Dubai sits on a golden sandy coastline in the Arabian Gulf, where the warm azure waves of the sea meet the desert. A high-rise oasis, this city is a pleasure-dome surrounded by dunes; one of the most fashionable on the planet thanks to its ability to satisfy the needs of legions of demanding vacationers. Dubai is about having fun—and it's one big adult playground. Nature plays her part here, with year-round sunshine, gorgeous beaches, dramatic arid landscapes, and warm waters, but it's the man-made attractions that make Dubai so alluring. You can launch yourself into high-adrenaline desert adventures, diving and water sports, and some of the world's best golf courses. The 5-, 6-, and 7-star hotels offer the ultimate in luxury, and the party scene is hot. Shopping malls are the biggest in the world and are packed full of high-class merchandise. And with hundreds of restaurants with cuisine from around the world, you can munch your way from Mexico to Malaysia. Dubai is an Arab country with a long history as a trading port. Traces of its traditional life, customs, and architecture can still be seen and explored, but today and tomorrow are much more important than yesterday. Almost every building in this metropolis is less than 20 years old and the most dramatic developments—groundbreaking megaprojects—have just been completed or are still under construction. The city is certainly unique. Islam is its anchor, but it has opened its doors to the rest of the world and has invited them in to work, rest, and play, which creates a truly international atmosphere. Unashamedly modern and materialistic, life here takes place at breakneck speed. The landscape is stark, the confidence is sky high, the can-do spirit is palpable, and the blingis in your face. Dubai produces strong reactions in people, but one thing is certain—love it or loathe it—you will not forget it. It is without a doubt, one of the world's true must-see destinations. Shisha: Smoke Without Fire. Emirati men love socializing, but as they don't drink alcohol they get together over coffee and shisha instead of a drink at the bar after work. The shisha, or hookah, is a smoking device, usually made of glass, that filters smoke through water before it reaches the smoker's mouth. Shisha tobaccos are aromatic and are often mixed with apple, cinnamon, or cherry, so their taste isn't as strong as other tobaccos. Smoking shisha is said to induce relaxation—but you'll have to decide if it's for you! Several distinct zones and quarters, each with its own purpose and atmosphere, make up the city of Dubai. The older districts around the mouth of Dubai Creek—Deira, Al-Rigga, and Bur Dubai—have developed over the last 150 years into a maze of narrow streets and alleyways that are often choked with traffic. However, the museums and attractions here are clustered close together, making this area the most walkable in the city. You'll need to cross the creek on the abra (boat) service, about seven or eight minutes long, to get from one bank to the other. To venture beyond this downtown core you'll need to take transportation. If you have time, buses are very cheap, new, and air-conditioned, and their routes pass by many major attractions. However, taxis are efficient, inexpensive, and metered, making them a more flexible option if you're only in Dubai for a short time and every minute counts. Sheikh Zayed Road is the multilane road that links old Dubai with the newer Dubai districts to the south—about 15 mi to the southernmost communities. It runs 3 mi inland from the ocean and parallel with the coastline. Every well-marked intersection off Sheikh Zayed Road leads to a different district—including Dubai Marina, Emirates Hills, and Knowledge City—as well as that area's major attractions. This road is the thoroughfare for most of the traffic traveling north and south, so it's always busy. By taxi, the trip from Deira to Dubai Marina takes about 45 minutes. Dubai doesn't use building numbers in its street addresses. People navigate by referencing major hotels, roads, intersections, or other well-known landmarks. Taxi drivers know how to reach all the main attractions, but if you're looking for something off the beaten path—say, a particular specialty store—find out which hotel, mall, or other geographical marker is close to your destination. Direct your driver to that location, so he knows the general area to which you want to go.
The Dubai food scene is one of the world's most diverse. Approximately 180 nationalities live in the emirate, so you can munch your way around the world during your trip. With the exception of maybe Antarctica, every other continent has several restaurants that represent its fare, and eateries run the gamut from refined cuisine by the world's most renowned chefs to mouthwatering snacks from street vendors.
The upper end of the market measures up against the New York and San Francisco dining scenes, as top-tier hotels vie to create authentic cuisine in beautifully styled restaurants. No half measures here. The finest ingredients wing their way around the world to be transformed into culinary tours de force. These restaurants cater to a regular clientele of discerning Western expats with fat tax-free salaries. For them, eating out and entertaining is a natural part of everyday life. Power lunches and dinners are big business and often big budget, meaning prices are high by American standards.
However, you can eat well and quite cheaply if you follow the blue-collar expat workers—hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis—to basic, clean, and always friendly eateries for plates full of curry, rice, or noodles.
The restaurant scene here changes almost daily, and it's as image-conscious as a Hollywood starlet posing for the paparazzi. The latest favorites are open kitchens and cooking stations, multicuisine eateries where you can graze on, say, Japanese, Italian, and Lebanese dishes. Also a big hit are tapas-style meals where several small dishes arrive at one time rather than the standard appetizer and entrée.
The world's most exciting hospitality industry is in Dubai, and the emirate's decision to aim at the top end of the market has made it synonymous with luxury. More than a hundred 4- and 5-star hotels have opened their doors since 2000, and 150 new hotels are projected to open by 2010—creating a sort of gold-rush fever as every hotel group rushes to stake its claim.
Now for the downside. In 2007 research showed that Dubai was the third most expensive place to stay in the world after New York and Moscow. Budget accommodations are next to impossible to find, as anything rated lower than 4 stars doesn't fit into Dubai's marketing strategy.
Understanding hotel rates in Dubai is like trying to unravel the Da Vinci code. They change by the day, depending on occupancy, and hotels keep their rack rates a closely guarded secret. Even in hotels with a large number of beds, their average occupancy hovers at around 85% (one of the highest in the world) and is buoyed by vast numbers of business travelers, giving them little incentive to discount. Many companies prefer to leave rooms empty rather than attract guests who don't fit their demographics.
Peak tourist season is from November to April, but instead of lowering rates during off-peak times, resort hotels often ramp up their offerings with special value-added packages. These incentives usually include extras, such as meals in signature restaurants and spa treatments, and business hotels give preferential rates on weekends when demand drops. Prices also drop during Ramadan, but services are curtailed at this time. Only one restaurant per hotel will be open during daylight hours, and visitors are asked to refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the day.
Now that you know you'll be handing over a wad of cash for your lodging, and location, location, location is the prime consideration after checking your budget—what's the main reason for your visit to Dubai? If sunning and water sports are your prime objective, book a beach resort. If old Dubai is the enticement, look for a hotel downtown. By determining your interests before you come, you'll spend much less time traveling and much more time doing.
Dubai is party central for the Middle East. Expats here work hard and play hard, so there's no excuse for sitting in your hotel room watching reruns of Friends dubbed into Arabic. The city has action of every type—ultracool bars with multihued cocktails, romantic terraces for sharing a glass of champagne, sports bars and pubs with monumental flat-screen TVs and nachos, and nightclubs where you can dance until nearly dawn. Dubai is a favorite for celebrity DJs with regular one-night-only appearances.
But like everything else in this city, the scene changes rapidly. A new must-see place opens almost every week, and the in-crowd flits from launch to launch like a skittish flock of starlings looking for an evening roost.
You may have to refinance the mortgage to pay for a serious night out in Dubai. Alcohol is served only on licensed premises—usually attached to international hotels—and the prices are exorbitant.
Classic performance arts have a thin presence in comparison with the thriving party scene. Most of the offerings are local, and a few independent galleries stand out as beacons. However, the future debut of Dubai's Culture City may change this. Rising from the south bank of Dubai Creek just beyond Garhoud Bridge, it will include a majestic Dubai Opera House, a focal point for the genre in the Gulf region.
Movies are also popular entertainment for all sectors of Dubai society. At least a dozen large multiplex centers show the latest blockbusters from Hollywood and Bollywood, as well as films from around the Arabic-speaking world and martial-arts favorites from Hong Kong.
Dubai is a mecca of shopping, and if it's sheer volume that gets you to part with your dollars there are few spots on earth that can beat it. With tax-free prices and billions of dollars' worth of giveaways for customers, the emirate has gained a reputation as the place for bargains.
Dubai produces next to no products, but it never mattered because historically goods came flooding in from around the Gulf, the Indian subcontinent, and the horn of Africa. Now they stream in from around the globe, as designers hunger to establish a presence in this red-hot town.
The top buys start with gold and precious stones—Dubai is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy quality jewelry. It's also the largest marketplace, outside of Iran, for handmade Persian rugs, and prices are much more affordable than in the United States and Europe. Indian and Chinese silks and satins occupy an important sector of the market, while spices and incense are must-buy items. The city has what might be the best range of up-market goods outside of New York Fashion Week. It's rare to find such a saturation of French, Italian, American, and British designers together in one city.
The alleyways of the old downtown souks still have the bustling atmosphere of a traditional Arab trading port, and you can get down to some serious haggling here. But Dubai has fallen in love with the air-conditioned mall, and these modern retail temples range over millions of square feet.
Although Dubai certainly appears to be shopping heaven, it's worthwhile keeping in mind the Latin phrase caveat emptor, or "buyer beware." Large electronics producers use Dubai to offload last year's stock, so many computers, electronics, and cameras are not current models. And even though the shopping is tax free, it doesn't necessarily mean that prices for international goods will be cheaper than in your hometown. Numerous shoppers come to Dubai from countries where luxury goods and designer labels are hard to get, so price is less important than availability. If getting a bargain is the main reason for traveling to Dubai, make sure to research prices of similar goods at home before you come.
Art Space Gallery
Art Space Gallery, with a changing roster of exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists, is at the forefront of the growing interest in contemporary arts in the region. Art Space is a great stopover for current and budding collectors.
B21 represents more than 15 local and international artists, and mostly stocks contemporary Arabian art across a range of genres. B21 also offers consulting services for collectors.
Gallery One, is a mixed art and photography gallery. Owner Gregg Sedgewick took many of the images of Dubai that are for sale, which can be an evocative souvenir of a trip to the emirate.
Kenza Art Gallery
Kenza Art Gallery is a showcase for local artist Sumaira K. Isaacs, who displays her unique approaches to traditional Islamic shapes, forms, and colors.
Magrudy's is the place to come if you're looking for maps or coffee-table books of Dubai, international newspapers, the latest paperbacks, and stationary or postcards. The store has five bookstore/newsstand branches across the city in BurJuman Centre, Deira City Centre Mall, Ibn Battuta Mall, and Al Wahda Mall. This location is the branch that's closest to the main beach resort area.
Jumbo Electronics the largest company for consumer electronics in Dubai, has 15 outlets around the city. Its products range from PCs, cameras, hi-fis, MP3 players, and all sorts of video games. The details shown here are for the largest six-floor store. Other branches can be found at the Bur Juman Mall, Deira City Centre Mall, Dubai Festival City, Ibn Battuta Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and Wafi City Mall.
Plug Ins, with four locations in Dubai, has an ample choice of cameras for still or moving images, mobile phones, and small electrical household appliances and personal-care products. Other branches can be found at the Bur Juman Mall and Souk Madinat Jumeirah.
National Iranian Carpets
National Iranian Carpets will meet your needs for a wide selection of Persian handmade carpets in various sizes and colors. Knowledgeable staff members will be happy to explain the traditional patterns and different qualities of carpets, so you can choose the one that's right for your budget and home decor. There are branches at Dubai Festival City, Deira City Centre, and Mercato Mall.
Damas, a UAE-based company with locations in more than 15 countries, offers a range of high-quality jewelry in gold and precious stones. Individual design collections are displayed alongside more mainstream styles, as well as designer watches. Damas has divided its stores into brands—Les Exclusives is the most upscale, followed by Semi Exclusive, 22ct, and 18kt. Branches are located in most malls and major hotels.
Tea and More
Tea and More sells numerous teas from around the world, which line the shelves here and are sold in attractive tins and practical packets. There are exotic mixes and good quality single blends. The "More" eludes to the shop's tea accessories, including elegant pots and china cups.
Caravella Trading specializes in essential oils, creams, and potions, which are made here from recipes perfected in India. Products are for all ages and genders, and cleanse and moisturize the whole body.
Dream Girls is doubtless one of Dubai's favorite tailoring shops. Dream Girls will make you anything from a simple shirt to a fabulous gown, or you can take in a beloved item of clothing and they'll make a copy of it. There are catalogues full of products that they can make to your exact measurements in whatever material you choose.