Welcome to Dubai, land of excess, world records and innovation, tempered by the world’s largest desert and ancient tradition. Dubai has been inhabited since around 2500 BC, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it started to rapidly develop. And develop it did.
Today, Dubai is a sprawling, high-tech city with a skyline that includes some of the most recognized buildings in the world and iconic man-made islands. But it’s not all new, shiny objects. The vast sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, dotted only by lithe black camels and their Bedouin caretakers, the lush mangrove forests, and the thousands of date palms provide respite from the city and a hint of the past.
Once important for trade, Dubai is now a vital business and financial hub for the Middle East and Asia, drawing expats from around the world and making it a truly international city packed with multiple languages, customs, and cuisines.
>> Before you go, read more about the history and culture of Dubai.
Folks on extended layovers; luxury travelers who want to live large; foodies craving high-end dining experiences from around the world; jet setters who love world records
Dubai is fairly expensive, like any major city. While hotels range wildly in cost depending on the season, summer being the cheapest time to visit, the average cost per night for a two-person stay is about $200. There are more affordable hotels on the outskirts of the city and plenty of luxury hotels upwards of $500 per night. The average cost for a meal for two is about $60, but can be much higher at high-end restaurants or lower at shawarma stands or in Old Dubai. Alcohol is expensive in Dubai, with beers and wines marked up about triple from prices in the US.
Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world for tourists. Violent crime is basically nonexistent and people never worry about theft. The biggest danger comes from not knowing or following the law. While not always applied in practice, Dubai has some very strict laws tourists are not always aware of. For example, couples cannot live together without being married, it is illegal to commit “homosexual acts,” to be publicly intoxicated, to use CBD, to import pork products, to express public displays of affection, to post negatively about the government on social media, to photograph people without permission, and more.
On the surface, you can get away with more in Dubai than in some other Middle Eastern countries, but this is still an Islamic country, and certain laws and customs should be respected to ensure a worry-free trip.
Dubai is hot year-round, but in the summer temperatures reach around 105° Fahrenheit most days. The UV index is typically 11–as high as it goes–and humidity hovers between 60-90%. From December to March the temperatures hover in the high 70s-low 80s during the day, with low 60s at night.
The most pleasant time to visit Dubai is between October and April, when it’s hot enough to enjoy a beach day but not unbearable. October and April are the hottest of those months, with temperatures in the 90s. Dubai is very popular with travelers from the UK in January, and with travelers from the rest of the Middle East during Eid holidays, which vary each year.
Eat in North Dubai: near the historic district in North Dubai, you’ll find some of the city’s best and most affordable food. Dubai’s population is mostly Indian, and here you’ll find food stalls serving up dishes from across India, as well as Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, the Philippines and more, all for a fraction of the price downtown.
Visit the free beaches: Dubai has dozens of swanky beach clubs, but the water is just as clear at the free beaches, which also have ice cream and other food stands and full bathroom and shower facilities. Jumeirah Beach and Kite Beach are both long, free sandy beaches.
Ladies, listen up: Most bars in Dubai have a “ladies night,” where women drink for free. The night of the week and deal varies by bar (some charge a $5 fee for unlimited drinks, others have free entry but a cap of three drinks, and so on). This list breaks down deals by day of the week.
Join the Entertainer: If you’re planning to visit Dubai often or take an extended trip, it’s worth it to join the Entertainer, an app with deals on hotels, restaurants, spas, and more.
Like Dubai’s population, the food scene is international. You can find almost any type of cuisine here, though restaurants do skew toward fine-dining. Many famous chefs in London and New York have second or third branches of their restaurants here, for example. Still, there are more casual spots and food stands. Here are a few dining experiences that stand out:
Hotel prices in Dubai have a wide range depending on the season. In general, hotels in the historic district and near the airport are less expensive, while hotels downtown, in the Marina and on the Palm are more expensive. The average hotel cost is about $200, though luxury hotels can reach up to $1,000 per night and other hotels can cost closer to $100.
Airbnb is not as popular, but there are numerous lovely listings for Dubai, mostly in the $70-150 range.
The Marina is expat central. It’s full of luxury high-rise buildings housing European and other expats, who spend their evenings walking along the marina, dining in the nearby restaurants, or hanging out in neighboring JBR, where they visit the beach, movie theater, and shops. Spend the day at the beach in JBR and the evening at one of the restaurants along the water.
This neighborhood is where most of Dubai’s expats from South Asia live, and home to the city’s main historic attractions. Back in the 1970s, this was where Dubai as a city started. The rest was desert.
Downtown is, like most downtowns, the hub of Dubai. Here you’ll find most office buildings, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, luxury hotels, fine-dining restaurants, nightclubs, apartments, and on and on.
While people do live on the Palm, this neighborhood is mostly popular for beach clubs and dining. The new Palm Fountain and several new malls have also made it more popular in the last year.
Geographically, Dubai is huge. From the airport in the north to the Marina neighborhood in the south is about 20 miles, and you’ll likely want to do things from north to south throughout your trip. Careem, an app similar to Lyft or Uber where you can call a taxi or private car, is the easiest transportation option. Taxis are cheaper than private cars, and both are safe. Rates are comparable with any major US city.
The metro is easy to navigate and extremely clean and safe. The main issue is that the routes are limited. That said, if you’re going from the marina to the Dubai Mall or downtown, it’s a straight shot and about $2.
Dubai is not a walkable city. Most neighborhoods are connected to each other by highways and large overpasses, so you almost always have to call a Careem or take the metro.
Dubai’s huge Dubai International Airport (DXB) is not only the biggest airport in the UAE, it’s also the busiest in the entire world in terms of international passenger numbers. It’s just under three miles from Dubai. Dubai Airport is the main hub for Emirates Airline and also a hub for budget carrier flydubai.
The subway system in Dubai has two stations at the airport on the Metro’s red line. Ticket costs depend on how far you’re traveling, but range from 5 AED to 7.5 AED. A taxi from the airport into the city typically takes a little more than 20 minutes with fares starting around 70 AED. (Taxis with pink trim are operated by female drivers and meant for female travelers.) Dubai’s rideshare options are Uber and Careem, the latter founded in Dubai, and the cost is similar to taxi fares.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve–The UAE’s first national park is home to Arabian Oryx, which were endangered until recently, 120 bird species, antelopes, and more. It’s easiest to see on a tour. Platinum Heritage Desert Safaris does a great tour in vintage Land Rovers. The reserve is about 40 minutes from the city and most tour companies will pick you up from your hotel.
Hatta–Hatta is technically part of the Emirate of Dubai, but about 90 miles away. It’s the place to go for adventure activities such as zip lines, hiking and water sports. It also has a restored heritage village and fort, or you can simply relax in one of the lodges with views of the mountains.
Al Ain–About 85 miles from Dubai, Al Ain is home to the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Al Ain Oasis. It is recognized for its early irrigation system. Today, visitors can walk through the oasis and admire date palms. There’s also a small date museum, a historic fort and the Jebel Hafeet mountain, which has a viewing area that overlooks the city.
Abu Dhabi–The capital of the United Arab Emirates isn’t far from Dubai (about a 90-minute drive), but there’s so much to do you’ll want to spend the night. Visit the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and drive out to the Empty Quarter to see endless orange sand dunes. The Empty Quarter is particularly pretty at sunset.
Sharjah–About 90 minutes from Dubai, Sharjah has a well-preserved historic center with souks and food stands, the Sharjah Art Museum showcasing artists from around the Middle East, and the Museum of Islamic Civilization, which is packed with artifacts. Stay at the Al Bait hotel, a historic palace renovated with help from UNESCO.
Fujairah–This is where Dubai locals go to get away from it all. Fujairah is an Emirate along the water, marked by rugged cliffs and bright blue waters rather than skyscrapers. A day of snorkeling at Snoopy Island typically reveals sea turtles, coral, and plenty of colorful fish. Make sure to eat Dibba Bay oysters, the region’s local variety, while here.
You’ve probably seen Dubai in more movies than you realize. The desert has been used as a backdrop in everything from Star Wars to Syriana. The city of Dubai played a prominent role in Jackie Chan’s Vanguard, where an accountant threatened by a terrorist organization looks to a security company Vanguard to save him.
The movie Dubai, a City of Dreams shows the darker side of the city. While tourists and wealthy expats see a safe, fun, easy-living side of the city, the migrant workers who make the city run live a much different reality.
Desperate In Dubai tells the fictional story of an Emirati woman attempting to escape her past in the United Kingdom and seeking a wealthy husband in Dubai. It’s a story of double lives, luxury, and how sometimes it can all fall apart.
Alif the Unseen takes readers into the mystical world of djinns and spirits, told through a modern Arab-Indian hacker working for a tech company in Dubai.
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