Why go now?
Best avoided in summer, when stifling temperatures regularly hit 45C, Dubai is an attractive prospect for winter sun. The balmy days are perfect to enjoy the family-friendly beaches, huge shopping complexes and atmospheric souqs. This month, the great and the good of the cinematic world descend for the eight-day Dubai International Film Festival (dubaifilmfest.com), from 9 December.
Dubai is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Royal Brunei (020-7584 6360; rba.com.bn), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virginatlantic.com) and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com), which also flies from Gatwick, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. Cheaper fares can usually be had if you change planes en route, for example (at Amsterdam on KLM).
I travelled with Travelbag (0871 703 4240; travelbag.co.uk), which offers Emirates flights from Gatwick and three nights at the Atlantis The Palm (1) resort for £769pp.
Dubai’s airport is 4km north-east of the centre and can be reached on the city’s Metro (rta.ae) between 5.50am and midnight. Trains stop in the downtown area and along the coast near most hotels. Buy a red “No l” card for 4 dirhams (AED4/70p) and charge it with your chosen amount; a single journey costs from AED1.80 (30p). A taxi takes about 20 minutes and will cost you AED40 (£6).
Get your bearings
While not the capital of the United Arab Emirates – that’s Abu Dhabi – Dubai is the totem of this progressive nation. Located on the shores of the Gulf in the north-east, Dubai was little more than a fishing village 50 years ago. Today, clusters of sparkling skyscrapers rise from the barren desert as the city’s rapidly changing skyline confirms its position as the most forward-thinking city in the Middle East.
Old Dubai – the historic quarters of Bastakiya and Deira – can be found on the banks of the Dubai Creek in the city’s eastern part. To the west is the downtown district, the Burj al Arab (2) – the iconic sail-shaped hotel – and The Palm, a man-made archipelago of hotels and villas in the shape of a tree.
Several tourist information centres are dotted across the city including one at the airport (open 24 hours) and one on Baniyas Square (3) (00 971 4 352 0003; dubaitourism.ae; 10am to 11pm daily).
Standing at the top of The Palm is Atlantis (1) (00 971 4 426 2000; atlantisthepalm.com). Anything but understated, the vast resort has more than 20 restaurants, a waterpark and more than 1,500 rooms including underwater suites with views into a tank filled with 65,000 exotic fish. Doubles from AED1,820 (£309), room only.
The Melia Hotel (4) (00 971 4 386 8111; melia-dubai.com) at 23 Kuwait Street offers more affordable five-star treatment. The rooms have all the mod cons and there’s a spa and rooftop pool with views across the city. Doubles from AED698 (£117), room only.
The Orient Guest House (5) (00 971 4 351 9111; orientguesthouse.com) on Al Fahidi Street is a more intimate option with 10 Arabian-inspired rooms, each with a private lounge. Doubles from AED630 (£107), including breakfast.
Take a view
With its soaring spire and glossy glass façade, the Burj Khalifa (6) at 1 Emaar Boulevard stands at 828m and became the world’s tallest building when it opened in 2010. The ear-popping lift whisks you to the At the Top (00 971 4 888 8124; atthetop.ae; AED100/£17) observation deck on the 124th floor for views over the sea, city and the desert beyond. Open 9am-midnight Fridays-Saturdays, other days vary.
Take a hike
Start where Dubai Creek meets the Gulf, at the Heritage and Diving Village (7), a faux-Bedouin museum and retail complex with displays of pottery, crafts and the history of pearl diving in the area. Open 8am-8.30pm daily (3.30-9.30pm on Fridays), free. West along the creek is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House (8) (00 971 4 393 7139; 8.30am-9pm daily, Fridays 3-10pm, AED2 (35p), a 19th-century structure with elegant wind towers that served as rudimentary air-conditioning. Continue through the maze of Bur Dubai souq and you emerge close to the Grand Mosque (9), on the doorstep of the Bastakiya quarter.
Lunch on the run
The Arabian Tea House (10) (00 971 4 353 5071) on the south-western corner of Bastakiya spills out from an early 20th-century wind-tower house into a shady courtyard. It was formerly known as the Basta Art Café, and there are paintings to admire while you tuck into a salad and fresh fruit juice.
In the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort, the Dubai Museum (11) (00 971 4 353 1862; 8.30am-8.30pm Saturday-Thursday, from 2.30pm Friday, AED3/50p) on Al Fahidi Street details the history of the city including archaeological discoveries and exhibits on how the earliest Bedouin settlers survived life in the desert. Next door are the ruins of the ancient Wall of Dubai (12), a 600m stretch of gypsum and coral stone that encircled the city in the 1800s. It was knocked down in the early 20th century as the city expanded.
Alcohol is available only in hotels. Calabar, located on the 5th floor of The Address Hotel (13) (00 971 4 436 8888; theaddress.com) on Emaar Boulevard serves South American-inspired cocktails for AED60 (£10). But its biggest selling point is the view of Burj Khalifa (6) and the fountains designed by the same team behind the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas that dance to Arabic music every 30 minutes between 7.30pm-midnight.
Dining with the locals
Located in the heart of the Dubai Marina, Reem Al Bawadi (14) (00 971 4 394 7444; reemalbawadi.com) on Marina Walk is a busy restaurant serving tasty Lebanese cuisine. There’s also an outdoor area for shisha, an Arabic waterpipe used to smoke fruit-flavoured tobacco. Mains, such as shish kebabs or peppered steak, are about AED40 (£7).
Al Bandar (15) (00 971 4 393 9001) at the Shindagha Heritage Village is another good option. Sit outside and watch dhows sailing along the creek while feasting on toshka arayes (warm bread stuffed with meat and cheese). Mains from AED39 (£7).
A walk in the park
A lush oasis of palm trees and neat lawns, Safa Park (16) is a rare patch of greenery in the desert. There’s a bird sanctuary and a small lake where rowing boats can be rented (AED40/£7 for 20 minutes). Open 8am-11pm Sunday-Wednesday, to 11.30pm other days; AED3 (50p).
Out to brunch
Most restaurants and hotels lay on lavish brunch spreads every Friday, the start of the weekend. Saffron at Atlantis (1) is one of the best, with 20 cooking stations serving an all-you-can-eat buffet with everything from Korean dumplings to roast beef and all the trimmings for AED435 (£73). From 12.30pm-4pm.
Sunday options are more limited, but More (17) (00 971 4 339 8934; morecafe.biz), an award-winning café inside the Dubai Mall, is a favourite spot with an eclectic menu that features Caesar salad, burgers, beef rendang and more. Mains from AED58 (£9). Open 8am-11.30pm, Sunday-Thursday, to midnight other days.
For retail therapy in air-conditioned luxury, stay put in the Dubai Mall (00 971 4 362 7500; thedubaimall.com), one of the world’s largest shopping centres, with an ice rink, aquarium and over 1,200 shops. Open 10am-10pm Sunday-Wednesdays, to midnight other days.For something a little more traditional, wander Deira’s gold souq (18) and fragrant spice souq (19) on Sikkat Al Khali Road.
Take a ride
One of the loveliest ways of getting around is aboard an abra. These motorised wooden boats ferry passengers along the Dubai Creek and depart every few minutes between 6am-midnight. Single fare AED1 (16p). Get on at the Deira Old Souq Marine Station (20) and alight on the other side of the Creek (21).
Icing on the cake
Get an insight into Islamic customs at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (22) (00 971 4 353 6666; cultures.ae) at 26 Al Mussallah Road. As well as hosting traditional Emirati breakfasts and lunches (from AED60/£10), the centre offers one-hour guided tours of the Jumeirah Mosque (23) four times a week for AED10 (£2). Open 9am-5pm Sunday-Thursday, to 1pm Saturday.