Dubai is as much a vision as a place. It’s an embodiment of a can-do attitude — one that has turned a small desert town into a global hub within the space of just 60 years. Dubai grew up as a pearling, fishing and trading center before oil was struck. The city continues to eat into the desert, with skyscrapers being topped out on an almost daily basis and world records — whether for the world’s tallest building or largest mall — broken regularly. It’s a place of lavish hotels, celebrity chefs and supercars, but it’s also showing a surprising amount of heart. Efforts have been made to preserve the historic districts around Dubai Creek, while the multinational workforce makes Dubai arguably the world’s most global city.
Culture club: Breakfasts and lunches at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offer a chance to ask open questions to Emirati men and women about their culture. T: +971 4 353 6666. www.cultures.ae
Keeping the faith: For a snapshot understanding of Dubai’s religious tolerance, dip behind the Grand Mosque in the Bur Dubai area. You’ll find Hindi Lane — a street containing a Hindu temple and scores of Indian merchants.
Taste of Dubai: Frying Pan Adventures offers food tours around parts of Dubai many visitors don’t often visit. www.fryingpanadventures.com
Record breaker: Not just the tallest building in the world — by some distance — but arguably one of the most graceful, architecturally, Burj Khalifa tops out at 2,716ft and, with 160 floors, has become Dubai’s new centerpoint. The observation level is on the 124th floor — pick a clear day for the best views. www.burjkhalifa.ae
Dune basing: Dubai is built on desert sand, and the rolling red dunes are only a short drive away. Arabian Adventures offers sunset dune-bashing 4WD safaris that finish with a traditional Arabian meal in a desert camp. They’re great fun, and the sandy scenery is truly stunning. www.arabian-adventures.com
Make a splash: It doesn’t get more Dubai than the Atlantis Resort, on the edge of a giant, man-made palm. It’s worth a visit for non-guests, though — the Aquaventure Waterpark is huge, while dolphin encounters and an impressive Lost City-themed aquarium also add to the watery fun. www.atlantisthepalm.com
WHERE TO SLEEP
Traditional: XVA hotel in Bastakiya has authentic guesthouse looks but is also a gallery. T: +971 4 353 5383. www.xvahotel.com
Majestic: The One&Only Royal Mirage offers Moroccan-themed rooms in a resort of sprawling gardens and high-class restaurants. T: 866 552 0001. www.royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com
Value: The Al Murooj Rotana is part of a resort-like residential complex opposite the Dubai Mall. T: +971 4 321 1111. www.rotana.com
WHERE TO EAT
Gallic flair: Traiteur at the Park Hyatt Dubai offers top French cuisine in a stunning setting. T: +971 4 317 2222. www. ubai.park.hyatt.com
Jetty views: The jetty-side 101 at One&Only The Palm offers spectacular skyline views and excellent pan-Mediterranean dishes. T: +971 4 440 1030. www.thepalm.oneandonlyresorts.com
Casual cafe: The Lime Tree Cafe in Jumeirah is a attractive option for non-hotel dining. T: +971 4 325 6325. www.thelimetreecafe.com
In the past: The Dubai Museum inside the Al Fahidi Fort is the best primer on Dubai and Arabian history. The displays on Bedouin life and Dubai’s pearl industry past are particularly good.
Cultural district: Just south of the museum is the Bastakiya district, where the old coral stone and gypsum houses have been preserved. They now play host to cafes, galleries, cute guesthouses and small museums, devoted to everything from coins to traditional Arabic calligraphy. It’s perfect for strolling around and briefly poking your nose into everything.
Local style: Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House in Bur Dubai is a classic example of Dubai architecture, but it’s the photography exhibitions inside that really fascinate. They show the tiny city of the 1950s huddled around Dubai Creek, surrounded by desert sand that has long since been swallowed up by new development.
Show stopper: Running for 11 days from March 30, the Dubai World Cup is one of the fixtures on the global horseracing calendar. The prize fund is the world’s largest and ostentatious wealth is on full display. www.dubaiworldcup.com
Family fun: Dubai Summer Surprises, running from mid-June to mid-July, offers plenty of family-friendly entertainment — but it’s mainly a shopping festival, with lots of discounts available across the malls.
Star turns: The Gulf Film Festival, from April 11-17, showcases the growing regional film industry. Screenings take place across the city, with a veritable who’s who of Gulf filmmaking in attendance. www.gulffilmfest.com
WHERE TO SHOP
Shopping city: The Dubai Mall is the planet’s largest — best thought of as a small city rather than a mall. With more than 1,200 stores, it’s anchored by major department stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Bloomingdale’s. www.thedubaimall.com
Authentic wares: If you’re after authenticity, the Textiles Souk in Bur Dubai offers shop after shop of colorful fabrics. It’s mainly about the atmosphere, but nonetheless it’s still a good place to pick up cheap pashminas.
Quality buys: The Souk Madinat Jumeirah is mainly for tourists, but it’s architecturally beautiful and the quality of the craftsmanship at the stalls is undeniable.
Treasure hunt: Search for treasure at the Gold souk. Hundreds of shops sell authenticated high-carat gold, and screens show the gold price that day. Joyalukkas is the only store that offers fixed prices.
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork