Dubai is a futuristic, dream-like world that seems to constantly defy what’s possible. It’s a place of superlatives – home to the world’s tallest building, the biggest shopping mall and some of the most luxurious hotels on the planet. Yet, in spite of the emirate’s extravagant reputation, it isn’t as superficial as it may seem and it rewards those who dig beneath the glitzy surface.
The city has an identity as a utopia-like community
While those looking to spend some serious cash will find no shortage of opportunities in Dubai, the city has another identity as a utopia-like community where ethnicities from across the globe (85 per cent of the city’s population are expats) coexist more-or-less peacefully together. Add in its rich, complex history and growing art scene, and you’re met with a destination that strikes an intriguing balance between consumerism and culture. Here’s how to see the best of the city’s different sides on a whirlwind, two-day trip.
Morning: Baker & Spice, Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa
Break your first-day fast with a visit to Baker & Spice, which specializes in local, organic eats. In contrast to Toronto, restaurants focused on local ingredients aren’t commonplace in Dubai, making Baker & Spice a pioneer in the space. Go for the poached Turkish eggs with labneh and Aleppo chili or B & S Shakshouka Matbukha for two. They have a few locations around the city, but their original Souk Al Bahar branch has prime views of the Burj Khalifa (which we’ll check out later).
Fuel up thoroughly at breakfast because you’ll need your energy for the next stop: the Dubai Mall. It’s not often that a mall would make my highlights list for a city, but this one is no mere shopping centre. Aside from having the claim to fame of being the world’s largest by total area, it’s an important part of life in Dubai – with temperatures sometimes reaching 45 C in the summer, locals often spend their days in air-conditioned retreats. Also, people travel from all over the UAE to visit the Dubai Mall and shop for brands they can’t find elsewhere in the country.
Catch an afternoon showing of the Dubai Fountain, the world’s tallest performing fountain, which is located right in front of the mall. Alternatively, plan to swing back by the fountain after dark – its 500-foot-high water spurts choreographed to music are even more impressive at nighttime when the fountain is illuminated.
After you’ve shopped ‘til you drop at the Dubai Mall (which is a literal possibility with over 1,300 shops to explore), continue on to one of the city’s most iconic sites: the Burj Khalifa, directly accessible from the mall. It’s the world’s tallest building (sorry, CN Tower). Take the elevator up to At the Top, an observation area that’s spread across levels 124, 125 and 148 of the building.
In addition to the sweeping views, the observation area also features interesting multimedia presentations about the history of Dubai and the construction of the Burj Khalifa. Keep in mind that prices vary by level and it’s cheaper if you book tickets ahead of your visit.
Afternoon: At.mosphere and Alserkal Avenue
Head down to floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa for afternoon tea at At.mosphere, which is dubbed the world’s highest restaurant. It may not be at the top of the tower but, at 442 metres up, the view from their floor-to-ceiling windows is still pretty darn spectacular. The basic high tea experience makes for a good light lunch, featuring finger sandwiches, pastries and scones (or you can opt for the pricier menu which includes a roast or catch of the day as an entree).
Descend back down to street level and spend your afternoon exploring Alserkal Avenue, an artsy street running through an industrial neighbourhood. The strip of former warehouses is now home to over 20 galleries displaying contemporary art from big international names as well as emerging local artists. You’ll find plenty of browsable shops interspersed amid the galleries (if your shopping fix wasn’t satiated at the mall), along with eclectic eateries where you can stop for a snack break (including much-loved Melbourne-style café Tom & Serg).
Evening: Burj Al Arab, Pai Thai and the Dubai Fountain
Next up is a photo stop at Dubai’s second-most-famous building: Burj Al Arab. Opened in 1999, the sail-shaped hotel has become synonymous with Dubai’s over-the-top luxury. Set on an artificial island, this towering property is known for its helipad and Rolls-Royce airport pickups. Not surprisingly, you can’t get inside the hotel without a reservation but Umm Suqeim Beach is a well-known spot to snap a photo in front of the hotel’s distinctive facade, which is inspired by the sail of a dhow (a traditional wooden boat from the area).
The property is known for its helipad and rolls- royces
For dinner, head to Pai Thai, a romantic Thai restaurant set within the Madinat Jumeirah development. Madinat Jumeirah is worth seeing in its own right: a complex of hotels, shops and winding waterways that’s inspired by traditional Arab villages. You’ll need to take a wooden abra boat to reach the restaurant, giving you a chance to take in the complex’s network of palm-tree-lined canals on the way. Try to get a table on the terrace overlooking the canal so you can continue admiring the view (the complex is illuminated at night).
If you didn’t check out the Dubai Fountain earlier, head there post-dinner to close out your evening with a mesmerizing water display, complete with lights and music.
Morning: Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
Day one focused on modern Dubai, so for day two, we change gears and delve into the city’s history. Kick off your day at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a nonprofit centre aimed at educating visitors about UAE customs and traditions. On Monday and Wednesday, the centre offers traditional Middle Eastern breakfasts, which include dishes like ligamat (sweet dumplings) and chabab (cardamom-spiced pancakes). The food alone is worth the experience, but during your visit, you’re also invited to ask your hosts questions you have about Arabic culture while dining in the centre’s pleasant courtyard.
The centre runs guided tours of the adjacent Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, which is where I recommend heading next (either on a guided tour or just to explore on your own). The only surviving historic district in Dubai, this charming neighbourhood offers insight into what the city looked like before the Emirates were formed in the 1970s. Originally settled in the early 19th century, the neighbourhood’s maze-like, narrow
Originally settled in the early 19th century, the neighbourhood’s maze-like, narrow streets are lined with sand-coloured buildings that house museums, cafes, art galleries and shops. It’s a pleasant spot for an aimless wander, (the houses are topped with wind towers that help to cool the laneways) and you can also check out a small piece of the old city wall, which dates back to 1800.
Afternoon: Arabian Tea House and desert excursion
Continue your dive into Dubai’s past with lunch at Arabian Tea House. Set in the former home of a pearl merchant, a leafy courtyard setting with white wicker chairs and vintage photos of Dubai give this restaurant a cozy, timeless ambiance. It’s a great spot to get a further taste of Emirati cuisine, with the restaurant offering well-prepared versions of specialties like lamb machboos (a spicy lamb dish with tomato sauce and rice) and saloona chicken (a flavourful chicken stew), as well as – as its name implies – a huge selection of tasty, loose-leaf teas.
From there, ramp the adventure up a notch with a desert excursion. Dubai sits in the middle of the Arabian Desert, which occupies the majority of the Arabian Peninsula and spans over 2,330,000 square kilometres. As you might expect, dozens of tour operators offer day-trips from Dubai into the surrounding sands.
I travelled with Arabian Adventures, one of the city’s longest-running tour companies. The tour included dune riding, photo stops at desert lookout points and an evening camp-out with an Arab-style buffet dinner. It’s slightly kitschy but also fun; however, there are dozens of alternative tour options, ranging from ones that focus on traditional Bedouin life to overnighters that include a morning hot air balloon ride over the desert.
Evening: Mama’esh and Treehouse
If dinner isn’t included on your desert tour, head back into downtown Dubai and stop at Mama’esh for a quick, casual bite. This Palestinian eatery bakes most of their dishes in a wood-fired, stone oven, using organic flour. They’re best-known for their fatayer, a kind of Middle Eastern meat pie. Mama’esh serves them pizza-style on an open flatbread – the chili minced meat and cheese version is the fan favourite.
Finally, cap off your last night in Dubai by taking in the cityscape from the rooftop of Treehouse Bar. This al fresco bar has memorably good cocktails, and the vibe is a little more relaxed than some of the city’s flashier rooftop venues – best of all, it has fantastic views of downtown Dubai and the Burj Khalifa, giving you a chance to admire this iconic building once more before bidding farewell to the City of Gold.