Dubai is a city of extremes. As you stand in the centre of this cosmopolitan playground surrounded by the vertiginous skyline and ostentatious architecture, it’s hard to believe that Dubai started life as a small fishing town before being transformed beyond all recognition by the most remarkable gold rush of modern times. Unfortunately, the chasm between the super-rich and those living hand-to-mouth is clear for all to see. The coffers of the local-born Emirates, who account for just 12 percent of the population, have swollen on the backs of the cheap labour provided by the increasingly abundant working classes arriving in the Gulf from the Indian subcontinent.
This guide to Dubai’s top ten attractions will take you on a tour through the city’s diverse social strata, taking in some of Dubai’s modern gems, as well as some of the city’s more authentic sights.
Blow the budget at Burj Al Arab
If you’re looking for places to stay in Dubai, unless your wallet strains at the seams with money and not receipts, you’re probably better off avoiding the world’s only unofficial ‘seven-star hotel’ Burj Al Arab. Hotels/accommodation don’t come more extravagant than the world’s tallest, which dominates a Dubai skyline already besieged with towering symbols of Arabian wealth. With gold leaf the decor of choice and fountains adorning the foyer, the most affordable way to see this spectacle is to eat in one of the hotel’s many eateries. There are plenty to choose from but all are costly, so seeing how the other half live will not come cheap. Alternatively, if you’re looking for longer stays that are just as upscale then choose one of Dubai’s luxury apartments instead.
Experience some serious shopping
If you like your shopping surreal, the colossal Mall of the Emirates is peculiar enough for most. With its very own indoor ski slope where the snow is made onsite, you can enjoy the perks of an alpine resort in one of the world’s hottest countries. You will not find bargains in Dubai’s malls, but what you will find are designer names at designer prices, interspersed with plenty of electronics, which you will find at cheaper prices than here in the UK.
Haggle for a bargain at the Gold Souk
One commodity you will be able to buy for a bargain price is gold. The Gold Souk is any magpie’s dream, with more of the glittery stuff than you will see in any one location. With more than 300 traders specialising in the sale of jewellery all competing for your trade, be sure to haggle as expectant dealers will be prepared to drop their opening gambit price by as much as half. If you’re prepared to walk away you can secure yourself a steal.
Try a few bars
Dubai may be a Muslim state, but the bubbly flows freely to cater for western demand. The law limits the sale of alcohol to the confines of hotel bars, but with over 450 hotels in Dubai alone, you’ll never be too far from your favourite tipple. Some of the city’s most relaxed bars include the open-air 360 Degrees, with its dizzying rooftop bar and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Barasti – the only bar which lines Dubai’s golden sands.
Explore the Bastakia Quarter
Not all of Dubai’s authentic charm has been overrun by the inexorable sprawl of this maturing metropolis. There are still pockets of Dubai that allude to the quiet life of old. The Bastakia Quarter, which sits wedged between Dubai Creek and the Bur Dubai district, presents a bohemian mix of art galleries and cafés amidst architecture which harks back to the quieter, erstwhile days of the not too distant past. Enjoy some authentic Arabian food or take a tranquil water taxi ride on the river.
See Palm Jumeirah for yourself
You know a budget knows no bounds when the decision is made to reclaim an offshore island from the Persian Gulf, and then, in an audacious twist, turn the sands into a palm-tree-shaped island which is billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Created in the shape of a palm tree and complete with a trunk, crown and 16 fronds, the Palm Jumeirah is certainly worth a look purely for the “what on God’s green earth?!” factor. The island has single-handedly doubled the length of Dubai’s coastline, which gives you an idea of its scale. The island features theme hotels, apartments, beaches, marinas, restaurants and shops. Fortunately, the tide is not a factor.
Brave the beach heat
Now in Dubai it is HOT, not your Med hot, or even your South East Asia hot; this place is positively and ridiculously scorching, especially during the summer months. It could be argued that the beach is the best place to spend your time, perhaps aside from an air-conditioned hotel bar or restaurant, but if you venture down to the golden sands, be sure to take plenty of sun protection and keep yourself hydrated. Many hotels in Dubai have their own private stretches of beach, but in terms of public beaches, Al Mamzar and the Jumeirah Beach Park are probably your best bet.
Head out into the desert
If you want to feel like Lawrence of Arabia then you’ll have to get out of the city and travel to the desert. Four-wheel drive tours of the desert safari are extremely popular, as are desert barbecues. Another method of escaping the city crowds is a hot-air balloon flight over the sands, slightly pricey but definitely worth it! Check out Desert Safari here.
Play some golf
Dubai has a passion for golf that borders on the obsessive. If you’re a keen golfer, there are few places in the world that boast such a number of immaculate golf courses in a relatively small area. Many of the big names have had a say in the city’s golfing development with lucrative deals signed by Colin Montgomerie, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els to design three of Dubai’s more exclusive courses. The city’s most famous course is the Emirates Golf Club, host to the annual Dubai Desert Classic, which has one of the biggest prize purses in the sport. Other equally impressive options include Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, The Desert Course – Arabian Ranches and the Jebel Ali course.