Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is known for being a city of superlatives. It's home to the world's tallest building, largest man-made island, most sprawling mall, only seven-star hotel, among many, many, many other unsurpassed accolades. To me, though, for almost a decade when I was growing up, it was simply home. It was where I went to school, where I went to the beach every weekend with my family, where I went to the mall (that didn't yet house a skiing resort) with friends after school. It had not yet become anywhere near as expensive and luxurious as it is now. Having moved there in '98, I witnessed its rapid expansion from essentially a desert with a few skyscrapers to one of the most lavish cities in the world. Now, almost two decades later, I barely recognize certain areas when I go back, since new buildings, attractions, and hotels have taken over every available plot of sand.
With that said, it's the same ever-changing nature that makes it one of the more interesting cities to visit year after year; there will always be something new to see or try. On December 2, United Arab Emirates will celebrate its 46th year as a nation (yep, they are that young), and so with that in mind, check out all that Dubai has to offer, old and new, with our guide, below.
Where to Stay
Someone once told me that everything exceeded their expectations in Dubai except the Atlantis hotel. All to say, yeah, skip Atlantis (not because it's bad, just overrated), because there is truly no shortage of other incredible hotels to stay at in Dubai,
Jumeirah Al Qasr: Jumeirah hotel group is responsible for some of the best resorts in the entire city, like the luxe Zabeel Saray, stunning Mina A'Salam, and the skyline-famous, seven-star Burj Al Arab, but my favorite continues to remain Al Qasr. Translating to "the palace," this property is just that with its opulent guest rooms (accessible only via private boats), an award-winning spa (you will find no better spa services and nail services than in Dubai), and a traditional souk home to boutiques, restaurants, and a theatre.
The Bulgari Resort & Residences Dubai: Sure you've heard of Armani Hotel, housed in Burj Khalifa (aka the tallest building in the world), and maybe even the more recent Palazzo Versace, but have you heard of Bulgari's newest property? Probably not, because it's only set to open next month. Located on on a manmade seahorse-shaped island, this oasis, surrounded by lush gardens, comprises a resort, six residential buildings, 15 private mansions, and a yacht club. They had us at the mosaic-adorned spa that boasts a traditional hammam, though.
Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa: If you're willing to trade location for authenticity, look no further than Al Maha, a luxurious resort located in the desert. The suites are equipped with private sundecks and infinity pools from which you can take in the desert landscape and even catch a glimpse of the local wildlife. With two complimentary desert activities included in the rate, expect to ride horses through the sands, falcon-watch, dune drive, and camel trek in your free time.
Nikki Beach Resort & Spa: If you're looking for a younger crowd, consider staying at this modern and Instagrammable boutique resort. Known for attracting a party crowd, this beachfront property is adjacent to a beach club, boasting plush cabanas and sunbeds, a hotspot among both visitors and locals alike.
Where to Eat
Dubai is known to house every popular Western food chain and culinary institution; here you will find everything from Shake Shack and The Hummingbird Bakery to Bagatelle, Zuma, and Nobu, which is why you should check out our list, below, if you're looking for something more unexpected. Bonus tip: Make sure to indulge in one of Dubai's famous Friday (the weekend here falls on Friday and Saturday) brunches that see endless (and I mean endless) buffet tables and free-flowing Champagne.
Brought by the Gordon Ramsay alums responsible for the popular Table 9 Dubai, this modern dining concept has opened recently in Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Expect small plates made up of the most exquisite and intricate ingredients, like monkfish cheeks, veal tongue, guinea fowl, and lamb saddle, and delicious cocktails (like the Insta-famous Prosecco Pop), which you can enjoy prior to dinner on the restaurant's scenic rooftop overlooking the Burj Al Arab as part of its Sundowners menu.
The MAINE Oyster Bar & Grill: If you like oysters, head on over to this seafood joint that offers a separate menu dedicated solely to the mollusks (if you're not picky, from 6pm to 8pm nightly, there are deals on select varieties). If you would rather skip the raw bar, rest assured that its steak frites, pulled short rib poutine, and actually good craft cocktails (a rarity in Dubai) provide an equal draw for non-seafood lovers.
The Farm: Dubai isn't entirely caught up on the beauty of farm-to-table cuisine, which is what makes this restaurant, surrounded entirely lush greenery, so noteworthy. With a focus on ethically sourced ingredients, it puts out some of the most consistently delicious dishes around without relying on extravagant ingredients or techniques.
Abshar: If you're looking for something more native to the region, this unpretentious restaurant—so unpretentious, it's located on the side of the road—offers some of the most authentic Persian cuisine in the area. Meat lovers, prepare, there is no Iranian kebab that is not prepared here. Opt for the mixed grill to try a bit of everything and supplement with traditional dips like hummus and moutabal, salads like fattoush, and fresh juices (the restaurant serves no alcohol).
La Petite Maison: Fine, we broke the rules by including this offshoot of the popular London restaurant, but, like, rules are meant to broken, and this restaurant serves some really amazing French food so you'll forgive us, we just know. Prepare to leave quite a bit of money here, but know that every dish is worth it. Yes, the whispered-about whole roast black leg chicken with foie gras is especially good.
Tom & Serg: Located in the up-and-coming Al Quoz neighborhood, this artsy hipster hangout has soared in popularity due to its epic coffee, rotating menu with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, and a photo-worthy warehouse space. Check out the Aussie-Spanish hospitality group's other equally popular hangouts, The Sum of Us and Common Grounds.
Where to Drink
While locals don't drink alcohol for religious reason, it is served at all bars and restaurants adjacent to hotel properties. That said, the juice, coffee, and mocktail scene is strong.
Atmosphere: Located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, Atmosphere is, of course, known for its views. It's pricey, so may we suggest the High Tea, which includes a tower of sweet and savory pastries, dessert, and tea, which will prove to be more bang for your buck than paying just for an admission ticket to one of the observation decks.
Skyview Bar and 360°: Burj Al Arab houses two of the most popular bars in the area. Skyview will find you on the 27th floor of the luxe hotel (where it's rumored that beach sand is polished so that it doesn't stick to feet duh), sitting in comfy armchairs overlooking the spectacular view with a masterfully crafted (and artfully presented) cocktail in hand. 360° will find you taking a golf cart to the tip of a walkway jutting into the sea, where you'll breathe in the fresh sea air from the rooftop or lounge on the plush couches overlooking the Burj Al Arab and listen to an internationally famous roster of rotating DJs through the night.
Observatory: If all of the above sound too bougie for your taste, hit this bar located on the 52nd floor. With views overlooking the Dubai Marina and Palm Jumeirah, it offers a different, but no less impressive, vantage point to the visitors. Stop by with your girl squad on Mondays to receive three complimentary cocktails and a selection of canapes. (Note: Dubai is huge on Ladies Nights, with many restaurants and bars offering several free drinks and discounted food just for showing up.)
Barasti Beach Bar: This beach bar was popular in Dubai when I still lived there and so I have a soft spot for it. Over the years, it has continued its reign as the leading outdoor bar with live music, DJs, and a party scene that takes over night after night. Tip: Get here early on weekends or during popular live sports events to snag one of the comfy couches as it gets p-a-c-k-e-d.
Koubba Bar: Smoking hookah, better known as shisha here, is a popular pastime with the non-drinking part of the population—and for good reason. I have yet to try a better version than the one found in UAE. This stunning Arabesque bar, with both indoor and outdoor spaces, offers both shisha and cocktails, making it a popular outpost with all.
Zero Gravity: If you want a venue that will take you from a daytime pool party into a nighttime dance session, look no further than this beach club. Tuesday offers free entrance and discounted drinks for the ladies, Thursday hosts a barcade night, and Friday sees unlimited drinks deal following brunch. If beach is what you're after, you'll enjoy the loungers from which you can observe the skydivers landing on the shore in front of you.
The Espresso Lab: This coffee joint does not play around: Espressos are served alongside a glass of sparkling water on a wooden platter, and the use of sugar and milk is banned. Proceed with caution if you don't like your coffee black and strong. I may have teared up.
Where to Shop
I would never recommend malls as a shopping destination in any other place other than Dubai. But only because I was spoiled by the malls in Dubai growing up and was shocked to find that they were not like that in other parts of the world. Some noteworthy ones to check out include the gargantuan (like almost 6 million square feet gargantuan) Dubai Mall that houses an aquarium, indoor theme park, Olympic-sized ice rink, and an entire first floor dedicated to every single luxury brand in existence; Mall of the Emirates, my favorite for a great selection that doesn't overwhelm; Dubai Outlet Mall that has great deals; the newish City Walk, Venetian-style Mercato Shopping Mall; and themed Ibn Battuta Mall, where each section is inspired by the lands that the explorer traveled through.
The Outlet Village: For those looking to indulge in some luxury shopping without the hefty price tags, The Outlet Village houses discounted outposts for everyone from French darlings Maje and The Kooples to multi-brand stores like Priceless (make sure to check this one out—I scored a deal on Nicholas Kirkwood heels on my last trip) and Galeries Lafayette and accessory brands like Tumi.
Gold Souk: Gold is relatively cheap in Dubai, so don't miss out on visiting this traditional souk that will blind you with its rows of shiny storefronts. See something you like? Don't be shy with your negotiating skills and HAGGLE—it's almost expected here, and you're nothing if not a pro at exceeding expectations. If you're willing to skip the souk aesthetics, head to Gold & Diamond Park, which is where the locals go and, as such, has less inflated starting prices.
The Lighthouse: Dubai has recently begun to see a surge in independent stores housed outside of malls. Lighthouse, a fashionable design store, is one of those, located inside a chic restaurant putting out some of the most artfully crafted dishes courtesy of Dubai's most exciting chef Izu Ani (formerly of La Petite Maison). The store itself puts out the most beautiful coffee table books; off-kilter home goods, including hand-decorated HAM mugs; and quirky candles from Ligne Blanche.
Patchi: While chocolates may not necessarily be on the top of your shopping list in Dubai, step foot inside this Lebanese shop that's responsible for the creamiest chocolate you'll taste, and you will have to rethink that. Patchi also crafts the most perfect of gift boxes to take back for loved ones.
Bateel: If you know what's good for you, you will not come back home without a giant sack of figs from Dubai. This chain creates some of the most delicious ones, with a big range of varieties ranging from almond stuffed to chocolate dipped. The shop also often comes adjacent to its namesake cafes that craft some of the best eggs benedict around. Who knew?
What to Do
People always ask me what they should wear outside of the confines of their hotels and the beach. While Western garb is perfectly acceptable—most of the population is made of expats!—make sure that you remain respectful of what you're wearing when visiting historical sites and sites of prayer, avoiding anything too revealing.
Abu Dhabi: No trip to UAE would be complete without a stop in the country's capital, Abu Dhabi. About an hour away from Jumeirah area of Dubai (two hours from Dubai's airport), Abu Dhabi's must-see landmark is undeniably the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one of the few places of prayer open to non-Muslim visitors; it's made entirely from marble and features stunning, intricate gilded columns. Make sure a prayer isn't in session when you go and wear a headscarf and body-covering clothing (they can also provide you with abayas and head-covers on site). Also, make sure to stop by Emirates Palace, where you can take in the royal surroundings as you sip on a cup of coffee with pieces of gold in it, the brand-new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, and Ferrari World, where you can take a ride on the adrenaline rush-inducing Formula Rossa, the world's fastest rollercoaster.
Desert safari: I have yet to meet somebody who hasn't been impressed with the country's desert safari tours. Go with a well-reviewed tour company, so that you're guaranteed a knowledgeable guide and, more importantly, qualified driver as the cars tend to drive through the sometimes downward-sloping dunes fast, and even offer the more thrill-seeking passengers an option to sit halfway out the window. After all is said and done, there is no sight more breathtaking than the sun setting into the seemingly endless sand mountains, so see if you can make it a sunset safari. Afterward, you can take a ride on a camel and have a traditional Bedouin meal (that may involve fresh camel milk), have your hands painted in traditional henna designs, and be taught how to belly dance.
Miracle Garden: Prepare to feel like Alice in Wonderland in this sculpture village built entirely from flowers. Don't miss out on the Butterfly Garden where the beautiful, winged hosts welcome their guests by sitting on them.
Global Village: Get to know the Emirati culture, as well as others, at this cultural center that offers performances, food, and shopping from the 75-plus countries represented. The grounds are sprawling, with each pavilion themed to its respective region, so take out a big chunk of your time for this excursion and wear comfortable shoes.
Design District: Dubai has never been known as a bustling arts centre. In recent years, though, the country tried to rectify that with the opening of Dubai Opera, Louvre, and several artsy neighborhoods, like the Design District. The 11-building complex features everything from trendy restaurants and coffee shops to edgy fashion shops and galleries. Consult the website to see what's on view (given that it's a relative newcomer to the international art scene, there is more to browse on some days than others) and keep an eye out for events (I happened to catch Dubai Design Week). Other areas that hold galleries include Al Quoz's Alserkal Avenue and Gate Village.
Ski Dubai: Sure it's cheesy and predictable in Dubai, but, also, it's kind of surreal to step out of 100-plus degree weather and into an indoor ski resort housed in a mall. It's worth doing once.