Dubai is best known as a glitzy, new-age city that loves its superlatives—world’s tallest, biggest, longest, and so on. But beyond its shiny surface, there is a culture waiting to be explored—from traditional Bedouin heritage to an urban arts movement. The shopping malls and world’s tallest tower are all definitely worth fitting into a trip. And, with the help of this itinerary, travellers can also discover a side to the Dubai that locals love, filled with exciting flavours, age-old history, and plenty of charm.
There are numerous non-stop daily flights (approximately three hours) from major Indian cities to Dubai every day and fares regularly go as low as ₹15,000 for a round-trip ticket. From other cities in India it’s easy to find connections to flights to Dubai.
You can obtain a visa for Dubai through visa or travel agencies (www.dubaivisa.net). Process online, or through Emirates or Etihad airlines, if you are travelling with them. A 30-day single entry tourist visa costs ₹6,500.
Dubai has excellent public transport, especially its metro system. To use the metro you need a NOL Card, a prepaid smart card that deducts the fare as you go. Trains have a ladies and children-only section. (dubaimetro.eu, runs Sat-Thu 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and until midnight on Fri, fares from AED3/₹55 depending on distance travelled; www.nol.ae, one-day pass AED14/₹254 includes travel on trains, buses, and water buses.)
Taxis are available everywhere. A ride from the airport to Downtown Dubai should cost AED40-50/₹720-900 and to Jumeirah AED75/₹1,358, plus an airport flag charge of AED25/₹450. In Deira or Bur Dubai, cross the Dubai Creek on abras, local water taxis which are traditional boats made of wood (5 a.m. to midnight; minimum fare AED12/₹220).
•Weekends in Dubai are Friday and Saturday. Sunday is a weekday.
•Tuesday nights are universally ladies night and most bars have free drinks or deals for women.
•Get your hands on the Entertainer app through someone you know, or buy it for yourself. It offers excellent buy-one-get-one-free discounts on hotels, restaurants, water parks, desert safaris etc. The savings will more than justify the cost of the app which is hefty at AED445/₹8,050. You need a data/Wi-Fi connection to use it. There is also a similarly priced Entertainer Dubai coupon book.
•Group buying websites such as Groupon (www.groupon.ae) also offer ongoing deals on many activities, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them.
Dubai has plenty of luxury hotels. Those looking to splurge can try St.Regis Dubai for an upscale experience. Its neoclassical design features chandeliers and marble, a grand staircase, and a musical fountain (www.stregisdubai.com; doubles from AED1,400/₹25,313). A slightly less expensive option is Vida Downtown Dubai. A homegrown brand (from Emaar, Dubai’s biggest property developer), this boutique hotel is located in the thick of the Downtown area. Contemporary design and efficient service give it a young vibe (www.vida-hotels.com; doubles from AED629/₹11,430).
For a more affordable option, check in to the Novotel Dubai Al Barsha. The no-frills hotel offers comfortable accommodation in a 42-storey building easily recognizable for its green, hanging garden wall. It is conveniently located just off the arterial Sheikh Zayed Road, with a metro station within walking distance. There is a kids’ club and children under 16 stay free in the same room (www.novotel.com; doubles from AED386/₹6,980).
For a really unique stay, the XVA Art Hotel is a one of a kind property tucked into the heart of the historical district (see Day 1 itinerary). This atmospheric hotel housed in a heritage building has 14 cosy rooms, each designed by a different artist, and a lovely courtyard café (www.xvahotel.com; doubles from AED315/₹5,768).
To quote Julie Andrews, the beginning is a very good place to start. Give yourself an introduction to the city by soaking in its history in old Dubai. Along the southern shore of the Dubai creek, in the heart of the Bur Dubai district, lies the Dubai Museum in the historic Al Fahidi Fort (open 8.30 a.m.-8.30 p.m. Sat-Thu and 2.30-8.30 p.m. on Fri; entry AED3/₹56). The compact museum offers a beginner’s lesson in the city’s history with exhibits and interactive displays. It is in the Al Fahidi Historical District, with its labyrinth of narrow alleys lined with restored traditional wind tower-style buildings that now house art galleries, museums, and cafés.
Make a pit stop at The Coffee Museum, which showcases all things coffee, from antique accessories to books about coffee. Don’t drink coffee here though—save it for the Arabian Teahouse Café next door, one of the city’s best-kept secrets. A nondescript doorway leads into a leafy courtyard of white wicker furniture and billowing canopies. Historical artefacts and black-and-white photographs summon up the city’s past. Stay for a beverage break; they have a diverse tea menu with a range of salads, sandwiches, and pastas. Or linger to sample their limited but good selection of Arabian dishes, such as the rich chicken salona curry, or grilled shish tawook (www.arabianteahouse.co; mains for around AED55/₹995, drinks from AED20/₹362). Another lunch option is the adjacent Local House restaurant, where visitors can try Emirati specialties such as chicken mandy — a subtly spiced rice and meat dish, similar to biryani — and their signature camel burger (around AED150/₹2,712 for two). For lunch with a view, try Bayt al Wakeel Arabian restaurant, located right by Dubai Creek, with an outdoor deck that juts out over the water on stilts. The food is average, but most come here for the location (around AED170/₹3,073 for two). On the other side of the creek, the small Hatam Al Ta’ai in Baniyas Square is where locals eat. All meals come with salad, soup, and a round of hummus (meal for four AED120/₹2,170).
For a bit of adventure after lunch, hop on to an abra at the abra station (from AED1/₹18, www.rta.ae). Cross over to the old souks on the Deira side of Dubai creek and soak in the bustling market-style environment, similar to India’s chowks. Then, enjoy an “only in Dubai” moment by travelling from the old city straight to the gates of the futuristic Dubai Mall in Downtown Dubai. Set aside a couple of hours for a shopping spree at one of the world’s biggest malls, home to a staggering array of brands. It’s also a good place to tick off some souvenir shopping. Camel Company brings a modern twist to classic Arab souvenirs with their quirky, colourful, and artistically designed novelty items and stuffed toys (kids love their cute, puppy-eyed camels), as well as Dubai-themed T-shirts and stationery. For a more traditional take, Al Jaber Gallery is a convenient one-stop shop for Dubai kitsch, offering everything from coffee pots and shishas to intricate silverware. Also accessible from the mall are the At the Top observation decks of the Burj Khalifa on the 124th, 125th, and 148th floors (www.burjkhalifa.ae; open 8 a.m.- 11.30 p.m, opens 5.30 a.m on weekends; adults from AED125/₹2,260; children AED95/₹1,717 with online booking). Get here around sunset to catch unbeatable views of the skyscrapers amidst the dunes, and to watch the transformation of Dubai into a glittering metropolis.
Downtown Dubai is abuzz in the evening. Numerous restaurants line the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, most offering al fresco dining. To savour Lebanese cuisine, head to Leila, a popular restaurant featuring shabby-chic interiors. Their authentic classics include an Arabian mezze starring hummus, baba ganoush, fatayer (fried savoury pastries), and grilled kebabs, accompanied by fresh flatbreads (www.leilarestaurant.com; around AED200/₹3,616 for two). The Downtown neighbourhood has plenty of other restaurants offering everything from Italian and Thai to exotic Armenian.
For those visiting between November and April, an alternative way to spend the evening is at Global Village. Dubai is a true melting pot of cultures, and nowhere is this better experienced than at this annual fair that takes place in an arena just outside the city. The colourful, vibrant carnival features pavilions from different countries, live entertainment, and plenty of fairground-style activities including a Ferris wheel. It’s a great place to bag a bargain when it comes to eclectic handicrafts as well as sample authentic flavours from a range of international food stalls (www.globalvillage.ae; open 1 Nov 2016-8 April 2017; 4 p.m.-12a.m. Sat-Wed, until 1 a.m. on Thurs, Fri; entry AED15/₹271 per head; regular buses ply from the city, route details on website)
Make this a day by the water. A sandy beach is never too far in Dubai. Head to Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR for the locals) in new Dubai, where you can grab breakfast by the beach, and have a leisurely stroll along the coast. Eggspectation at The Beach mall does, as the name suggests, eggs in many different ways, plus the usual suspects such as pancakes and waffles (www.eggspectation.com; meals for two from AED180/₹3,360). This two-year-old mall has a host of cafés, restaurants, play activities for children, and workout equipment for adults to use free of cost. For lunch try Seven Sands, a contemporary Emirati restaurant. The diverse menu includes fresh salads with seasonal vegetables, choubab or Emirati pancakes, maleh korse—a dried fish dish, ouzi fouga or slow-cooked whole baby lamb and rice cooked together biryani-style, and thereed, a meat and potato stew (www.sevensandsrestaurant.com; meal for two from AED250/₹4,520). At JBR, a more reasonable option is Operation: Falafel, which serves traditional Arab street food. Get the shawarma and falafel platters or sandwiches after a swim (meal for family of four AED150/₹2,700).
From The Beach take a short ride on the Dubai Tram (tickets from AED4/₹75, www.alsufouhtram.com) to Marina Walk, while taking in the sights of the modern Dubai Marina district. The area was a desert less than a decade ago, but is now replete with high-rises. Marina Walk is a bustling waterfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants overlooking the marina where ogle-worthy yachts are moored. There are plenty of reasonably priced options for lunch, from pizzas to Indian cuisine. To eat local try Reem al Bawadi, an award-winning and reasonably priced chain of restaurants offering hearty Middle Eastern cuisine in a rustic setting (www.reemalbawadi.com; meal for four from AED200/₹3,620).
Boat tours operate from Marina Walk. These range from dhow cruises to the government-run Dubai Ferry. Try The Yellow Boats’ 90-minute guided tour, which combines the thrills of speedboat racing through the waters with guided sightseeing along the marina aboard comfortable inflatable boats. The route goes up to Palm Jumeirah and the Burj al Arab, and back, offering incomparable photoops along the way. Friendly guides pepper their commentary with humour and local insights, making it a fun ride that’s safe for children too (from AED280/₹5,062 per person, www.theyellowboats.com).
You could also opt for the RTA-run Dubai Ferry, which, in this instance is more of a touristy catamaran than a functional ferry, complete with airconditioning, and an on-board snack bar. A trip from Dubai Marina to the Atlantis allows views of the coastline without breaking the bank (tickets from AED50/₹905; www.dubai-ferry.com). If the boat tour whets your appetite for aquatic thrills, visit a water park. Dubai has a few, and they’re all good. Wild Wadi Waterpark has Arabian adventure-themed rides in a luxury setting (www.jumeirah.com/en/hotels-resorts/dubai/wild-wadi; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov-Feb and 10 a.m-7 p.m. Mar-Oct; entry adults AED275/₹4,972, children AED230/₹4,158). More daring, with plenty of thrills-a-minute is Aquaventure Waterpark in Atlantis The Palm (www.atlantisthepalm.com/marine-water-park/aquaventure-waterpark; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; entry adults AED260/₹4,700, children AED215/₹3,887).
End the day with a relaxed evening at nearby Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Designed according to traditional Arabian architectural styles, this picturesque complex with winding waterways transports visitors back to a historic bazaar. Magnificent Burj al Arab views from here are guaranteed Instagram hits. Wind down with wine at The Agency, a chic wine bar, or grab dinner at one of many international restaurants—from Italian or southern American BBQ, it’s all here. I recommend Tortuga at the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam hotel for its authentic, homestyle Mexican food and live band (www.jumeirah.com; meal for four AED500/₹9,040). A more affordable option with a prime waterfront location is Toscana, an Italian trattoria, serving good pizzas and pastas (www.jumeirah.com; meal for four AED200/₹3,620).
Uncover a whole new side to Dubai at Al Quoz, an industrial area that has undergone a makeover and turned into a trendy arts enclave. Hundreds of galleries, concept boutiques, and cafés in former warehouses make this the undisputable arts and culture hub of the city. Alserkal Avenue, a gated complex of galleries and studios, is a great place to start (www.alserkalavenue.ae). End with artisanal coffee and fresh, wholesome food at nearby Tom & Serg, a hip home-grown café in an oversized warehouse (www.tomandserg.com; meal for four AED250/₹4,520). Nearby, The Limetree Café and Kitchen is something of a Dubai institution, and their Al Quoz branch is also a good option for lunch. They do wholesome café-style grub such as “toasties,” and their carrot cake is legendary (www.thelimetreecafe.com; meal for four AED150/₹2,712).
A family-friendly way to spend the morning is at Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates (20 minutes from Al Quoz). Kids have their fun snowboarding or getting a ski lesson, while adults enjoy retail therapy (www.theplaymania.com/skidubai; ski lessons begin at AED185/₹3,345).
Set the afternoon aside for a desert safari—a must-do for visitors to the Emirate. Yes, it may be a kitschy, formulaic experience, but it’s also fun and a handy way to explore the desert. Guests are picked up from their hotel and driven into the desert for a spot of dune bashing followed by an evening at a Bedouin-inspired safari camp with traditional Arabian majlis floor seating. Travellers can try henna painting, camel rides, sandboarding, and get the obligatory tourist photo dressed in Arab attire. A barbecue dinner (alcoholic beverages can be purchased at the bar) with belly dancing for entertainment, completes the evening. Innumerable tour operators offer this experience, but not all desert safaris are equal. Lama Tours efficiently delivers a good experience (www.lamadubai.com; from AED130/₹2,350, children up to 11 AED110/₹2,000). For a luxe option, try Arabian Adventures (www.arabianadventures. com; adults AED375/₹6,780, children AED300/₹5,424 per head for sundowner dune dinner safari). They also offer overnight safaris for those with the time and inclination for a night under the stars.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Only in Dubai”.
This is National Geographic Traveller India’s handy guide to Dubai, a cosmopolitan Middle Eastern city that is ideal for a long weekend visit for families. We’ve designed a mid-level holiday including numerous activities and dining options with prices, so you can plan a trip according to your budget. The cost of this three-day itinerary for a family of four (two adults and two children) is ₹1,20,000 without airfare or visa costs. It includes numerous sightseeing trips and eating at a variety of places that are mostly mid-level. You can also plan a trip that’s cheaper if you opt for less expensive restaurants and avail discounts. If you want to splurge, Dubai has no dearth of options for luxurious hotels, restaurants, and other nightlife, and you will get your money’s worth.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.