Things to see and do in Dubai: Visiting Dubai for the first time

There are so many things to see and do in Dubai now, that for visitors only coming to the city for a one week holiday, it can be hard to try to pack it all in without missing anything.

After ten years of living in the UAE, one of my best friends came to visit me last week for the first time and I realised just how true this is – the city has grown over the last decade and playing tour guide to visiting friends and family is now quite a demanding job! After much discussion with my friend however, we arrived at a loose itinerary that would enable her to see and do everything she wanted to in the short space of time we had (but without seeming like we were rushing around either – this was supposed to be a holiday after all, and some time spent sun worshipping was a prerequisite!)

I had previously listed my top six things to do with visitors to the UAE, but I thought I would share the rough itinerary of this recent trip for those expats in Dubai who are looking to show their first-time guests the best of what the city has to offer in only a week (It might also be worth pointing out that I live in Dubai Marina therefore a lot of activity is focussed in this area!)

Day 1: The Beach, JBR A walk over to JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residences) for breakfast/lunch/coffee in one of the cafes on the new The Beach development (optional sunbathing!) This allows guests a nice slow start (I don’t know any of my guests who have made it out much before midday on their first day!) They can people watch, get oriented and acclimatise to the heat, before heading home around 3pm.

Evening 1: Old Dubai Leave around 4pm to go to Bur Dubai, park along the Creek, optional visit to Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort to start, then a wander through Al Fahidi Historical District (previously known as Bastakiya) taking pictures of the traditional architecture. Indulge your artistic streak whilst enjoying a delicious and healthy dinner at XVA Gallery while you’re there, then stroll along Dubai Creek and through the textile souk (market), the best place to buy nice souvenirs and have a bit of a chuckle with the vendors. Catch an abra (traditional water taxi) from the second station (the further of the two) over to the Spice Souk. Check out the Spice Souk and Gold Souk then wander back, stopping at Bayt Al Wakeel restaurant for some Moroccan mint tea and baklava (Arabic pastries with nuts and honey) over the water before you head home. This offers your guests a bit more of the traditional view of Dubai and lets them get all of their souvenirs upfront!

Day 2: The Desert Let your visitors soak up the sun in the lap of luxury that Dubai is known for, and at the same time give them a taste of the desert, by spending the day at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa. Located 45 minutes drives from Dubai, the hotel allows visitors to pay for day rates and use all of the facilities. For those of us who have to work, I would recommend arriving at the hotel around 3.30/4pm, that way you can can get some work done and you only pay for the sundowner rate rather than the full day – depending on the time of year, you can still get 1-2 hours to make the most of the stunning infinity pools and jacuzzis in the sunshine and spend some quality time at the swim-up pool bar before the sunset activities start…

Evening 2: Shisha At sunset, the resort offers a falcon show and a chance for visitors to ride camels and hold the revered falcons. Once this is over it’s nice to retreat to the rooftop bar, Al Sarab, for a sundowner (or Moroccan tea for the driver) and for a taste of shisha while the live musician plays Arabian tunes and the light slowly fades from the desert. Make sure to take plenty of photos on your way out as the resort looks even more beautiful when lit by torches and candles at night – and keep your eyes peeled for oryx and gazelles when driving home! Depending how long you want to stay at the resort (the bar does make delicious pizzas if you end up staying longer), you might get an evening at home to order take away (a lot of my guests find the takeaway options we have here quite a draw on their own!) perhaps invite a DVD seller to visit, and catch up.
Day 3: The Capital Head up to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to start the day in Abu Dhabi (tours run at 10am and 11am everyday except Friday), make sure you cover arms and legs and women take a scarf to cover their heads or borrow an abaya from the mosque. Visits normally last around an hour, then you can head to Yas Island for a coffee/lunch at the Yas Viceroy Hotel to show visitors the Grand Prix circuit, before heading to Ferrari World (if you have visitors that want to check out the fastest roller coaster in the world!)
Evening 3: Dubai Marina After a hectic day, take a casual stroll around Dubai Marina and/or JBR and choose whichever dinner option appeals from the multitude of restaurants available, finishing with an after dinner drink on the beach at Bliss in the Sheraton hotel (if you’re on JBR), or at Shades in The Address Dubai Marina if you’re on Marina Walk.
Day 4: Stay at home! Take a morning for some dedicated sun worshipping at the pool where you live, give guests the time to chill out, sort through their things, take a walk in the local area, head to a mall etc.
Evening 4: Downtown Dubai Head down to Dubai Mall at around 3pm, show visitors the Dubai Aquarium from the outside and the neighbouring Candylicious store, as well as the ice rink and have a browse through the stores. Depending on the time of year, book the 5pm, 5.30pm or 6pm slot for At The Top to get visitors to go up to the top of Burj Khalifa (make sure you book this in advance as sunset times will get booked out in advance). Head to Neo’s at The Address Downtown Dubai for a cocktail with a view (dancing fountains from above make for a different perspective) and finish with dinner on a terrace at one of the restaurants in Souk Al Bahar to watch the fountain shows close up.
Day 5: A Drive Around Town A slow start this morning after what was potentially a late night, take the day to drive around and show some sights up close. Start from the Jumeirah Flag Pole and head all the way down Jumeirah Beach Road, stopping to admire Jumeirah Mosque and turn in to the beach whenever you can for more scenic shots. Stop for lunch at Kite Beach in one of the lovely cafes (optional sunbathing too!) or the new Jumeirah Fishing Harbour, and for more scenic shots as you get closer to Burj Al Arab. Check out cheap designer handbags from the comfort of a villa in Jumeirah and then head out onto Palm Jumeirah, stopping for a Cold Stone Creamery ice-cream (so much fun to watch them prepare) in The Avenues at the Atlantis The Palm Hotel. On the way back, stop for a stroll and some pictures in front of the landmark hotel.
Evening 5: Burj Al Arab You can enter Burj Al Arab if you have a restaurant booking, and whilst I would previously have recommended afternoon tea at Skyview Bar, this has now become a little too expensive for guests visiting from the UK. However you can still book for evening drinks at the bar, with a minimum spend of AED 250 each, starting from 7.30pm. I normally aim to be there for around 7pm to enable you to get some photos at the iconic hotel before your table is ready, and after a couple of cocktails and some nibbles, head down to Madinat Jumeirah (you can take a buggy from Burj Al Arab) and go for dinner and more liquid refreshment in one of the 40+ restaurants and bars at the resort (I personally like mussels at The Belgian Beer Cafe if you want informal, Pai Thai if you’re looking for something more fancy)
Day (and Evening!) 6: Brunch This event takes out both day and night! I’ve written a list of my favourite brunches in Dubai previously, with my preferred option being Al Qasr. After spending all day eating and drinking lots of bubbles, the resort offers further drinks offers at Bahri Bar (another great photo spot for tourists to take photos of Burj Al Arab). From here, for first time visitors, I would recommend a drink at 360 in Jumeirah Beach Hotel, followed by the final stop of Barasti for drinks on the sand.
Day 7 Recovery with Arabic Food! Another late start to the day, followed by a gentle stroll along The Walk, Dubai Marina  for some fresh air, stopping at Dubai Marina Mall if necessary to rehydrate. At Reem Al Bawadi stop for a full Arabic lunch and some lemon and mint juice before sauntering back to spend the last couple of hours by the pool, or possibly getting a massage to get over the stress of the holiday!
I’ve found this has generally met the expectations of the first-time visitors I have had recently, although it’s a flexible plan – some people are less keen on theme parks, some want to try the water parks (you can’t go wrong with Wild Wadi) and others are keen to get out of town and see the real desert, mountains, and even the East Coast. If you have any other suggestions, or think there’s anything I’ve missed, then please do let me know!