Dubai is a city that manages to celebrate its past while also pioneering the future. No other city in the United Arab Emirates offers such an eye-opening look at the rich history and traditions of the region while also offering an exciting glimpse at the Middle East of tomorrow. For this reason, Dubai has emerged as both a significant commercial hub and an extraordinary vacation destination.
In Dubai, innovation is everywhere – record-breaking skyscrapers pierce the atmosphere and one-of-a-kind amusement parks spark the imagination. The natural beauty of the surrounding desert is mesmerizing and adventure awaits in its rolling dunes. Dubai holds endless opportunities to both pamper yourself — starting with your flight on the award-winning Emirates airline — and to push your limits. The biggest challenge is simply fitting it all in.
Whether you’re traveling solo for a short business trip or with your entire family for a week, there are unforgettable experiences to match any length of stay — and any age. Here is a simple guide to spending your time wisely no matter how long you’re planning to be in UAE’s most exciting city.
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Even if you have less than a day in Dubai, there are still experiences that will leave an impression that will last a lifetime. First, book a Traditional Turkish Hammam spa experience to shake off your travel day and awaken the senses. Purists love the old-school clay scrub at the Talise Ottoman Spa within the Jumeriah Zabeel Saray Hotel. Then, grab at least one incredible meal aboard the Bateaux Dubai. The glass-walled boat allows you to soak in the city skyline as you cruise along Dubai Creek, while dining on a blend of eastern and western flavors over a four-course meal. And while Dubai at night is an incredible backdrop for a meal, Bateaux Dubai also now has a high tea during the day for those with reservations – perfect for anyone who has an evening flight to catch.
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With one full day and night to do whatever you want, book a room at the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel. Built to resemble a giant sail — on its own man-made island off Jumeirah beach — the Burj Al Arab is the city’s third tallest accommodation and considered a pioneer of Emirati luxury, with service and views that set the tone quickly for your whirlwind stay. Get an early start aboard the Big Bus Dubai, a classic hop-on-hop-off driving tour that hits all the major sights and includes commentary. We recommend the “Beach Tour” and “City Tour”, which will give you just enough time to stop and explore Dubai highlights such as the 230 year-old Al Fahidi Fort, the Jumeirah Mosque — which comes alive under floodlights at dusk — and the observation deck at the top of the 2,700-foot tall Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
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Bus tours offer a great overview, but a full-day walking tour is a far more immersive experience. Escape the action for at least a few hours and get lost in historic neighborhoods of Bur Dubai and Deira, where you’ll be surrounded by the traditional architecture of Emirati homes and mosques and the sights and scents of markets that have existed for hundreds of years. You can set off on a DIY tour that starts at the Harib Bin Harib Mosque and ends at the perfume souk in Deira. Or, book an organized group walk with the popular Wander With Nada tours to get a culture and history lesson along the way. For an unforgettable final dinner, head back to the stunning silver spire that is the Burj Khalifa and take the elevator up 122 floors to the world’s tallest restaurant, At.Mosphere.
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Given all there is to do and see in Dubai itself, it’s easy to forget there is a sea of stunning desert just outside city limits. After a very fast-paced five days, take the ultimate breather with a pre-dawn hot air balloon ride high above the clouds — and the skyscrapers — and out over the impressive dunes. This half-day adventure is the perfect way to experience the wild side of the UAE. You’ll spot camels, gazelles, and the Arabian Oryx, all roaming in their natural habitat. While hovering more than a half mile above the sand your balloon pilots will bring the wildlife to you by putting on an exhilarating falconry exhibition right from the balloon basket. After landing, you’ll be taken by vintage Land Rovers to an unforgettable picnic-style breakfast feast.
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There is no doubt that after a hot air balloon ride high above the vast Emirati desert, you’ll want to see it up close — and it doesn’t get much closer than while you are “dune bashing”. Rip around the sea of sand on a four-wheel-drive vehicle and get sand blasted as you swerve your way up and down the rolling hills. Once you’ve had enough fuel-injected fun, you can trade your 4-wheeler for a sandboard and try “surfing” your way down the dunes. Check out Funtours Dubai for trips that include 4-wheeling, sandboarding, camel rides, and a tasty BBQ. [funtoursdubai.com]
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The waters around the Arabian Peninsula are incredibly vibrant, which is why Dubai's aquarium is so impressive. Not only does it hold some of the largest tanks in the world — one of which is two and a half million gallons — the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo houses over 140 species of aquatic life, including over 300 sharks and rays, the largest collection of sand tiger sharks in the world, and a King Croc weighing over 1,500 pounds. But even more impressive than the sea life itself are the ways in which the aquarium allows you to experience the underwater world, with everything from cage dives among the sharks to a personal motorcycle-like submarine called a “shark scooter”.
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Sitting on its own private slice of sand off Jumeirah Beach, the Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai hotel boasts the best water park in the Middle East and Europe. Aquaventure Waterpark is a 42-acre spread with lazy rivers, slides, ziplines, “petting” aquariums and marine mammal shows — enough to keep the entire family cool from sun up to sun down. Later, leave the kids behind for a quiet and romantic meal at Pierchic, which hovers over the water and serves some of the world’s best seafood to a smartly dressed international crowd. For the full experience, arrive in time for sunset over the Arabian Gulf and nab a corner table for views of the Burj Al Arab hotel.
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Ten days into your stay in Dubai, it’s time for a simple day at the beach — and the strands of powdery white sand of the Jumeirah coastline are world class. Many of the surrounding hotels have cordoned off private pieces of Jumeirah, including the Burj Al Arab. In fact, as it sits on its very own island just off shore, you actually walk over the short bridge to get to Jumeirah itself and to Burj Al Arab’s private section of sand (there are also very well-appointed public options nearby). But the views of the hotel as you soak up some sun are what make this section particularly special. It’s worth leaving the hotel grounds for a late lunch or early dinner at the casual, Villa Beach, which is one of the more popular sand-side spots along Jumeirah.
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After a day at the beach, you’ll once again have the energy to take on another amusement park — or, should we say, parks. Last year, Dubai Parks and Resorts unveiled the largest theme park complex in the world, an over $3 billion dollar patchwork that includes two LEGOLAND® parks, a Bollywood-themed park, an atmospheric waterside dining area called RIVERLANDTM Dubai, and famous film studio fantasy at the MOTIONGATETM park. Spread over 702.48 acres, you could spend several days here, so check out the great accommodations for all-inclusive trips and get a glimpse of the future of amusement parks.
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The quintessential Arabian experience is an overnight adventure that brings you out into the desert for a traditional Middle Eastern feast, local storytelling, and stargazing, all in your very own Bedouin camp. Outfitters like Platinum Heritage offer overnight escapes that begin with an afternoon journey in a vintage Land Rover, followed by a sunset safari. Afterward, you’ll pull into a traditional Bedouin camp to eat, dance, make bread, get a Henna tattoo lesson, or just kick back and stare at the brilliant night sky. At dawn, savor an authentic Arabic coffee and some caviar before being whisked back to the most exciting city in the UAE.