Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Dubai, UAE

Lauren_BurjKhalifa Lauren checking out the view from the Burj Khalifa © Lauren Keith

Lauren Keith, Destination Editor for the Middle East and North Africa, recently returned from a trip to Dubai.

In a nutshell… My visit to Dubai coincided with Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which started at the end of May. It’s a fascinating time to experience how the pace of life changes in the Middle East, even in expat-heavy places like Dubai. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and the searing daytime temperatures mean that almost all of Dubai’s action happens after the sun goes down.

Tell us more… Dubai, the city of superlatives, must have its quietest month when Ramadan and the desert summer align, but the vast majority of the attractions, including big names like the Burj Khalifa, are still open and it’s easier to get tickets.

The rules in Dubai have relaxed slightly in the last few years, but during Ramadan you cannot eat, drink (yes, that includes water) or smoke in public during daylight hours. Most hotels and even the Dubai Mall offer screened-off areas for non-Muslims to eat in during the day, and bars do open after sunset.

Lauren_food The iftar at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding © Lauren Keith

Good grub? Almost all the hotels have an evening iftar, the meal that breaks the fast after prayers at sundown. In true Dubai style, they go all out, and at places like Al Fanous at JW Marriott Marquis, it’s not one opulent buffet but six, serving everything from traditional Arabic and Emirati favourites like lamb makbus (tender lamb and rice with fragrant spices like cardamom and cloves) and fattoosh (a salad of toasted bread, tomatoes, onions and mint leaves) to a sushi and Chinese dumpling stand.

When you’ve finished all that, you can sit and think about what you’ve done (it would have been rude not to try everything), or you can grab another plate and head to the giant dessert bar chock-full of mysterious and delicious items like umm ali (similar to bread pudding, made of filo pastry, butter, raisins and nuts baked in milk) or more well-known treats, like an actual mountain of baklava that’ll make you feel like you’re playing Jenga trying get the right piece out without a thousand more ‘accidentally’ landing on your plate.

Lauren_camels Lauren gets a warm welcome to the desert from a friendly camel © Lauren Keith

Fave activity? There are plans afoot to build the world’s biggest rollercoaster in Dubai, but in the dune-filled desert just outside the city, you can find nature’s version right now. On our desert tour with Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) we packed into a Land Rover and held on tight as the SUV straddled the tops of the dunes before plunging sideways down the other side, sand spraying over the side of the car. As the lead car of the convoy, we never knew what was coming next, and I’m pretty sure our screams made the driver go faster.

Before the ride, we stopped to hang out with the friendly camels who lumbered over for a nuzzle, and as a reward for making it through the journey, we parked in a desert camp to watch the sun sinking below the sands, leaving behind a pinky-purple sky.

If you do one thing… Attend a question-and-answer session at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), which was created to bridge the cultural divide between Emiratis and visitors. During Ramadan the centre hosts its own traditional iftar. When the feast is over, you visit a mosque to learn about its architecture and the meanings of Islamic symbols and rituals. In an era of fear and grave misunderstandings about Islam and what it means to be Muslim, places like the SMCCU are essential.

Lauren Keith travelled to Dubai with support from Visit Dubai. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

Want more behind-the-scenes adventures? Check out where Advertising Manager Laura Brown has just got back from.