Half a century ago, Dubai was a backwater on the Arabian Gulf. Today it is a high-rise, world-class ﬁnancial and tourist centre with some of the most spectacular architecture on Earth. Dubai is quickly becoming one of the most popular Middle Eastern destinations to go during the cold winter months.
1. Family fun
9am The easiest way of seeing Dubai with a family is to take one of the three hop-on, hop-off bus routes offered by BigBus Dubai. Each circuit takes a minimum of two hours, and can easily occupy an entire day.
The Red City route includes the most cultural stops, including the Old Souk, the Gold Souk, the Spice Souk, Dubai Museum. Not to mention the Dhow Pier for a trip along Dubai Creek, the main artery of the historic city. But with younger children you’ll probably have a more enjoyable day if you take the Green Beach tour.
The options include a Downtown Discovery Walk, Jumeirah Beach Park (which incurs an entry fee), Jumeirah public beach, and the Lost Chambers of Atlantis. The spectacular aquarium at the Atlantis the Palm resort that features in so many of Dubai’s expensive tourist adverts.
9.15am Alternatively, if money is no object and your children are old enough (say, ten or over), spend a minimum of 15 minutes haggling with a taxi driver to take you round for the day for an agreed fee, payable when he returns you to your cruise ship.
Haggling is part of Arabic culture, and the sooner your children are exposed to it the better. Find a taxi driver who speaks good English (most do) and don’t let conscience inhibit your negotiating (everyone in Dubai is much better at haggling than you will ever be).
Strike a deal and your driver will wait for you at each stop and look out for you when you emerge from whatever it is you are visiting.
10.15am Ever seen the sandstorm sequence in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol? That’s where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climbs up Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Which was then the world’s tallest building, while a ferocious wind blows in from the largest sand desert on the planet.
According to Hollywood legend, the intrepid Mr Cruise really did dangle upside down, 518 metres above the ground. You can enjoy the same view (the right way up) by paying the entrance fee and taking the lift to the observation deck. From here you can see where ocean meets desert – a spectacular sight (and a pretty cool geography lesson) at any time of day.
11.15am By now your children really deserve a paddle in the Arabian Gulf. Dubai is the biggest city (though not the capital) of the United Arab Emirates, whose wealth is built on oil. But the waters of the Gulf are pristine and – as you’ll soon discover at any beach west of the marina – delightfully balmy.
1pm Lunch beckons, so hail your driver and head back towards the Gold Souk. Don’t worry if some of your party are less than adventurous eaters – most establishments will offer a simple mixed grill and rice, or the vegetarian equivalent. And, this being the tourist heart of Dubai, there will be plenty of child-friendly options.
2.30pm Grab your children’s hands and take a wander through whichever souk is closest (there’s no danger, it’s just extremely easy to get lost in such a mesmerising warren).
Find out what they’d like to have as presents, and then be part of the street theatre by haggling (at home we now have a hand-carved chess set and an Aladdin puppet that we are very fond of – even if I did pay far too much for them).
3.30pm The options are endless. The Dubai Ice Rink? The Dubai Indoor Ski Centre? The spectacular Dubai Fountains? The world-famous shopping malls? Whichever you choose, keep an eye on the time. With so many attractions, it would be all too easy to miss your sailing.
- For general information, see visitdubai.com
- BigBus tours information, visit bigbustours.com
- For Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, see thedubaiaquarium.com
- For Dubai Ice Rink, see dubaiicerink.com
2. First time in Dubai?
9am Your first experience of Arabian culture should be to a mosque, just as your initial visit to India might begin with a Hindu or Buddhist temple.
You may choose to head for the Jumeirah Mosque, the only one in Dubai that welcomes non-Muslims six days a week (though if you are a Muslim yourself, you’ll probably prefer the Grand Mosque in Bur Dubai). Jumeirah Mosque is huge, capable of holding 1,200 worshippers, and entering the Mosque includes “free pastries”.
It’s built in the ancient Fatimid style, which dates from the time William the Conqueror was invading England. You’ll swoon at those exquisite mosaics, elegant pillars and soaring ceilings. And then you’ll be amazed that anyone could build such a masterpiece in the 1970s.
Be sure to dress appropriately. Women have to wear a scarf (a good excuse to buy one?) and cover their arms and legs. Men should also check the dress code and carry a pair of trousers or a long-sleeved shirt in the backpack just in case (some experienced travel journalists – mentioning no names – have neglected to do this and been caught out).
11am Head back to the world-famous Gold Souk. You don’t have to buy, and in any case the merchandise tends to be a little heavy and elaborate for Western tastes. But if you do feel the urge to splurge, there are all manner of other precious metals and wondrous gems for sale. Then, when you are thoroughly dazzled by all that glitter, take a return dhow trip along Dubai Creek.
If you do nothing else while you’re here, tick off both of the above and you’ll have had the two essential Dubai experiences. Why? Because even now, despite the city’s multi-billion-pound efforts to portray itself as an ultra-sophisticated destination (which it is), it’s historic Dubai that still makes the most vivid impression.
2pm Feeling peckish? Resist the urge to head to one of Dubai’s many internationally renowned establishments and just pick a well-frequented restaurant near the Gold Souk where you can enjoy an excellent Arabic/Lebanese/Turkish/Indian/seafood lunch while you people-watch.
3.30pm Dubai Museum is in Al Fahidi Fort, which dates from 1787, making it the oldest building in the city. Around a million people visit each year, and it includes many artifacts from the African and Asian countries that have traded with Dubai since time immemorial, as well as tracing the city’s recent development into a global hub.
- For information about Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai Gold Souk and the Dubai Museum, see visitdubai.com
3. Been there! Go here!
Sharjah: The sports venue next door
You’ll need to take your passport if you want to visit Dubai’s neighbouring Emirate – home to many international cricket competitions – but a taxi ride across the border should only take you 30 minutes.
Sharjah also likes to call itself the UAE’s cultural capital, though this title is currently under threat as Abu Dhabi builds a museum complex worthy of any city in the world (including the first Louvre outside Paris and the third Guggenheim after New York and Bilbao).
Take this short cross-border trip and you can discover the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. You can also visit the Sharjah Heritage Museum with its five galleries explaining everything you need to know about how people in the UAE live.
You’ll eat well here, too, though given the number of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who work in Sharjah, you won’t be surprised that some of the best restaurants are subcontinental (the Indian cuisine at Gazebo comes highly recommended).
Fast and furious
If your idea of fun is being strapped into a Jeep with its tyres deflated so your driver can leap over perilously sloped sand mountains, narrowly missing the 4×4 in front (or behind), then this should certainly be on your list of the top things to do in Dubai. Evening is the usual time for “dune-bashing” but cruise passengers will probably need to book a morning tour (top tip: skip breakfast unless you want to see it twice).
The oyster’s your world
A Venetian jeweller – and contemporary of Shakespeare – was the first Westerner to note that the best pearls came from this part of the world. Long before the discovery of oil or the development of a tourist industry, this precious harvest sustained the economy of the entire coastline. But as romantic as it sounds, pearl-diving was a harsh existence. Boys were inducted around the age of nine, taught how to hold their breath, and sent underwater to collect as many oysters as they could carry.
Today, however, pearl diving is an enjoyable adventure for tourists. You’ll sail out on a dhow, slip into the traditional cotton uniform, plunge to the bottom with a heavy stone attached to your foot, and then gather as many oyster shells as you can while your breath endures (don’t worry – you don’t go too far down).
So, what if you don’t find a valuable pearl? At least you’ll have the makings of a delicious seafood lunch.
- For Jeep trips, see dubaidunebuggytours.com
- Find out more about pearl-diving at dubai.travel-culture.com
- For Sharjah tourist info, see sharjah-welcome.com
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published June 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.