City Guide to Dubai

Dubai – Where Dreams Become A Reality

16. Jul 2021
by Punita Malhotra

With man-made islands mimicking a map of continents, palm tree formations like calligraphic poetry, and an audacious skyline of record-breaking architecture, surreal seems to be an unchanging theme in Dubai. The city is dominated by the world's tallest building - the Burj Khalifa - a magnificent structure of shimmering glass, and exacting steel. On the once barren Sheikh Zayed Road sits a plethora of skycrapers of all different shapes. In Dubai, size matters.  

The sail

Strutting into its fabulous fifties with the panache of a twenty-something, this Emirate continues to challenge its masterstrokes with loftier marvels and miracles that complement the glory of its nautical-shaped emblem, arguably the grandest hotel in the world - Burj Al Arab. 

The Burj Al Arab - Dubai's iconic hotel

Shape-shifting skyline

Dubai is an incredulous makeover story. From a fishing village of boat builders, sea traders and pearl divers to a global mega-city of oil magnates, shipping barons and loaded financiers, the flight has been powered by petrodollars, visionary enterprise and unbridled ambition. Like an illusory oasis, the sandcastle of riches shimmers like a polished gold nugget on the scorched Arabian desert sands. Exquisitely sculpted manmade islands deck the Champagne-tinged shoreline. Futuristic concrete-and-steel structures dot the cityscape. Colossal skyscrapers twist in outlandish shapes. Luxury yachts bob in artificial marinas bordered by glamorous promenades. Snazzy cars zip out of gilded hotels. Splurge-worthy miles of floorspace fill mammoth shopping palaces. The mood is excessive extravagance, and the vibe is big-on-bling.

Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world

Underneath all the gloss and glamour, a deep-rooted conservative culture struggles to stay afloat. Ancient gold and spice souks – marketplaces - bustle with animated chatter. Wooden Abras – boats - rock on shimmering waters of the Creek. Bedouin deserts dwellers ride lazy camels on golden sands. And burka-clad beauties float past with their cloaks fluttering in the wind. Recover from the staggering first glimpse of the ever-evolving skyline, to toast the indomitable spirit of a city forever in flux. Kick off the extravaganza at the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s pride and joy, its beacon of buoyancy.

Desert life 

Beacon of buoyancy

Was it an epiphany or a stroke of sheer genius, when architect Tom Wright envisioned a megastructure resembling the billowing sail of an Arabian dhow? Either way, his brainchild was slated to be Dubai’s unofficial emblem and one of the most acclaimed hotels in the world. Drumroll rights have been firmly in place, ever since its grand reveal way back in 1994.

The usual suspects are absent - no sprawling gardens, castle gates or fortress walls to ease you into the drama. Instead, the distinctive silhouette of Burj Al Arab - Tower of the Arabs - beckons brazenly from the coastline, like a beacon of buoyancy against the infinity of the Arabian Gulf. Snob appeal owes to its exclusive location on an isolated, manmade island, linked to the mainland by a bridge road. Be chauffeured in a Rolls Royce from the hotel's fleet or just ‘drop in’ from the circular helipad jutting out precariously at a height of 212 meters. Either way, the stage is set for a sinful splurge, Emirati Sheikh style.

The Burj by night

Extraordinary in both form and function, but minimalistic in its steel and concrete facade, the hotel’s construction is a story of complicated challenges and improbable possibilities. Burj Al Arab is a feat of ingenious engineering that pushed the limits of human creativity. 

A closer look reveals materials, design elements and techniques carefully picked to cope with the aggressive environment. Standing on land reclaimed from the sea, its foundations are secured with 230 concrete piles of 40-metres installed into the sand and protected from erosion with a surface layer of boulders wrapped in concrete of honeycomb pattern. Expansion joints help the building to breathe under wind loads. Trussed arches, girders, cables, bars and double-curved membrane panels manage wind pressure. 42,000 square metres - 450,000 square feet - of glass panels glint like jewels in the sun during the day and showcase the illuminated coloured sculptures of water and fire at night. And the gigantic white fabric sail is the proverbial beauty with brains, the symbolic shape doubles up to keep inside temperatures in check.

The symmetry of the Burj is exacting

Fantasies of vacationing like a billionaire morph into reality in the opulent interiors. Cascades of jewel tones, coloured lighting, heavy curtains, ornate furniture, elaborate chandeliers, fine carpets, 30 varieties of marble and 24-carat gold leaf surfaces transport you into a Middle Eastern palace of unimaginable proportions.

This five-star hotel sports the world’s largest Swarovski crystal ceiling, symbolising the Milky Way. The tallest atrium in the world features a central fountain and a cascading waterfall descending from a height of seven metres. Nine restaurants and bars include the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor with scintillating views of Dubai and the Gulf. The signature underwater restaurant, Al Mahara, has a golden seashell entrance hallway leading to a floor-to-ceiling 1000 cubic metres - 260,000-gallon - aquarium filled with fish. And The Terrace is the first man-made luxury beach facility of its kind, with two pools decked with ten million gold and azure mosaic tiles, 32 private cabanas and 400 sun loungers.

The Terrace boasts 10 million individual mosaic tiles and a beach that was filled with 1000 tons of sand imported from Saudi Arabia

Self-indulgence drips from the 202 duplex suites that range in size from 170 to 650 square metres - 1,800 to 8,000 square feet. Hints of gold, marble and silk, flashy amenities like an 18 carat gold-plated iPad, 24-hour private butler service, Hermès toiletries, a 17-pillow menu and an eiderdown duvet with down harvested from abandoned eider duck nests in Iceland. Regular guests are pampered with bespoke floral arrangements of their favourite flowers specially shipped from Holland, Kenya, South Africa and Thailand. All whims and fancies will be pandered to, so do not move a finger, except for the remote. Blinds, climate control and lights, everything is programmed to dance at your touch command.

Read our expert review of the Burj al Arab.

A typically ostentatious Burj suite

Whims and wishes

In a sandy playground of unending riches, why even consider the option of moderation? Excesses are the unwritten rule and subtleties are sidelined with aplomb. Smash the extremes of fun with a day of splashing and sliding through the pools, rivers and rapids of the Wild Wadi water park. Or bundle up in a cosy parka and gloves for an unbelievable session of ice-skating at the enormous Dubai Mall. Switch to sarongs and sandals to soak up the sun on more than 16 kilometres - 10 miles - of sandy beaches.

Beach life

Or blow up your cash to steer a polished Lamborghini along the 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road. Full-blown screams and contorted expressions are the routes to abandoning fear as you plunge from a plane in a scintillating skydive. Carry on the peace pact with vertigo at the world’s highest observation deck on the 124th floor of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa.

Dubai by night 

And if that does not give you all the highs you crave, be seen with celebrities at the world’s richest horse race, The Dubai World Cup. Finally, celebrate the joys of living the good life with a dazzling evening show at the Dubai Fountain. Who needs the Las Vegas Bellagio when you have this?

The Dubai Fountain show 

Bur Dubai backtracks

Get your fill of the glitz, then dip into the other Dubai. Hop across the Creek on an old fashioned Abra to the Al Bastakiya or Al Fahidi Historic District in Bur Dubai. This former fishing village is named after the Bastak traders that settled here in the 19th-century from Iran. It is an enticing tangle of narrow alleyways, where coral sand-coloured buildings are crowned with Barjeel - wind towers, a traditional Persian air conditioning invention.

Sea life

Seek out hidden cafés, boutiques, museums and art galleries. Dubai’s oldest art space, the Majlis Gallery, is worth checking out for stellar artwork from around the world as well as avant-garde homegrown talent. The emirate’s history showcases itself at the museum housed in the city's oldest building, the sandcastle-like Al Fahidi Fort. Browse through displays of weaponry, artefacts and paraphernalia relating to pearl diving and date farming.

Majlis Gallery

Continue on the Shindagha waterfront to explore a collection of historical photographs at Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House. For a glimpse into the maritime traditions of old Dubai, venture to the Dhow Wharfage, where wooden dhows berth to load and unload mounds and mounds of merchandise. Rummage through the maze-like Souks of Bur Dubai and Deira for Emirates-inspired keepsakes like aromatic cardamom, Iranian saffron, sweet Wanan dates, camel chocolates, leather slides, cashmere scarves, oud-scented incense, Arabic coffee pots and calligraphy prints. Blinding displays of 24-carat-gold jewellery at the Gold Souk and custom tailoring at the Textile Souk are irresistible temptations for the luxury shopaholic with a taste for the rare and exotic.

Shindagha waterfront

Dunes ahoy

An expanse of glittering dunes sprawls into infinity, where the needle-thin spires, gilded palaces and coral sand houses shrink into oblivion. Soar into the sphere of the subliminal with a hot air balloon ride at dawn for unforgettable memories of sighting camels, oryxes and gazelles. A luscious breakfast of caviar and smoked salmon at a glamping site is followed by a jumpy-bumpy, roller-coaster ride on the sands in a desert-compatible Land Rover. Active adventurers can be administered adrenaline shots with sandboarding, quad biking and dune buggy rides. When the fall of fire dips away, the night sky twinkles with a million constellations and another dream sequence begins. A brush with classic Bedouin life is promised over gracious servings of dates, barbecue dinner, shisha sessions, Arabic coffee and belly dancing. Spectacular, indolent, fantasmic - because life really is worth celebrating.

Desert drives are a popular experience for locals and visitors alike

Where to eat and drink

Al Mahara: The signature restaurant at the Burj Al Arab is a unique experience for its underwater setting. Game-changing culinary delights blend simplicity with refined flavours to appeal to the most discerning of guests. Expect the globe on your plate with delicacies featuring Iranian caviar, Norwegian cod, Tasmania salmon, Atlantic lobster and Japanese scallops.

Al Mahara 

Pierchic: Hit the notes of romance in this above-water restaurant with unspoilt views of the azure waters and the Burj Al Arab. Recognized as Dubai’s finest seafood restaurant, it boasts of a menu decorated with modern high-end European seafood dishes, including seared king scallops with foie gras, lobster from Oman and fresh clams from New Zealand.

Pierchic at Jumeirah Al Qasr

Rhodes W1: Michelin–starred chefs at the flagship restaurant of the Grosvenor House Hotel floors guests with a fusion of inventive Anglo–French cuisine. Classic choices include lamb loin and pan-roasted chicken. Heavenly desserts like British pudding plate, strawberry shortcake or sticky toffee pudding will satisfy those with a sweet addiction. The lovely terrace garden looks over the Dubai Marina.

Rhodes W1

Indulgent accommodation options

A diverse range of districts in Dubai gives you the choice to pick luxury or culture or heritage, whatever your heart fancies. Al Fahidi in Old Dubai will put you in the heart of history, with its wind towers, twisty streets and lively souks. Jumeirah is an ideal choice for a feel of beachside suburbia. Downtown, the area around Burj Khalifa, will be the best bet if you prefer to be in the centre of all the action, modern attractions and shop-till-u-drop malls.

Read our guide to the best luxury hotels in Dubai.

Four Seasons Jumeirah Beach

Navigating the city

The airport is located at a distance of around 16 kilometres - 10 miles - from downtown Dubai. The most convenient way to travel into and around the by taxi. Sit back and enjoy the eye-popping sights of the city, while your driver navigates the traffic to get you to your next pitstop. The metro system connects most major areas of interest, including Burj Khalifa and the Dubai International Airport. Boats are a pleasant transportation option used by both locals and tourists to cross the Dubai Creek. You can consider hiring a car in case you are planning side trips outside the city.

A boat trip down the creek is a must searches hundreds of travel sites at once to help you find the best premium travel offers for both flights to and from the city and accommodation in Dubai.

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