Overview

Epitomizing an oil-rich sheikhdom isn't a bad life, but what Dubai really wants is to entertain visitors.

Dubai's tourism appeal includes big-time horse races and sporting events, a monthlong shopping festival and a skyline that commands the attention of visitors—not to mention such fascinating hotels as Dubai's own Burj Al Arab and the world's tallest building, the frighteningly towering Burj Khalifa. For jaded, been-there-done-that tourists, this metropolis on the Persian Gulf can throw in camel racing, sandboarding, sand skiing, ice-skating, snow skiing and unique cultural activities.

Dubai's rapid transformation has left it with a slice of old Arabia and a chunk of modern infrastructure. You'll find souks selling gold jewelry and traditional wares not far from modern shopping centers selling electronics and luxury items. Visitors will also see wind towers and minarets rising up from old neighborhoods, dwarfed in turn by office and hotel towers. A new stream of building projects is emerging steadily, making the city an experience not to be forgotten.

But the biggest contrast can be seen in Dubai's landscape: A splendid coastline and beaches are backed by an expansive desert, which in itself is a magnificent paradox of impressive sand dunes and starkly beautiful mountains.

Geography

Dubai is the capital of the emirate of Dubai, the second-largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. The city is divided by a large creek, Khor Dubai, which is a natural inlet from the Persian Gulf. Residents simply refer to the Khor Dubai as "the Creek." On the north side of the Creek is Deira, and on the south is Bur Dubai. Although in the city's early days Deira was the smartest, fastest-growing part of town, it has now been outstripped by frantic development on the Bur Dubai side, leaving it with the older, more down-at-heel parts of the city. Bur Dubai has expanded to such an enormous extent that its farthest reaches, from the edge of Jumeirah to Dubai Marina, are now referred to locally as "New Dubai."

Three main roads run parallel through the city: Jumeirah Road (or Beach Road) runs along the coast, Al Wasl Road through the center and Sheikh Zayed Road farther inland. Mankhool, Karama and Satwa are neighborhoods near the center of town. Jumeirah, a residential area popular with Western expats, is in the south, along the coast. Beyond that is Umm Suqeim. These areas are all on the south, or Bur Dubai, side of the Creek. Traveling on Sheikh Zayed Road farther on from Umm Suqueim and after the mass of residential towers that is Dubai Marina leads to Jebel Ali Free Zone. A 12-lane bridge and a floating bridge over Dubai Creek help with traffic flow.

The Jebel Ali Port shares the large volume of traffic with Port Rashid in central Dubai. This is all part of New Dubai, and both population and commerce are spreading outward from the busy central city.

Although Dubai has now started to implement street names, this wasn't always the case. People still tend to give directions based on landmarks. For instance, a likely address for a shop might be "Al Wasl Plaza, near Defence Roundabout, by the Union Bank opposite Spinneys supermarket." Adding to the confusion is the fact that place names translated from Arabic often have a couple of different spellings in English. To ease traffic congestion and improve the road system, the U.A.E. government has installed a Smart Traffic System, said to be the first of its kind in the world, using the latest technology and most advanced specifications. The installation of sophisticated devices can calculate traffic volume, and electronic screens will inform road users accordingly as well as bring attention to road accidents and mishaps along the way.

The area immediately surrounding Dubai is mostly flat desert. The Hajar Mountains are east of the city, and farther to the south is a great desert of sand dunes.

History

Until the 1800s, Dubai was a quiet settlement, and its people survived on fishing, pearl diving and agriculture. In the 1830s, it was taken over by the Bani Yas tribe led by the Maktoum family (which still rules the emirate). When Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who was ruler at the time, granted tax concessions to foreign traders, development began, and a trading empire grew, based on gold, silver, spices and pearls. A mix of Arab, Persian and Indian traders settled in the growing town and established Dubai's position as a serious trading center.

The importance of Dubai's large creek as a natural harbor was recognized, and the city began to specialize in the import and export of goods. Dubai and its neighboring emirates accepted the protection of the British in 1892, and the region became known as The Trucial Coast (or Trucial States) among Europeans.

The discovery of oil in Dubai in 1966 led to improvements in the city's infrastructure, as well as to the education, housing and health care of its citizens. In 1968, Britain announced it would withdraw from the region. The various ruling sheikhs recognized that they would be a more powerful force if they united. In 1971, the British departed and the federation of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) was formed.

Though oil has been crucial to Dubai's development since the late 1960s, trade has always been a cornerstone of the nation's economy, which picked up speed in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the construction of major ports in the city. In the 1990s, Dubai invested heavily in the tourist industry, building dozens of new five-star hotels and resorts, and unleashing a massive marketing campaign that brought millions of tourist dollars flooding into the city.

Since the late 1990s, a huge property boom—fueled in part by the announcement that expats were allowed to invest in real estate—has led to unprecedented levels of development. Flagship projects such as the Dubai Palms and The World (man-made islands and land masses) keep investment levels high, allowing Dubai the option of relying on the real estate market when the U.A.E.'s oil money eventually runs dry.

Politically speaking, Dubai and the U.A.E. have been models of stability in a deeply unsettled region. The U.A.E. went into mourning in late 2004 with the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the nation and president of the U.A.E. The accession of his son, Sheikh Khalifa, took place smoothly, maintaining the stable status quo at a federal level. In Dubai itself, U.A.E. Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum continues to push the city toward yet greater levels of ambition, and despite his absolute rule (the U.A.E. is the only nation in the region not to have introduced democratic representation at any level of government) he continues to enjoy high levels of popularity.

Sightseeing

Because Dubai is such a young city, sightseeing opportunities in the classic sense are few. There's plenty of stunning modern architecture, but in terms of historical and traditional attractions, apart from Jumeirah Mosque (the only mosque in the city open to non-Muslims), there are only two locations of interest—Al Fahidi (previously known as Bastakiya) and Shindagha, both located by the Creek.

The Al Fahidi District is composed of century-old buildings made from coral and topped with wind towers (the U.A.E.'s early form of air-conditioning). This area has a cultural center, The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, and is home to two small galleries, both worth visiting: the Majlis Art Gallery and the XVA Gallery, a wonderful Arabian house considered one of the top contemporary art galleries in the Middle East. There's also the stunning Arabian Tea House, formerly the Basta Art Cafe. Just down the road you'll find the Dubai Museum, housed in an old fort and offering a good overview of the city's history, complete with a treasure trove of architectural finds and some worthy re-creations of pre-oil Dubai.

In Shindagha, there's the limited but worthy Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, the former residence of the father of modern Dubai, which is now the al Shindagha Museum. Much more interesting is the Heritage Village, where you'll find camels, displays of local handicrafts and a small tourist market. On most nights, and especially colorful during the Ramadan season, the Village also celebrates U.A.E. music, dancing and local dishes in a bazaarlike atmosphere.

Connecting Al Fahidi and Shindagha is Khor Dubai, the broad, winding Creek. Merchants load and unload old dhows lined up along the wharves, and Armani-clad businesspeople pass by while conducting business on cell phones. You can lunch or walk along the waterside or enjoy the sights by hiring an abra from the wharf next to Bastakiya Mosque. It costs 50 AED per trip or 100 AED per hour to cruise along the Creek.

After you've checked out the older pockets of town, take time to marvel at Dubai's modern and ever-expanding skyline, which reveals the city's enthusiasm for outlandish architecture. The world's tallest building is the Burj Khalifa, set beside the vast Dubai Mall (which claims several world records itself) and Souk Al-Bahar, a charming Arabian-themed souk packed with restaurants. In front of the Burj Khalifa, and within great viewing distance of Souk Al-Bahar's eateries, lies the Dubai Fountain (another world's biggest), which puts on impressive watery displays to music each evening.

The Burj Al Arab hotel tower, in the shape of a large sail, is also a remarkable sight. The neighboring Madinat Jumeirah, an enormous resort complex, features traditional wind-tower architecture brought up-to-date with a modern, multistory design and a beautiful network of canals. In the same vicinity is The One&Only Royal Mirage, which transcends reality into the fairytale world of the Arabian Nights.

Once you're acquainted with the city, a trip into the desert is a must. Several local tour operators offer excursions, ranging from camel rides to sand skiing to dune-buggy trips, often ending with an Arabic buffet under the stars. If you have the time and the inclination, and the weather is right, we recommend an overnight camping trip.

Nightlife

Many people expect the U.A.E., as an Islamic country, to have a pretty tame nightlife. This is definitely not the case in Dubai. There are plenty of bars and clubs (most based in hotels in order to serve alcohol) attracting a lively and eclectic crowd. Most nightclubs have cover charges, and drinks tend to be pricey. Virtually every bar in town has a resident band and DJ, and there are a few jazz bars and piano lounges with excellent live performers.

Most bars don't start filling up until at least 9 pm, and the nightclubs are practically empty until about 11 pm. Thursday is always busy because it's the start of most people's weekend. Tuesday is Ladies' Night at many places, but if you study the schedules carefully, there is always a Ladies' Night somewhere around town—and ladies can often get a lot of free drinks. Most bars and clubs close by about 3 am, and there are usually plenty of cabs waiting outside to take you home.

Dubai is relatively crime-free and it feels pretty safe walking on the streets even in the late hours, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. With an ever-growing population from diverse backgrounds, it is hard to predict friend or foe in an inebriated state. The legalized cabs are safe and run by meter, with additional charges after midnight, but stay away from private "car lifts," which abound in the city.

Although it isn't openly discussed, some bars and clubs have a "door policy" that can be blatantly racist. If you find this is the case, arguing with the doorman rarely makes a difference—just don't give that place your business. A lot of bad press has been given to these places, and hopefully things will change. You should bear in mind that it is illegal for people younger than 21 to enter a bar or drink alcohol in the U.A.E. Remember, too, that no live music or loud background music is played in the city's bars during the holy month of Ramadan, and the clubs close. Alcohol is served, but only after sunset at most major hotels and restaurants. However, some hotels are morphing into halal hotels opting to go alcohol-free in response to the burgeoning growth in Islamic tourist arrivals.

Dining

With Dubai's diverse population, it's not surprising that the city has a wide range of dining options, covering everything from Thai to Tunisian. A good number of the best-quality restaurants are in hotels, but they are expensive, so be prepared to break the bank. There are also quite a few good mom-and-pop places, particularly Indian and Pakistani joints.

Traditional Emirati cooking consists primarily of dates, fresh and dried fish, and both camel meat and milk—not terribly appealing to most Westerners. (Be sure to try Dubai's fresh dates, though—they're soft, succulent and delicious.) Outside of Emirati homes, it's difficult to get a taste of local cuisine, although some restaurants do have a few traditional dishes.

Most Arabic restaurants draw on Lebanese cuisine instead, with grilled meats and meze (appetizer-sized small portions of salads, meats and dips). There are also literally hundreds of stands around the city that serve shawarma (pita-style flatbread filled with shaved lamb or chicken roasted on a spit), hummus, salad and pickles. They're good for a quick, inexpensive snack.

Dinner is usually a late affair: Tables start to fill up around 9 pm. Friday brunch is an institution in Dubai, and competition is fierce among the providers of all-you-can-eat (and drink) buffets, many with alcohol included. Some restaurants even throw in entertainment for children. In cooler weather, alfresco dining is popular, whether on a terrace, a rooftop or at the beach.

Expect to pay the following for a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than 50 AED; $$ = 50 AED-200 AED; $$$ = 201 AED-300 AED; $$$$ = more than 300 AED.

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