Audacious architecture and gold-dipped glamour in a desert metropolis
Dubai is often described as Las Vegas without the casinos. It certainly likes to do things on a grand scale. Supersized hotels, buffets, malls, amusement parks, aquariums, designer cars and luxury yachts are all commonplace. Expect to crane your neck looking up at the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa — and then score a dizzying number of Instagram likes with a photo taken in front of the world’s largest flower arrangement (five million blooms set in the shape of an Airbus A380 plane, thanks to the Dubai Miracle Garden).
Don’t be afraid of the heights, mega brunches or the 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road that is the spinal column of Dubai. Indulge in the emirate’s excesses; put that elastic belt to the test, skydive out of a plane, spend like no one is watching and enjoy the year-round sunshine on more than 10 miles of wide sandy beaches. Moderation doesn’t suit this place. Go big, and then go home.
Hot right now . . .
Dubai’s Museum of Illusions (Al Raqi Recreation Halls; 00 971 4 357 3999) bends minds with trompe-l'œil - and photography is absolutely encouraged.
On-trend Turkish restaurant Rüya (Grosvenor House, Al Sufouh Road; 00 971 4 399 9123 ) has reintroduced its refined Friday brunch — and, yes, the two-cheese pide (flatbread) is still on the menu. Book a table on the terrace and let your tensions melt like a good kasseri (traditional Greek-Turkish cheese).
Raise a glass to alcohol-licensed cinemas, now open at hipster hotel Rove Downtown (312 Al Sa’ada Street; 00 971 4 449 1903), Jebel Ali Recreation Club (Jebel Ali U Road; 00 971 4 459 5100) and Aloft City Centre Deira (Baniyas Road; 00 971 4 210 3333).
48 hours in . . . Dubai
Start the day on a high note at the Burj Khalifa (1 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard) in Downtown Dubai. Morning vistas can be magical in winter months when low-lying clouds make the skyscrapers look like cress growing out of cotton wool. Pay AED 135 (£29) to visit the At The Top observation deck (00 971 4 888 8124) on level 124 between 5.30am and 8am and get complimentary breakfast in The Café, or, for premium fare such as scrambled eggs and caviar or lobster cannelloni, go to At.mosphere (00 971 4 888 3828), a couple of floors below, which has a minimum spend of AED 200 (£43) from 7am to 11am.
As you’re right by Dubai Creek, jump on a traditional wooden abra. There are stops by the main souks; moving towards the mouth of the creek, find the textile souk (Ali Bin Abi Talib Street) on the left bank and the spice souk (34 Street) and perfume souk (Sikkat al Khali) on the right. Rides costs just AED 1 (22p), making them the cheapest sightseeing tours in Dubai.
Khalifa isn’t the only famous Burj in town. Experience the beloved Burj Al Arab (Jumeirah Beach Road; 00 971 4 301 7777) set on its own artificial island opposite Umm Suqeim, by booking a high-end seafood lunch at ground-floor Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara (00 971 4 301 7600). Arrive early, as most visitors do, to loiter in the lobby photographing the famous atrium. When you leave, walk over the bridge to get that quintessential Dubai holiday snap: you with the Burj Al Arab in the background.
Model your new purchases at Marina Social (King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Street; 00 971 04 446 6664) in Dubai Marina while enjoying a sit-down dinner or drinks and nibbles at the bar: Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s goat’s cheese churros with truffle honey are legendary.
Later, enjoy an exotic nightcap or two at Ramusake’s Sake Bar & Lounge in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at Jumeirah Beach (The Walk; 00 971 4 559 5300). While a DJ plays crowd-pleasers, sip on an 'Umami Merry', which bravely mixes port, lemon vodka, yuzu syrup, tomato juice, smoking salts, celery bitters and wasabi paste with surprisingly tasty results.
Watch the sun rise as you run off yesterday’s excesses along the track at The Beach, JBR, which is punctuated with outdoor gym stations and exercise machines so fitness enthusiasts can maximise their workouts.
Then promptly undo all your good work by going out for the Dubai institution that is brunch: three to four hours of unlimited food and drinks that normally clocks in at between AED 300 (£64) to AED 600 (£127) per person. Some hosts offer a more refined brunching atmosphere than others.
For a supersized spread, stroll over to the Ritz Carlton for the London Social brunch at Caravan (The Walk, Jumeirah Beach Residences; 00 971 4 318 6150), which is currently the talk of the town. This inventive brunch has a tube map-style menu and 12 food stations relating to London’s culinary neighbourhoods. Grab dim sum at 'China Town', Indian specialities at 'Brick Lane' and Middle Eastern cuisine at 'Edgeware Road'. There’s even a Mr Whippy ice cream stand. Book well in advance.
Walk off brunch with a sedate stroll through the Dubai Miracle Garden (Al Barsha South 3; 00 971 4 422 8902), a surreal petal-filled landscape, only open during winter, presenting photo opportunities at every turn thanks to a kaleidoscope of 45 million artfully arranged flowers incongruously blooming in the desert.
Admire heart-shaped trellises swollen with petunias along the Avenue of Love, and see houses, windmills, and even a Mercedes, all repurposed as planters for marigolds, roses, calendulas and tulips.
After sunset, experience a different type of garden made entirely of light bulbs. Dubai Glow Garden (Zabeel Park; 00 971 52 478 5605) also operates an ice park, where miniature Dubai landmarks are frozen in time. From here, it’s a 10-minute cab ride to the Dubai Fountain (Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard; 00 971 4 567 2030) at the foot of the Burj Khalifa. Every half-hour, from 6pm to 11pm, a water show erupts, with accompanying lights and a soundtrack that oscillates between classical music and pop hits.
Conclude your hedonist’s trip at Zuma Dubai (Gate Village 06, Al Sa'ada Street; 00 971 4 425 5660), where you can dine izakaya-style (a bit like the Japanese version of a tapas bar), sharing a winning last supper of moreish monkfish tempura with yuzu mayo and a fresh take on grilled chicken wings with sea salt and lime.
Where to stay . . .
The lavish Bulgari Resort Dubai is perched on Jumeirah Bay, an artificial island shaped like a seahorse. It's an antidote to the city’s ubiquitous skyscraper hotels, with a low-rise, Mediterranean-style design, a swanky spa and the world’s first Bulgari Marina and Yacht Club. It’s also just 15 minutes' drive from the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall.
Doubles from AED 2,000 (£400). Jumeirah Bay Island; 00 971 4 777 5555
Enjoy arty Arabian minimalism at XVA Art Hotel. This tiny boutique option also happens to be one of Dubai’s best contemporary art galleries, so the courtyard café attracts some of the city’s more interesting creative types.
Doubles from AED 290 (£60). Al Fahidi St, Bur Dubai; 00 971 4 353 5383
With a superb downtown location and views of the Burj Khalifa, Rove Downtown Dubai, sets a new standard for affordable hotels in Dubai. It's as hip as it is homely, featuring quirky décor, an outdoor pool, excellent restaurant and relaxed service.
Doubles from AED 365 (£76). 312 Al Sa’ada Street; 00 971 4 561 9999
What to bring home . . .
If you want to know your Medjool from your Mactoumi, visit Bateel, a Dubai-based specialist famous for selecting and preparing the world’s best dates from 600 varieties available. Bateel’s flagship store is on the ground floor of the Sadaf 1 building at Jumeirah Beach Residence (King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud St; 00 971 4 456 5837).
Dubai-based Dr Hamdan secured a loan from the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders to create beauty brand Shiffa (00 971 4 265 6165), and her Arabia-inspired oils are indeed shiffa — the Arabic word for healing. Find her range in most of Dubai's shopping centres, including The Dubai Mall (Financial Centre Road).
When to go . . .
Dubai is steamy and sweltering for most of the year. The best time to visit is November-March, when temperatures are moderate – though in the past few years, January, once considered the optimum month to visit, has been overcast and rainy. If you’re heading here for sun, sea and sand: spring and autumn are ideal, when you can bronze your body by day and cool down after dark in the air-conditioned restaurants, bars and shopping malls.
Summer, while blistering, is increasingly proving popular with budget travellers and families for the bargains that can be found – it’s the cheapest time to visit, but note that from June to September the average daily temperature is well over a scorching 40 degrees Celsius.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy: (00 971 4 309 4444; gov.uk/government/world/united-arab-emirates), Al Seef Road, Bur Dubai. Open Sun-Thur, 7.30am-2.30pm
Emergency services: Dial 999 (police), 998/999 (ambulance) or 997 (fire department)
Currency: Dirham, written as Dh or Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
Telephone code: From Britain, dial 00 971 (for the United Arab Emirates), followed by 4 (for Dubai), then the seven-digit number
Time difference: +4 hours
Flight time: London to Dubai is around seven to eight hours
Local laws and etiquette
• Islam is an important aspect of UAE daily life, even in Westernised Dubai. Emiratis adhere to Islamic codes of conduct, following the Five Pillars of Islam (ie, declaring there is no God but Allah, praying five times a day, donating to charity, fasting, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime).
• Dress modestly: women should wear skirts to the knees or longer, tops with sleeves, and nothing too tight or revealing; men should wear trousers/jeans and tops with sleeves.
• Same-sex marriages are not recognised in the UAE and homosexuality is illegal; the country is considered one of the world's least hospitable nations for LGBT+ people.
• Heterosexual couples should not display affection in public other than holding hands, especially during Ramadan when it’s forbidden (along with eating and drinking in public during daylight hours); and don’t share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex you’re not married to, unless it’s a parent or child. Both can land you in prison - although in practice, hotels don’t ask for proof when you check in. Individuals have been arrested for sex outside of marriage, including alleged rape victims.
• It is against the law to drink in public, or to be intoxicated in public; so always take a taxi directly to the hotel after clubbing or boozing at a pub. Alcohol is available in hotel and club restaurants and bars; restaurants outside hotels are not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages.
• Never shake hands with an Emirati woman unless she offers her hand first, and don’t photograph women without permission.
• The weekend in Dubai/UAE is Friday and Saturday. Most people have Friday (prayer day) off, which feels like Sunday in the UK, while some people work a half or full day on Saturday. Opening 'timings' are always fixed to business doors/windows. Supermarkets such as Carrefour and Spinneys tend to open 8am-10pm daily, although times can vary between branches, while shopping malls open 10am-10pm daily. Smaller suburban malls, independent shops and souq stalls close from around 1pm to 4/5pm and don’t open until 4/5pm on Fridays (day of worship).
• Don’t photograph Sheikhs’ palaces, police stations, military buildings, ports or airports.
• Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) taxis are the most popular way to get around. Fuel is cheap in the UAE, making fares affordable; around town, fares start at AED12 (£2.50). You can hail a cab on the street or book via telephone (00 971 4 208 0808) or on the RTA app. More expensive cabs can be booked on the Uber and Careem apps. The Dubai Metro is the cheapest way to travel, with single fares starting at AED3 (63p). See rta.ae for a metro map.
Sarah moved from London to the UAE to escape the rain and quickly became obsessed with the finer details of five-star hotels and world records, of which Dubai probably holds the most.
Experience Dubai with the Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours and holidays in Dubai, tried, tested and recommended by our Dubai experts.