Where other cities walk, Dubai runs—sprints, actually. Cornering the market with the tallest, biggest, and glitziest everything, the oil-rich empire approaches impossible like a leisurely camel ride in the desert. No feat—especially if it breaks convention and world records—is out of the question, and it’s this if-you-build-it-they-will-come flair for hyperbole that has catapulted the city-state into world-renowned hot spot.
Once a traditional oil town where the streets were named after the types of stores lining them—computer street, bank street, etc…—Dubai’s come a long way in the past 35 years. Honing in on the old and the new, the everyday and the wow-factor, we’ve built a gold-plated starter kit as a blueprint for your over-the-top trip to the seaside sophisticate. You’re welcome.
Record Breakers: Go all out and check two side-by-side world record holders off your list at the same time. Start at the 1,200-store Dubai Mall. Before you write us off for telling you to visit a mall, it’s important to note that because of the region’s intense desert heat, spending time (and money) in these air conditioned mini-cities is a big part of the day-to-day culture. With an interior floor space the size of 50 football fields and extras like a skating rink, cinema, aquarium, his and hers prayer rooms, indoor souk, and outdoor fountain bigger than the Bellagio’s swinging swells, join the locals and spend the day, gasp, indoors. The Dubai Mall is also how you access the 124th-floor observation lounge of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Surrounded in glass, the outdoor viewing deck features open-air spaces at eye level so you can stick your camera or smartphone beyond the barrier to take a sky-high photo. Just don’t drop it!
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Desert: Built on the edge of the world’s largest stretch of sand, Dubai is so up close and personal with the Rub’ al Khali desert, you don’t have to travel far to dance on the dunes. Skip the oft-suggested safaris where convoys of Land Cruisers hurl you over the the desert’s humps before a large BBQ meal, and opt instead to visit the Bab Al Shams hotel’s Al Sarab Rooftop Lounge to admire the hot sand with a cool cocktail.
Souks: Escape Dubai’s mirrored metropolis for a glimpse into yesteryear. Start by crossing the Dubai Creek—more like a large river—on an abra (boat) and head to the Spice and Gold Souks to haggle your way through a heated adventure ducking from air conditioned shops to stalls in search of Middle Eastern gold and textiles.
The local workweek runs from Sunday to Thursday, so Friday and Saturday are the big days for dining out. One of many transplanted traditions to reach the developed shores of the Arabian Gulf is the notion of weekend brunch. In decadent Dubai form, it’s not just eggs, bacon, and a mimosa. It is a Champagne-soaked, early-afternoon feast. Visit the Fairmont Dubai’s Spectrum On One—the restaurant that popularized brunch in Dubai—for flute-filled fiesta of free-flowing Moët & Chandon, and specialities like crispy Peking duck and oysters in the half shell, from $155 USD per person. If you skip the alcohol, cut the cost in half.
For dinner settle into a plush chair at Al Nafoorah, an upscale-casual Lebanese restaurant frequented by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed. Fill up on creamy hummus adorned in pine nuts and cumin, but save room for desert. We love the Ashtha bil asal, a common Lebanese dessert where the server drizzles honey from ceiling-height over fresh cream topped in almonds and pistachios.
A trip to Dubai would not be complete without a visit to the man-made Jumeirah Palm Island. Better yet, why not stay on the Western crescent of its sandy shores at the Ottoman-inspired Jumeirah Zabeel Saray. Completed in late 2011 after a three-year build, the 405-room resort takes decadence to the next level as intricate pattern-play and rich velvets create a kaleidoscope of color in every opulent space. When the infinity pool overlooks the Palm’s iconic fronds, almost a dozen restaurants cater to Dubai’s global guests, and every room has a view, we’d say it’s the quintessential spot for desert-meets-ocean play.
Photo credits: Burj Khalifa, Souk, and Jumeirah Zabeel Saray images courtesy of Trish Friesen; Fairmont Dubai’s Spectrum On One courtesy of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts; Dubai via Shutterstock