Even if you’ve never been to the city, it may seem familiar. You’ve probably seen it on a movie screen or on your TV. One thing to know when traveling to Dubai is this is a very popular place to film. It’s especially prevalent in Middle Eastern and Indian movies, but international appearances include Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Syriana, Fast & Furious 7, and versions of both Star Wars and Star Trek. The desert nearby is often used as a stand-in for other locations.
It’s important to understand that this is a very new metropolis. Until the advent of air conditioning, this was more of a bedouin settlement than a real city. Thanks to oil riches and then good tourism marketing, however, the city that sprang from the desert eventually became a travel hotspot and a crossroads for transit thanks to a great airline based here: Air Emirates. I recently had a series of long-haul fights on that airline and they were miles above any other economy seat experience I’ve had in the last 30 years.
Dubai is a thriving city and a major tourist destination that has plenty to offer, assuming you’re not trying to be a shoestring backpacker. Dubai on a budget can be done, but it’s not easy.
There aren’t many native attractions or historic sites given the newness, but the city tries to make up for that with luxurious shopping malls, vibrant nightlife (especially compared to its neighbors in the region that ban alcohol), and beaches to lounge on. Here’s what you should know when planning a trip to Dubai.
This is also a cosmopolitan city full of expats from around the world. Some of them end up in enclaves that provide an upscale living experience unrivaled in most of the world. Follow this link to Six Senses Residences for one example. You can get by in English here if you don’t want to dive into Arabic.
The Dubai Lodging Scene
While the luxury hotels (see below) get all the press attention, This UAE city is fairly in line with international averages once you get beyond where the oil princes stay. Many mid-range chain hotels come in at under $100 per night sometimes, including the Pullman Dubai City Center that one of our correspondents reviewed and dependable names like the Sheraton and Crowne Plaza. Because there’s so much competition, names that are usually the most expensive in town are more reasonable here: the Wald0rf-Astoria rates were starting at $220 when I was checking prices.
That $100 mark is actually close to the average overall in the city, so if you search patiently enough and read reviews from real guests on the booking sites, you can find a deal here. When I pulled up the options on Booking.com I found a Movenpick for $69, an MGallery for $69 (Accor’s boutique hotel brand), and Tryp by Wyndham for $73.
Naturally you can find apartments for rent as well. This is a city filled with vacation homes and part-time residences, so there is always plenty of inventory. When I pulled up Vrbo, I found most apartments to be between $70 and $200 per night, though if you want a splash-out penthouse in a luxury building that has multiple bedrooms, that will be north of $300 per night.
The Top Luxury Hotels
If you’ve seen any tourism videos, TV shows, or movies filmed in this UAE city, you’ve surely seen the inside and outside of a few famous luxury hotels in Dubai. This city caters to high-end visitors, especially those from the Middle East, who aren’t the kind of people to scrutinize their bill too closely when checking out.
As a result, if you’re not loaded, you might want to go down a notch or two on the star scale and just pop into one of the luxury palaces for lunch or a drink. Some of these are chain hotels though, so you can cash in loyalty points for a vacation if you have a few hundred thousand of them in your account.
These 10 properties are where you can start if money is no object:
Burj Al Arab Jumeirah
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray
Four Seasons Resort Dubai
Atlantis The Palm
One&Only Royal Mirage
W Dubai – The Palm
Park Hyatt Dubai
The Hotel Zones of Dubai
When it comes to lodging in Dubai, there are several hotel zones that you can choose from. Each hotel zone has its own unique amenities and attractions, so it’s important to do your research to find the best option for your trip. The most popular hotel zones include Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina, and Palm Jumeirah.
The downtown/oldest part of the city is where the most affordable hotels are concentrated and this area is also close to the airport, so you won’t spend a lot getting in and out. There are a lot of independent hotels plus some chain names like Hyatt Place. There is a Holiday Inn Express right next to the airport too.
Heading southwest from there, past La Mer Beach and the waterpark, you come to another big lodging cluster close to The Dubai Mall and the aquarium. This is where a lot of the luxury properties are located, with properties from Taj, Four Seasons, and Shangri-La.
Past another waterpark, another big mall, and the indoor ski center is JBR Beach, where there’s another large Dubai hotel zone. The Palm Jumeirah is an artificial island collection out on the water, hosting the Atlantis, One&Only, and Raffles. There’s yet another waterpark out there, then the marina on the shore. Facing the water are another dozen or so hotels including another One&Only, Le Meridien, and Ritz-Carlton.
Things to Do in Dubai for Visitors
The obvious things to do here are the ones you would do in newly developed cities you find anywhere in the world: shop at malls (especially in this heat), go to the movies, dine out, and have cocktails with a view. There are plenty of man-made beaches to enjoy here in this always-sunny climate too.
There are plenty of quality museums, galleries, and heritage sites to explore. The Dubai Museum houses the city’s history and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers tours and workshops to enhance your understanding of the United Arab Emirates area.
There are several art galleries in Dubai, including the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) which houses a range of contemporary art. For families, there are plenty of attractions to experience together. The Dubai Aquarium is one of the world’s best, with more than 33,000 aquatic animals. The Dubai Miracle Garden is home to more than 50 million flowers.
There is also a range of theme parks, including the popular IMG Worlds of Adventure, which offers rides, shows, and attractions. For people who never see snow, there’s even an indoor ski resort.
If you want to do something more unique to the area, a desert safari is a popular tour here, whether on a camel or in dune buggies that bounce around going up and down in the sand. Usually there’s some kind of traditional meal at the end, in some kind of tent where you’re shaded from the sun or taking in the sunset. As night falls, the dancing performance starts. Here’s what to expect on a Dubai desert safari.
Other popular activities include taking a dhow boat cruise, going on a hot air balloon ride or getting a guided tour of the old city and souks. Check your dates for these options and others:
Flights and Stopovers
Flights to Dubai are abundant and competitive, including one what is often tagged as the best airline in the world: Air Emirates. I flew with them all the way to Thailand and back from Mexico City and was amazed at the service, the food, and the seatback entertainment selection.
Even if you’re not planning a full vacation in Dubai, you can take advantage of the great stopover program offered by the airline based there. If you book through them and work in a stopover, you get discounts on a wide range of tours, free breakfast at the hotel you book, and a 24-hour checkout time at the hotel so you don’t have to worry about when your flight is landing.
Traveling to Dubai: Getting Around in the City
While the 1% crowd is getting around Dubai in oversized SUVs that are gulping the abundant local petrol, you don’t have to be a big spender to get from one part of the city to another. You can actually reach almost every area of interest on the local metro. It runs until 1:15 in the morning if you want to use it to go out. Prices vary by how many zones you are traveling through, starting at just over $1 and topping out at less than $2.50 in the local currency.
Is there Uber in Dubai? Yes indeed there is, so you can hail it to get right to your front door in the intense daytime heat. Regular taxis are affordable though, at just a few dollars for a short trip and less than you would pay in NYC or London to get all the way across the city.
Naturally you can hire a car and driver to take you out of the city, on a private tour, or to pick you up at the airport. Some hotels also have an airport shuttle.
We hope you found this article on things to know when traveling to Dubai useful. If you stayed at a hotel you loved while you were there, let us know about it in the comments!