Essential Dubai Travel Guide
From the tallest skyscraper in the world to the ancient souks still selling their wares in tight alleyways, Dubai is a city of dichotomies in so many ways. You’ll find an immense city full of hustle juxtaposed with a peaceful oasis away from the crowds near the beach.
Although Dubai, at first glance, seems like a city centered on glitz and glam, reminiscent of Las Vegas, if you scratch under the surface, you will find a lot more than skyscrapers and shopping. I’ve created the essential travel guide to Dubai to help you navigate this vast city and have the best experience possible.
With so much to see and do I made sure to highlight the best of Dubai. There’s simply no place in the world where you can traverse the desert, ski indoors, and see some of the most original architecture.
You’ll find so many “world’s tallest, greatest, most, etc.” here, you might lose track! This guide will ensure you see the best this flamboyant city has to offer.
- What to Know About Dubai Before Visiting
- Where to stay in Dubai?
- Essential Things to Do in Dubai
- Burj Khalifa
- Dubai Mall
- Dubai Creek and Al Seef District
- Bastakia – Old Dubai
- Dubai Museum
- Dubai Miracle Garden
- Global Village
- Burj al-Arab
- Dubai Marina
- Mall of Emirates
- Palm Jumeirah
- Dubai Frame
- Kite beach
- Jumeirah Mosque
- Head to the Desert
- Enjoy the nightlife
- Go to Abu Dhabi
What to Know About Dubai Before Visiting
Where is Dubai? Located in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) Dubai is a city-state (states are called Emirates) located in the Eastern part of the Middle East. Currency is in Dirhams (Dhs), but most places take credit card.
Is Dubai safe? Yes! Dubai is extremely safe for tourists. In fact, this is one of the safest places to travel to in the Middle East. I also found it to be very clean.
As a woman, do I need to cover up in Dubai? No. You will not need to cover up, and you’ll see that although many women are, it’s not necessary. You are free to wear whatever you like, but I do recommend dressing a bit more conservative since this is a Muslim country. The weather can be quite hot, in the summer temperatures reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I recommend packing layers, as the nights can get chilly.
Best time to visit Dubai? I recommend the winter time for more mild climate without harsh sun. I went in February and felt it was perfect. Many places close during the heat of the summer. For example, Global Village is only open from November through March.
Important to know: Dubai is 80%+ expats. I’ve never expected to see so many people from around the world, with so many languages spoken. As a melting pot of nationalities, people from all over flock to Dubai for opportunity and sightseeing. The locals as well as many of the expats and tourists come from Muslim parts of the world so you will see women covered up. If you’re not from somewhere with those traditions it can take a bit of getting used to. I’ve traveled to other Muslim countries (Morocco), but it seems different in this region in that you see more women with their faces covered instead of just their hair. Hotels are the only place tourists can buy alcoholic drinks. So, if you'd like to purchase alcohol other than at a hotel bar or restaurant, do so at the airport before going to your hotel.
Getting around Dubai. I recommend renting a car. The city is quite large with lots of things to do and see. You might want to drive on the man-made palm tree island, see the 7-star hotel up close, or drive out to the desert. Having a car gives you flexibility. There are cabs, Uber, and a public transportation system, but I found a car best. You will most likely be going up and down Sheikh Zayed Road, the longest road in the Emirates. It stretches from Al-Silah in Abu Dhabi all the way to Ras al-Khaimah in the North. This eight lane highway is the main thoroughfare through the city. It’s important to note that driving is a bit strange. In that almost everything is located directly off the freeway, but getting to your destination often requires lots of turns. Just a note, don’t get frustrated when you have to turn eight times to get somewhere just a few blocks away!
It's crazy to see how much this city has grown. In 1968 there were only 13 cars in the whole city. Now, 130,000 cards use Sheikh Zayed road every day.
Who is Sheikh Zayed? You'll be sure to hear this name often. He was the ruler of Abu Dhabi for nearly 30 years and was the founding father for the formation of the UAE. He helped drive the region's economy and create a prosperous region. 2018 was declared “the Year of Zayed” for all his efforts in helping to form the country today.
Below you can find a map of all the places discussed in those post:
Where to stay in Dubai?
If you’re coming to Dubai, you want a hotel that matches the ultra-modern feel and luxurious surroundings. There is sincerely no better hotel than the Shangri-La Dubai.
This spectacular hotel is the perfect spot, right by the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall in the bustling Financial Center. As I mentioned, driving isn’t always easy. So you’ll want a spot that is centrally located for sightseeing. Shangri-La offers an unparalleled view of the world’s tallest building. There’s also free on-site valet, so it’s easy to pop in and out. The staff is extremely helpful and kind, and the exquisite hotel caps off a fabulous stay in Dubai.
Let me put it this way: when you go to Las Vegas, you stay at the Bellagio. When you go to Dubai, you stay at Shangri-La.
Shangri-La Dubai offers multiple pools, a tennis court, spa, racquetball, and even a salon. But I felt so at peace in our lovely room, complete with a stunning view of the Burj Khalifa. Each room is well equipped for travelers from all over the world. You'll find outlets that work for both European and US plugs. There's a gargantuan bathroom with a rainwater shower, as well as a tub. The room has a fully stocked mini-bar and fresh fruit artfully arranged. You'll also find fresh flowers right in your room.
Upon entering you’ll find pristine marble floors, elegant flower displays, and a thoughtful check-in desk with open books from countries all over the wall. The staff is exceptionally kind and ensures you have the best stay possible. You'll find gold accents as well as deep blue chairs in the lobby and breakfast areas.
Exploring the hotel is a must. The views of the Burj Khalifa and the other skyscrapers around Sheikh Zayed Road are phenomenal. Head up to the 42nd floor to an indoor swimming pool, lounge area, and exceptional views.
The outdoor pool and iKandy Ultralounge are a great spot to hang out and have a drink or go for a swim. Of course, you can see more views of the Burj Khalifa, but I liked lounging on the pink chairs and couches with palm trees towering over for shade. Walking through the courtyard and over the short bridge you can head into the spa for a relaxing and rejuvenating massage or facial. There, you'll also find a hair salon and racquetball court.
Breakfast is always essential to me at a hotel. Here you’ll find a decadent spread of breakfast dishes from all over the world. I particularly liked the local dishes, such as “Foul Medames” which is a base of beans and you can add spices, tomatoes, onions, and olive oil. After passing by it on our first day, I tried it the second and kept going back again and again. Tea is served in the lobby lounge every afternoon complete with delicious pastries. In the evening live music is played, or you can enjoy the swanky bar for a drink.
One of the best experiences about coming to Dubai is trying the world renown food from all over the world. Shang Palace in Shangri-La is absolutely divine. This traditional Chinese restaurant serves a wide variety of dishes that will suit any palette. Every dish we ordered was better than the next. I also recommend trying the “CockTeals,” made with traditional tea and alcohol for something refreshing and delicious. The duck is a feature of the menu and it was absolutely divine. I recommend coming to this restaurant even if you aren't staying in the Shangri-La; it was that tasty.
Hoi An is another restaurant in the hotel serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine – one of the first in Dubai! There's also Dunes Café which features all-day dining with a variety of dishes. The most beautiful restaurant is Oni, specializing in Japanese cuisine with beautiful purple accents, a sleek design, and a marble bar. You'd be remiss to come to Dubai and not stay (or at least take in the views) at Shangri-La.
Essential Things to Do in Dubai
The activities are endless for couples, families, and solo travelers. Whether you’re after adventure, shopping, luxury, or just want a fun destination, you can’t go wrong with Dubai.
Walking the warm paved streets of Dubai, I was awestruck with the sheer ingenuity of the architecture. Massive buildings that pierced the sky and others that seemed to twist upwards span the horizon. The shimmering lights of the city at night transform Dubai into what feels like an outdoor theme park.
In 2018, the Burj Khalifa had more tourists than Paris’ Eiffel Tower. The world’s tallest building stands at 829.8 meters (2,722 feet) and makes you feel like an ant in its shadow. You can go up to the 124th floor for a bird’s eye view (tickets are about $35). A high-speed elevator whisks you to the top where you’ll find an observation deck and a movie explaining the building's construction. I recommend buying your Burj Khalifa “At the Top” ticket in advance to avoid the lines.
The best view of the building itself is at the Dubai Mall during a fountain show, and you can see the light show as the building glitters in the sky. Or, at the Shangri-La where you can perch right next to the building and the other skyscrapers.
Burj Khalifa got its name in honor of the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. It took 22 million man hours to construct by 12,000 workers. The total cost to build was 4.1 billion dollars. Not too bad considering this is the tallest building in the world and Cowboys stadium in Dallas cost 1.2 billion to construct. The design itself is based on a Spider Lily, which is a flower found in the desert. Not only is it the tallest building, the 153rd floor is the world's highest occupied floor. The 148th floor is the world's highest observation deck, the 122nd floor houses the world's highest restaurant, and of course, it holds the world's highest elevator.
A must-visit place in Dubai, the Dubai Mall encompasses multi-level shops, expensive designer powerhouses on their “Fashion Avenue,” and beautiful art installations throughout. Every January and February is the Dubai Shopping Festival which hosts live music and activities. You’ll also find the famous Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, with 140 different species of sea life which is worth it if you have the time. There’s an ice skating rink and a Virtual Reality indoor theme park, in addition to myriad shops. Walking outside you’ll see the fantastic fountains that flank the Burj Khalifa.
Naturally, this is the world’s tallest performing fountain, and it's modeled after the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. It’s amazing to see the water jet into the sky. It’s easy to see the fountains from the bridges and surrounding park, there’s no need to pay additional to sit in the floating island for a view. I recommend coming back at night to walk around and see the light and fountain show once it’s dark for the best experience.
Don't forget to check out some other beautiful displays in the mall such as the Human Waterfalls. The cascade of falling water coupled with silver statues of men diving is such a peaceful scene. You can also see the Dubai Dino, a 155-million-year old fossil. Coming from Wyoming, USA, this is an almost perfectly intact dinosaur.
Dubai Creek and Al Seef District
Here, you’ll find boats lined up along the dock with tourists and locals packed on each. It’s only 1 Dirham (about 27 cents?) to take the boat (called an abra) across and go to the real Old Dubai. Tightly packed streets are filled to the brim with shops, the famed Gold Souk, Spice Souk and vendors selling cheap and delicious fried food. I suggest wandering this area and popping into a gold shop or haggling for a good deal on shoes or jewelry. Dubai is separated into two parts by Dubai Creek: Bur Dubai in the south and Deira in the North. Deira is where you’ll find the old way of life in Dubai, a stark contrast from the glam of Dubai today. If you’re looking for inexpensive shopping and a great cultural experience, look no further than Deira Souks. Don’t miss this.
Bastakia – Old Dubai
This looks more like a theme park than truly “Old Dubai.” But you can get a feel for how the city used to look. The Bastakia District, also known as the Al-Fahidi neighborhood, was built in the late 19th century as the home of wealthy Persian merchants who came to Dubai because of the tax-free trading and access to Dubai Creek to trade with pearls and textiles. You'll find the Majilis Gallery for a collection of traditional Arab ceramics and furniture, housed in a wind-tower, which was once used as air conditioning.
If you want to understand how this powerhouse city came to life, check out the Dubai Museum, located in Al-Fahidi Fort, which was built in 1787 to defend Dubai Creek. You’ll find out more about how the oil boom helped facilitate the wealth of this city and its outlook for the future.
Dubai Miracle Garden
150 million flowers in the desert? It’s possible in Dubai. I first saw the garden on Instagram with the heart-shaped flower structure and thought it would be a bit cheesy. But this garden is a nice respite from the glitzy buildings. As the world's largest flower garden, it spans 2,000 square meters and is carpeted in flowers. There are clocks, butterflies, hearts, Disney Characters, houses and even an Emirates plane covered in flowers. Buy tickets here or at the front entrance. Be aware, the park is often closed in the summer for restoration and because of the heat.
Nearby, there’s a Butterfly Garden that has around 15,000 butterflies.
Global Village is a theme park focused on many cities, countries, and regions of the world. There’s shopping throughout, entertainment, and food. You’ll see each region offers typical merchandise from their culture. However, some of the offerings were pretty cheesy. Walk around and find what looks best to you. We were pleasantly surprised by the Bosnian zone with people from Bosnia selling handicrafts and delicious food.
Note: Open from October 30th-April 6th from 4pm-to 12am. Mondays are dedicated to families and ladies only.
Touted as the world’s only 7-star hotel, it’s also the world’s tallest at over 320 meters (*feet) high. Designed as a sail, it stands on a man-made island. You’ll also find some of the most expensive hotel rooms in the world – $15,000 for the night! Of course, if you don't quite have the budget for a room, you can have drinks at 200 feet up.
This top sight in Dubai is a great place to walk the beach and catch sunset.
One of the best places to get a view of the shining skyscrapers, grab a bite to eat, and do some shopping. Considered to have the world’s largest man-made marina in the world, you have immense views of boats, Bentleys, and buildings.
Mall of Emirates
You can’t go to Dubai and not do a little shopping. Mall of the Emirates is one of the best places to visit in Dubai as it’s manageable to walk around, find eateries from all over the world, and even do a little skiing! Yes, you can ski indoors in Dubai. Dubai Ski offers year-round skiing and a penguin enclosure.
If you’re not quite done shopping, you can also check out Ibn Battuta Mall, which is the largest theme based mall in the world. Containing over 270 shops and 50 restaurants, there are endless opportunities to shop and dine.
You might be wondering, like me, why there are so many shopping malls. But because Dubai gets so hot in the summer, it’s necessary to take some of the actives indoors. I can appreciate Dubai’s ingenuity to bring all kinds of activities, even if you’re in the desert.
As we flew to Dubai we looked down to spot the man-made islands of Dubai shaped just like Palm Trees. One is still being built, but the original, Palm Jumeirah, is full of hotels, restaurants, and homes- all with beachfront views. Unfortunately, you can’t drive down the “fronds” (streets) to get a look at the houses as all are private, but you can venture over to the Atlantis Resort. This decadent resort has a water park (including a nine story waterslide- the world’s largest!), shopping, and restaurants. I don’t recommend staying here, as it’s so hard to drive in and out of the palm tree island- there is literally only one way in and out through an underground tunnel.
When I saw the glittering gold frame, as tall as a building, I thought it was just an excuse for Instagram photos. But we decided to take a look. To my astonishment, you can go inside and up to get a great view of the city and learn a great deal about old and new Dubai. Located between old and new, it gives you a view into how to city started and panoramic views of old and new Dubai. The Future Dubai gallery shares an imagined vision of the future for the city. Check out Dubai Frame tickets here, or purchase at the front entrance.
Kite beach, aka Jumeirah Beach, is a hub for kite surfers and a great place to find an array of water sports. You can even learn to kite surf! You'll also find a perfect spot to lay on the beach and soak up the sun. There’s also an outdoor movie theater, plenty of restaurants, and boardwalks for you to stroll.
Nearby you can find Zero Gravity which offers a fun, late-night take on “brunch.” For around $50 you can graze on unlimited food and drinks with a great view of Dubai’s epic skyline. Drinks can be very pricey, so having an all-you-can-drink feast is a great budget-friendly option.
There aren’t many mosques non-Muslims can visit, but every day at 10am you can take a tour of this lovely mosque. The mosque is an exact copy of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, but eight times its size. Jumeirah Mosque is the largest in UAE and a great example of Islamic architecture with towering minarets.
Head to the Desert
There are many options for a desert trek in Dubai. You can drive the dunes, take a camel ride, sandboard, or just watch the sunset over the mesmerizing dunes. Escape the hustle of the city and find serenity and peace in the desert. Expect a half day to make the trek and to get the full experience.
Enjoy the nightlife
Dubai really comes to life a night. Go to a late dinner, head out to clubs even later, and stay up to the early hours of the morning with the glittering lights of the city. There are lots of options for finding events and parties. Most hotels have a bar where you can order alcoholic drinks, as the restaurants outside of hotels are not allowed to serve alcohol. A great area to go out is Barasti, filled with expats as well as locals. This multilevel club has a huge dance floor with the beach at the bottom.
Go to Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is only about an hour and 15 minutes drive from Dubai and I think you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t visit this Emirate. The exquisite Grand Mosque is absolutely breathtaking and worth it even if you just go for the day. Of course, you can stay for a few days here at the Shangri-La Abu Dhabi like I did! If you're only here for a short time, check out this one day excursion to Abu Dhabi from Dubai.
Here's my full guide to Abu Dhabi.
If you need a stop on the way from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, try “Last Exit” for Mad Max themed food trucks.
Dubai feels like a different world. A city on the forefront of modern innovation, still looking back at ancient traditions. It’s worth it to visit Dubai at least once in your life!
P.S. how many time’s did I say “world’s largest/longest/tallest” in this post?!