Beginners Guide to Dubai

Dubai is a city located in an Emirate of the same name in the United Arab Emirates. What began as a small trading port boomed in population and revenue when oil was discovered in the 1960s, and Dubai has since stepped up its tourism game.

Clearly it’s worked, because the city is now home to one of the most luxurious hotels in the world (the Burj Al Arab) and more than 10 million tourists stop in this Middle Eastern oasis each year. And who could blame them? The food alone is reason enough to visit this thriving city, though there’s plenty to do for people of all ages (and on all budgets).

Before you visit the Las Vegas of the Middle East, it couldn’t hurt to brush up on your Arabic and learn a bit about the local customs and practices. Or just read on for my suggestions, for everything from where to stay to how to respect local Muslim customs.

When to Go & Where to Stay

Dubai is in the desert, so the weather is exactly what you’d expect — hot and dry, with very little rain. The best times to visit is between October and May, when temperatures are a bit cooler (20-35C, or about 70-95 F). If you wait until the summer months, humidity increases dramatically and temperatures can reach upwards of 50C (120F). For those not accustomed to desert weather, it’s best to avoid travelling during these months.

Dubai Sunset

There are two main areas to stay, near the beach or downtown, and which area is best is entirely up to your preferences! There are a number of beautiful resorts on the coast, like the incredible Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on the man-made island of Palm Jumeirah, or the ultra-luxurious Burj Al Arab I previously mentioned. Being near the beach certainly has its perks (no need for a taxi ride or a walk in the sweltering heat to enjoy private beaches), but they do tend to be more expensive than the hotels downtown.

Downtown Dubai also has an impressive collection of luxury resorts and hotels, but typically for a cheaper price than you’ll find at the beach. Many of these hotels are also within walking distance of multiple restaurants, bars and other attractions you’ll want to visit during your stay.

Regardless of where you stay, be sure to learn up front of any additional fees you’ll be charged. Many hotels don’t offer complimentary wi-fi, and tend to charge a flat fee per device, per day.

How to Get Around

Dubai is a very walkable city, but its public transportation system is growing with its population. The city bus is a pretty reliable and cheap way to get around, but it can sometimes be intimidating to a first-time visitor, and it’s also not the best option if you’re in a hurry.

The metro is also a good way to travel within the city, although it operates on a weird schedule, so if you’re travelling late at night or Friday mornings, you’ll need to take a different route. Taxis in Dubai are the easiest and most popular way to get around. Even during the busiest traffic times, it should be fairly easy to catch a taxi in any part of the city — although you can easily call one to pick you up if you have trouble.

What to See & Do

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in Dubai. My top suggestion would be to test your skills on the ski slopes inside the Mall of Emirates. That’s right — you can go snow skiing in the middle of the desert. There’s also the huge Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest, so between the two you can do all the shopping your heart desires.

If you want a taste of the old Dubai, before oil and real estate took over, head to the Bastakia Quarter. It’s a winding maze of pedestrianized streets that still retains the original architecture from the 19th century. You’ll find many cafés to stop for tea and a hearty lunch, and galleries hosting works by local and international artists.

Another must-see is the view from the observation deck at Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and one that’s easily recognizable for anyone who’s seen Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. You’ll have to reserve a ticket for the top far in advance, but the view is simply stunning.  

If you’re planning a night out at the bars, it’s important to know that non-Muslims are only permitted to drink alcohol in licensed bars and nightclubs, which are typically located in hotels. But not to worry, you’ll have plenty of places to go for a fun night out! Although Dubai is nicknamed the “Las Vegas of the Middle East,” public drunkenness isn’t tolerated there as it is in the famous U.S. gambling town, so be mindful of your behavior during a night out.

Before You Go

The local language in Dubai is Arabic, but as its tourism is quickly growing, most people (especially at any type of tourism business) do speak English. That being said, I always think it’s great to learn a few key phrases in the local language wherever I go — even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, the locals usually appreciate your effort to communicate. And getting friendly with the locals is how I’ve found some of the best sights on my travels!

An important thing to do before visiting Dubai, or any Middle Eastern city, is to familiarize yourself with some Muslim customs and practices. While your social burdens as a tourist aren’t likely to cause much offense, it’s better to know what things are considered impolite, what clothing is appropriate to wear, and when the important holidays are. For example, during Ramadan (typically mid-June to mid-July) it’s illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours anywhere you may be seen by a Muslim.  

The one thing I always suggest people do when travelling to any foreign country is to get your phone unlocked. That way, you can pick up a local SIM in the airport or a convenience store and you won’t have to worry about terrible international roaming fees when you get back home. It’ll also help you avoid some of those wi-fi charges at the hotels, because you can tap into the local cellular data network. Then you can get directions, share photos and keep in touch with your friends and family back home, all for no extra fees.

Although Dubai can be tricky to navigate, and expensive, it’s one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. Have you been, or are you planning your own trip soon? I’d love to know your favourite spots for the next time I go back — I’m always looking for new places to go during my travels!