Dubai: City in the sand


Being stuck in the middle of the desert hasn't stopped the United Arab Emirates from creating one of the world's biggest visitor hubs. But, as Chris Dwyer discovers, there's more to Dubai than its reputation for extravagance and shopping

Dubai, a city of superlatives, needs little introduction to the seasoned global traveller. When you combine the world’s busiest international airport and a location within eight hours’ flying time for half the world’s population, it means that there’s no shortage of visitors. 

Having won the right to host the World Expo in 2020, however, the city’s goal is to double visitor numbers in just five years, to a total of 20 million per year. Somehow, you know they’ll deliver – they almost always do. The city already offers an extraordinary array of options for tourists, even before you begin to look at the breath-taking new plans and projects already underway.

On the one hand, there’s the opulence and extravagance, on the other a concerted effort to highlight the city’s cultural richness, variety and depth.

Shiny happy buildings
For the former, no visit is complete without seeing the city’s vertical icons – the only question is where to start. A perfect base is any of the four Madinat hotels on Jumeirah beach ( They’re beautiful properties in their own right, but also afford spectacular views of the Burj Al Arab (Jumeirah Beach Rd, Jumeirah 3, +971 4 301 7777;, arguably the city’s defining icon. It’s both the scale and the beauty that takes the breath away. Designed to represent a billowing Arab dhow sail, in tribute to the city’s seafaring heritage, it’s taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 60m shorter than the Empire State Building. 

Of course, if you have upwards of $23,000 a night to drop, you could also stay there in one of its two-story 1,800sq ft suites. Rocking up in one of its 10 white Rolls Royce Phantoms or being dropped on the helipad 212m up ensures you arrive in style. The 24-hour butler service is deservedly famous, as are the Hermes smellies and 24 carat gold iPads in the Royal Suite. For most of us, however, it’s sufficient to book a table in one of the restaurants to get across the causeway and into the hotel proper.

If the fountain and fire display in the lobby is not your thing, then dinner in Al-Mahara (Ground Floor,Burj Al Arab, +971 4301 7600; brings a descent in a gold-plated lift, before you eat surrounded by huge aquaria, giving the impression of being underwater. In a cruel twist – given who is watching you as you eat – seafood is on the menu, but it’s beautifully executed by the team under French chef Maxime Luvara.

Another record-breaker, in every sense, is the Burj Khalifa (1 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Blvd, +971 4888 8124; At 2,722ft, it’s the world’s tallest building and a clear statement of intent that the city doesn’t like to be outdone.  As you’d expect, you also get to experience the world’s longest lift ride, in distance, to get to the observation deck or the glitzy atmosphere restaurant ( For once, the cliché rings true and the views really do take the breath away. Not so much for what you can see out on the sandy horizons, but more by looking straight down to the world thousands of feet below, one resembling Lego from up on high. 

The lakes and jets of the Dubai Fountain at the Dubai Mall (Financial Centre Rd; immediately stand out, shooting water 500ft in sync with classical, Arabic and world music favourites. At night, a laser and light show features one super beam shooting skywards that can (apparently) be seen from space.

The Dubai Mall complex features 1,200 shops over 13 million sq ft. There’re no prizes for guessing it’s the world’s largest shopping complex, but it’s also – according to its owners – the world’s single most visited leisure destination, receiving more annual visitors than New York City or Los Angeles. The shoe zone alone has 40 stores, as well as the Margaret Dabbs Sole Lounge (Level Shoe District, G/F Dubai Mall, +971 4501 6688;, the perfect stop to revitalize flagging feet. 

If retail therapy is not your bag, then the mall features the world’s largest aquarium, a 155 million-year-old dinosaur and the Emirates A380 Experience, a simulator where you get to fly the world’s largest passenger aircraft from the country’s national carrier. 

The old city
All these record-breaking extremes and money-is-no-object experiences are great, but there’s a whole lot more to the city that often gets overlooked. There’s no better starting point to this side of Dubai than the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU, House 26, Al Mussallah Rd, Al Fahidi District, Bur Dubai, +971 4 353 6666; With its simple ethos of ‘open doors, open minds’, it aims to remove barriers between people of different nationalities while raising awareness of culture, customs and religion.

The experience is a revelation, thanks largely to Nasif Kayed, its hugely-charismatic and wisecracking MD who demystifies Islam and takes visitors on guided tours of the adjoining mosque. The cultural lunches and dinners he hosts offer sensational, authentic food served family-style as well as the opportunity to ask him absolutely anything. 

The SMCCU is at the heart of the Bastakia Quarter that was built by 19th century Persian merchants. It’s a conservation area of narrow alleys and unusual ‘wind towers’ – an early form of aircon without the drips. It’s also the perfect base from which to further explore Dubai’s history and understand the extraordinary transformation experienced by this former pearl and fishing port. In the 1930s Dubai’s population was just 20,000, a quarter of whom were expatriates, a steady throng of visitors and businessmen drawn by the souk (market) on Dubai Creek.

The souks have expanded over time and now include separate areas for gold (Sikkat Al Khail Street), textiles (Ali Bin Abi Taleb Street), spices (Baniyas Road, Al Ras Road, Al Abra Street) and perfume (Sikkat Al Khail Street, Al Soor Street), all of which offer varying degrees of bargains and a chance to hone your haggling skills.

Getting out
If outdoor activities are your bag, weather permitting, you have a huge choice. The indoor ski slope (Ski Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Rd, +971 800 386;

tempts many to cool down, as does the Wild Wadi Water Park (Jumeirah Rd, +971 4 348 4444; For the altitude-inclined, Seawings ( offers sightseeing trips by seaplane, taking in the man-made islands of The World and The Palm as well as the city’s skyline. If you’d prefer to jump out of one, then Skydive Dubai ( have your number. Arguably the most popular outdoor activities are desert safaris (lots of operators, including, taking in falconry, dune-bashing in 4x4 vehicles, alfresco dining Bedouin-style and stargazing. Plan on a full afternoon or evening to make the most and get out of the city.

When all that activity has taken its toll, you’re not exactly short of dining and entertainment options. The elegant Four Seasons (Jumeira Beach Road, +971 4270 7777; offers quality mixology options in its Hendricks bar, while dinner at adjoining Coya serves up Peruvian cuisine with sensational ceviche. For French you can’t do better than La Petite Maison (Gate Village 8, Dubai International Financial Ctr, 312th Rd, +971 4 439 0505; and its perfect renditions of Mediterranean classics. But for impossibly-romantic views and atmosphere, it’s hard to beat Pierchic (Al Sufouh Rd, +971 4 432 3232; at the Madinat Jumeirah. Perched at the end of a pier in the Arabian Gulf, it looks up towards the Burj Al Arab and serves the finest seafood from young British chef Rosalind Parsk.

Dubai’s energy and continual quest for transformation – the ‘Mall of the World’, a 48 million sq ft temperature-controlled city, is just one project currently underway – means that those millions of new visitors won’t go short of experiences. The challenge is just knowing where to start.

Where to stay
XVA Gallery Art Hotel & Café
Occupying a former family home in Dubai’s Al Fahidi ‘historic neighbourhood’, this charming boutique hotel comes complete with three original wind towers, a cosy lounge and stunning rooftop terrace for relaxing on. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. XVA Gallery Art Hotel & Café, Al Fahidi neighborhood, From $1,580 per night (inc tax).

Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa 
This new hotel finally opened in September, with 260 lagoon-view rooms, 12 beach-pool villas, 18 over-water villas and three two-bedroom villas. The complex also brings a raft of new outlets to the Palm, including Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese eatery Mekong, Bushman’s Australian Grill and Spice Spoons Thai cooking classes. Palm Jumeirah, From $3,916 per night (inc tax).

Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa
For full immersion in a 21st-century Arabian Nights fantasy, stay in one of these luxury Bedouin-style, tent-roofed suites, located in a vast conservation reserve in the desert just outside the city. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, +971 4 832 9900, From $10,000 per night (inc tax).

How to get there
Emirates ( fly direct from Hong Kong from $5,357 return (inc tax). If you’re flying on to Europe then it’s possible to break your flight in Dubai and take in a short break in the city.


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