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The Travel Guide to Dubai

Good to Know
Safety:
A
Budget:
$$$$$
When to go:
Oct–Apr
Average Costs
Basic
Baller
Dinners
$20
$150+
Drinks
$12
$40+
Hotel
$200
$400+

Welcome to Dubai

Welcome to Dubai, land of excess, world records and innovation, tempered by the world’s largest desert and ancient tradition. Dubai has been inhabited since around 2500 BC, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it started to rapidly develop. And develop it did. 

Today, Dubai is a sprawling, high-tech city with a skyline that includes some of the most recognized buildings in the world and iconic man-made islands. But it’s not all new, shiny objects. The vast sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, dotted only by lithe black camels and their Bedouin caretakers, the lush mangrove forests, and the thousands of date palms provide respite from the city and a hint of the past. 

Once important for trade, Dubai is now a vital business and financial hub for the Middle East and Asia, drawing expats from around the world and making it a truly international city packed with multiple languages, customs, and cuisines.

>> Before you go, read more about the history and culture of Dubai.

Who’ll Love Dubai

Folks on extended layovers; luxury travelers who want to live large; foodies craving high-end dining experiences from around the world; jet setters who love world records 

How to Budget for a Trip to Dubai

Dubai is fairly expensive, like any major city. While hotels range wildly in cost depending on the season, summer being the cheapest time to visit, the average cost per night for a two-person stay is about $200. There are more affordable hotels on the outskirts of the city and plenty of luxury hotels upwards of $500 per night. The average cost for a meal for two is about $60, but can be much higher at high-end restaurants or lower at shawarma stands or in Old Dubai. Alcohol is expensive in Dubai, with beers and wines marked up about triple from prices in the US. 

Safety Considerations

Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world for tourists. Violent crime is basically nonexistent and people never worry about theft. The biggest danger comes from not knowing or following the law. While not always applied in practice, Dubai has some very strict laws tourists are not always aware of. For example, couples cannot live together without being married, it is illegal to commit “homosexual acts,” to be publicly intoxicated, to use CBD, to import pork products, to express public displays of affection, to post negatively about the government on social media, to photograph people without permission, and more. 

On the surface, you can get away with more in Dubai than in some other Middle Eastern countries, but this is still an Islamic country, and certain laws and customs should be respected to ensure a worry-free trip.

Weather in Dubai

Dubai is hot year-round, but in the summer temperatures reach around 105° Fahrenheit most days. The UV index is typically 11–as high as it goes–and humidity hovers between 60-90%. From December to March the temperatures hover in the high 70s-low 80s during the day, with low 60s at night. 

When to Visit Dubai

The most pleasant time to visit Dubai is between October and April, when it’s hot enough to enjoy a beach day but not unbearable. October and April are the hottest of those months, with temperatures in the 90s. Dubai is very popular with travelers from the UK in January, and with travelers from the rest of the Middle East during Eid holidays, which vary each year. 

Money Saving Tips 

Eat in North Dubai: near the historic district in North Dubai, you’ll find some of the city’s best and most affordable food. Dubai’s population is mostly Indian, and here you’ll find food stalls serving up dishes from across India, as well as Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, the Philippines and more, all for a fraction of the price downtown. 

Visit the free beaches: Dubai has dozens of swanky beach clubs, but the water is just as clear at the free beaches, which also have ice cream and other food stands and full bathroom and shower facilities. Jumeirah Beach and Kite Beach are both long, free sandy beaches. 

Ladies, listen up: Most bars in Dubai have a “ladies night,” where women drink for free. The night of the week and deal varies by bar (some charge a $5 fee for unlimited drinks, others have free entry but a cap of three drinks, and so on). This list breaks down deals by day of the week. 

Join the Entertainer: If you’re planning to visit Dubai often or take an extended trip, it’s worth it to join the Entertainer, an app with deals on hotels, restaurants, spas, and more. 

Things to See, Do, and Eat in Dubai

The Top 10 Things to Do in Dubai

Dubai skyline with Burj Khalifa at center
  1. See the world from the top of the Burj Khalifa. Take an elevator 125 floors up to the top of the world’s tallest building, where you’ll have 360-degree views across the entire Emirate, from skyscrapers to rolling desert, and out into the Persian Gulf where man-made islands form palm trees and the shape of a world map. 
  2. Watch the Dubai Fountain dance. The fountain outside of the Dubai Mall was modeled after the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas. Water and light performances are held daily starting at 6pm, and run every half hour until 11pm. Go around twilight for the prettiest photos of the fountain and Burj Khalifa. If you miss the show, the Palm Fountain, the largest fountain in the world, also has shows from sunset until midnight. 
  3. Shop ‘til you drop at the Dubai Mall. The largest mall in the world has everything: hundreds of stores, a massive aquarium with sharks, rays and other fish; dozens of restaurants, an arcade, movie theater, and more. Think of it as less of a shopping experience, more of a full-day event. 
  4. Visit a Hammam. Dubai does luxury spas very well, including specialty treatments from around the world. One of the most popular treatments is a Turkish hammam experience, which includes a scrubdown, bath, and massage. The Talise Ottoman Spa’s tiled pool and hammam room are ridiculously beautiful and the treatment is top-notch. Plus, there are adventure showers, a snow room, and a salt water therapy pool, among other amenities for spa guests. 
  5. Visit Palm Jumeirah. Spend a day on the man-made palm island, where you can shop and lounge at the beach by day, and visit a nightclub come sundown. At the tip of the Palm, you can visit the Atlantis hotel, which is themed like the lost city of Atlantis and has its own water park and aquarium. 
  6. Step back in time in Old Dubai. The Al-Fahidi historic district in north Dubai has a small history museum; the Al Fahidi Fort, the city’s oldest building built in 1781; restored gypsum and coral buildings that recreate old homes and a handicraft market, called the Al Seef Market; and a small Spice Souk.  Take an abra–a small, traditional boat–across the Dubai Creek (this costs 1 aed, about 25 cents)–to the Gold Souk.
  7. Visit the Gold Souk. Dubai’s gold market is the largest in the world and a fantastic place to buy jewelry. Gold here is very inexpensive because there are no import duties on raw materials and gold bars. 
  8. Eat around the world Global Village. Like Dubai’s version of Epcot, Global Village showcases 90 countries across the world in one place. Visit different country pavilions for shopping, eating and live shows. 
  9. Relax at a beach club. Much of Dubai’s shore is reserved for private beaches, but luckily, almost anyone can buy a day pass. Beach clubs access typically includes a lounge chair, a water bottle, a welcome drink and snack, a towel, and use of the showers/locker rooms. Check out ladies day deals or the Entertainer for discounted access on certain days. 
  10. Spend an evening in JBR and the Marina. Dubai’s adjacent Marina and JBR districts are one of the few places you can walk in the city, so spend an evening strolling between the two, stopping at the many open-air bar and dining concepts and shops along the water. 

The Local Picks for Top Attractions and Activities in Dubai

person lying on a surfboard paddling out from the shore
  1. Dine out in JLT. The Jumeirah Lakes Towers neighborhood, more commonly called JLT, isn’t fancy and is a bit out of the way for tourists, but is where you’ll find locals eating on any given day of the week. Streetery Food Hall, Farsi Restaurant and Pitfire Pizza are a few favorites. 
  2. Learn to surf. The Persian Gulf is calm and free of dangerous types of sharks, making it an ideal place to learn to surf. There are several places along Kite Beach offering lessons. Stand up paddle boarding and kayaking are also options.  
  3. Camp in the desert. Locals are known to pack up the car, drive out into the desert and set up camp for a night. Al Qudra Lakes is the closest and easiest area to set up camp. It’s usually warm enough you don’t even need a tent, just some blankets to sleep under the stars. 
  4. Spend an afternoon in Al Quoz. The Al Quoz industrial zone is Dubai’s hippest neighborhood, packed with warehouses repurposed into art galleries, eclectic boutiques and vegan cafes. On any given weekend you’ll find live music or some sort of pop-up event happening along Alskeral Avenue. 
  5. Brunch all day. In Dubai, brunch is a big deal. It’s expensive, it’s unlimited, it’s always busy. Even if brunch isn’t your thing, it’s something of a right of passage for Dubai locals. Brunches range from elaborate (caviar and champagne) to more casual (jazz and pizza) but reservations should always be made in advance. 
  6. Spend a night out in DIFC. It might seem odd to have the city’s best restaurants––many of them second locations from some of the world’s most famous chefs––in the same building as banks and consulting agencies, but that’s Dubai. Dubai’s International Financial Center (DIFC) glams up at night, when fashionistas dress to the nines to dine at Cipriani and Gaia, among other restaurants, and to dance at Indochine and Mantis. 

What to Eat & Drink in Dubai

Arabian coffee pot on a table with a cup and saucer

Like Dubai’s population, the food scene is international. You can find almost any type of cuisine here, though restaurants do skew toward fine-dining. Many famous chefs in London and New York have second or third branches of their restaurants here, for example. Still, there are more casual spots and food stands. Here are a few dining experiences that stand out:

  • Bu Qtair–This fish spot next to Kite Beach serves fried fish or prawns in a signature curry sauce with rice. It’s one of the few Emirati restaurants in Dubai, as well as one of the best value. And the sauce is incredible! 
  • Lalezar–Housed in the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel, this restaurant not only serves wonderful Turkish cuisine, but is also one of the prettiest restaurants in the UAE. The floral walls were hand-painted by Turkish art students to look like the interiors of Anatolian palaces.
  • Arabian Tea House–There are multiple locations for this small chain serving traditional Arabic food like shawarma, hummus, and fattoush, but the one in Al Fahidi is the most charming. 
  • Yalla Saj–This unassuming spot in the food court in the Dubai mall serves some of the best shawarma in the city. 
  • Al Hallab–Also in the Dubai Mall, Al Hallab is a nice Lebanese restaurant with a patio that overlooks the Dubai fountain. 
  • Nobu–While you can dine at Nobu in 32 locations around the world, it’s still a classic Dubai spot to see and be seen while having a delicious meal. Be sure to dress up. 
  • Boca–In DIFC, this restaurant focuses on sustainable seafood and local produce, at least as far as that’s possible in the desert. It tries harder to be sustainable than other restaurants in Dubai, and has one of the more interesting wine lists in the city. 
  • Barasti–Barasti is a beach bar with a reputation. There’s almost always a party, day or night, and beers are fairly inexpensive compared to the rest of the city. There is standard bar food, but that’s secondary. 

Where to Stay in Dubai

Hotel prices in Dubai have a wide range depending on the season. In general, hotels in the historic district and near the airport are less expensive, while hotels downtown, in the Marina and on the Palm are more expensive. The average hotel cost is about $200, though luxury hotels can reach up to $1,000 per night and other hotels can cost closer to $100. 

Airbnb is not as popular, but there are numerous lovely listings for Dubai, mostly in the $70-150 range.

Top Dubai Neighborhoods for Visitors

Dubai Marina

Marina

The Marina is expat central. It’s full of luxury high-rise buildings housing European and other expats, who spend their evenings walking along the marina, dining in the nearby restaurants, or hanging out in neighboring JBR, where they visit the beach, movie theater, and shops. Spend the day at the beach in JBR and the evening at one of the restaurants along the water. 

Old Dubai

This neighborhood is where most of Dubai’s expats from South Asia live, and home to the city’s main historic attractions. Back in the 1970s, this was where Dubai as a city started. The rest was desert. 

Downtown

Downtown is, like most downtowns, the hub of Dubai. Here you’ll find most office buildings, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, luxury hotels, fine-dining restaurants, nightclubs, apartments, and on and on. 

The Palm

While people do live on the Palm, this neighborhood is mostly popular for beach clubs and dining. The new Palm Fountain and several new malls have also made it more popular in the last year. 

Recommended Hotels in Dubai

Getting Around in Dubai

Public Transportation Options in Dubai

Geographically, Dubai is huge. From the airport in the north to the Marina neighborhood in the south is about 20 miles, and you’ll likely want to do things from north to south throughout your trip. Careem, an app similar to Lyft or Uber where you can call a taxi or private car, is the easiest transportation option. Taxis are cheaper than private cars, and both are safe. Rates are comparable with any major US city. 

The metro is easy to navigate and extremely clean and safe. The main issue is that the routes are limited. That said, if you’re going from the marina to the Dubai Mall or downtown, it’s a straight shot and about $2.  

Dubai is not a walkable city. Most neighborhoods are connected to each other by highways and large overpasses, so you almost always have to call a Careem or take the metro. 

Dubai Airports

Dubai’s huge Dubai International Airport (DXB) is not only the biggest airport in the UAE, it’s also the busiest in the entire world in terms of international passenger numbers. It’s just under three miles from Dubai. Dubai Airport is the main hub for Emirates Airline and also a hub for budget carrier flydubai.

How to Get to Dubai from Dubai International Airport (DXB)

The subway system in Dubai has two stations at the airport on the Metro’s red line. Ticket costs depend on how far you’re traveling, but range from 5 AED to 7.5 AED. A taxi from the airport into the city typically takes a little more than 20 minutes with fares starting around 70 AED. (Taxis with pink trim are operated by female drivers and meant for female travelers.) Dubai’s rideshare options are Uber and Careem, the latter founded in Dubai, and the cost is similar to taxi fares.

Where Else to Go From Dubai

Day Trips from Dubai

Lake Hatta

Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve–The UAE’s first national park is home to Arabian Oryx, which were endangered until recently, 120 bird species, antelopes, and more. It’s easiest to see on a tour. Platinum Heritage Desert Safaris does a great tour in vintage Land Rovers. The reserve is about 40 minutes from the city and most tour companies will pick you up from your hotel. 

Hatta–Hatta is technically part of the Emirate of Dubai, but about 90 miles away. It’s the place to go for adventure activities such as zip lines, hiking and water sports. It also has a restored heritage village and fort, or you can simply relax in one of the lodges with views of the mountains.  

Al Ain–About 85 miles from Dubai, Al Ain is home to the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Al Ain Oasis. It is recognized for its early irrigation system. Today, visitors can walk through the oasis and admire date palms. There’s also a small date museum, a historic fort and the Jebel Hafeet mountain, which has a viewing area that overlooks the city. 

Where Else to Visit from Dubai

Abu Dhabi–The capital of the United Arab Emirates isn’t far from Dubai (about a 90-minute drive), but there’s so much to do you’ll want to spend the night. Visit the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and drive out to the Empty Quarter to see endless orange sand dunes. The Empty Quarter is particularly pretty at sunset. 

Sharjah–About 90 minutes from Dubai, Sharjah has a well-preserved historic center with souks and food stands, the Sharjah Art Museum showcasing artists from around the Middle East, and the Museum of Islamic Civilization, which is packed with artifacts. Stay at the Al Bait hotel, a historic palace renovated with help from UNESCO. 

Fujairah–This is where Dubai locals go to get away from it all. Fujairah is an Emirate along the water, marked by rugged cliffs and bright blue waters rather than skyscrapers. A day of snorkeling at Snoopy Island typically reveals sea turtles, coral, and plenty of colorful fish. Make sure to eat Dibba Bay oysters, the region’s local variety, while here. 

Books and Movies Set in Dubai 

You’ve probably seen Dubai in more movies than you realize. The desert has been used as a backdrop in everything from Star Wars to Syriana. The city of Dubai played a prominent role in Jackie Chan’s Vanguard, where an accountant threatened by a terrorist organization looks to a security company Vanguard to save him. 

The movie Dubai, a City of Dreams shows the darker side of the city. While tourists and wealthy expats see a safe, fun, easy-living side of the city, the migrant workers who make the city run live a much different reality. 

Desperate In Dubai tells the fictional story of an Emirati woman attempting to escape her past in the United Kingdom and seeking a wealthy husband in Dubai. It’s a story of double lives, luxury, and how sometimes it can all fall apart. 

Alif the Unseen takes readers into the mystical world of djinns and spirits, told through a modern Arab-Indian hacker working for a tech company in Dubai.

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