When planning a trip to Dubai, set aside your expectations. The city’s identity is complex and dissonant — and it’s still a work in progress. Originally a humble pearl-diving village, Dubai rose on the back of an oil boom in the mid-’60s and was quickly repackaged as a tourist destination. For many people, the resulting food, shopping and entertainment oasis is quite attractive; for others, the absence of history and culture is more heavily weighed.
But, yes: You’ll have access to the best of everything. World-renowned chefs helm all types of restaurants, from steak houses to sushi bars. Dubai is home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the world’s tallest hotel, the five-star JW Marriott Marquis. If the places you’re visiting don’t come with superlatives, your tour guide will be happy to fill in the blanks for you — liberally. Everything is the first, the best, nonpareil.
If you do happen to stay at the JW Marriott Marquis, you barely need to leave the property to get a taste of the high-end climate, with 14 restaurants, bars and nightclubs right on the premises, as well as a gym and rooftop pool (of course). You should also carve out time for the Saray Spa, which offers specialty services tailored to your surroundings, such as Hammam packages and Dead Sea baths. Plus, you can drink alcohol at the hotel — which isn’t served outside of Westernized establishments, out of respect for Islamic values. The location puts you a (shockingly) cheap cab ride from just about everything to do in the city, such as visiting the Historic District or walking the corniche of Jumeirah Beach.
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However, if you don’t mind being a little farther from key attractions, such as the Spice Market and the Gold Souk (both of which should have you on alert for scammers selling marked-up goods from India and China), you should try the all-inclusive Atlantis The Palm Dubai. It boasts its own aquarium, water park, spa, beachfront, 23 dining venues and unmatched views of the iconic man-made Palm Islands. If, for some reason, you still want to venture to the mainland, you won’t be too far from the Burj Al Arab (“the world’s most luxurious hotel”) or the old-world-style boutique marketplace, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which hosts concerts, parties and other special events in its open-air amphitheater.
Dubai is currently prepping to host World Expo 2020, which coincides with the city’s 50th anniversary of independence (declared in 1971). The occasion is expected to draw 25 million visitors. The city has less than six years to finish endless construction projects, with contracts and timelines enjoying noticeable flexibility.
Today, the desert metropolis is just beginning to carve out industries that might give it a firmer sense of identity: The Al Nassma camel milk facility is unique in the world; try its products at The Majlis Cafe in the Dubai Mall (which is also home to one of the largest aquariums in the world). There’s also the Bateel date factory, which ships its gourmet fruit, nut and chocolate products worldwide. Dubai is also home to an annual shopping festival, fashion week, food festival, international film festival and even Comic Con.
Youthful optimism and boundless energy make the city worth visiting now; in a decade, Dubai will likely be unrecognizable — for better or worse.
To find the “real” Dubai, you might have to do a little work. You could venture out to the fish market in Deira to see Emirati men purchasing their meat and produce for the day (many vendors love to have their photo taken, but it's highly offensive to others, so always ask first). You could dine at Al-Fanar for commercially produced traditional fare, or try street food (perhaps via a walking tour, such as Frying Pan Adventures).
Though many theme parks are set to open soon in what’s known as Dubailand (such as Universal Studios Dubai and a Marvel Superheroes Theme Park), you may prefer exploring Global Village — an expansive marketplace, open seasonally, with rides and games that rival any fair. This is where you’ll find the locals having family nights and romantic rendezvous. Dress conservatively, and try to pace yourself with all of the tempting snacks. (Alert: Do not miss the sweet rolls and tea at the PappaRoti stand — you’ll thank us later.)