Dubai skyline

Holidays in Dubai – 6 things to see and do with visitors

I feel I should start this week’s post by apologising if my posts, tweets, instagram pictures have been a little erratic recently, I’ve had a busy couple of weeks playing Dubai tour guide while I’ve had visitors in town. It has reminded me of some of the key highlights of any first-time trip to the UAE however, and I thought I’d share the top six here for anyone planning a holiday (or due to receive visitors) in Dubai anytime soon.

1. A spot of culture at Al Fahidi Historic District

I still can’t get used to the new name for this cultural area beside Dubai Creek, to me it will always be Bastakiya. This area is a great place to spend an afternoon and evening, starting with a visit to Dubai Museum, followed by a short walk to Al Fahidi to wander among the old wind towers and take in Diwan Mosque before stopping for a lemon and mint juice in a shady courtyard at the Arabian Tea House (formerly known as Basta Art Cafe). Coming out from the other side of Al Fahidi, a short stroll along the creek takes you to the textile souk (market) where you can catch a crowded abra (traditional little wooden boat) across the creek for AED 1 per person. On the other side, the gold souk and spice souk await, and the dhow (Arabian sailing ship used for trading) loading area makes for an interesting diversion. This long afternoon plan is easily followed independently, with plenty of places to stop and rest along the way, but for those that would prefer a little guidance, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding do some fantastic guided tours, or even simply hosted meals, where you can ask any questions about local culture, religion or ways of life, in order to learn more about the city and its people.

2. A new view of Dubai in Downtown 

From the old to the new, Downtown Dubai is an area that cannot be missed on any tour of Dubai now. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of malls, but for those that are, it doesn’t get bigger or better than Dubai Mall (literally, it’s one of the biggest malls in the world!) I would break this up with a refreshment break to watch the famous fountain shows (personally I like to go to Rivington Grill in Souk Al Bahar for some good food and unrivalled views of the fountains). The only part of the mall that I generally allow myself to be coaxed into with visitors is to see Dubai Aquarium (always so soothing to watch the sharks, eels and huge groupers swim past) and the neighbouring sweetie-lovers delight, Candylicious. This day would be finished off with a trip up the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, to At the Top observation deck for  sunset (don’t forget book online well in advance to get the best times) to see the light dim over the city, or to take evening drinks at At.mosphere for the same views, but with a cocktail in hand!

3. A touch of luxury with afternoon tea at the world’s most luxurious hotel

Burj Al Arab still remains the icon of Dubai for most, despite the popularity of Burj Khalifa. Having worked for the Jumeirah Group for many years and visiting the group’s flagship hotel again recently for a friend’s birthday, I would still recommend afternoon tea as the best way to experience the luxury of the hotel. It’s one thing simply driving in, but seeing the interior is something else, and if you book (make sure it’s with plenty of advance notice) to take tea in Skyview Bar, you get great views of the coastline, Palm Jumeirah and The World islands. (My top tip would be to book for the latest slot, at 4pm, so that you get to arrive and have the view by day, then see the sunset, leaving as night falls and the city lights up). An afternoon here can be finished off with evening drinks at Madinat Jumeirah (you won’t want anything to eat after that afternoon tea!) Bahri Bar at Mina A’ Salam has the best views for those iconic photos with a Burj Al Arab backdrop. My final top tip here would be to book a table in any of the restaurants, then you can get a buggy from Burj Al Arab to take you all the way along the beach to Madinat Jumeirah and drop you at your restaurant (and if you book a restaurant in Al Qasr hotel, you may also need to take an abra along the serene waterways of the resort too!)

4. Waterside wandering at Dubai Marina/JBR

I still find it hard to believe that when I first moved to the UAE, the Dubai Marina area was nothing but sand! Nowadays it’s where I call home, and for good reason. The 9km promenade around the marina has some lovely restaurants and cafes, plus the unobtrusive Marina Mall, and is a great place to run or walk around to take in the atmosphere of the city. Across the water at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) are a number of sophisticated beachside hotels and bars, plus The Beach (Meeras’ stunning new development consisting of retail, entertainment and food outlets, and a pristine beach with recreational facilities) which make it a great place to wander by day or by night. I’ve generally found that my visitors like to spend the days on the beach soaking up the rays but are also equally keen to head back of an evening for dinner. In addition, there are many boat tours that depart from the marina (from sedate dinner cruises and party boats to wake boarding and powerboats, depending on your adrenaline requirement!) Captain Jack’s comes highly recommended for a simple sunset boat cruise with soft drinks out from the marina and around Palm Jumeirah (the tours leave from Marina Walk on the hour every hour). For dinner options on dry land, it’s worth getting guests to try the best of Arabic cuisine washed down with a Moroccan mint tea at Reem Al Bawadi or the cute and quirky Piccolo where diners can watch life go by from swinging sofas while trying the much-loved shisha.

5. A visit to the country’s capital

There are now many reasons to pay a visit to the UAE’s capital city, and I always encourage guests to take a day to do this, although they very rarely make it to the city of Abu Dhabi itself, preferring to spend time on the outskirts – on the cultural development of Saadiyat Island, or the entertainment centre of Yas Island. I highly recommend a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (closed to visitors on Friday mornings), particularly for the guided tours which run at 10am and 11am everyday except Friday, to really understand more beyond the beauty of what you see. Yas Island also seems to be a major draw for visitors to the UAE, whether to check out the Formula 1 race track at Yas Marina Circuit and iconic Yas Viceroy hotel, to try out the country’s newest water park (if they don’t get enough of Wild Wadi or Aquaventure in Dubai!) or to ride the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World 

6. Taking in the natural beauty of the UAE’s East Coast 

This would probably be my favourite day as tour guide. The East Coast is only 1.5 – 2 hours drive from Dubai but it takes in such variety of natural landscapes, that I would push anyone to make the trip. If you take the old road across from Sharjah, you first pass through the desert with rolling red dunes as far as the eye can see, and the opportunity for visitors to spot wild camels and get their picture taken with a ‘Beware Camels’ sign, this road soon leads into the Hajar Mountains which run parallel to the east coast. This route passes through the well-known Friday Markets, a popular stop to stock up on fresh fruits, juices and coconut milk for the journey, or to pick up a variety of pottery or rug souvenirs. On arriving in Dibba, make your way down the coast and stop at Al Aqah for a spot of diving or snorkelling with turtles (and if you’re lucky, sharks) at Snoopy Rock (this is most easily arranged from the Sandy Beach resort or Le Meridien Al Aqah hotel), or carry straight on to Fujairah and check out the bull fighting (not as tough as it sounds, more ‘bull butting’ that happens on a Friday afternoon between 4-7pm) and Al Badiyah, the UAE’s oldest mosque.

The beauty about life in Dubai is that there is always something else to do, something new to explore or something hidden to be discovered. Whilst this list is very generic for first timers to the city, there are hundreds more things to see and do, depending on your interests and the time of year you visit. It always pays to check and see if there are any special events worth experiencing (a good resource for this is Dubai Calendar), although it is guaranteed that between the cooler months of September – April, there is always something happening, from music concerts and dance festivals to local sporting challenges and international sporting events, cultural experiences and culinary festivals. I would love to hear more from others though, so if there’s a specific hot spot for tourists that I’ve missed, please share it in the comments – I’m always keen to explore a new hidden gem!