Stretching through the desert sands, Dubai is a sprawling city, the largest in the United Arab Emirates. On a trip to Dubai, it pays to plan your time wisely so that you aren't packing too many far-flung sights and activities into a single day. Instead of trying to do it all, get to know Dubai's fascinating array of neighborhoods one at a time.
Here are the best neighborhoods to explore on your visit to Dubai.
Best neighborhood for sightseeing
Downtown Dubai is a key destination for visitors. Its literal pinnacle, the Burj Khalifa, overlooks the Dubai Mall, the world's biggest shopping temple. Downtown Dubai has most of the city's must-see sights and also teems with other crowd-pleasing attractions, including a massive aquarium, an ice rink and a complete dinosaur skeleton. The mall flanks the Burj Lake, where the mesmerizing Dubai Fountain erupts in nightly choreographed dance, music and light shows. Further south, Alserkal Avenue has evolved into the city's main alternative arts and creative hub.
Downtown Dubai has some of the city's hottest nightlife venues, with new spots coming online all the time. Shine your shoes, put on those vertiginous heels and bring the platinum credit card to get waved past the velvet rope. This neighborhood is also the purview of high-roller restaurants, with most of them located in the five-star hotels and the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).
Staying in Downtown Dubai puts you smack dab in the city's vortex of vibrancy. Aside from the big international chains, you'll also find a few home-grown players imbued with a local sense of place. Downtown Dubai is an expensive area to stay in, and with few exceptions, you'll need to shell out top dirham.
Best neighborhood for nightlife
Dubai Marina has become one of the most popular places to live in town, and its pedestrian-friendly areas also hold plenty of appeal for visitors. Carved from the desert, this is one of the world's largest artificial marinas, centered on a long canal flanked by a thicket of futuristic high-rises, including the twisting Cayan Tower.
Although there are no conventional sights in this part of Dubai, the beach, the marina and the waterfront provide plenty of diversions. A stroll along the Marina Walk promenade is delightful, especially after dusk when you can gaze out at the glittering towers and bobbing yachts. Paralleling the beach are The Walk at JBR, a strip of shops and family-oriented eateries, and The Beach at JBR, a chic open-air mall fronting a lovely sandy beach with great infrastructure.
Dubai Marina is dominated by sprawling beach resorts, each flaunting several top-end restaurants, bars and nightclubs. But you'll also find excellent eats away from the hotels, especially along the Marina Walk, The Walk at JBR and The Beach at JBR. Because of its compact nature, the area is conducive to hopping from one place to the next by foot. Dubai Marina is a great area for going out at night, especially if you're in the mood for chilling by the beach, whether with cocktails or shisha. A number of beach clubs deliver day-to-night action, and there are even a couple of alternative dance venues.
Best neighborhood for beaches
The emirate’s answer to Bondi or Malibu, Jumeirah stretches from the Etihad Museum to the Burj Al Arab. Hemmed in by the turquoise waters of the Gulf, Jumeirah translates as "the beautiful" and is practically synonymous with beaches, most famously Kite Beach. Life in Jumeirah revolves around the beaches, which have been upgraded enormously in recent years and now offer the gamut of activities, from swimming and surfing to beach volleyball and jogging.
Jumeirah is largely a residential area, dominated by low-rise apartment buildings and white-washed villas. Although an older part of town, Jumeirah has of late been injected with pockets of urban cool by a number of new lifestyle malls, including BoxPark and Galleria. While the City Walk development has created a fashionable, cosmopolitan neighborhood (check out the street art), indie boutiques and the Italian-style Mercato Shopping Mall still make up the lure of Jumeirah Road.
The biggest change to reshaping Jumeirah is the Dubai Canal, which links Dubai Creek with the Gulf. New construction along both banks and around the canal's mouth, as well as actually in the water (a floating restaurant and yacht club have been proposed), promise to keep things dynamic in the area for many years to come. An evening stroll along the Dubai Canal promenade is especially recommended to view the dramatic, motion-operated waterfall along with a stunning skyline.
Jumeirah has some of the best eating in town, with a wonderful variety of restaurants, from ethnic street bites on 2nd December St and urban bistros at BoxPark or City Walk to humble fish shacks on the waterfront and top-dirham dining shrines at the Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah. Aside from the bars in and around Madinat Jumeirah and in a smattering of Western-style hotels, few places in Jumeirah serve alcohol.
Luxury lovers should steer towards the Burj Al Arab or the hotels at Madinat Jumeirah. The cluster of midrange hotels and hotel-apartments next to the Mall of Emirates offer great value for money. However, many hotels in this area are a taxi ride from the nearest Dubai Metro station.
Best neighborhood for budget travelers
Bur Dubai may not be as sleek and sophisticated as the newer parts of town, but its animated street life exudes a sense of community spirit that is rarely found elsewhere. Although Bur Dubai stretches from Dubai Creek to the World Trade Centre at the beginning of Sheikh Zayed Road, the neighborhood's most intriguing area is a conveniently compact section hugging the Creek. Come here to soak up the city's history in the Dubai Museum and peek into the past in the restored Al Fahidi Historic District and Shindagha Historic District, which will soon be home to the world's largest open-air museum. Pass through the atmospheric Bur Dubai Souq along the way, which offers wallet-friendly shopping for souvenirs, textiles and knock-off handbags.
Bur Dubai is heaven for ethnic eats, with oodles of tiny, low-frills cafes catering to homesick expats from Kerala to Kathmandu with superb and authentic street food. The tangle of narrow lanes around the market brims with local eateries feeding expats from Nepal, India and Pakistan with authentic fare from their homelands. Stock up on souvenirs and then watch the boat traffic on Dubai Creek from a waterfront cafe in the re-energized Al Seef area.
Bur Dubai is one of the cheapest areas to stay in Dubai, and it's home to heritage B&Bs, the city's oldest hotel, modern budget and midrange chains and plenty of hotel apartments in the Mankhool area near the BurJuman mall. Away from the Creek, Bur Dubai becomes rather nondescript.
Best neighborhood for shopping
Deira feels like a cross between Cairo and Karachi. Dusty, crowded and chaotic, Deira is one of Dubai's oldest and most charismatic neighborhoods and a world away from modern Dubai. Along Dubai Creek, colorful wooden dhows (traditional cargo boats) engage in the time-tested trading of goods destined for Iran, Sudan and other locales. Nearby, the bustling souqs (markets) are atmospheric ancestors of today’s malls, where you can sip sugary tea and haggle for bargains with traders whose families have tended the same shop for generations.
The main sights of Deira are all within easy walking distance of each other around the atmospheric mouth of Dubai Creek, but it's the siren song of the souqs that lures shoppers to to this area. Stock up on spices, gold, perfume and souvenirs of all sorts, all sold at bargain prices (provided you bargain).
Deira is also Dubai's most dazzlingly multicultural neighborhood, reflected by the restaurants that are perfect for soaking up the local color and sampling authentic fare from such far-flung locales as India, Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Deira is close to the airport and therefore popular with visitors on stopovers. There are plenty of older, smaller, budget places in and around the souqs, although they range in quality. More upmarket properties can be found along Dubai Creek as far south as Dubai Festival City.
Best neighborhood for families
Jutting into the Gulf is Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree and home to glittering resorts, as well as the Aquaventure Waterpark, now the largest in the world. Built to increase Dubai's beachfront real estate, Palm Jumeirah is home to luxury apartments, villas and hotels. It's punctuated by the iconic pink and hugely popular Atlantis The Palm resort. Further south lie the family-friendly theme parks of Dubai Parks & Resorts.
The monorail to Palm Jumeirah is an entertaining trip, but be warned that the resorts on Palm Jumeirah are a long way from anywhere.