There’s so much more to experience in Dubai than ultra-expensive hotels and exclusive man-made islands, says Sam Lewis
Whether it’s malls with ski slopes and supersized aquariums or man-made islands with the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in the making, Dubai has become one of the world’s most popular destinations for fun in the sun.
Last year, global payments and technology giant Mastercard estimated that it was the fourth-most-popular travel destination receiving 15.27 million international overnight visitors (ahead of New York but behind Bangkok, London and Paris) with the vast majority on vacation.
The emirate aims to become the world’s most visited city, reaching 20 million visitors by 2020 to coincide with its hosting of Expo 2020, and continues to launch innovative new attractions to reach its goal. Last year, it completed the Dubai Opera House, which hosts opera, theater, concerts and sporting events, while next year the skyline will be dominated by Ain Dubai, a giant observation wheel on Bluewaters Island off the coast of Jumeirah Beach.
While its appeal among families is obvious, the city is also gaining a name for attracting the world’s top chefs and pop stars, from Justin Bieber to Elton John, as well as hosting huge crowd-pulling prestigious sporting events from tennis to golf.
The Dubai Fountain: Make a beeline for the Burj Khalifa Lake early evening to see spectacularly lit dancing columns of water shooting up nearly 500ft into the air. Choreographed to a medley of Arab, world and classical music, and illuminated by 6,600 ‘superlaights’, the attraction is said to be the brightest spot in the Middle East — so incandescent it’s visible from space. It’s free to watch, but best enjoyed from one of the lakeside restaurants. burjkhalifa.ae
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding: Anyone looking for an insight into the Emirati way of life will find a brief stop here hugely rewarding. In addition to tours of traditional buildings, there are authentic 90-minute brunches where it’s possible to enjoy local food including the famous dessert, luqaimat (sweet dumplings), and Arabic coffee. Diners can also participate in a Q&A session with guides to find out more about local traditions. cultures.ae
Sunrise seaplane and abra boat ride: Take an early morning seaplane flight over Dubai, with a water takeoff and landing. This offers an incredible bird’s-eye view of the emirate’s man-made islands, including The World archipelago and the Palm Jumeirah. Soar over the Burj Al Arab, then glide across the water for a ride on a traditional abra water taxi, along the Dubai Creek, past historic waterfront houses and traditional wind towers. seawings.ae
Le Cirque, Ritz Carlton: The legendary New York restaurant opened at Dubai International Financial Centre earlier in the year with a high-end minimalist interior. Serving French cuisine with an Italian twist, signature dishes from chef Manuel Olveira Seller include the paupiette of sea bass, lobster risotto, and black tie scallops, but everyone’s talking about the divine crème brûlée. lecirquedubai.com
The Dragonfly in City Walk: This Asian restaurant, serving up fusion food at its finest, is two-Michelin-star chef Tim Raue’s first foray outside Germany and it’s already a success. Raue’s history — from street gang in a rough neighborhood in Berlin to one of the top chefs in the world — is as colorful as his dishes. While the restaurant isn’t licensed to serve alcohol, that shouldn’t put diners off — there’s an inventive non-alcoholic beverage menu and no chance of a hangover. dragonfly.ae
Rare at Desert Palm Per Aquum: Set a 20-minute drive from the center of Dubai, surrounded by lush polo fields, this restaurant has a wood-fire grill and although it specializes in steak, the seafood — particularly the tuna ceviche — is excellent. Locals swear by the Vintage Friday Brunch with all-inclusive tipples including Taittinger champagne, or the Saturday Hendricks BBQ lunch for watching polo games from the front row on the terrace — after a few gins, guests may be tempted to sign up for lessons. minorhotels.com/en/peraquum/desert-palm/dining/rare
Nikki Beach Resort & Spa Dubai: Opened in late 2016, this is the chain’s first property in the Middle East. Like its counterparts, there’s a chic beach vibe with chilled tunes, sleek suites and villas equipped with top-notch entertainment systems. Situated on a 450-meter sandy beach on Pearl Jumeirah, expect breathtaking views of the Arabian Gulf or the Dubai skyline, a handful of globetrotting restaurants and a spacious ESPA spa. nikkibeachhotels.com/dubai
Burj Al Arab: Yes, it’s an obvious choice, and pricey too, but the resort still wows with its superlative suites, butler service and range of restaurants, which include the new Nathan Outlaw extravaganza where it’s possible to eat fish from Cornwall in what’s essentially an aquarium. The expansion of an outdoor terrace, with sleek infinity pools and an imported sandy beach, has created a peaceful vibe in this bustling high-end tourist attraction with Rolls-Royce transfers and complimentary entry to the famous Wild Wadi Water Park next door. jumeirah.com
Al Maha Resort & Spa: Visitors who want to enjoy the magical desert dune landscape won’t be disappointed. Located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, this is the place to dine under the twinkling starry skies, enjoy stunning sunsets, ride horses and camels at dusk or dawn and stay in suites that are filled with rare Arabian antiques and artefacts. al-maha.com
Among Dubai’s bustle, this stretch of golden coastline offers a unique and varied slice of the emirate
While many visitors head straight for the iconic Burj Al Arab and the adjacent Wild Wadi Water Park, the contiguous area along the Jumeirah Beach coastline is a great place to explore on foot. Known as Sunset or Umm Suqeim Beach, this ‘public’ stretch of sweeping sand is typically quiet and arguably the best spot to watch the sun sink behind the hotel’s landmark billowing sail. ‘Shamals’ — winds blowing from the northwest — are frequent here with DUKITE (Kitesurf School Dubai) a popular place to learn to kitesurf and paddle board. Nearby visitors can rent kit from the watersports store, Surf House Dubai, also known for its yoga classes held both on land and on stand-up paddle boards.
Behind the beach, a jogging track provides views of the Arabian Gulf all the way past the most buzzing section, Kite Beach, a watersports haven with a hip and trendy image. It’s also home to Wire World, where it’s possible to hook up to high wire ropes and attempt an obstacle course in the air. Many of the restaurants along this stretch of coastline are popular among locals, with some of the best including the no-frills fish shack Bu Qtair. Serving delicious seafood at rock bottom prices, the ‘unwritten’ menu features whatever’s been caught that day, served up al fresco on plastic tables with the backdrop of the seven-star Burj Al Arab.
Other homegrown cafes include SALT, a burger joint on Kite Beach popular with expats, while those renting a villa can head to Deira Fish Souk for sea bream, sardines and giant prawns that would cost a small fortune if eaten at one of the city’s top restaurants.