I first came to Dubai in 1993 and am as guilty as anyone of bemoaning the city’s lack of variety in things to do, while at the same time being too stuck in my ways to actively search out something new. I mean, once you’ve gazed in wonder at The Dubai Mall’s incredible aquarium, swayed along to the music at the Dubai Fountain, craned your neck admiring the awesome Burj Khalifa and gone skiing when it’s 45 degrees outside, what do you do next?
This is no doubt a dilemma facing staycationers and recent arrivals in the sultry summer, as well as long-term expats guilty of sticking to the same old places. Dig a little deeper and you could find some hidden gems. Yes, some of these tucked-away treasures may take a little effort, and some may not have the same 24-carat cachet of their more ornamental alternatives, but they are also rich in culture and character.
Hands up if you have never been to Dubai Museum? This is the archetypal example of a great Dubai attraction overlooked by residents. A genuine slice of history, Fahidi Fort, built in 1787, is the oldest structure in Dubai. From the simple courtyard, one door leads into an underground world where a video brings to life the city’s development before you are led through recreations of an old souq, desert camps, and even a pearl-diving exhibit. At just Dh3 for adults, this is one of the city’s best bargains.
Weather permitting, and just a short walk away, an abra trip across the Creek and a stroll around the souqs is not just nourishment for the soul, but for the wallet too – just Dh1 for a ride. Splash out on a private abra (from Dh60 for an hour if you haggle) or go overboard (not literally) by hopping on a dhow with A/C and edibles. The supremely kitsch Cleopatra Dhow Cruise is an absolute scream, delivering not just a buffet dinner brimming with Arabic delicacies, but a rather surreal show with magic tricks and a dressed-up dancing horse.
For a more cultural experience, lunch instead at nearby beauty spot Bastakiya. The only Dubai neighbourhood that’s more than 100 years old, it boasts a multitude of art cafés. Although Local House Coffee Shop is famed for its camel burgers and XVA Hotel & Café lauded for its tasty crêpes and original art, my favourite is Arabian Tea House (until recently called Basta Art Café), which is housed in the garden of the former residence of a pearl merchant. Sit in its leafy courtyard shaded by the branches of an enormous Narra tree, dig into its oversized salads (the asparagus and halloumi combo is yummy), sip on one of its 150 types of tea and make a mockery of Dubai’s hectic pace. If you’re there early, order the Emirati breakfast of cardamom-seasoned sweet vermicelli with egg.
You can also get a traditional Arabic breakfast, but with cool extras, at the nearby Shaikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (www.cultures.ae). Many expats avoid attractions like this, believing they’re already au fait with the local culture. But the breakfast – a Dh60 spread of spiced scrambled eggs with vermicelli noodles and doughnuts drenched in date syrup – amid a no-holds-barred discussion on UAE culture and religion offers great insight, no matter your residency lifespan.
There are tons of charismatic dining experiences – none of them anywhere near a marble lobby – that are well worth sniffing out. Dubai institutions – Ravi in Satwa for streetwise spice (it dishes up the best butter chicken), The Chalet on Beach Road for post-beach basking (it does the tastiest rotisserie chickens) and Bu Qtair on Beach Road for its straight-from-the-shore seafood – are plentiful, but they also become victims of their own success – destinations well-trodden on the search for something fresh.
So, instead, put your hunger in the hands of a true Dubai foodie, old-timer Arva Ahmad, who can take you on one of her backstreet food strolls of Old Dubai (take an evening tour during Ramadan) to sample its best ethnic eats. Try Yemeni meats on the Arabic tour, green chilli drinks on the Indian tour and spicy Ethiopian curries on the North African tour, all Dh350 for four hours (www.fryingpanadventures.com).
Of course it’s not just about cheap eateries. But with hundreds of hotel restaurants on the culinary circuit, how do you choose? Word of mouth is king here and I heartily recommend Teatro in Towers Rotana for its amazing early-bird deals, Pierchic’s terrace for its stunning setting and succulent seafood (catch an abra from Madinat Jumeirah), Moroccan restaurant Tagine at The One & Only Royal Mirage for its magical atmosphere, and Legends on the Creek for still having one of the best views in town. Hire Legends’ floating table – a private dining table for eight set in a pool – and dig into fabulous fusion food like lobster kibbeh and fois gras dates. Or, push the boat out literally with a dining doughnut at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club. On this floating barbecue vessel, you can cook up a culinary storm right in the middle of the Creek (Dh1,200 for six people).
Some oldies but goodies with retro appeal include Dubai’s only revolving restaurant, Al Dawaar, on the rooftop of Hyatt Regency Dubai, which offers incredible views of the Creek and skyline, while the almost-mythical Jebel Ali Social Club – a welcoming time warp of a sports club – has food and drink straight out of the 1970s, with decor and prices to match.
Oh, and the chocolate soufflé at Café Chic (Le Méridien Dubai Airport) and Ali’s Soup – a never-ending bowl of lentil and lamb soup – at any of the More Cafés are still two of the city’s most delicious dishes.
Once you’ve ticked off the glossiest malls and the bustling souqs, where next? Jumeirah Beach Road, once the main stomping ground for European expats, may well be a little faded, but there are still treasures to be unearthed.
Begin by breakfasting at Lime Tree (the homemade baked beans with feta dish remains my all-time favourite Dubai breakfast), before hitting Jumeirah Centre, where you’ll find cool gifts at Harvest Home, original Arabic-inspired fashions at BeYou boutique, and lots of interesting arty stuff in the super-sized stationery store. Dive into the Jumeirah Plaza, the pink mall next door, to browse the second-hand book bargains in House of Prose, before crossing the road to The Village Mall for a mooch around kooky design store S*uce. Then pop next door for some fun food with the kids at one of Jumeirah’s oldest outlets Johnny Rockets (if you’re lucky the waiters will sing you an Elvis tune while dishing up your super-thick shake) or chow down on good sushi and pretty-people watch with the grown-ups at Japengo, Palm Strip Mall. Finally, head to the oh-so-quirky Town Centre, where you’ll discover one of my favourite hot-weather hangouts, Café Ceramique – paint a pre-made piece of pottery while eating your pastry.
Mall-wise, ditch the glossy Dubai Mall and MOE and instead explore a few of Dubai’s older themed (read kitsch) shopping centres. I love Lamcy Plaza for its quirky character – a clown continuously climbs a rope, while a replica of London Bridge houses a café – and bag-a-bargain outlets. But it’s the children’s edutainment centre that keeps me coming back. One of Dubai’s oldest, Loulou Al Dugongs for kids aged two to 10, is cheap, cheerful and full of character. Highlights include a huge sandpit with hidden fossils you have to dig for, a mini supermarket with working tills and free cooking classes every hour – I guarantee kids will not get bored and parents can sit in the café – for the paltry price of Dh40.
Stay in Oud Metha for a mooch around the marbled-up mall that is Wafi. This polished-to-perfection pyramid holds some true treasures. Petals is one. More a museum than a shop, this theatrical space is packed full of pretty antique-looking things. Two more gems worthy of a wander are fashion boutique Ginger & Lace (think cute and girly pieces from quirky designers) and Wafi Gourmet, a Lebanese deli offering a mouth-watering selection of edibles. The real jewel in the proverbial crown, however, is Crystal Maze at indoor theme park Encounter Zone’s Gallatica – a mentally challenging activity based on the Nineties UK TV programme of the same name, it’s brilliant for older kids and adults alike. Don’t leave the pyramid without a wander through its oft-missed subterranean souq Khan Murjan, beautiful not just for its offerings, from trinkets to textiles, but also for its incredible stained glass window ceiling created from mosques across the Islamic world.
Other shopping secrets? Get at least one bespoke piece of clothing fashioned by Dream Girls tailors in Karama; snap up local art from one of the galleries in Dubai’s art hub, The Courtyard in Al Quoz – Ayyam Gallery holds free monthly auctions of works from local artists – and discover eco-friendly treasures, from paper jewellery to cardboard sofas, at The Change Initiative on SZR.
If you love haggling but can’t handle the heat of Dubai’s old souqs, head to Dragon Mart. It’s hardly a secret – it’s 1km long and built in the shape of a dragon out on the Hatta Road – but most expats just don’t give it a chance. Once you get past the tat you can find some really cool stuff, from crafting materials to wacky wallpapers. Don’t leave without visiting the nearby Plant Souk, which features plenty of foliage at fabulous prices.
If not even soaring temperatures can keep you from the beach, then at least choose wisely. Al Mamzar Beach Park on the Deira end of the Creek overlooking Sharjah is still one of Dubai’s most beautiful yet underrated spots and an ideal all-day destination: five beaches with Blue Flag status; sheltered waters that are crystal clear and perfect for snorkelling; shaded playgrounds and grassy areas; barbecue pits and changing rooms. It’s also quiet in the week with two women-only days (Sundays and Tuesdays) and cheap at Dh5 each. Head out early and pick up some super-fresh squid en route at Deira fish market (opposite the Gold Souq), then hire an Al Mamzar chalet (from Dh140 per day) to cook your own private barbecue, while escaping the midday heat in air-conditioned comfort.
Another stunning beach with Blue Flag status but a tad pricier is the family-friendly Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa. Slightly out of town, this not only makes a day here (Dh180 during the week) feel like a mini break, but it has retained its unpretentious laid-back feel and hosts lots of cool activities – pony rides and games of croquet beachside. You could lap up some of the stunning seaside action with the oft-overlooked wild and rugged public Jebel Ali Beach next door. You need a 4x4 to access it through the grassy dunes, but once there, it’s brilliant for kids as the sea surface is calm and you can even camp here.
I find the grass is always greener, though, at one of my favourite Dubai spaces, Mushrif Park. Set in a natural ghaf forest just outside Mirdif, Dubai’s oldest park is a wonderland of wild and wacky offerings including wildlife roaming freely – I’ve spotted peacocks, owls, rabbits and deer – a mini village where you can explore little houses from around the world, and several retro public swimming pools, where you can cool down for an even cooler Dh10.
Another park worth a peruse is the sprawling Creekside Park as it has a variety of attractions and (importantly) indoor options. All my kids love the 30-minute cable car ride along Dubai Creek (Dh140 for the entire car), as well as the park’s other quirky offerings such as crazy golf, a track for racing radio-controlled cars and a spot where you’re allowed to fish freely – just bring your own rod. Heading indoors, do give the rather touristy Dubai Dolphinarium a miss, and instead spend at least half the day in huge edutainment centre Children’s City. Highlights include a flight simulator, a giant computer (complete with ride-on mouse), a machine that crushes cans, a mini construction site and regular educational screenings in the immersive planetarium. Oh, and did I mention the price? Just Dh10.
Finally, from budget to blow-out, my pick of the city’s best bucket-list experiences for when, like me, you bite the Dubai dust: the seven-course afternoon tea at the seven-star Burj Al Arab in Sahn Eddar (the homemade passion fruit jam is to die for); a dive or snorkel with the world’s biggest collection of Sand Tiger Sharks, as well as 33,000 other creatures, in Dubai Aquarium (Dh875); and a private dinner conjured up by Michelin-starred chef Andy Campbell (once head chef at Café Royal in London) at boutique villa The Jumeirah Garden Guest House. It’s not just delicious fine dining, but he uses organic, local produce and it’s very affordable… Dh200 for four courses.
Head out of Dubai for a day… or two.
Bedouin Camp in RAK Ok, this is more than a day – a few days in fact – but it’s brilliantly authentic, offering real goat-hair tents, a campfire and a proper underground oven, from where your food appears. It’s cosy and comfy, too, and will only set you back Dh190 per night. A lovely experience for little ones. www.arabianincentive.com
Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort It has seen better days, but you couldn’t wish for more superlative ones at this quaint place on the East Coast, 90 minutes from Dubai. The chalet accommodation provides unpretentious luxury in the form of a great beach and endless evening barbecues and my kids have never bored of snorkeling around Snoopy Island. Best when there’s a group of you. www.sandybm.com.
Arabian Wildlife Centre Awesome wild animals and desert landscapes on display in this oft-overlooked Sharjah museum, with more than 100 species from the Arabian peninsula, including those in extinction. Simply brilliant and educational, Dh15 adults, free for under 12s.
Sharjah Aquarium This mesmerizing exhibit boasts some 250 species of marine life and under-floor tanks you can walk on, all for just Dh5.
Blue Souk This stunning air-conditioned market, which opened in 1979, is a treasure trove – 600 shops - of all things Arabic. Get original Arabian antiques, bartered down to great prices.
Dreamland Aquapark Frolicking with hippos next to a volcano? What’s not to love about this expansive water park in Umm Al Quwain with sensible prices, overnight camping, wave pool and fun for all ages. It’s also quite quiet, so you don’t queue for rides and won’t lose your kids.
Jebel Hafeet It’s the tallest mountain in the UAE, just outside of Al Ain, and offers too wow factors – the immense view and cooler temperatures due to the altitude. While there, visit Green Mubazzarah at the foot of the mountain (with chalets and hot springs) and don’t forget the Al Ain Wildlife Park.