Dubai is often described as Las Vegas without the casinos. It certainly likes to do things on a grand scale. Supersized hotels, buffets, malls, amusement parks, aquariums, designer cars and luxury yachts are all commonplace. Expect to crane your neck looking up at the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa — and then score a dizzying number of Instagram likes with a photo taken in front of the world’s largest flower arrangement (five million blooms set in the shape of an Airbus A380 plane, thanks to the Dubai Miracle Garden).
Don’t be afraid of the heights, mega brunches or the 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road that is the spinal column of Dubai. Indulge in the emirate’s excesses; put that elastic belt to the test, skydive out of a plane, spend like no one is watching and enjoy the year-round sunshine on more than 10 miles of wide sandy beaches. Moderation doesn’t suit this place. Go big, and then go home.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do. For further Dubai inspiration, see our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, shopping, nightlife, things to do and family-friendly things to do.
Start the day on a high note at the Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai. Morning vistas can be magical in winter months when low-lying clouds make the skyscrapers look like cress growing out of cotton wool.You can pay from AED 149 (£31) to visit the At The Top, open from 10am to midnight, spanning two floors with an observation terrace and deck across levels 124 and 125, but just two floors below on level 122, you can enjoy similar views with a gourmet breakfast from 7am to 11am at At.mosphere restaurant. With a minimum spend of AED 200 (£41), dishes feature caviar and lobster.
As you’re right by Dubai Creek, jump on a traditional wooden abra. There are stops by the main souks; moving towards the mouth of the creek, find the textile souk (Ali Bin Abi Talib Street) on the left bank and the spice souk (34 Street) and perfume souk (Sikkat al Khali) on the right. Rides costs just AED 1 (22p), making them the cheapest sightseeing tours in Dubai. For more suggestions of the best family-friendly things to do in the city, see our guide.
Khalifa isn’t the only famous Burj in town. Experience the beloved Burj Al Arab set on its own artificial island opposite Umm Suqeim, by booking lunch on the impressive terrace at Sal and then take a tour. Inside Burj Al Arab is a fascinating 90-minute butler-guided tour of the iconic hotel’s rainbow atrium and Royal Suite, plus its new Experience Suite telling the landmark’s history with interactive displays and memorabilia, including the sports car David Coulthard span doughnuts in on the helipad.
Model your new purchases at Marina Social in Dubai Marina while enjoying a sit-down dinner or drinks and nibbles at the bar: Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s goat’s cheese churros with truffle honey are legendary.
Later, enjoy an exotic nightcap or two at Ramusake’s Sake Bar & Lounge in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at Jumeirah Beach. While a DJ plays crowd-pleasers, sip on an ‘Umami Merry’, which bravely mixes port, lemon vodka, yuzu syrup, tomato juice, smoking salts, celery bitters and wasabi paste with surprisingly tasty results. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the city, see our guide.
Watch the sun rise as you run off yesterday’s excesses along the track at The Beach, JBR, which is punctuated with outdoor gym stations and exercise machines so fitness enthusiasts can maximise their workouts.
Then – if it’s the weekend – promptly undo all your good work by going out for the Dubai institution that is brunch: three to four hours of unlimited food and drinks that normally clocks in at between AED 300 (£64) to AED 600 (£127) per person. Some hosts offer a more refined brunching atmosphere than others.
For a supersized spread, stroll over to the Ritz Carlton for the London Social brunch at Caravan. This inventive brunch has a tube map-style menu and 12 food stations relating to London’s culinary neighbourhoods. Grab dim sum at ‘China Town’, Indian specialities at ‘Brick Lane’ and Middle Eastern cuisine at ‘Edgeware Road’. There’s even a Mr Whippy ice cream stand. Book well in advance.
Walk off brunch with a sedate stroll through the Dubai Miracle Garden, a surreal petal-filled landscape, only open during winter, presenting photo opportunities at every turn thanks to a kaleidoscope of 45 million artfully arranged flowers incongruously blooming in the desert.
Admire heart-shaped trellises swollen with petunias along the Avenue of Love, and see houses, windmills, and even a Mercedes, all repurposed as planters for marigolds, roses, calendulas and tulips.
After sunset, experience a different type of garden made entirely of light bulbs. Dubai Glow Garden also operates an ice park, where miniature Dubai landmarks are frozen in time. From here, it’s a 10-minute cab ride to the Dubai Fountain at the foot of the Burj Khalifa. Every half-hour, from 6pm to 11pm, a water show erupts, with accompanying lights and a soundtrack that oscillates between classical music and pop hits. For more suggestions of the best things to do in the city, see our guide.
Conclude your hedonist’s trip at Zuma Dubai, where you can dine izakaya-style (a bit like the Japanese version of a tapas bar), sharing a winning last supper of moreish monkfish tempura with yuzu mayo and a fresh take on grilled chicken wings with sea salt and lime. For more suggestions of the best bars in the city, see our guide.
Next to Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood in Dubai Creek, alongside atmospheric Dubai Creek, you’ll find Al Seef, more than a mile of waterfront promenade lined with fashionable and traditional restaurants, spice shops and ice cream parlours.
Find collections from local established and rising artists at creative hub Alserkal Avenue, which is home to more than 60 art and design studios. Look out for Alserkal Lates, where certain spaces are open well into the evening, but do note most galleries are closed on Friday.
Download The Entertainer Dubai app to access two-for-one vouchers for some of Dubai’s top restaurants, attractions and experiences, including the water park at Atlantis the Palm and a desert safari. There are various different packages you can choose from, with the full works costing AED 299 (£62).
See the latest films on reclining beds under the retractable rooftop of movie-themed hotel Aloft City Centre Deira.
Did you know?
Nouq camel milk ice-cream is a Dubai must-try and can be found throughout the emirate. The lactose-free treat is made in Dubai and popular flavours include date, honey-saffron and pistachio.
More places to stay
The lavish Bulgari Resort Dubai is perched on Jumeirah Bay, an artificial island shaped like a seahorse. It’s an antidote to the city’s ubiquitous skyscraper hotels, with a low-rise, Mediterranean-style design, a swanky spa and the world’s first Bulgari Marina and Yacht Club. It’s also just 15 minutes’ drive from the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall.
Enjoy arty Arabian minimalism at XVA Art Hotel. This tiny boutique option also happens to be one of Dubai’s best contemporary art galleries, so the courtyard café attracts some of the city’s more interesting creative types.
With a superb downtown location and views of the Burj Khalifa, Rove Downtown Dubai, sets a new standard for affordable hotels in Dubai. It’s as hip as it is homely, featuring quirky décor, an outdoor pool, excellent restaurant and relaxed service. For more suggestions of the best hotels in the city, see our guide.
What to bring home
If you want to know your Medjool from your Mactoumi, visit Bateel, a Dubai-based specialist famous for selecting and preparing the world’s best dates from 600 varieties available. Bateel’s flagship store is on the ground floor of the Sadaf 1 building at Jumeirah Beach Residence.
Dubai-based Dr Hamdan secured a loan from the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders to create beauty brand Shiffa, and her Arabia-inspired oils are indeed shiffa — the Arabic word for healing. Find her range at branches of Sephora, which are located in most of Dubai’s shopping centres, including The Dubai Mall (Financial Centre Road). For more suggestions of the best shops in the city, see our guide.
When to go
Dubai is steamy and sweltering for most of the year. The best time to visit is November-March, when temperatures are moderate – though in the past few years, January, once considered the optimum month to visit, has been overcast and rainy. If you’re heading here for sun, sea and sand: spring and autumn are ideal, when you can bronze your body by day and cool down after dark in the air-conditioned restaurants, bars and shopping malls.
Summer, while blistering, is increasingly proving popular with budget travellers and families for the bargains that can be found – it’s the cheapest time to visit, but note that from June to September the average daily temperature is well over a scorching 40 degrees Celsius.
Know before you go
British Embassy: (00 971 4 309 4444; gov.uk/government/world/united-arab-emirates), Al Seef Road, Bur Dubai. Open Sun-Thur, 7.30am-2.30pm
Emergency services: Dial 999 (police), 998/999 (ambulance) or 997 (fire department)
Currency: Dirham, written as Dh or Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
Telephone code: From Britain, dial 00 971 (for the United Arab Emirates), followed by 4 (for Dubai), then the seven-digit number
Time difference: +4 hours
Flight time: London to Dubai is around seven to eight hours
Local laws and etiquette
• Islam is an important aspect of UAE daily life, even in Westernised Dubai. Emiratis adhere to Islamic codes of conduct, following the Five Pillars of Islam (ie, declaring there is no God but Allah, praying five times a day, donating to charity, fasting, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime).
• Dress modestly: women should wear skirts to the knees or longer, tops with sleeves, and nothing too tight or revealing; men should wear trousers/jeans and tops with sleeves.
• Same-sex marriages are not recognised in the UAE and homosexuality is illegal; the country is considered one of the world’s least hospitable nations for LGBT+ people.
• Heterosexual couples should not display affection in public other than holding hands, especially during Ramadan when it’s forbidden (along with eating and drinking in public during daylight hours) and could land you in prison. In November 2020 it was announced that cohabiting out of wedlock would be legalised aross the UAE; previously, unmarried (heterosexual) couples were not legally able to share hotel rooms, though in practice poof was generally not required.
• Alcohol consumption has also been decriminalised as part of new measures aimed to “boost the country’s economic and social standing and consolidate the UAE’s principles of tolerance”. It has always been available to tourists in hotel and club restaurants and bars, but Emiratis can also now buy and consume it. Note though that this is still only the case privately or in licensed public places by those over the age of 21, so caution remains advisable.
• Never shake hands with an Emirati woman unless she offers her hand first, and don’t photograph women without permission.
• The weekend in Dubai/UAE is Friday and Saturday. Most people have Friday (prayer day) off, which feels like Sunday in the UK, while some people work a half or full day on Saturday. Opening ‘timings’ are always fixed to business doors/windows. Supermarkets such as Carrefour and Spinneys tend to open 8am-10pm daily, although times can vary between branches, while shopping malls open 10am-10pm daily. Smaller suburban malls, independent shops and souq stalls close from around 1pm to 4/5pm and don’t open until 4/5pm on Fridays (day of worship).
• Don’t photograph Sheikhs’ palaces, police stations, military buildings, ports or airports.
• Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) taxis are the most popular way to get around. Fuel is cheap in the UAE, making fares affordable; around town, fares start at AED12 (£2.50). You can hail a cab on the street or book via telephone (00 971 4 208 0808) or on the RTA app. More expensive cabs can be booked on the Uber and Careem apps. The Dubai Metro is the cheapest way to travel, with single fares starting at AED3 (63p). See rta.ae for a metro map.
Sarah moved from London to the UAE to escape the rain and quickly became obsessed with the finer details of five-star hotels and world records, of which Dubai probably holds the most.
Experience Dubai with the Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels, tours and holidays in Dubai, tried, tested and recommended by our Dubai experts.