Dubai is like nowhere else on the planet. Often claimed to be the world’s fastest-growing city, over the past four decades it has metamorphosed from a small Gulf trading centre to become one of the world’s most glamorous, spectacular and futuristic urban destinations, fuelled by a heady cocktail of petrodollars, visionary commercial acumen and naked ambition. Dubai’s ability to dream (and then achieve) the impossible has ripped up expectations and rewritten the record books, as evidenced by stunning developments such as the soaring Burj Khalifa, the beautiful Burj al Arab and the vast Palm Jumeirah island – testament to the ruling sheikhs’ determination to make the city one of the world’s essential destinations for the twenty-first century.
Modern Dubai is frequently seen as a panegyric to consumerist luxury: a self-indulgent haven of magical hotels, superlative restaurants and extravagantly themed shopping malls. Perhaps not surprisingly the city is often stereotyped as a vacuous consumerist fleshpot, appealing only to those with more cash than culture, although this one-eyed cliché does absolutely no justice to Dubai’s beguiling contrasts and rich cultural make-up. The city’s headline-grabbing mega-projects have also deflected attention from Dubai’s role in providing the Islamic world with a model of political stability and religious tolerance, showing what can be achieved by a peaceful and progressive regime in one of the planet’s most troubled regions.
For the visitor, there’s far more to Dubai than designer boutiques and five-star hotels – although of course if all you’re looking for is a luxurious dose of sun, sand and shopping, the city takes some beating. If you want to step beyond the tourist clichés, however, you’ll find that Dubai has much more to offer than you might think, ranging from the fascinating old city centre, with its higgledy-piggledy labyrinth of bustling souks interspersed with fine old traditional Arabian houses, to the memorably quirky postmodern architectural skylines of the southern parts of the city. Dubai’s human geography is no less memorable, featuring a cosmopolitan assortment of Emiratis, Arabs, Iranians, Indians, Filipinos and Europeans – a fascinating patchwork of peoples and languages that gives the city its uniquely varied cultural appeal. The recent credit crunch may have pushed Dubai to the verge of bankruptcy but pronouncements of the city’s demise are likely to prove premature, and this remains one of the twenty-first century’s most fascinating and vibrant urban experiments in progress. Visit now to see history, literally, in the making.
Dubai has never been a bargain destination, and although it’s possible to get by without spending huge amounts of money, unless you’re prepared to splash at least a certain amount of cash you’ll miss out on much of what the city has to offer. The biggest basic cost is accommodation. At the very bottom end of the scale it’s possible to find a double room for the night for around 250dh (£42/US$70/€50). For more upmarket hotels you’re looking at more like 600dh (£100/US$160/€120) per night, while you won’t usually get a bed in one of the city’s fancier five-stars for less than around 1200dh (£220/US$325/€260) per night at the absolute minimum; room rates at the very best places can run into thousands of dirhams.
Other costs are more fluid. Eating is very much a question of what you want to spend: you can eat well in the budget curry houses or shwarma cafés of Bur Dubai and Karama for around 15dh (£2.50/US$4) per head, although a meal (with drinks) in a more upmarket establishment is likely to set you back around 300dh (£50/US$80) per head, and the sky is the limit in the top restaurants. Tourist attractions are also likely to put a big dent in your wallet, especially if you’re travelling with children: the cost of a family day out at one of the city’s water parks or kids’ attractions is likely to set you back at least 600dh (£100/US$165). On the plus side, transport costs are relatively modest, given the city’s inexpensive taxi services and metro system.
Taxes and tipping
Room rates at most of the city’s more expensive hotels are subject to a ten percent service charge and an additional ten percent government tax; these taxes are sometimes included in quoted prices, and sometimes not. Check beforehand, or you may find your bill has suddenly inflated by twenty percent. The prices in most restaurants automatically include all relevant taxes and a ten percent service charge (though this isn’t necessarily passed on to the waiters themselves); whether you wish to leave an additional tip is entirely your decision.
Crime, safety and the law
Dubai is an exceptionally safe city – although a surprising number of tourists and expats manage to get themselves arrested for various breaches of local law (see Culture and etiquette) . Violent crime is virtually unknown, and even instances of petty theft, pickpocketing and the like are relatively uncommon. The only time you’re ever likely to be at risk is while driving. If you need to call the police in an emergency, dial t999. You can also contact the police’s Tourist Security Department toll-free on t800 4438 if you have an enquiry or complaint which you think the police could help you with. For the latest information about safety issues it’s also worth having a look at the international government websites.
Illegal substances and prescription drugs
You should not on any account attempt to enter (or even transit through) Dubai while in possession of any form of illegal substance. The death penalty is imposed for drug trafficking, and there’s a mandatory four-year sentence for anyone caught in possession of drugs or other proscribed substances. It’s vital to note that this doesn’t just mean carrying drugs in a conventional sense, but also includes having an illegal substance in your bloodstream or urine, or being found in possession of even microscopic amounts of a banned substance, even if invisible to the naked eye. Previous visitors have been convicted on the basis of minute traces of cannabis and other substances found in the fluff of a pocket or suitcase lining, or even in chewing gum stuck to the sole of a shoe. Note that poppy seeds (even in bakery products) are also banned, since the authorities believe they can be used to grow narcotics.
Even more contentiously, Dubai’s hardline anti-drugs regime also extends to certain prescription drugs, including codeine and melatonin, which are also treated as illegal substances. If you’re on any form of prescription medicine you’re supposed to bring a doctor’s letter and the original prescription from home, and to bring no more than three months’ supply into the UAE. It’s also a good idea to keep any medicines in their original packaging and to carry them in your hand luggage. A list of prohibited medicines (and other related information) is sometimes posted at wbit.ly/dubai-arrival; if in doubt, ring your nearest embassy or consulate.
As a general rule, the more respectably dressed and boring you look, the less likely you are to get stopped at customs. Wait to make your fashion statement until you’re safely inside the country.
UK-style sockets with three square pins are the norm (although you might occasionally encounter Indian-style round-pin sockets in budget hotels in Bur Dubai and Deira). The city’s current runs at 220–240 volts AC, meaning that UK appliances will work directly off the mains supply, although US appliances will probably require a transformer.
Nationals of the UK, Ireland and most other Western European countries, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are issued a free thirty-day visa on arrival (renewable for a further thirty days for 620dh). Always check visa requirements direct with your UAE embassy or consulate as this information is subject to change. You’ll need a passport which will be valid for at least six months after the date of entry. Having an Israeli stamp in your passport shouldn’t mean that you’re denied entry to Dubai. For full details see
Customs regulations allow visitors to bring in up to 400 cigarettes (or 50 cigars or 500g of tobacco), four litres of alcohol (or two 24-can cases of beer), and cash and travellers’ cheques up to a value of 40,000dh. Prohibited items include drugs, pornographic material, material offensive to Islamic teachings, non-Islamic religious propaganda and evangelical literature and goods of Israeli origin or bearing Israeli trademarks or logos.
Foreign embassies are mainly located in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, although many countries also maintain consulates in Dubai.
Dubai is one of the world’s less-friendly gay and lesbian destinations. Homosexuality is illegal under UAE law, with punishments of up to ten years in prison – a useful summary of the present legal situation and recent prosecutions can be found at
wen.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_the_United_Arab_Emirates. Despite this, the city boasts a very clandestine gay scene, attracting both foreigners and Arabs from even less permissive cities around the Gulf, although you’ll need to hunt hard to find it without local contacts. Relevant websites are routinely censored within the UAE, so you’ll probably have to do your online research before you arrive. Useful resources include wfacebook.com/LGBTRightsUAE and wgaysdubai.com.
There are virtually no serious health risks in Dubai (unless you include the traffic). The city is well equipped with modern hospitals, while all four- and five-star hotels have English-speaking doctors on call 24hr. Tap water is safe to drink, while even the city’s cheapest curry houses and shwarma cafés maintain good standards of food hygiene. The only possible health concern is the heat. Summer temperatures regularly climb into the mid-forties, making sunburn, heatstroke and acute dehydration a real possibility, especially if combined with excessive alcohol consumption. Stay in the shade, and drink lots of water.
There are pharmacies all over the city, including a number run by the BinSina chain which are open 24hr. These include branches on Mankhool Road just north of the Ramada hotel; on the Creek side of Baniyas Square (in the building on the east side of the Deira Tower); in southern Jumeirah at the turn-off to the Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif; and in Satwa on Al Diyafah Street between the Al Mallah and Beirut cafés.
There are three main government hospitals (more details at wdha.gov.ae) and several private hospitals with emergency departments. You’ll need to pay for treatment, though costs should be recoverable through your travel insurance.
There aren’t many safety or health risks involved in a visit to Dubai, although it’s still strongly recommended that you take out some form of valid travel insurance before your trip. At its simplest, this offers some measure of protection against everyday mishaps like cancelled flights and mislaid baggage. More importantly, a valid insurance policy will cover your costs in the (admittedly unlikely) event that you fall ill in Dubai, since otherwise you’ll have to pay for all medical treatment. Most insurance policies routinely exclude various “adventure” activities. In Dubai this could mean things like wall-climbing or tackling the black run at Ski Dubai. If in doubt, check with your insurer before you leave home.
Dubai is a very wired city, although getting online can prove frustratingly difficult (or expensive) for casual visitors. All the better hotels provide internet access, either via computers in their business centres or via wi-fi or in-room cable connections. This is sometimes provided free, although more often is chargeable, often at extortionate rates (30dh/hr is common in more upmarket hotels).
There are frustratingly few internet cafés in the city. The best area to look is Bur Dubai, which boasts a scattering of small places, mostly catering to the area’s Indian population. Aimei internet café (daily 8am–midnight; 3dh/hr) on 13c Sikka, the small road behind the Time Palace hotel, is one reliable option, as is Futurespeed (daily 8am–11pm; 10dh/hr) in the BurJuman centre (it’s just inside the entrance by the Dôme café). Elsewhere, internet cafés are few and far between. In Deira, try the City Bird internet café between 11a and 13a streets (behind the Dolphin Guest House just off Corniche Road). In Oud Metha, try the Grano Coffee shop in Wafi (9am–11pm daily; 9dh/hr), although it doesn’t have many machines so you may well have to wait.
Things are a lot easier if you have your own wi-fi-enabled laptop or other device. There are various free wi-fi hotspots around the city, including the whole of the Dubai Mall. You can also get online on the Dubai Metro for 10dh/hr. In addition, numerous wi-fi hotspots are operated by the city’s two telecom companies, Etisalat (wetisalat.ae) and Du (wdu.ae). Both offer access at various places around the city, including most of the city’s malls and numerous coffee shops, with several pay-as-you-go packages starting from 10dh for an hour’s one-off surf time. See the websites for full details of charges and hotspot locations.
Internet access in Dubai is also subject to a certain modest amount of censorship – although this is now significantly less heavy-handed than in former years, during which mainstream sites such as Flickr, Myspace and Facebook were blocked (as was the website of the UK’s Middlesex University thanks to its inadvertently suggestive name). There’s a blanket ban on anything remotely pornographic, plus gambling and dating sites, and pages considered religiously or culturally offensive, although news pages (even those critical of the government) are generally left unblocked. The use of Skype and other types of VOIP software is technically forbidden by local telecom providers, although it’s easy enough to find a way around the ban, which is seldom enforced in any case. Useful information about the latest internet censorship can be found at wdubaifaqs.com/censorship-uae-internet.php.
All larger hotels have a laundry service (usually expensive) while holiday apartments generally come with a washing machine as standard. There are no self-service launderettes in Dubai, though there are a few rather grubby places offering overnight laundry services dotted around the backstreets of Bur Dubai; you might prefer to wash your clothes yourself, however.
The two most convenient post offices for visitors are the Al Musalla Post Office (Sat–Thurs 7.30am–3pm) at Al Fahidi Roundabout, opposite the Arabian Tea House Café in Bur Dubai; and the Deira Post Office on Al Sabkha Road (Sat–Thurs 7.30am–9pm), near the intersection with Baniyas Road. Airmail letters to Europe, the US and Australia cost 5dh (postcards 3.50dh); airmail parcels cost 50dh to Europe and 80dh to the US and Australia for parcels weighing 500g to 1kg.
The best general city maps are the pocket-sized Dubai Mini Map (around 50dh) and the larger Dubai Map (around 25dh) published by Explorer and widely available from bookshops around the city. Both combine a handy overview map of the city along with more detailed coverage of individual areas, with user-friendly cartography and all relevant tourist attractions and other local landmarks clearly marked. They’re also updated on a regular basis, and make a laudable effort to keep pace with the city’s constantly changing road layouts and other ongoing developments. The only A–Z-style street atlas currently available is the Dubai Street Map (also published by Explorer; around 90dh); this shows every road in the city, but is frustratingly lacking in other detail and not particularly useful.
The UAE’s currency is the dirham (abbreviated “dh” or “AED”), subdivided into 100 fils. The dirham is pegged against the US dollar at the rate of US$1=3.6725dh; other exchange rates at the time of writing were £1=5.93dh, €1=4.85dh. Notes come in 5dh, 10dh, 20dh, 50dh, 100dh, 200dh, 500dh and 1000dh denominations; there are also 2dh, 1dh, 50 fils and 25 fils coins. The 5dh, 50dh and 500dh notes are all a confusingly similar shade of brown; take care not to hand over the wrong sort (easily done if, say, you’re getting out of a darkened cab at night) – a potentially very expensive mistake.
There are plenty of ATMs all over the city which accept foreign Visa and MasterCards. All the big shopping malls have at least a few ATMs, as do some large hotels. There are banks everywhere, almost all of which have ATMs. The most common are Mashreqbank, Commercial Bank of Dubai, National Bank of Dubai, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Emirates Bank. All will also change travellers’ cheques and foreign cash, and there are also plenty of moneychangers, including the reputable Al Ansari Exchange, which has branches all over the city (see walansariexchange.com/en/branches), as well as numerous places in Bur Dubai (try along and around Al Fahidi Street) and Deira (try Sikkat Al Khail Road, particularly the stretch closest to the Gold Souk).
Opening hours and public holidays
Dubai runs on an Islamic rather than a Western schedule, meaning that the city operates according to a basic five-day working week running Sunday to Thursday, with Friday as the Islamic holy day (equivalent to the Christian Sunday). Some offices also open on Saturday, while others close at noon on Thursday. When people talk about the weekend in Dubai they mean Friday and Saturday (and perhaps Thursday afternoon/evening as well). The most important fact to note is that many tourist sites and the Dubai Metro are closed on Friday morning, while banks usually open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–1pm and Thursday 8am–noon (some also reopen in the afternoon from 4.30 to 6.30pm).
Shops in malls generally open daily from 10am to 10pm, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday (and sometimes Thursday as well); shops in souks follow a similar pattern, though many places close for a siesta between around 1pm and 4pm depending on the whim of the owner. Most restaurants open daily for lunch and dinner (although some more upmarket hotel restaurants open for dinner only). Pubs tend to open daily from around noon until 2am; bars from around 6pm until 2/3am.
The country code for the UAE is 971. The city code for Dubai is 04; Abu Dhabi is 02; Sharjah is 06; Al Ain is 03. To call abroad from the UAE, dial 00, followed by your country code and the number itself (minus its initial zero). To call Dubai from abroad, dial your international access code, then 9714, followed by the local subscriber number (minus the 04 city code). Local mobile numbers begin with 050, 055 or 056 followed by a seven-digit number. If you’ve got a 04 number that’s not working, try prefixing it instead with the various mobile phone prefixes – mobiles are so widely used now that many people don’t specify whether a number is a landline or a mobile.
If you’re going to be using the phone a lot while you’re in Dubai, it might be worth acquiring a local SIM card, which will give you cheap local and international calls. The city’s two telecoms operators are Etisalat (wetisalat.ae) and Du (wdu.ae). The cheapest options are currently the pay-as-you-go Du “Visitor Mobile Line” package (55dh, including 20dh credit) and Etisalat’s Wasel package (40dh, including 5dh credit); see the websites for full details. Alternatively, you can pick up discounted SIM cards from phone shops around the city (particularly in Bur Dubai) from as little as 20dh. Either way, you’ll need to present your passport when buying a SIM card.
Dubai is a very photogenic city, although the often harsh desert light can play havoc with colour and contrast – for the best results head out between around 7am and 9am in the morning, or after 4pm.
It’s also worth noting that many upmarket hotels, restaurants and bars are extremely sniffy about people taking photographs of their establishments, particularly if other guests are likely to find their way into your shots – don’t be surprised if you’re asked to put your camera away. Outside of such establishments, things are more relaxed, although obviously it’s polite to ask before you take photographs of people, and you risk causing considerable offence (or worse) if you shove your lens in the face of local Emiratis – ladies in particular – without permission.
Dubai maintains a bizarrely inconsistent attitude to sexual matters. A couple kissing on the lips in public can potentially face jail, and homosexuality is also illegal. Yet despite this high-handed moral stance, prostitution is endemic throughout the city – you won’t get round many pubs or bars (particularly in the city centre) without seeing at least a few working girls perched at the bar in unusually short skirts and excessively bright lipstick. Prostitution is technically illegal, although arrests of male punters are virtually unheard of and the sex trade is tolerated by the city authorities, it is said, as part of the price to be paid in attracting expat professionals to the emirate, while it also reflects the city’s overwhelmingly male demographic. Dubai’s sex workers come from all over the globe, with a sliding scale of charges to match: Arab girls are the most expensive, followed by Westerners, with Asians and Africans at the bottom of the pile – a snapshot in miniature of the city’s traditional social and economic structure. The background of Dubai’s working girls is equally varied: many are simply visitors or residents looking to make a bit of extra cash; others are the victims of human trafficking, with girls responding to adverts for “housemaids” and suchlike being sold into the sex trade on arrival. The Dubai government is making efforts to eliminate this illegal trade, although the problem persists.
Smoking is banned in Dubai in the vast majority of indoor public places, including offices, malls, cafés and restaurants (although it’s permitted at most – but not all – outdoor venues). At the time of writing you could still smoke in bars and pubs, although there has also been talk of including these in the ban at a future date. You can still smoke in the majority of hotels, though many places now provide non-smoking rooms or non-smoking floors – and a few places have banned it completely. During Ramadan, never smoke in public places in daylight hours.
Dubai (and the rest of the UAE) runs on Gulf Standard Time. This is 4hr ahead of GMT, 3hr ahead of BST, 9hr ahead of North American Eastern Standard Time, 12hr ahead of North American Western Standard Time, 6hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time, and 8hr behind New Zealand Standard Time. There is no daylight saving time in Dubai.
Given the importance of tourism to the Dubai economy, there’s a frustrating lack of on-the-ground visitor information – and not a single proper tourist office anywhere in the city. You could try ringing the head office of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM; t04 223 0000 or t04 282 1111, complaints toll-free on t800 7090; wdubaitourism.ae and
wdefinitelydubai.com) or visiting one of their erratically manned information desks at Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 in the airport (both 24hr), and at Deira City Centre, BurJuman, Wafi and Ibn Battuta malls (all daily 10am–10pm), although none is especially useful. Otherwise, the only real sources of local info are the city’s hotels and tour operators, although they can’t be counted on to give impartial or particularly informed advice.
The best local magazine is the lively Time Out Dubai (7dh; wtimeoutdubai.com), published weekly and available at bookshops all over the city, and carrying comprehensive listings about pretty much everything going on in Dubai. It’s particularly good for information about the constantly changing nightlife scene, including club, restaurant and bar promotions and new openings. The glossy What’s On (monthly; 10dh; wfacebook.com/WhatsOnDubai) is also worth a look, though the listings aren’t nearly as detailed.
Travellers with disabilities
Dubai has made considerable efforts to cater for visitors with disabilities, and ranks as probably the Middle East’s most accessible destination. Most of the city’s modern hotels now make at least some provision for guests with impaired mobility; many of the city’s four- and five-stars have specially adapted rooms, although there’s relatively little choice among three-star hotels and below. Quite a few of the city’s malls also have special facilities, including disabled parking spaces and specially equipped toilets. Inevitably, most of the city’s older heritage buildings are not accessible (although the Dubai Museum is).
Transportation is fairly well set up. The Dubai Metro incorporates facilities to assist visually and mobility-impaired visitors, including tactile guide paths, lifts and ramps, as well as wheelchair spaces in all compartments, while Dubai Taxi (t04 208 0808) has specially designed vehicles equipped with ramps and lifts. The city’s waterbuses can also be used by mobility-impaired visitors, and staff will assist you in boarding and disembarking. There are also dedicated facilities at the airport.
At the heart of the metropolis on the south side of the breezy Creek, Bur Dubai is the oldest part of the city and offers a fascinating insight into Dubai’s traditional roots. This is where you’ll find many of the city’s most interesting Arabian heritage houses, clustered in the beautiful old Iranian quarter of Bastakiya and the waterfront Shindagha district, as well as the excellent Dubai Museum and the atmospheric Textile Souk. On the opposite side of the Creek, the bustling district of Deira is the centre of Dubai’s traditional commercial activity, much of it still conducted in the area’s vibrant array of old-fashioned souks, including the famous Gold and Spice souks. Fringing Deira and Bur Dubai lie Dubai’s inner suburbs, with a varied array of attractions ranging from the absorbingly workaday suburbs of Karama and Satwa – home to dozens of no-frills Indian curry houses, low-rent souks and some of the city’s most entertaining street life – through to impressive modern developments like the kitsch Wafi complex and adjacent Khan Murjan Souk, both exercises in faux-Arabian nostalgia.
A few kilometres south of the old city centre, modern Dubai begins in spectacular style with Sheikh Zayed Road, home to a neck-cricking array of skyscrapers including the glittering Emirates Towers. Even these, however, are outshone by the massive Downtown Dubai development at the southern end of the strip, centred on the stupendous new Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, flanked by further record-breaking attractions including the gargantuan Dubai Mall and spectacular Dubai Fountain. West of the Sheikh Zayed Road, the sprawling beachside suburb of Jumeirah is the traditional address-of-choice for Dubai’s European expats, its endless swathes of walled villas dotted with half a dozen shopping malls and a smattering of low-key sights.
At the southern end of Jumeirah, there are more iconic sights in the sleepy suburb of Umm Suqeim, including the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the extraordinary mock-Arabian Madinat Jumeirah complex and the unforgettable Burj al Arab hotel. South of the Burj stretches the spectacular Dubai Marina development, with its densely packed forest of glassy skyscrapers, while offshore lies the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island, which ends in a flourish at the gigantic Atlantis resort.
A little over an hour’s drive down the coast, the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, offers an intriguing contrast to its freewheeling neighbour – slightly smaller, and considerably more sedate, although here too a string of huge new developments are gradually transforming the city landscape. Leading attractions include the extravagant Emirates Palace hotel and the even more spectacular Sheikh Zayed Mosque, while the various attractions of Yas Island, home to the vast Ferrari World theme park, lie just down the road.
Elsewhere, there are a number of rewarding day-trips from Dubai, all offering an interesting alternative take on life in the twenty-first-century Gulf. Just 10km up the coast, the more conservative city of Sharjah hosts a rewarding selection of museums devoted to cultural and religious matters, including the excellent Museum of Islamic Civilization. Further afield, somnolent Al Ain, the UAE’s only major inland city, offers a complete change of pace from life on the coast, with traditional mud-brick forts, old-fashioned souks and the country’s finest oasis. Across country, it’s only a two-hour drive from Dubai to the UAE’s even more laidback east coast, with a string of beautiful and still largely deserted beaches to crash out on, backdropped by the dramatically craggy Hajar mountains.
The best time to visit Dubai is in the cooler winter months from December through to February, when the city enjoys a pleasantly Mediterranean climate, with average daily temperatures in the mid-20s °C. Not surprisingly, room rates (and demand) are at their peak during these months, though skies in January and February can sometimes be rather overcast, and it can even be surprisingly wet at times. Temperatures rise significantly from March through to April and in October and November, when the thermometer regularly nudges up into the 30s, though the heat is still relatively bearable, and shouldn’t stop you getting out and about.
During the summer months from May to September the city boils – July and August are especially suffocating – with average temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s (and frequently higher). Although the heat is intense (even after dark), room rates at most of the top hotels plummet by as much as 75 percent, making this an excellent time to enjoy some authentic Dubaian luxury at relatively affordable prices, so long as you don’t mind spending most of your time hopping between air-conditioned hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and clubs.
It’s almost impossible not to eat well in Dubai, whatever your budget. If you’ve got cash to burn, the city offers a superb spread of top-quality restaurants (including a growing number of places run under the auspices of various international celebrity chefs), with gourmet food served up in some of its most magical locations. There are also plenty of good cheap eats to be had too, from cheap and cheerful curry houses to the plentiful shwarma stands and kebab cafés. Dubai is a particularly fine place to sample the many different types of Middle Eastern (aka “Lebanese”) cuisine, with restaurants across the city offering varying takes on the classic dishes of the region, usually featuring a big range of classic mezze and succulent grilled meats, sometimes with a good selection of shisha (waterpipes) on the side.
As you’d expect given Dubai’s cosmopolitan make-up, a huge variety of other international cuisines are also represented. Italian, Iranian, Thai, Japanese and Chinese are all popular, and Indian food is particularly good, with inexpensive but often surprisingly excellent curry houses scattered all over the city centre catering to Dubai’s large subcontinental population.
Note that only hotel restaurants and a very small number of mall-based establishments have alcohol licences. You won’t find booze at independent restaurants and cafés.
You won’t go thirsty in Dubai, and the huge number of drinking holes tucked away all over the city attests to the extraordinary degree to which this Muslim city has gone in accommodating Western tastes. The best bars encapsulate Dubai at its most beguiling and opulent, whether your taste is for lounging on cushions in alfresco Arabian-themed venues or sipping champagne in cool, contemporary cocktail bars. Superlative views are often thrown in for good measure, whether from a perch atop one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers or at one of its many waterfront venues, some of which offer sweeping coastal or creekside panoramas. Most larger hotels also have English-style pubs, with obligatory faux-wooden decor and banks of TVs showing the latest sporting events – a lot less stylish than the city’s bars, but usually a bit cheaper.
Not surprisingly, boozing in Dubai comes at a price, thanks to high government taxes. A pint of beer will usually set you back around 30–35dh in a pub (more in a bar, assuming draught beer’s available, which it often isn’t), a glass of wine around 40dh and a basic cocktail around 50dh. Costs in the city’s pubs can be cut (slightly) by looking out for happy hours and special promotions, usually chalked up on a blackboard behind the bar.
Most bars open at 6 or 7pm and stay open till around 1–3am; pubs generally open from around noon until 2am; some places stop serving alcohol between 2 and 4pm (although they may stay open for food and soft drinks). Most of the city’s more upmarket drinking holes accept reservations (phone numbers for relevant places are listed), although the more club-style DJ bars often require a certain minimum spend in return for booking you a table. Smarter bars usually have some kind of dress code – don’t be surprised if you get turned away if you rock up in shorts and T-shirt.
Although Dubai is extremely liberal (at least compared to the rest of the region) in its provision of alcohol, be aware that any form of public drunkenness is strongly frowned upon, and may even get you arrested, particularly if accompanied by any form of lewd behaviour, which can be taken to include even fairly innocuous acts like kissing in public (see Culture and etiquette). The city also has a zero-tolerance policy towards drink-driving – worth remembering if you get behind the wheel on the morning after a heavy night, since even the faintest trace of alcohol in your system is likely to land you in jail.
Like pretty much everywhere else in the Gulf, Dubai only really gets going in the cooler evening and night-time hours. As dusk falls, the streets light up in a blaze of neon and the pavements begin to fill up with a cosmopolitan crowd of Emiratis, Arabs, Westerners, Indians and Filipinos. The city’s vibrant nightlife takes many forms. Western expats and tourists tend to make for the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs, while locals and expat Arabs can be found relaxing in the city’s myriad shisha cafés. Souks and shopping malls across the city fill up with crowds of consumers from all walks of Dubai society – most remain remarkably busy right up to when they close around midnight; bars and clubs meanwhile kick on until the small hours.
Dubai has a reasonably busy clubbing scene, driven by a mix of Western expats and tourists along with the city’s large expat Arab (particularly Lebanese) community. Music tends to be a fairly mainstream selection of house, hip-hop and r’n’b (perhaps with a splash of Arabic pop), although a healthy number of visiting international DJs help keep things fresh. The emphasis at more upmarket places still tends to be on posing and pouting – expect to see lots of beautiful young things from Beirut or Bombay quaffing champagne and inspecting their make-up – although there’s more fashion-free and egalitarian clubbing to be had at places like Zinc and N’dulge, the latter being Dubai’s nearest equivalent to an Ibiza-style superclub.
In terms of more cultural diversions, there’s significantly less on offer. Dubai is widely derided as the city that culture forgot – and in many ways the stereotype is richly deserved. The city has five-star hotels, luxury spas, celebrity chefs and shopping malls aplenty, but until a few years back lacked even a single functioning theatre. Even now, the city’s musical life is largely limited to Filipino cover bands and the occasional big-name visiting rock act.
Yet things are changing – albeit slowly. Dubai now hosts a decent range of cultural festivals, including good film and jazz events, although outside festival time the city’s cultural calendar can feel decidedly undernourished. Where Dubai has scored a major success, however, is in establishing itself as the Gulf’s art capital, boasting a remarkable number of independent galleries; many of these are set up in unlikely places around the city by expats from around the Arab world and showcase a healthy spread of cutting-edge work by a range of international artists.
Despite its glossy Western veneer and apparently liberal ways, it’s important to remember that Dubai is an Islamic state, and that visitors are expected to comply with local cultural norms or risk the consequences. Recent Foreign Office figures have shown that Britons are more likely to get arrested in the UAE than in any other country in the world, mainly for the sort of actions – public drunkenness, “lewd” behaviour, or just eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan – which would be considered unexceptional back home.
There are a few simple rules to remember if you want to stay out of trouble. Any public display of drunkenness outside a licensed venue contravenes local law, and could get you locked up. Driving while under any sort of influence is even more of a no-no. Inappropriate public behaviour with members of the opposite sex can result in, at best, embarrassment, or, at worst, a spell in prison. Holding hands or a peck on the cheek is probably just about OK, but any more passionate displays of public affection are severely frowned upon. The infamous case of Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, who were jailed for three months after allegedly having sex on the beach and assaulting a policeman, received widespread coverage, although far less overt demonstrations of affection can potentially land you in big trouble; in 2010 two British citizens were sentenced to a month in jail for allegedly kissing one another on the lips in public at a restaurant. Offensive gestures are another source of possible danger. Giving someone the finger or even just sticking out your tongue might be considered rude at home but can get you jailed in Dubai. This is particularly worth remembering when driving, since even a frustrated flap of the hands could potentially land you in trouble.
In terms of general etiquette, except around the hotel pool, modest dress is expected of all visitors – although many expat women do pretty much the exact opposite. Dressing “indecently” is potentially punishable under law (even if actual arrests are extremely rare) although exactly what constitutes indecent attire isn’t clearly defined – though obviously the shorter your skirt and the lower your top, the more likely you are to attract attention. Even men who wear shorts can raise eyebrows – to the locals it looks like you’re walking around in your underwear. In addition, if you’re fortunate enough to spend any time with Emiratis, remember that only the right hand should be used for eating and drinking (this rule also applies in Indian establishments), and don’t offer to shake the hand of an Emirati woman unless she extends hers towards you.