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Why go now?
Catch some spring sunshine before the fierce heat of the summer in a location that never stands still. In 30 years, Dubai has transformed itself from a small Gulf trading post to a Manhattan of the East metropolis – making it a fascinating stopover on your way to Asia or beyond, and a worthwhile short break in its own right. The emirate is easily accessible, with frequent flights from across Britain. For more information, call 020-7321 6110 or visit dubaitourism.ae.
The main airline is Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com/uk), which flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Royal Brunei all fly from Heathrow. The lowest fares are likely to be around £300. Dubai's current airport is conveniently close to the centre of the city, but traffic can be chaotic and congested.
Get your bearings
The oldest and most compact part of the city is Deira, which occupies the east bank of Dubai Creek. The city spreads from the west bank, known as Bur Dubai, and many of the big hotels and shopping complexes are west of here, strung out along the beaches of the Gulf coast around Jumeirah.
Offshore from Jumeirah, The Palm has created plenty more space for luxury resorts, while slightly north of here The World (reclaimed land in the shape of the planet) is fast taking shape.
Buses run from the airport to many parts of Dubai, including Deira, Bur Dubai and Jumeirah. From September 2009, Dubai's futuristic new Metro will link the airport with the city's main destinations. Meanwhile, a taxi from the airport for the 4km ride to the centre of Deira will cost around 50 dirhams (£10); to Bur Dubai70Dhs (£14); and to Jumeirah Beach, up to 200 Dhs (£40).
With more than 500 hotels, and many new properties under construction, there is plenty of choice. Visitors tend to stay either in the historic centre around the creek or along the coast in Jumeirah; the latter is a long way from the centre of town. In the current economic climate, many hotels are offering deep discounts or extra nights. It is also worth considering flight-plus-hotel deals, which you can currently find with three or four nights' accommodation for about £500.
The closest that central Dubai gets to a traditional Arabian guesthouse is the XVA (1), a 100-year-old villa (00 971 4 353 5383; xvagallery.com) tucked away in the Bastakiya district, the former Persian district of Bur Dubai. A room looking out onto the courtyard costs 880Dhs (£176), including breakfast and Wi-Fi.
Much of the rest of the accommodation is brash, high-rise and glitzy, notably the vast new Atlantis Palm (2); a discreet alternative is provided at the One&Only Royal Mirage (3), a stylish low-rise hotel in landscaped grounds beside the trunk of The Palm Jumeirah (00 971 4 399 9999; oneandonlyresorts.com). Double rooms start at 1,566Dhs (£313) including breakfast, with various packages that include free nights.
Take a ride
With Dubai's streets often choked by traffic, the creek provides the best guarantee of speedy transportation until the Metro opens. Wooden abras (waterbuses) shuttle constantly across the creek between the Al Sabkha station (4) on the north bank and the souk at Bur Dubai (5) for just 0.50Dhs (£0.10). To see more from the river, bargain with the boatmen for a trip from about 300 Dhs (£60).
Take a hike
The fold of land adjoining the final curl in the creek before it meets the Gulf is known as the Shindagha quarter, and offers some insights into Dubai's more modest past. Start at the Heritage and Diving Village (6), a faux-Bedouin museum and retail complex with displays of pottery, crafts and the history of pearl diving in the area; it opens 8am-8.30pm daily (3.30-9.30pm on Fridays), admission free.
A few hundred metres west along the creek is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House (7) (00 971 4 393 7139), a beautiful late-19th-century structure with elegant wind towers that served as rudimentary air-conditioning. The building contains memorabilia such as a 1961 request from the ruler of Dubai for an "efficient constable" to control the traffic on the main road out of the city. It opens 8.30am-9pm daily (Fridays 3-10pm), admission 2Dhs (£0.40)
Continue through the maze of Bur Dubai souk (5) and you emerge close to the Grand Mosque (8), on the doorstep of the serene Bastakiya quarter.
Lunch on the run
The Basta Art Cafe (9) (00 971 4 353 5071) on the south-western corner of Bastakiya is, to use the cliché, an oasis: a shady courtyard decorated with potted plants and cacti. Consider a late breakfast, comprising freshly squeezed orange juice, the best latte this side of the Persian Gulf and home-made banana bread with yogurt, fruit and honey for 42Dhs (£8.50). For lunch, choose from jacket potatoes with elaborate fillings (30Dhs/£6), wraps, baguettes and sandwiches, or freshly made salads.
After lunch, wander through the Bastakiya quarter, neglected for years while modernity took root elsewhere. The neighbourhood has been tactfully reconstructed with the old sand-plastered buildings now housing art galleries, shops and restaurants, and a street market that takes place every Saturday.
Sunlight and breezes spill through the narrow alleys, as you discover gems such as the beautiful Majlis Gallery (10) which sells fine art, furniture and jewellery (00 971 4 353 6233; themajlisgallery. com). For a better understanding of the extraordinary story of the emirate, visit the Dubai Museum (11), which opens 8.30am-8.30pm daily (Fridays from 2.30pm), admission 3Dhs (£0.60). Set in the grounds of an old fort, the museum contains relics from some of the earliest inhabitants of Dubai, while the new section – ingeniously hidden below the fort – deals with more recent history.
A creekside table at Al Bandar (12) (00 971 4 393 9001), offers a non-alcoholic fruit cocktail – or a smoke of a hookah pipe – for Dhs25 (£5).
Dining with the locals
Feast on camel stew and aromatic tea in one of the Arabic-style sitting rooms at the Local House restaurant (13) (00 971 55 303 1808; localhousedubai.com). Or enjoy the beautiful surroundings at Bastakiah Nights (14) (00 971 4 353 7772; bastakiah.com), in the heart of the Bastakiya quarter. This mansion has breathtaking interior rooms set around a courtyard; the ideal location for traditional Middle Eastern mezze is its roof terrace.
Sunday morning: visit a mosque
Spend the second day exploring the more recently developed Jumeirah area. It's quite spread out, so while the Metro is being constructed (due to start running later this year) you'll have to rely on local buses or taxis, both relatively inexpensive. Start at the Jumeirah Mosque (15) (00 971 4 344 7755; cultures. ae), the most impressive of the 700 mosques in Dubai. Its modern architecture, based on the medieval Fatimid style, is as elaborate as it is vast. To gain a better understanding of Islam and its place in Arab society, dress conservatively and visit the mosque at 10am on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday for an hour-long tour.
A walk on the beach
The seashell-strewn sands of Sunset Beach (16), a public beach a few kilometres west of Jumeirah Mosque, offer 360-degree views of the city's extraordinary skyline – from the fairytale silhouette of the Atlantis hotel complex rising from the sea, to Bur Dubai's crazy forest of skyscrapers.
Out to brunch
The Madinat complex (17) is at the end of the run for bus number 8 in Jumeirah. Its Venetian flourishes are best enjoyed from a canalside table at The Meat Company restaurant (00 971 4 368 6040; themeatco.com), which opens noon-11pm daily. As its name suggests, the house speciality is steak in all its tasty forms, but the menu also offers a good range of fish and vegetarian options.
For an air-conditioned approximation to a real market, stay in the Madinat Jumeirah complex (17) and visit the resort's souk. Further east on the Jumeirah Beach road is the Mercato Mall (18) where nearly 100 stores, including many big brands, are to be found in an architectural setting best described as Renaissance Italy on acid. Back on the east bank of Dubai creek, check out some of the 300 shops at Deira City Centre (19), convenient for the airport on the way home.
Take a view
Work on the world's tallest tower, Burj Dubai (20), is continuing frenetically. Until it is completed, the sail-like Burj Al Arab hotel (21) remains the defining icon of Dubai. Take the high-speed exterior lift to the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor for a spectacular view of the city's sights combined with afternoon tea (not Fridays) or evening cocktails. The minimum spend is Dhs275 (£55) per person. Booking for either tea or cocktail is essential: 00 971 4 301 7777; burj-al-arab.com.
Icing on the cake
If you tire of the sun, sea and souks, take yourself to the 22,500sq m of real snow at the mountain resort-themed indoor ski complex at Ski Dubai (22) (00 971 4 409 4000; skidxb.com). You can hire everything you need to ski five different runs (including the world's first indoor black run) or practice snowboard stunts on the 90m-long quarter pipe. A two-hour ski slope pass with all equipment costs 180Dhs (£36).