Dubai, a stunning metropolis surrounded by desert and magnificent shorelines. The opportunities are endless in this desert oasis for a fantastic vacation. From the beautiful beaches to fantastic markets and bazaars there is something for everyone in Dubai. The city is still growing; plans are in progress for something bigger and better. It's estimated that a quarter of the world's construction cranes can be found here. If that's any sign, even the sky may not be able to limit Dubai's growth.
Dubai is a city full of amazing architecture, home to the world's tallest tower, the world's largest shopping mall, the world's largest man-made marina... but on a smaller scale, this emirate is still tied to its days as a modest port town. Traditional wooden abras float past motorboats on Dubai Creek, the natural sands of Jumeirah Beach flank the carefully sculpted Palm Islands, and the bustling Gold and Spice Souks (marketplaces) thrive amid the larger-than-life Dubai Mall. Despite constantly looking to the future, this city isn't quick to let go of its past. It's this dynamic that not only put Dubai on the tourist map but will also keep it there.
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Things to Do in Dubai
There is a delicate balance of old and new in Dubai, resulting in a smorgasbord of things to do. You can spend your mornings sprawled out along Jumeirah Beach and your afternoons shredding powder at Ski Dubai.
Amid the towering skyscrapers of downtown Dubai lies the Bastakiya Quarter, the city's historic district. This former fishing village earned its name from the numerous Bastak (Iranian) traders that settled here in the 19th century. The charming little neighborhood is flanked by wind-towered buildings now housing art galleries, cafes and cultural institutions, including the Majlis Gallery, which showcases Middle Eastern art.
Recent visitors found the Bastakiya Quarter to be a nice respite from the glitz and glam of downtown Dubai, and enjoyed seeing what the city looked like before all of its developments came to fruition. Travelers also enjoyed the quiet atmosphere of the quarter and found that for an old town, the quarter was in good shape. Others, however, said the attraction is too small and lacking attractions, so much so that some visitors found going to the area a waste of time.
You'll find the Bastakiya Quarter near the Dubai Museum along the south bank of Dubai Creek in the Bur Dubai district. You can reach the area by waterbus from the Dubai Old Souq dock or by metro from the Al Fahidi station; to learn more, visit our guide to Getting Around Dubai. You can explore the Bastakiya Quarter at any time of day, free of charge. Keep in mind that temperatures are at their highest in the afternoon, so consider stopping by during the evening to save yourself from a sunburn.
Burj Al Arab
Overlooking the Persian Gulf from its perch between Jumeirah Beach and the Palm Islands, this stunning building has wowed architecture buffs since it opened in 1999. Its curved glass façade – modeled after the sails that have graced Dubai's waterways all these years – shelters a world-class, über-luxurious hotel located on its own man-made island. The hotel not only houses the tallest atrium in the world at nearly 600 feet high, but it is one of the tallest hotels in the world. Architecture aside, amenities include revolving beds in some suites, as well as a helipad, in case you thought arriving via a complimentary Rolls-Royce was too pedestrian. But you don't have to stay at the Burj Al Arab to enjoy it (and let's face it, most can't). Those who aren't crashing at the hotel can gain entry by grabbing a bite at one of the on-site restaurants. Among them are the Al Mahara seafood restaurant, which features floor-to-ceiling windows guarding a massive fish tank, and the sky-high Al Muntaha, located on the scenic 27th floor of the building.
Recent visitors were in complete awe of both the interior and exterior of Burj Al Arab, and strongly recommended that if you have the money, stay for at least a night. Those who didn't book a room at the hotel found that grabbing afternoon tea was a great way to enjoy a slice of the property's famous ambiance without forking over a ton of money (make sure to schedule you tea time well in advance). However, while many found the hotel to be nothing short of spectacular, others found the property's opulence to be garish. Whether you venture inside or not, merely getting a snap of one of Dubai's most photographed structures is experience enough.
You can easily walk to the Burj Al Arab from the Mall of the Emirates Metro Station. You're welcome to eat at one of the tower's restaurants at any time of day, although you should make reservations first. You can marvel at the tower for free as you walk along Jumeirah Beach. Better yet, come after sundown to see the tower lit up. To learn more, visit the Burj Al Arab's website.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
When the glitz and glam of urban Dubai gets old, visitors strongly recommend escaping to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The UAE's first national park sits on the outer edges of the city, and occupies about 87 square miles of the Arabian Desert. The reserve mainly acts as a research unit, but travelers are allowed to explore the area – with one caveat: visitors aren't allowed to tour the reserve by themselves. Luckily, the park offers many different types of activities that will cater to travelers with varying interests. Thrill-seekers can go sand boarding, dabble in archery or go dune driving on a luxury four-wheeler. Those looking for a more relaxed experience can soak up the spirit of the desert on low cushions in Bedu tents for a delectable Dune Dinner, or arrange a more intimate Private Desert Dinner. There's also traditional camel treks available, as well as horseback rides, and even a class on falconry. Visitors can also camp on-site, or retreat to the luxurious Al Maha A Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa at the end of the day.
You will need to rent a car to get to the reserve. Only four tour companies are allowed to operate tours within the reserve. Prices for tours and activities vary depending on the provider and the length of the experience. You must make reservations in advance, which can be done through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve's website.
The best way to get around Dubai is by taxi or by metro. Although prices are high here, taxis are relatively inexpensive and provide the freedom to move at your own pace without the hassle of navigating traffic.
Dubai's metro system transport passengers to major areas of interest, including Burj Khalifa and the Dubai International Airport (DXB). The airport is about 8 miles from the city center. You can also rent a car at the airport, but be forewarned: driving here is not for the faint-hearted.
Taxis are the most cost- and time-efficient means of getting around. You can easily spot cabs by their tan bodies and red roofs; the pink-topped cabs are designated for female and family passengers only (they are also driven by women). All taxis are metered, with rates starting at 3 dirhams (roughly $0.82) and increasing by about 1.60 dirhams (around $0.82) per mile. The minimum taxi fare required is 10 dirhams (just under $3). Because Dubai addresses do not include building numbers, you'll have to specify your destination based on an intersection or a nearby hotel or landmark. Taxis also service the International Airport for a flat rate of 25 dirhams (roughly $6.80).
The Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) operates more than 75 routes within the city, as well as 15 inter-emirate routes. Like the metro, bus fares range depending on which zone you plan to travel to, from 1.80 dirhams (about $0.50) to 6.50 dirhams (around $1.80), and you can pay using your Nol Card. You can purchase a Nol Card at select bus stations, ticket vending machines and RTA service centers throughout the city. Although buses run frequently, you will need to factor traffic delays and frequent stops into your travel time. Also, buses can be somewhat tricky for visitors to navigate; to save yourself time and a headache, opt for the metro instead.
Dubai's metro consists of two lines: the red line and the green line. The red line services 28 stations between Rashidiya in the western part of the city and Jebel Ali in the south, stopping downtown and at the airport. The shorter green line also stops in downtown Dubai on its way from Al Qusais (just northeast of the airport) to Jadaf, a neighborhood located east of downtown along Dubai Creek. The routes are divided into zones, and fares range from 1.80 dirhams (roughly $0.50) to 6.50 dirhams (around $1.80) based on distance traveled. If you plan to use public transport fairly regularly, consider obtaining a Nol Card, which is valid on Dubai's metro, buses and waterbuses. You can purchase a Nol Card in all metro stations. Hours of operation depend on the day and line. For red line service, trains start running at 5:30 a.m. Saturdays through Wednesdays, and close at midnight, except on Thursdays when it stays open till 1 a.m. The green line service operates on the same hours, except that trains start running 5:50 a.m. On Fridays, metro doesn't start service until 1 p.m., and it runs until 1 a.m.
Boats have always played a primary role in local transportation, and today, they are still frequently used by both locals and tourists who need to cross Dubai Creek. For 1 dirham (roughly $0.27) per trip, you can cross the creek via abra, the traditional wooden boat that has graced Dubai's waters for centuries. You'll find abras lining the creek in the downtown area. Just make sure to carry cash, as drivers don't accept cards.
The Roads & Transport Authority also operates a boat service known as the Dubai Waterbus. These are more spacious and high-tech than abras (and provide air conditioning), and they service stations outside of the immediate downtown area. One-way trips cost 2 dirhams (roughly $0.54), and you can pay using your Nol Card.
Dubai's roads are well maintained and clearly labeled; however, driving etiquette is poor. Additionally, the UAE has the highest rate of road fatalities in the Middle East and one of the highest rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. That being said, a car will come in handy should you want to venture outside of Dubai city. You can rent a car in town or at the Dubai airport. To drive here, you will need to obtain an international driver's license.