What Should A First Timer Do In Dubai?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

A few days ago I shared some tips for what a first timer should do in Hong Kong. It wasn’t a comprehensive guide, but rather was intended with just a one or two day layover in mind. After all, Hong Kong is a city in which a lot of people have quick stopovers due to being booked on Cathay Pacific.

Some readers requested that I make a similar post about Dubai, given that it’s a city I’m also quite familiar with. As a starting point, about a year ago I wrote a post about the UAE, entitled “Is It Safe To Travel To The UAE?” The post was intended to answer the questions I get the most from people traveling there, in particular when it comes to safety, sharing beds as a same sex or unmarried couple, etc.

I figured I’d write about some of the most popular things to do in Dubai, and also share my thoughts on them. I’m not saying this is a top 10 (or 11, as the case may be) list of things to do in Dubai, but rather that these are things to consider depending on what you’re into.

Let me start by saying that I love Dubai for different reasons than other cities. In many ways Dubai is soulless. It lacks an identity. And chances are that the only Emirati you’ll interact with will be at the immigration counter, while almost everyone else is from somewhere else.

It’s really hard for me to put into words, but the lack of local “culture” makes Dubai so unique, and makes it unlike anywhere else in the world. When society is made up mostly of people from all over the world who are staying anywhere from a few days to a couple of decades, it just creates an interesting sub-culture which I haven’t experienced anywhere else. In other words, the lack of culture becomes the culture, and I find that really special, in a way.

I know many people hate Dubai, and I totally understand why, and respect it. For me, Dubai can best be described as intriguing. There’s something about the energy of the city which keeps me wanting to come back.

If you haven’t yet seen it, here’s an awesome flow motion video of Dubai:

With that in mind, Dubai is all about the best, biggest, and most expensive, so let’s talk about some of the popular things to do in Dubai.

1. Shop at the Dubai Mall

Dubai is all about having the biggest of everything, and the Dubai Mall is the perfect example of that, as it’s the world’s largest mall.

It has all kinds of shops and restaurants, from low end to high end. I’m especially amused by the restaurant selection, as you’ll find everything from Cheesecake Factory to Texas Roadhouse to Red Lobster.


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But the mall doesn’t just have shopping. It also has an aquarium, ice rink, and more.


As an aviation geek be sure you stop at the Emirates store, or check out the Emirates A380 simulator.

I think this mall isn’t quite as high end as many expect when first visiting, and the extent of the “wow” factor is its sheer size. That being said, shopping is a favorite pastime for people in Dubai, and there’s nowhere that’s more evident than at the Dubai Mall, as you’ll see just about everyone there.

I’m not into shopping, but I’ll gladly plop down at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s and just people watch for a couple of hours.

2. Watch the fountain show at the Dubai Mall

Across from the Dubai Mall and right under the Burj Khalifa is The Dubai Fountain, which is the world’s largest “dancing” fountain show. It’s modeled after the fountains at The Bellagio Las Vegas, except it’s significantly more impressive.

In the evenings the show takes place every 30 minutes, and there’s a different song every time, so it can be fun to stick around for a few shows.


3. Have the world’s most extravagant afternoon tea

Dubai’s glitz and glam is perhaps most evident at the Burj Al Arab, the world’s self proclaimed seven star hotel. However, you can’t actually visit the hotel unless you’re either staying there or have a reservation at one of their restaurants.


I think the best option for visiting the Burj Al Arab is to book their seven course afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar, which is exquisite. It’s once in a lifetime and you’ll absolutely be blown away, I guarantee it. The views are pretty fantastic from the Skyview Bar as well.


4. Visit The Palm

The Palm Jumeirah is a massive man made island. At the very end of it is The Atlantis, which I wouldn’t recommend staying at, but it is worth visiting. Atlantis has some great restaurants, so it could be worth having dinner there one night. Either way, I highly recommend taking the monorail from one end of The Palm to the other. You can drive as well, but the monorail is much more fun, as it gives you a top-down view of how the island is formed.


5. Go to the top of the Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building, so a lot of people want to go to to the top.

There are two observation decks — one on the 125th floor, and one on the 148th floor. The naming seems a bit off to me, because they call the deck on the 124th-125th floor “At The Top.”


Perhaps some will disagree with me, but I actually think it’s not worth paying to go up the Burj Khalifa. While the building itself is impressive, the Dubai skyline really isn’t, so you’ll mostly just see sand in all directions. This isn’t like getting a bird’s eye view of London or New York.


If you do want to go up the Burj Khalifa, I would recommend considering going to one of the restaurants at the top instead. They’re expensive, but when you factor in that you’re saving the cost of the admission ticket and are getting a fantastic meal, I think it’s worth it. I’ve reviewed lunch at the Burj Khalifa, while Tiffany has reviewed afternoon tea at the Burj Khalifa.


6. Visit a beach (& beach bar)

Dubai has some fairly nice beaches, and most days they aren’t overrun. This probably isn’t an ideal activity in summer, though, when it can be 110+ degrees.

I’m not much of a beach person, but I am a beach bar person. If you want to experience a slightly less reserved side of Dubai, go to Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, which is popular with ex-pats, and especially with Emirates crew.

Check out Barasti, the beach bar at the hotel. It’s nicknamed “Bar Nasty,” and for good reason. It’s certainly not the most refined beach bar in the world, but it will give you a different impression which will make you think you’re in Ibiza rather than Dubai.


7. Take in the views from Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Madinat Jumeirah is one of the better hotels in Dubai, and it has an artificial souk attached to it. The outdoor area is beautiful, and boasts great views of the Burj Al Arab. So while you can’t enter the hotel area itself, the souk area is quite nice to look at, even if it’s artificial.


8. Visit Old Dubai

While much of Dubai is glitzy and over the top, Old Dubai still offers some authentic charm. You can walk along the harbor and look at all the old trading boats.


Then there’s also a souk with both gold and spices.



The sales people are really pushy in this area, so avoid making eye contact or lingering for too long if you don’t want to buy anything, or else you may be harassed a bit.

9. Ski in the Mall of the Emirates

The Mall of the Emirates is the other major mall in Dubai, and its claim to fame is that it has an indoor ski slope. It’s not every day you get to ski when it’s intolerably hot outside! I skied for my first time ever at Ski Dubai, and had a great time despite how much I sucked at it.


If you don’t actually want to ski, there’s a Lebanese restaurant in the mall with great views of the ski slopes, which is a decent alternative.


Otherwise you can pay just to take the ski lift without actually skiing, though I should note that you still have to get all suited up and need to queue, so it’s not a quick process.

10. Go dune bashing

No trip to the desert is complete without dune bashing. There are all kinds of tour companies which will pick you up at your hotel, take you dune bashing, and then drive you back. Most of the dunes are about 45 minutes out of Dubai.

Dune bashing is so fun. Most dune bashing happens around sunset, and then there’s a (touristy) dinner included as well.


11. Plan a day trip to Abu Dhabi

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are only about an hour drive apart, and it’s an easy drive at that. But the cities are very different. While Dubai is all about glitz and glam (though Abu Dhabi is trying to catch up on that front), Abu Dhabi has some great cultural activities.

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a must, as it’s gorgeous.


I also recommend visiting the Emirates Palace, which is a really impressive hotel with over a dozen great restaurants.


If you’re into amusement parks, Ferrari World is worth checking out as well.


Bottom line

I tend to view Dubai as a pretty polarizing city — people either love or hate it. Regardless, I think everywhere in the world is worth trying to see at least once, and Dubai is no exception. I know a lot of people like redeeming Alaska miles for travel in Emirates first class, and Alaska allows stopovers on one way awards.

So I’d encourage everyone to spend at least 2-3 days in Dubai to get a sense of the place, and then you can always return if it intrigues you.

Anyone have any other tips for Dubai?

  1. What Should A First Timer Do In Dubai? Enjoy a shoeshine and a meal in the Emirates First Class Lounge, then head back to Hong Kong.

  2. Planning a stopover in Dubai as part of a RTW next year and these look like awesome suggestions. Can’t wait.
    Thanks Lucky.

  3. I would be very interested in reading a post about the ethics of visiting certain countries based on their stance on human rights violations, etc. I’d imagine it is a tricky issue that you wrestle with, given that your posts may sometimes serve to increase tourism in these regions, supporting them financially.

  4. Perfect Timing! finishing my daily Itinerary right now for my fam of 4 staying in early June. Flying Etihad CDG-AUH, and then AUH-IAD 2 in Bus and 2 in First. Staying at the Atlantis (you didnt recommend, but you also dont have a 5 and 7 year old who just want a beach vacation….). 5th night free from Prestige was a good perk here. Cant wait to do about 8 items off your list.

  5. Good post. Do you have suggestions as the best way to get there realistically from the west coast pre AA devaluation for a family of 3 in first or business?

  6. Amazing, lucky. I think that my wife and I did just about everything you mentioned except for Ferrari world. Well done!

  7. It feels like Las Vegas in the Middle East. Not for the gambling but for being an “artificial city” with no history. However, I still want to visit it. 🙂

  8. Ang- I doubt they ask couples for their marriage certificate. Click on the 2nd link in the post- “Is It Safe to Travel to the UAE?”, that will answer this type of question.

  9. Great post, Ben! One quick question. Since kids are not allowed at the Skyview Bar, do you think afternoon tea at the Sahn Eddin in the lobby of the Burj Al Arab would be worth it or not?

  10. This is a good list Ben. Good tip about the monorail. When I lived there, so many people who came to visit wanted to see the Palm Jumeira. Of course if you drive on it, it’s so massive that there is no way to know that you are on a palm-shaped island. You can really only see that from above.

    Small clarification about the Madinat Jumeirah (Madinat=city, Jumeirah:various translations, but the one I use is reflecting/glowing so Madinat Jumeriah=Glowing City). But the point is that it’s a complex, not a single hotel. There is is the souk that you mentioned, many restaurants, a huge conference center, a separate spa, and 3 different hotels. Al Qasr (the Palace) and Mina A’Salam (Harbor of Peace) are attached and you can most definitely go into them as a tourist for a nice drink, meal, or tea. The Dar Al Masyaf (summer houses) are separate and not accessible to the general public.

    I’m surprised you haven’t been to Mina A’Salam or Al Qasr. Two of my favorite hotels in Dubai for a meal or drink, with great food and awesome views if you choose the right restaurants or bars.

  11. @ Alok — I’d say it’s probably not worth it, given the cost. Without the views it’s just not as great.

  12. @ tim — Etihad is pretty good about opening space in first and business out of SF and LA, so I’d say that’s your best bet.

  13. Great list.
    And I support the Abu Dhabi visit. The Grand Mosque is amazing. Highly recommend. Beaches in abu Dhabi are better, I think, than those in Dubai. I’d recommend Saadiyat Beach in Abu Dhabi. Either getting a day pass at one of the hotels (Park Hyatt or St Regis), spending a day at the Saadiyat Beach Club, or spending a day at Saadiyat Public beach is time and money well spent from October/November through early May.

    Also left out on your list is BRUNCH in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It’s truly the best thing to do. Brunch is on Friday and it’s an experience. It’s an all – day affair, easily the highlight of the week for all ex pats in the UAE. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/13/travel/dubai-tourism-restaurants.html. Sums it up quite nicely.

    It’s fine traveling there as an unmarried couple, straight or gay. low key.


  14. @Chris “if you choose the right restaurants or bars”.

    If you’re going to say that, why not name some of them? :;

  15. We both have been in Dubai last Saturday Ben.

    For me it was a first time for a short 2,5 days in Dubai and 2 days at Abu Dhabi.

    Things i loved about Dubai:
    – Bastakiya area with the Dubai Museum, art gallerys, cafe’s
    – Souks and then crossing the Creek on an Abra
    – JBR Walk for a glimse of the modern Dubai and I was surprised that the Burj al Abra & the Atlantis Restaurant and there are some great food places aswell
    – A visit to the Jumeira Mosque during a tour at 10 am – and a bit of information about islam

    Not to sure about Dubai Mall, as after visiting The Venican in Macau, nothing can compare to it. Afternoon tea at Burj Khalif was a fun thing to do, but I do agree that the view is sort of boring, but def a better deal then the Premium ticket – even with the cheap “sparkling wine” they are now serving.

  16. I’m going to be there for about 9 hours (last time was less but we still saw some sights) in the evening. Any recommendations of things we can see/do/visit in casual attire (t-shirts/jeans)? I don’t want to dress up for the 2-day plane journey.

  17. @Robert – well, I’m not the blogger, but you have a point. At Mina A’Salam, I like Al Samar Lounge for afternoon tea and Bahri Bar for evening drinks, and Zheng He’s for fine Chinese. At Al Qasr, Pai Thai is good for Thai, and Pier Chic is a great romantic seafood place out on a pier from the hotel. For Friday brunch, Al Qasr is one of the very best anywhere in the world. If you want to experience ridiculous Dubai excess and glamour in a brunch, this is where you do it.

    The outdoor balcony off the Mina A’Salam lobby is a great place and holds a nice memory for me. When I moved to Dubai years ago, my first weekend there I knew no one, my family had not yet come, and my house had no furniture yet. I was seated on the outdoor balcony on a great 82F/28C afternoon, looking out over the ocean and pool with an ocean breeze. I enjoyed some cocktails while listening to a band perform below. At that moment I thought, “Ok, Dubai is going to be alright.”

  18. I love Vegas but am bored by Dubai. Best thing to do in Dubai? Use it as a base and do a quick sidetrip to Tehran or Isfahan, both of which are amazingly wonderful. It’s been 10 or so years since I have been to Iran; yet, I still smile whenever I think of that trip. The people were friendly, gregarious and charming. Dare I say but Tehran was vibrantly fun, even by Tel Aviv standards. And Isfahan has to be one of the world’s great cities for aimless wandering.

    Lucky, I am so anxious to read about your very quick trip to Mauritius!

  19. Flying Auckland-Singapore-London and was wondering if its worth stopping in Singapore for a few days and what to do there.

  20. I’m enjoying this new “series.” You’ve frequently said in the past that you don’t focus on what to do in the places you visit because there are other sources for the information. But I think you have a unique and valuable perspective as a person who frequently visits these international hubs, and only has a short time to see the sights.

  21. Never been to Dubai, but it does not look very interesting if this post is any indication. Compared to cities like New York, Hong Kong and London where you could spend your whole life exploring and never run out of interesting things to see and do, it looks like an extended weekend would pretty much cover it.

  22. My advice jump on a plane and fly to muscat, oman.
    Its a relaxed , friendly and safe place for a few days.

  23. @Jacob:

    EAT! Hawker centers are everywhere. Pick the place with the longest line, get what everyone else is eating.

    Rinse, repeat.

  24. @Ben – Let me give you the story of the ‘other side of Dubai’.. that most folks do not know (perhaps like yourself) or choose not to talk about

    You want to see the real Dubai – go visit the labor camps – way out far away from Dubai.- This emirate and the whole country called UAE has violated every possible human right imaginable (as defined by United Nations). Laborers from the sub continent are treated so badly (note my present tense verbiage) it is unimaginable !!

    You want to see the soul of Dubai
    – meet these folks – who have build all the dazzle that wows you
    -The workers who live 6 to 8 to a room, that is 8×10
    – without air air-conditioning no decent sanitation, rampant spread of disease and many more horrific happenings .
    -These poor souls are made to work in the hot sun and biting cold ,6 days a week,
    – 14 hours a day for 200$ a month.
    -No ability to leave because their passports are confiscated as soon as they land, and
    -They cannot leave for two years.
    – If they do not toe the line, they are flogged and whipped and subject to torture and worse

    All those tall buildings, malls, that you are so mesmerized about, have been built on the blood, sweat, toil and deaths of thousands of unknown nameless souls, who have died over the last few decades to build that artificial bubble called Dubai.

  25. As a nine year resident of the GCC (Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi), there is a lot of ground to cover… But another great side trip we encourage people to take is Jordan. Easily done in 2 nights/3 days – a visit to Petra and the Dead Sea is an excellent visit. With a 7(ish) day itinerary, there would be enough time to cover the UAE and Jordan.

    @Lucky, love the list! I have a friend arriving on Saturday and this is pretty much the exact places we’ll be showing her.

  26. I’m definitely an outlier, but Dubai looks ghastly. A bigger, more tacky, more extravagant Las Vegas in another desert. Ugh. I have zero interest in going. Not wanting to rain on anyone’s parade, but seriously, why go here? Also @Andrew F, have read about the terrible conditions of the laborers who basically built the city and it’s pretty abominable. Why support a place like this? On the other hand, thanks for your top 10 things to see in Hong Kong. Just came back a couple of weeks ago and loved, loved, loved Hong Kong!

  27. I wouldn’t consider dune bashing as there are “sand fish” that pop in and out of the top of the dunes, and the dune bashing just kills them.

    I would also recommend going to the falcon show out away from the city, and if you have time staying overnight. I wasn’t able to but imagine looking at the stars with a clear sky would be beautiful

  28. Nikki Beach just opened in Dubai! So next time you’re there you can visit this beach club 🙂 Last weekend I was in Dubai in stopover after visting Oman and I did the afternoon tea. I was too tempted after your post, but they did some changes to the menu.. There was no main ‘beef’ dish, nor a gift. But overall it was a great experience of course.

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