While we often think of Dubai as a sprawling metropolis, there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Colourful spice souks, a vast desert, beautifully clear seas and endless activities mean no holiday to Dubai is the same. With so much to see and do in the city, planning your dream holiday can be tricky. So we’ve spoken to a bunch of travel experts, some who reside in the UAE, to get their top tips for visiting Dubai.
Time your visit wisely
Frequent traveller Mar Pages is the creator of travel blog Once in a Lifetime Journey, which seeks out exclusive resorts and destinations in the least visited parts of the world. She also lived in Dubai and has plenty of insider information. We caught up with Mar to find out about her experience in Dubai:
“I lived in Dubai for five years during the time when the city exploded from 10 buildings in the Marina to the hundreds there are today. At the time, I was a telecoms strategy consultant working across the Middle East and Africa, and I travelled every week for work, coming back to Dubai most of the weekends.
“Dubai was an ever-changing city at the time and every morning I woke up to different roads and an additional floor to the buildings under construction around me. As I still own an apartment there and my best friend still lives in Dubai, I go back a few times every year. The city is now a more stable and comfortable place to live, if still an ever-changing landscape.”
Having spent an extensive period of time living in Dubai, Mar had some excellent advice for first-time travellers:
“If you are visiting Dubai for the first time I always stress the importance of choosing when to go. Visiting in the right season is essential. In the summer months, Dubai can become unbearably hot with temperatures well above 45 degrees on many days, and that comes from someone who lived in the tropics for 12 years and who can comfortably walk around Singapore’s 35 degrees on a sunny day.
“The best time to visit Dubai is between March and April and October and November. Of course the months of December to February are pleasant as well, although February does see the only (usually consecutive) five days of rain of the year.”
Take time explore the different faces of Dubai
There is so much more to Dubai than just skyscrapers and shopping malls. Its traditional spice markets (or souks) and sprawling desert suburbs hold the key to Dubai’s past. Sally Prosser, creator of food and travel blog My Custard Pie, currently resides in Dubai. She uses her blog as a platform to share home-cooked recipes, and a slightly different look at places abroad and the city of Dubai. “I tried to dig beneath the surface to tell authentic stories about these topics,” said Sally, “not just the top line that everyone sees.”
As Sally has lived in Dubai with her family since 2000, we wanted to get her thoughts on living in the UAE and her top travel tips:
“Work opportunities brought my husband and our (then very small) children to Dubai. We had done a few years in Saudi Arabia before this. It’s been a privilege to witness the evolution of the place from a small town on the banks of the creek to the thriving and exciting metropolis it is today.
“The glittering side of Dubai is the one we all see on the media, but there are so many sides to the city. Explore by taking the Metro to Bur Dubai and wander round the Fahidi district, including the beautiful Majlis Gallery (in an old building with wind towers), then catch an abra (small boat) across the Creek to the spice souk. Or let Frying Pan Adventures take you on a journey via your taste buds. I’ve lost count of the number of food tours I’ve done with them, but I think it’s 13, and I’m always planning my next one.”
As well as ensuring you see the many sides of Dubai, Sally recommends taking time to get to know the locals: “Meeting the locals who are reserved and private people who welcome so many visitors in their country is difficult, but not impossible.
“The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers many opportunities, but my favourite is to have a traditional Emirati breakfast where you learn more about the history and customs of Dubai and can ask any question you like from the hosts.”
Sally’s final piece of advice is to plan ahead: “There are lots of popular things that can be booked online to make sure you don’t miss out. This includes going up the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa. My favourite time is getting up really early to see the sun rise from such an incredible bird’s eye view.”
Embrace the city’s adventurous side
For adrenaline junkies, Dubai is one of the most exciting places in the world. Whether you’re seeking to leap from new heights or get your heart racing in the desert, you won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer in the city.
Mapping Megan is a travel blog focusing on ‘cultural immersion, authentic discovery and old world exploration’. Australian journalist Meg Jerrard and her husband, an American wildlife photographer, share stories about their joint adventures on the blog, and have visited 50 countries and all seven continents. With extensive travel experience in Dubai and the UAE we asked Meg to share some of her top tips for visiting Dubai:
“Dubai is fabulous for its incredible architecture, shopping, spas, luxury hotels etc., but as a thrill-seeker, the biggest highlight for me was jumping into the city’s adventure scene.
“There’s so much adventure on offer in Dubai, from skydiving (bird’s eye view of the world’s tallest building from the sky), scuba diving, or taking a desert safari. With all the skyscrapers in Dubai, it’s easy to forget that the city is surrounded by sand. But dune bashing is an incredible adventure where you hit up monolith sand dunes in a 4WD (and the drivers are a tad crazy too!). You can get dropped back at your hotel to end the night, but for a super highlight, spend one night away from your hotel room and set up camp in the vast Arabian Desert.”
Respect the local culture and customs
Dubai is a predominantly Muslim city and it is generally advised that you dress conservatively, particularly at any sacred sites. There are also very strict laws surrounding alcohol. Meg Jerrard of Mapping Megan shared another of her top tips for visiting Dubai:
“You need to really understand that the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country with very strong religious roots, and as with any country, travellers are expected to respect the local culture and customs while there.
“For solo female travellers, women travelling alone are a bit of a novelty, so be aware that you’ll likely receive unwanted attention while you’re here. It’s a very safe country but it’s something you need to be aware of. Romantic travellers should avoid any public displays of affection and every traveller should be aware that the laws in Dubai are incredibly strict when it comes to alcohol consumption, and being drunk in public is just as serious an offence as drinking and driving.”
Start your day early
We’re sure you won’t want to miss a moment on your Dubai holiday, which is why the next piece of advice by Keri Hedrick of Our Globetrotters is so important. Keri uses her blog to document her family’s overseas expat adventures. They currently reside in the UAE, but their lives have led them to travel all over the world, so Keri provides plenty of advice for families wishing to explore the globe. “Our motto is to create confident world travellers,” said Keri, “giving parents the courage to keep seeing the world and raising the next generation to be globally aware.”
In 2012, Keri’s husband received a call about a job interview in the UAE. We asked her more about her family’s decision to move to the Middle East: “It was certainly nothing we had planned with a toddler and a new born in tow, but we had outgrown our tiny London flat and either way, our family was growing and needed to move on.
“Since exchanging daily tube commutes for sunshine and a much more outdoorsy lifestyle, we really haven’t looked back! We now have three kids in our tribe and happily call the UAE our home.”
Keri’s main piece of advice? “Our top tip for families visiting Dubai is to get going early in the day. Be it heading out for a sunrise desert safari or tackling some of the large attractions before the lines start to form. Locals tend to be late starters so visiting popular places early in the day will ensure you have less crowds to tackle, and you will also beat most of the heat.”
Plan to spend at least a few days in Dubai
Don’t be tempted just to rush through Dubai in a day or two, according to Jennifer and Tim of adventure travel blog Luxe Adventure Traveller, it is well worth spending some more time in this diverse city: “First-time visitors to Dubai should plan to spend at least a few days exploring,” said the duo. “Dubai is one of the only places in the world where you can sky on indoor slopes right in the heart of the city and then have some fun in the sun at one of the world’s top water parks.
“Be sure to book a dune bashing tour to get out of the city and witness one of the most spectacular sunsets you’ll see as the fiery ball dips below the dunes. And you simply cannot miss heading up the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.”
Image credits: David Rodrigo