An insider’s guide to Dubai
By Lizzie Cernik
As an ex-resident of this Middle Eastern playground, it’s easy to see how Dubai gets its bad reputation. Dismissed by cultured Brits as a Disneyfied sandpit, the media has successfully painted an image of tacky skyscrapers, flash parties and wine-ravaged tanorexics glued together with Botox and tit tape. While there’s an element of truth in this, I can promise there’s more to this city than camels and a shaky human rights record. With its year-round sunshine, luxury hotels and reputation for five-star dining, Dubai is rapidly establishing itself as a mini-break hotspot for the international jet set. Kimye, Jennifer Lopez and David Beckham were all recently in town. A million visitors from the UK are expected to visit Dubai in 2016 so in addition to the weather, Dubai is hotter than ever.
When to go?
Let’s be clear, it’s hard to knock year-round sunshine. But with summer temperatures climbing to a humid 50 degrees Celsius (112F), stepping outside from June to September is like being hugged by a recently boiled jellyfish. October to April is the best time to visit, when daytime temperatures range from 20C / 68F (in deepest darkest winter) to 35C/95F.
What to wear?
It’s perfectly acceptable to wear bikinis on public beaches, but I’d recommend covering your knees and shoulders whilst wandering through shopping malls and souks. Although it’s one of the safest countries in the world, particularly for women travelling alone, you might attract some stares (and possibly cause offence) if you’re pounding the streets in a pair of bottom-flashing hotpants. Despite the relaxed nature of the tourist hotspots, it’s also worth remembering that the country is governed by strict Islamic law (so if you feel frisky on the beach, keep your minky in your pants unless you fancy a year or five in jail.)
Where should you stay?
Despite the high end reputation, there are places to stay for all budgets.
Your budget: You live on a diet of pot noodles…
The UAE (especially Dubai) isn’t what you’d call a cheap place to visit. So if you’re feeling cash-strapped I’d suggest you try Airbnb for a studio room in the marina. While there’s plenty of three star hotel options available, you’ll get better value in a homestay.
Your budget: You’ve saved a bit of dosh but still want to buy shoes…
Party animals should check out Media One, a four-star hotel in the centre of Media City. A little cheaper than staying on the beach or in the city centre, this place is also home to some of Dubai’s most popular bars.
Your budget: A rich long-lost relative has died and left you all their money….
Check in to The One & Only Palm. The sister hotel of The One & Only Royal Mirage, this Palm-based property is a little haven of decadence. From the onsite spa offering the world’s most exclusive pedicures (£90, using crushed diamonds and pearls to polish your own nails), to the speed boat that drives you between bars and restaurants, this place is hard to beat when it comes to unadulterated luxury.
What to do?
Bur Dubai and the gold souks
Most Dubai visitors are so stupefied by the glitz of Dubai, they manage to sidestep the old town completely. It’s a shame because these scrubby side streets are where you’ll find the historic district of Bastakia, the city’s best authentic Indian restaurants and the traditional souks. While Bur Dubai might seem tame compared to the crowds of Morocco, it’s a significantly more relaxing experience for those apprehensive about the prospect of a bustling Arabian market. Sure there’s a few guys trying to flog you ‘good price’ beads and a souvenir stuffed camel, but in place of snakes, chained monkeys and beggars, you’ll find Creekside cafes selling mango juice, cheese manakeesh and fresh fish. If you take an abra across the creek (for the grand old price of 20p), you’ll find yourself stumbling across the Deira gold souks. Do your research, be prepared to haggle and you can blag yourself a bargain here.
Colloquially nicknamed ‘bar nasty’ by the locals, Barasti beach bar is a popular expat hangout and gets packed over the weekends (which is Thursday and Friday nights in the UAE). Basically it’s a bar. On a beach. With sunbed loungers. And a happy hour. What’s not to like?
Alright it’s touristy, but Souk Madinat is also home to some amazing restaurants and a fantastic view of the Burj Al Arab (that’s the famous sail boat hotel backdrop paradise for selfie fanatics.) Leftbank bar and Meat Company are two of my favourite places to eat there, but there’s plenty more to choose from in the neighbouring Al Qasr hotel.
Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall
Where do you build the world’s tallest building? Next to the world’s largest mall, obviously. Towering 830 metres above the ground, there’s no denying the man-made Burj Khalifa is an impressive piece of handiwork. In addition to the bars and restaurants inside, you can check out the fountain display at night and the creatively named viewing platform ‘At The Top’ (technically it’s only three-quarters of the way up but we’ll gloss over this minor advertising ploy…) In the neighbouring Dubai Mall you’ll find a skating rink, a fish tank wall and thousands of shops. And though it’s eye-wateringly expensive, if you hit the city during the shopping festival in January, all the designer stores slash their prices by up to 60% (yes, even Jimmy Choo.) There’s a million places to eat here, but if you get chance, try out the Shakshouka (an Arabic eggs dish) at Baker and Spice.
There are dozens of companies running safaris out of Dubai, but for luxury, I’d go for the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Al Ain. Just an hours drive from Dubai, you can stay in Bedouin-style suites, eat posh food and stare at the desert night sky in wistful abandon (read: get drunk and fall asleep in the sand). From nature walks to camel riding and dune bashing, there’s something for everyone – even if you’re no adrenalin junkie.
It’s a Dubai institution, but tourists often miss out on this all-day Friday boozeathon. Offered at various locations across the city, the general idea is four to five hours of non-stop eating and drinking. From the champagne-fuelled to the family-friendly, there’s a brunch, and a price tag, to suit every visitor. Personally I’m a fan of the chilled out vibes at Mazina, a hotel restaurant overlooking the Dubai marina, serving everything from sushi to roast meats and cocktails. Hardcore party options include Double Deckers (for cash-strapped fans of debauchery who aren’t deterred by sticky floors), Bubbalicious (for wealthier fans of debauchery who love a chocolate fountain) and the American diner Claw (for people who just love fried chicken and juke boxes).
Jumeirah Beach Residence is currently being dug up. Purportedly making the beach front strip better for everyone, we’re not quite sure what the renovations will entail. But roadworks aside, JBR makes for a lovely Saturday afternoon stroll, with dozens of cafes and restaurants lining the streets, as well as a market selling overpriced hipster stuff you never knew you needed. The Nutella crepes and fresh coconut are always tempting, but you can’t beat Cheesecake Factory or Eggspectation for lunch.
Emirates Airline flies direct to Dubai from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle. For full details check out the website here. www.emirates.com