Dubai's skyline never fails to impress

Bursting with insatiable ambition, incredible things to do and must-visit restaurants, Dubai is one of the world’s most uplifting cities: it breaks records for fun (tallest, biggest, longest – you name it), and is home to the most bombastic skyline on Earth. But as this metropolis matures, its heritage is coming to the fore – revealing deeper cultural riches, and real pride in its Emirati traditions. From October–December, its winter sun is sublime.

The best neighbourhoods to visit in Dubai

Downtown Dubai

The Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building
The Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building

In most areas of Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is a constant presence – its glittering spire peeking out between rooftops, piercing the heat-haze over the city. But no matter how many times you admire its beauty from afar, the world’s tallest tower (829.8 metres, to be precise) is mind-bendingly magnificent up-close: almost too colossal to comprehend, the polished panes of its 163 floors sparkling in the sun.

Up on the Burj Khalifa’s observation decks, Downtown’s other skyscrapers look laughably small, and even Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest shopping centre) seems diminutive. You can also see far, far beyond the city limits to the desert beyond – and along the wild coastline, where the dunes spill into the sea.

One of this neighbourhood’s plushest addresses, Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai has a Six Senses Spa and outdoor infinity pool, with all of Downtown’s must-sees – and the Dubai Canal – within walking distance. For sunset cocktails with Burj Khalifa views, book a table on the terrace of Mami Umami, its glamorous Japanese-fusion restaurant.

Palm Jumeirah

Palm Jumeirah
Perhaps the world’s most iconic ‘island’ - Palm Jumeirah

Perhaps the world’s most iconic ‘island’, Palm Jumeirah is known for its millionaires’ residences – each with their own private beaches, views of the city’s soaring skyline, and easy access to Dubai’s best things to do. You, too, can enjoy a taste of the high life at Aloft Palm Jumeirah: it’s set on the Palm’s outer crescent, with a swimming pool overlooking the Jumeirah beaches, and the Burj Khalifa twinkling in the distance.

Meanwhile, The St. Regis Dubai, The Palm, is located on the central column of the island – with a walkway to Nakheel Mall (and its 300 shops), and its own Palm Monorail station. After a long day’s retail therapy, the adults-only infinity pool beckons.

Kite Beach

Of all the world’s cities, Dubai has one of the most spectacular coastlines – so where to go for the best swimming and sunbathing? The soft, white sand of Kite Beach is remarkably crowd-free on weekdays (Sunday-Thursday in the UAE), as it’s popular with locals but relatively unknown by tourists – despite having gorgeous sunset views of the Burj Al Arab. The water is clear and warm, and there are food trucks and restaurants galore (SALT’s burgers are the stuff of legend), as well as a running track, and book-swap ‘library booths’.

For more great places to eat, visit La Mer – a few minutes’ drive up the coast – where you’ll find tapas bars, steakhouses, and restaurants serving Emirati, Turkish, and even Iraqi cuisine. This is a great spot for lunch: it’s mere steps from a sandy beach, as well as the Laguna Waterpark and Roxy Cinema.


High rise buildings in the JBR
The Jumeirah Beach Residence, also known as the JBR

From scuba to skydiving, parasailing to paddleboarding, JBR (aka Jumeirah Beach Residence) and The Walk are packed with fun things to do. Water Adventure Dubai offers kayaks, pedal-boats and jet skis for hire – as well as flyboarding and wakeboarding lessons, and white-knuckle ‘jet shark’ rides. The base for Skydive Dubai is also nearby, so you can watch – or join – the parachutists pirouetting down to Earth.

All walks of life convene on JBR’s long, sandy beach: from well-heeled visitors to Emirati women in floor-length abayas. And in true Dubai style, nobody judges this eclectic, international crowd – nor the parade of Lamborghinis and Ferraris that purr along the beach road.

For private access to these sought-after sands – and a guaranteed sunlounger – stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai or Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Waterpark, a few minutes’ walk from the bustle of JBR. The latter is also home to beach bar Barasti, famed for its pool parties and club nights. Alternatively, check into Habtoor Grand Resort, Autograph Collection to enjoy a private beach, numerous pools and a full spa.

Dubai Marina

Dubai Marina is one of the best places to stay in the city
Dubai Marina is one of the best places to stay in the city

For sheer wow-factor, Dubai Marina is one of the best places to stay in the city. Skyscrapers flank this meandering waterway, and gleaming yachts bob in its harbour – an ever-changing scene, which shimmers like starlight after dark. The ultimate place to admire it is, as all locals know, the Observatory Bar & Grill – on the 52nd floor of Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites. Yes, the steaks and seafood are delicious, and the cocktails are amazing, but it’s the 360º view that makes this spot so special.

Just across the water, Grosvenor House, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Dubai, features a Marina-view pool and access to the beach at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa – one of Dubai’s few hotels with its own private sands.

Al Fahidi

With its magnificent old pearl merchants’ villas and narrow, warren-like streets, Al Fahidi offers a glimpse of old-time Dubai. Look up to the rooftops: most are thatched with palm leaves, and topped with ornate wind towers (an early form of air conditioning). This peaceful quarter feels like Dubai’s best-kept secret, particularly when the adhān – call to prayer – floods the air.

But this is no museum-piece. Behind the villas’ coral-encrusted facades lies a trove of fascinating places to visit: like The Majlis art gallery, the Arabian Teahouse, and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) – where Emirati guides give entertaining, and frank, presentations about their little-known culture, and serve traditional Emirati dishes to try. A ten-minute walk away, Four Points by Sheraton Downtown Dubai is a brilliant base for exploring Al Fahidi.

The Creek

Long before Dubai discovered its oil wealth, the Creek was its heart – where traders and pearl divers would gather with merchant sailors from Iran, India and beyond. Though it’s no longer the economic hub of the city, the waterway still bustles with boats, and the surrounding areas of Deira (on its eastern side) and Bur Dubai (to the west) have souks laden with Middle Eastern treasures such as saffron from Iran, frankincense from Oman, and dates grown right here in the UAE. It’s far from the regular tourist path, and feels like a real adventure.

For more alternative things to do, cross the Creek on an abra – traditional wooden boat. There’s a public ferry, or you could hire a vessel for a private tour with your own captain. Right on the waterside, Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers overlooks the action from its guestrooms and award-winning restaurant, Vivaldi – with an abra station virtually on its doorstep.

Al Quoz

Al Quoz is a quiet, out-of-town neighbourhood home to the epicentre of Dubai’s creative scene, and it’s packed with interesting things to do. Artists, designers and makers from all over the world have gravitated to Alserkal Avenue and The Courtyard (a 15-minute drive from Downtown).

You can easily spend a whole afternoon exploring the shops and studios, and meeting the people who run them: from Italian shoemakers and Middle Eastern ceramicists, to chocolatiers from New Zealand. There are many galleries here too, such as The Third Line (Dubai’s original contemporary art gallery, which also sells limited-edition prints and quirky gifts), and 1X1, which specialises in Indian contemporary art.

The desert

On the outskirts of Dubai, the urban landscape quickly yields to golden desert dunes. In the blink of an eye, those gleaming skyscrapers are replaced with endless sands – and eventually, some 100km to the east, the majestic Hajar mountain range. Welcome to the city’s playground, full of unique things to do, such as riding camels at sunset, learning the ancient Bedouin arts of falconry and archery, and spying rare Arabian oryx on a 4X4 desert safari.

Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai, offers all of these activities – and more – with uninterrupted views of the desert and mountains. Here in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (a 45-minute drive from the city), it’s not unusual to spot camels from your private infinity pool, or shooting stars from your sundeck. It’s wild, but totally lavish too.

Go deeper

Hugging the coastline, Dubai is a long, linear city – and travelling from one end to the other can take over an hour (and even more at rush-hour). If you plan to do lots of sightseeing, consider booking two hotels: one at the Creek or Downtown, perhaps, and one in the Marina or JBR neighbourhoods. If you’re only here for a short time, opt for a base near Sheikh Zayed Road (the city’s main artery) – such as JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai or Sheraton Mall of the Emirates Hotel, Dubai. Both are within walking distance of Metro stations, and you can hail a cab (or use the Careem app) to get to the beach.

Published: July 26, 2022

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