), to a day pass for AED22 (£3.80). A taxi downtown takes about 20 minutes and will cost AED40 (£7.50).
Get your bearings
Seated on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, Dubai’s arterial Sheikh Zayed Road links the modern districts – DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre), Downtown Dubai and the Business Bay – with the old towns of Bur Dubai and, across Dubai Creek, Deira. Offshore are the man-made islands of The Palm and The World.
Tourist information booths are located in the city’s shopping malls and there is also one inside Airport Terminal One (open 24 hours; dubaitourism.ae).
The brand-new Four Seasons (2) at Jumeirah Beach (00 971 4 270 7777; fourseasons .com/dubaijb) is an elegant option with cabana-lined pools, the largest standard rooms in town, a spa, and rooftop bar with unparalleled views of both the Gulf and the Dubai skyline. The hotel has an opening offer starting at AED2,244 (£423) for a double, room only.
Based in the heart of trendy Downtown Dubai, Vida (3) on Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard (00 971 4 428 6888; vida-hotels.com) is a sleek, contemporary 156-room hotel with pool, iPad check-in and open-plan bathrooms. Doubles from AED1,199 (£226), room only.
For intimate lodgings, the boutique XVA Art Hotel (4) off Al Fahidi Street, east of the Grand Mosque (00 971 4 353 5383; xvahotel.com) has 13 en-suite rooms with white-washed walls arranged around a leafy courtyard that plays host to an award-winning vegetarian café and modern art gallery. Doubles from AED900 (£170), with breakfast.
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Take a view
Eschew the predictable: instead of taking the lift to the top of Burj Khalifa (5) – the world’s tallest building – skip the queues and the AED200 (£38) fee and take to the waters of Dubai Creek instead. You’ll get a sense of where the city started life. It’s traversed by wooden abras (water taxis) ferrying passengers to Deira for AED1 (20p) one-way, or they can be chartered for AED50 (£9) per hour. They depart from 3A Street, near the entrance to the gold souk (6). The Creek is being lengthened, at a cost of AED1.76bn (£330m), to rejoin the Gulf.
Take a hike
Explore the up-and-coming quarter of Al Quoz, in particular the arts district known as Alserkal Avenue (7) on Street 8 (00 971 50 556 9797; alserkalavenue.ae). This avant-garde collection of warehouses hosts art galleries, fashion designers and A4 Space – a funky artists’ hub with a concept store, reading cabins, coffee shop and free wi-fi. Take time to wander round the complex, which is adding 45 more spaces in March.
Lunch on the run
Walk around the corner to Tom & Serg (8) at Al-Joud Center (00 971 56 474 6812; tomandserg.com). Awarded “best new hangout” in the What’s On magazine awards, this bright, urbane café attracts expatriates and has a tempting menu of fresh bagels, old-fashioned milkshakes and chai lattes (8am to 4pm Sunday to Thursday, and 8am to 6pm Friday to Saturday).
Bu Qtair (9) on 4D Street (00 971 55 705 2130) is a shabby caravan overlooking the beach that has locals queuing round the block for a plate of its famous fried fish curry AED60 (£11). Open 10.30am to 3pm and 6.30pm to midnight daily.
The Antique Museum (10) on Street 8 (00 971 4 347 9935; fakihcollections.com) is an Aladdin’s cave of antiques and handicrafts, from Arabian daggers and Yemini Bedouin jewellery to Moorish lamps and pashminas made by a women’s collective (open 9am to 8.30pm, Sunday to Thursday).
Alcohol in Dubai is restricted to licensed hotels and restaurants. The coolest locale for a cocktail is At.mosphere on level 122 of Burj Khalifa (5) (00 971 4 888 3444; atmosphereburjkhalifa.com). It takes a mere 56 ear-popping seconds to ascend 442 metres to the mahogany-clad restaurant and lounge that has vertigo-inducing 360-degree city views. Drinks are pricey – between AED80 and 235 (£15-44) – but they use the very best spirits plus unusual ingredients such as aloe vera, black truffles and frankincense.
It’s best to book in advance: long queues are common. You’ll have to observe the minimum-spend rule of AED400 (£75) per person for a window seat, and AED300 (£57) for a non-window seat, but you won’t need to pay the admission fee for the tower.
Dining with the locals
Dubai has more than 5,000 restaurants, but I highly recommend a walking foodie tour with Frying Pan Adventures (fryingpanadventures.com), which is run by two enthusiastic sisters.
I took the four-hour Little India trail through Bur Dubai, with stops at street stalls plying freshly barbecued chicken tikka, spicy potato bhondas, tandoori rotis and sugarcane juice. The walk is spiced with snippets of history, and is a great way to get to know the real Dubai. From AED380 (£72pp), 6pm start.
Dash to the desert
Escape the bustle and explore the sands from which the city rose. Platinum Heritage (00 971 4 388 4044; platinum-heritage.com) organises an early morning wildlife drive in a 1950s Land Rover – where you’re likely to spot oryx and gazelles – a camel ride over the dunes and a Bedouin breakfast from AED495 (£93) per adult and AED395 (£75) per child.
Out to brunch
Friday is brunch day in Dubai. These four-hour champagne-soaked marathons are not to be missed, especially at the Australian-style Yalumba (11) at Le Meridien (00 971 4 217 0000; yalumba-dubai.com) which combines a buffet with à la carte options and Bollinger (12.30 to 3.30pm; AED399/ £76pp including unlimited champagne.
On a Sunday, bistro and boulangerie La Serre at Vida hotel (3) (00 971 4 428 6969; laserre.ae) is a good option from noon to 3pm. The elegant first-floor restaurant serves fresh, inventive French cuisine, while downstairs European bakers produce croissants, pastries and baguettes.
Take a ride
Tour Downtown’s main sights – Dubai Mall (12), Burj Khalifa (5) and the Opera District – on the brand-new, bright-red hop-on-hop-off double-decker Dubai Trolley. It starts from The Address Hotel (13) and ends at Old Town Island (14). A day pass bought on board is AED20 (£3.50); under-12s go free.
Alternatively pre-register online and rent a bike (bykystations.com) from one of the stations around town; three hours is AED30 (£5.70). The Jumeirah Corniche – a new running/cycling track – goes along the coast from the Burj Al Arab (15) to Dubai Marine Beach Resort, near Jumeirah Mosque (16).
Find out about the Islamic faith at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding (17) at Al Mussallah Road 26 (00 971 4 353 6666; cultures.ae; 9am-5pm Sunday to Thursday, 9am-1pm Saturday). Tours (from AED65/£1) include a visit to the mosque, plus coffee and dates.
Icing on the cake
End on a high with a Bond-style helicopter flight – taking in The Palm, Burj Khalifa (5), and the “seven-star”, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel (15) – with HeliDubai (00 971 4 208 14 55; helidubai.com). Departs from Festival City (18), tickets AED895 (£169).
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