Dubai is a place full of the “world firsts”. It is also a legend where rich history joins the utmost in luxury
Located on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, Dubai was born as a fishing village where Bedouins did business and trading. From the 1830s on, the area’s commercial activities began to boom because of the sea transportation advantages and port resources. Then in 1966, the discovery of oil created the basis for modern Dubai as enormous amounts of money poured into the city’s development. Now, Dubai has become the financial, economic, trade and tourism center of the UAE and the Middle East.
Today, the impression that Dubai leaves in people’s minds is “luxury”: the world’s tallest building, the first 7-star hotel and the biggest shopping mall. However, the city also features a long and profound history whose traces are vividly seen in the old town known for various traditional souks and the Dubai Museum. It is not hard to comprehend why it is called a city of legend.
From Burj Khalifa to Palm Jumeirah
The 828m Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, has drawn visitors from all over the world since its opening in 2010. It is the conceptual heart and soul of the city of Dubai – inspiring the viewer to imagine new possibilities. For practicable functions, the building houses a huge amount of office space, 900 private residences and the Armani Hotel Dubai. Besides, there are two observations decks – the two-storey “At the Top” on the 124th and 125th floors, as well as the world’s highest observation deck (555m) on the 148th floor, from where you can feel the whole Earth is under your feet. City views are interweaved with deserts and oceans. While ascending from the bottom to the sky via an elevator, you will see vivid multimedia demonstrations telling the history of Dubai as well as of Burj Khalifa. For a truly special experience, visitors can choose to dine in the restaurant and lounge “At.mosphere” on the 122nd floor. Try the delicate afternoon tea or haute dinner. Please reserve in advance. Good news: Alipay accepted.
At the base of the mighty tower you will find a vibrant hub of entertainment and dining, including the enormous Dubai Mall. There are over 1,200 boutique stores covering brands from Versace to ZARA, 150 restaurants, an aquarium, a Children’s theme park and an Olympics standard ice rink inside. Walking in the aquarium of three floors high, you will feel like being inside the water. Manta rays and jelly fish are swimming over your head. You can also put on a diving suit and take an oxygen tank to swim together with them. Outside the mall is the choreographed musical Dubai Fountain which is constantly featured on Dubai postcards. The highest water column can reach 150 meters, full of color and light, dancing with the music of different countries. After 6 pm every day, you can see the show every half an hour.
The Palm Jumeirah is another impressive example of Dubai’s “world firsts”. Viewed from above, the manmade island resembles a stylised palm tree, which was built from reclaimed land mass and a series of artificial archipelagos. Palm Jumeirah is home to some of Dubai’s most luxurious resorts, including Atlantis The Palm, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, the One&Only The Palm and many more. It is also packed with fantastic dining options worth visiting, such as Nobu and 101 Dining Lounge even if you’re not staying at one of the many resorts. The Palm is well developed – with roads, tunnels and public transport. So you can easily access the various hotels, restaurants and attractions on the island. You can also hop aboard the Palm Monorail that runs to Atlantis that sits at the helm. Sailing around Palm Jumeirah in a yacht or speedboat is also a popular option, with many private touring companies to choose from. Thrill-seekers can even skydive above the island for a truly unique experience.
From Desert to Beach
Sometimes people forget that Dubai is a city built on the desert. In fact, before Dubai’s rise as a modern city, the infinite desert was the main reason that attracted tourists to the location.
Less than a 20-minute car trip will take you to the magnificence of the Arabian Desert. Tourism agents have prepared all kinds of exciting activities for you to explore the sands. Book yourself a desert safari in a 4×4 that braves the crescents of Dubai’s best sand dunes. Say hello to a camel or get photographed with a falcon. For a more thrilling experience, hop on a quad bike and navigate the sandy landscape yourself. Available for hire by the half hour, the quad bikes are speedy and a helmet must be worn while riding. Follow the natural trail of the dunes, kicking sand in the face of your fellow riders as you hurtle and bounce over Dubai’s most iconic patch of sand. Then, if you are a true adrenaline-seeker, strap a snowboard-like contraption to your feet and glide down the dunes just like you would at the slopes of Ski Dubai. While it’s possible to rent a sand board at Big Red, there are a number of companies – such as Dream Explorer Dubai – that offer the full experience.
A recommend program here is to follow the Dubai-based luxe tour operators Platinum Heritage who offers a number of desert safaris in Series 1 Landrovers through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where you can spot native wildlife and Arabian Oryx. Onboard this vintage vehicle, guests are taken through an authentic desert experience dating back to the 1950s. Choose the morning wildlife safari and finish off with a traditional Emirati breakfast and storytelling by a local Bedouin, or opt for the night safari, where you’ll stop for a stunning sunset and cap it off with a scrumptious meal at a royal desert retreat. For a truly exclusive treat, embark on the private astronomy tour, which will enlighten you on Arabian astronomy and bring you up-close-and-personal with nocturnal desert creatures (aided by a professional guide of course). Tips: The Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve takes ‘glamping’ to another level, with luxury tented-style villas, each featuring its own private infinity pool.
After the desert exploration, indulge yourself into a totally different yet equally amazing experience – the seaside. Dubai boasts a wide range of beaches with complete facilities and services, offering both exciting water sports and gentle family options.
If you’re serious about your water sports and wish to test your skills on one of the best free beaches in Dubai, Kite Beach has the challenge you seek. Located steps from Jumeirah’s main street, you’ll find high quality water sports equipment available along the sand, with kitesurfing, wakeboarding and stand-up paddle boarding gear all ready to go. Head down in the afternoon, as this is when the wind picks up and presents some better conditions. If staying on land is more your thing, you’re bound to find a game of beach volleyball to join, along with a welcoming vibe and plenty of new friends to make in the process. Or, if you’re looking for a more chilled-out vibe, Kite Beach exudes adrenaline as much as it does serenity and a casual beachside atmosphere. You’ll also find some casual bites to eat right off the beach at the shops and food trucks; don’t miss your chance to grab some sliders and a lotus shake at the ever-popular Salt.
For a taste of the idyllic beachside lifestyle, make your way down to the relaxed district of The Beach at JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residences). This bustling cosmopolitan area is like a beach resort anyone can access and enjoy a day in the sun with a contemporary Arabian touch. The family-friendly area is easily accessible from anywhere in Dubai. There’s plenty to do – from a wide selection of beachside dining and shopping to water sports such as parasailing and wakeboarding. There’s also banana boat rides and even a train for the kids to enjoy. If you’d prefer to keep your feet dry, you can take a camel ride along the beach – and all with the iconic city landscape in the background. Plus, there’s a 600m running track, outdoor gym and beach volleyball court if you’re keen to work up a sweat. Or take in an outdoor yoga class to get your day started the way you like. If your visit coincides with the other end of the day, there’s a good chance of encountering some live entertainment to get your excitement levels up.
Sunset Beach, also known as Umm Suqeim beach, is the perfect spot to relax with the sun, sand and Burj Al Arab in the distant background. One of the quieter spots along the coast, it is a beautiful area for morning jogs and strolls and watching the sun set across the Arabian Gulf. The calm beach allows you to catch a snooze or do a bit of reading.
A Real Dubai
As the sea water flows into Dubai city via the Persian Gulf, it forms the Dubai Creek, 100 meters wide and 10 kilometers long. The Creek divides the city into two parts, one side is the modern Dubai and the other is the old town brimmed with historic and cultural elements. That’s why the old town is often known as the real Dubai.
The Dubai Creek is the origin of the city’s commerce and you can still see cargo ships coming and going through the water. It is one of the most worthy experiences in Dubai to travel across the creek on an Abra, the local wood mast sailboat, with 1 AED.
The old town is filled with many traditional souks, hidden in winding alleys. The famous Gold Souk is one of the oldest and most fascinating traditional markets in the Emirate. Whether you’re just browsing or genuinely on the hunt for even the slightest amount of precious gold, it’s the place to go. There is the biggest selection of gold jewelry and gemstones crafted in a variety of carats in the market stalls along the long lines. All merchandise is carefully regulated by the Dubai government to ensure the authenticity and quality. You can be sure your purchases will be genuine. In addition to gold, there are also diamond-encrusted ornaments, strings of pearls, platinum and silver. Retailers are more than up to the match with haggling. But be fair with your price – there are lots of bargains to find.
Colorful is one apt description for Dubai’s Spice Souk. Aromatic is another. Brace yourself for a sensory sensation, as myriad flavors and recipes will greet you as you make your way through the traditional spice market. Savor the atmosphere of the past as you are introduced to the mounds of aromatic herbs and spices spilling from large baskets at every turn. Some may be just a tad overwhelming, whereas others are light, airy and sweet.
Wander among many different stalls and chat to the vendors who will give you plenty of ideas on how you can use the various spices on offer. Not all are designed for cooking. A wide variety of fragrant teas from all over the world are on offer – you can learn all of this as you go. There is also a great selection of nuts, oils and saffron available from the markets.
Spices are sold both by weight and in packets. However like other souks, if you’re buying in bulk, vendors expect you to haggle. Whether you’re a cooking expert or looking to experiment a bit with your favorite recipes, you’ll discover many new tastes at Spice Souk.
To further feel the essence of old Dubai, visit the Dubai Museum and encounter colorful dioramas and enlightening historic exhibits. Housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, this is the oldest existing building in the city, showcasing Dubai’s history and its original heritage. You can get a glimpse of everyday life before the discovery of oil. The galleries recreate historic Arab houses, mosques, souks, date farms, desert and marine life.
Luxury SPA and Hammam
There are hundreds of spas of different scales in Dubai, from luxury hotel and resort spas to boutique day spas, offering complete facilities, unique products and authentic local experience. All in all, the highlight is Hammam, a time-honored bathing practice in the Middle East.
A sky dome and mosaic decorations define the interior. A traditional Hammam treatment begins with a steaming as one is lying on a round marble slab, to relax and open the pores. It is followed by a whole body scrub and exfoliation provided by a professional masseur or masseuse with rich soap bubble made from olive oil. Afterwards, you will enjoy a body massage with lotion or essential oil, completed with hair wash and scalp massage. The whole experience helps detox, stimulate blood circulation, diminish inflammation, and ease the pain. It also assists with skin health and beauty enhancement. As time passes, the Hammam experience has been updated with better facilities and products.
In Dubai, almost all luxury hotels offer Hammam experiences and each with its distinctive features.
The Talise Spa at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray has the biggest Hammam venue in Asia featuring hand painting ceilings and magnificent mosaics. There are independent male and female area, as well as private couple’s area. Recommended treatment includes black soup and clay bathing, gold mask, Turkish coffee massage and ice massage.
You will soon calm down when you step into the greenery courtyard where The Spa at One&Only Royal Mirage dwells. There is an independent Hammam center offering both individual and group programs under the breathtakingly mosaics ceiling of colorful glass. Enjoy a pure mud wrap and body massage amidst the scent of rose and mint, completed with a soothing honey mask and scalp massage.
The Hammam at Palace Downtown Dubai is well-known for its signature rose nectar integrated with the lava mud from Mountain Atlas.
The Saray Spa at JW Marriott Marquis Dubai names its Hammam area “Gold” and levels up the luxury experience even more. Enjoy a golden Arabian honey mask and then a 24K gold oil massage.
Maybe Dubai is an epitome of a future city, but it offers not only technology and luxury – it also encompasses the everlasting inheritance of Nature and Humankind.