Multicultural, materialistic and moving forward at a pace like no other city, Dubai is the little city-state that could. From sleepy trading port to skyscraper central, the city lives for attention and achieves it by being the very model of a tolerant Arab state in a rickety region.
Known for its excesses, Dubai is the city to be in for a hedonistic holiday. Here are 10 of the best ways to part with your cash.
Dubai, the city of superlatives, is the place to go all out © Manuel Bischof / Getty Images
Surrender yourself to seven-star service at Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab
While the Burj Al Arab's interior seeks to impress with its extravagance, any taste was left at the door, and while everything that glitters is gold, colours matching gold are only randomly in evidence. While the Burj was marketed as the world’s only seven-star hotel, it’s actually rated five-star luxury, although the staff ’s attentive service is seven-star standard if there was any. If you don’t need to stay, opt for a treatment at Talise Spa or a cocktail at Skyview Bar to experience service second to none.
Go for gold at Deira's famous gold market © swisshippo / Getty Images
Bargain for all that glitters at the Gold Souq
Head to Deira’s Gold Souq to haggle in the evenings when the dazzling jewellery and shimmering gems are at their most spellbinding and the wooden-latticed lanes are bustling with shoppers. The largest in the Arabian Peninsula, it attracts buyers from across the region and its sheer scale is impressive. Every conceivable kind of gold and jewellery is available – from traditional to modern, cutting-edge to conservative. If you can’t find it, you can always commission it.
Escape the stifling heat in a shopping mall
Maligned elsewhere, shopping malls make sense in the stifling heat of Dubai. Malls have become like town squares in other cities – complete with central plaza, fountain, entertainment stage and souvenir-laden barrows. Ibn Battuta takes the concept to the extreme, with specialised shopping 'streets' resembling marketplaces in 14th-century Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India and China. Duty-free shopping doesn’t necessarily imply the lower prices it does elsewhere because the United Arab Emirates is blissfully tax-free.
Leave the Dubai's malls behind to experience the chaos of local souqs © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
Feel the buzz in Bur Dubai Souq
In contrast to the sleek, shiny, squeaky-clean shopping malls, the cacophony, colour and chaos of the souqs is what makes them so appealing. Neither the breezy wooden arcades of Bur Dubai Souq nor the ramshackle shops of Deira’s Covered Souq resemble the palm-leaf-roofed bazaar that was established on the banks of Dubai Creek in the 1830s, but the city’s souqs remain full of character and still have the reputation as the best in Arabia.
Prayer time at the mosque in Al Fahidi Historic District © Andrew Mongomery / Lonely Planet
Get lost in the labyrinthine lanes of the Al Fahidi Historic District
See where Dubai’s hedonistic nature began in Al Fahidi Historic District, a diminutive, densely concentrated neighbourhood of tranquil, tangled lanes and wind-towered residences. This was once home to wealthy Persian traders hailing mainly from Bastak in southern Iran, hence its name. It’s easy to imagine the merchants who were the first entrepreneurs, dealing mainly in pearls and textiles, to be enticed to Dubai by its tax-free trading. Al Fahidi Historic District is free to wander, but tempting museums, art galleries and souvenir shops line the labyrinth lanes.
De-stress at one of Dubai’s dreamy desert hideaways
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve’s Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is named after the oryx it breeds so successfully. The eco-resort’s luxurious standalone tent-roofed suites have chilled private pools and vistas of peach-coloured dunes dotted with beautiful white oryx. There are wildlife drives to see gazelles, oryx and bird-life, and sunset camel rides out to the desert where a butler awaits you with champagne. Al Maha is designed for couples, with candlelit in-suite dining - private vehicles, visitors and children are prohibited – if you can’t rekindle a romance here, it’s over.
Take your pick of flavours at the Spice Souq © EnginKorkmaz / Getty Images
Inhale the pungent aromas of frankincense and myrrh at Deira's Spice Souq
The air hanging in the old alleys of the Spice Souq is filled with the aromas of spices, herbs, nuts, pulses, dried fruits and chillies. Jute sacks overflow with frankincense and oud (fragrant wood), ground cardamom, cumin, cinnamon sticks and cloves, as well as local favourites sumac (ground dried red berries) and zaatar (a mix of thyme, sumac and sesame). The most popular buy is frankincense from the harvested gum resin of trees in Dhofar, Oman.
Pamper yourself in one of Dubai’s incredible spas
Dubai does best is the extravagant luxury spa with ornate pillars, gold leaf and big sunken baths. Naturally, no one can top the Burj Al Arab – its Talise Spa is a must. Some of the more innovative spa packages that are very in tune with the lifestyle (Jet Lag Recovery, anyone?) and culture (yes, we’ll take the Cleopatra recipe milk bath).
Themed packages are the most fun and usually include a combination scrub, bath, massage and facial, along with use of the steam room and wet area, herbal teas, juices and a healthy lunch. They might range from a 90-minute treatment to a more indulgent full day at the spa. Better add that day to the itinerary now.
Hot-air balloons gliding over Dubai © Mlenny / Getty Images
Enjoy sunrise over the desert or an aerial view of Dubai’s dramatic coastline
Dubai’s backyard is a sweeping expanse of desert dunes, magical and surreal at dawn when the sands glow a rich reddish-gold. To experience the silence and tranquillity of the Arabian desert, a hot-air balloon flight provides a stunning contrast to the frantic chaos of the city. From the basket’s eagle-eye perspective green oases, wandering camels and the occasional tarmac road wind through the vast sea of dunes that stretch, seemingly endlessly, to the horizon. It’s a great way to appreciate the harsh and isolated landscape Dubai has strived to tame.
Where restaurants are more gold service than silver
From tasty shawarma to credit card-maxing haute cuisine, Dubai doesn’t lack breadth when it comes to dining. With the multicultural makeup of the city, you can indulge in just about any global cuisine that you desire. While Gordon Ramsay was the first celebrity chef to put his name above the door in Dubai (in 2001 at the now-defunct Verre), a flood of world-renowned chefs has followed. Jason Atherton, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Yannick Alléno and Virgilio Martínez are just some of the big names, while Ramsay returned to Dubai's sunny shores in 2016 with Bread Street Kitchen.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Looking for something original? Let the Lonely Planet locals introduce you to up-and-coming neighbourhoods around the world with unique culinary and artistic subcultures.
Last updated in August 2017