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A local's ultimate guide to visiting Dubai

INSIDER logo INSIDER 6/23/2021 insider@insider.com (Natasha Amar)
a large body of water next to the ocean: The Burj Al Arab hotel near Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images © Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images The Burj Al Arab hotel near Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
  • I was born and raised in Dubai, and I'm sharing the best things to do, see, and eat in the city.
  • Tourists should visit Kite Beach, Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Al Fahidi neighborhood.
  • They should eat at Al Ustad Special Kabab, Salt, La Fabbrica Italiana, and Home Bakery.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Dubai was once a fishing, trading, and pearl-diving hub along the Arabian Gulf, but now it's a modern metropolis home to architectural marvels and expats from around the world.

Although it's famous for having the world's tallest skyscraper, the city in the United Arab Emirates is also home to beautiful beaches, plush hotels, and eclectic neighborhoods.

As someone who was born and raised in Dubai and still calls this dynamic city home, I've managed to compile a list of must-visit hotels, sites, and eateries.

Things to know before you go

a castle on top of a building: Heritage architecture in Al Seef. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Heritage architecture in Al Seef. Natasha Amar for Insider
  • COVID-19 PROTOCOL: As of June, all visitors arriving in Dubai must hold a negative PCR-test certificate to avoid quarantining. For most countries, the test must be taken no more than 72 hours before departure. Visitors from a changing list of destinations can expect to be tested at Dubai International Airport upon arrival and must remain in their hotels until the results arrive. The entry of passengers from certain countries is prohibited.
  • WEATHER: Dubai has relatively warm and sunny days throughout the year. Summer (May to September) temperatures, in Fahrenheit, range from low 90s to upper 100s with high humidity levels. Winter (October to April) temperatures range from low 60s to upper 80s. During February and March, light showers are common.
  • CURRENCY: Dubai uses the UAE dirham (AED or Dh), and most businesses also accept credit cards. For day trips outside the city, it's wise to bring some cash.
  • WALKABILITY: Although many neighborhoods in Dubai are easy to explore on foot, you'll need public transportation to travel between them and to other parts of the city. Use single, return, or day-pass tickets or a rechargeable Nol Card to travel on buses, metros, trams, taxis, and water buses for varying fares. The Journey Planner on the Roads and Transport Authority website can help you plan your trip.

Where to stay

The XVA Art Hotel offers a unique stay in the historic district

Tucked away in the charming alleyways of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, the boutique XVA Hotel is located in one of Dubai's oldest houses.

A café and art gallery occupy the shaded courtyard of the restored house, and the building still retains its original architectural elements, such as the traditional wind towers.

The hotel's 15 rooms are complete with works by local artists and vibrant Arabian-inspired furnishings. Visitors should expect friendly and attentive service and a cozy guesthouse vibe.

It's a 12-minute walk from the Textile Souk in old Dubai and a 10-minute walk from the Al Fahidi metro station.

Room rates start as low as under $50 a night.

Tip: If you're looking for souvenirs, the in-house store offers handicrafts, handmade jewelry, and bags.

The Jumeirah Mina A'Salam 5-star hotel is full of evocative architecture and design

The luxurious Jumeirah Mina A'Salam is surrounded by beautiful architecture and the meandering Madinat Jumeirah canal.

Designed with jewel tones and dark wood accents, the rooms offer top-notch amenities. There's also a private beach, a spa, and tons of restaurants and bars around the resort complex.

Popular attractions such as the Dubai Mall, Ski Dubai, and Dubai Marina are about a 10- or 15-minute drive away.

Average room rates are about $327 a night.

Tip: Try the hammam (Turkish bath) at Talise Spa or make use of the complimentary spa facilities, including the sauna, plunge pools, and outdoor pool.

a flock of sheep in front of a castle: Jumeirah Mina A'Salam. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Jumeirah Mina A'Salam. Natasha Amar for Insider

The Address Sky View is in a prime location for hitting all the popular sites

The Address Sky View hotel is an excellent choice if you're looking to spend some quality time around Downtown Dubai.

It also offers access to the metro, so you can easily get to other parts of the city.

All the rooms provide fantastic views of either the Burj Khalifa skyscraper or Downtown Dubai, and rates range from about $220 to $1,770 a night.

Tip: For panoramic skyscraper views, head to the infinity pool located on the hotel's Sky Deck.

Things to do and see

a tall building in a city: Al Seef. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Al Seef. Natasha Amar for Insider

Check out the art scene at Alserkal Avenue

Alserkal Avenue in the industrial area of Al Quoz is the original home of Dubai's art, culture, and indie scene.

The neighborhood's art galleries, studios, coworking spaces, cafés, boutiques, and theaters are housed in former warehouses.

Most exhibitions featuring the works of local and regional artists are free, and talks, arts-and-crafts sessions, workshops, fashion pop-ups, and music and photography events are always on the calendar.

Tip: Stop for a refreshing Karak tea and snack at Project Chaiwala.

See the flamingos at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary

The protected wetland at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is an unexpected but pleasant respite from Dubai's city activities.

With grey herons, mallard, cormorants, ospreys, and Eurasian spoonbills among its 180 bird species, it's a must-visit for bird-watchers and wildlife photographers.

The Flamingo Hide tends to be one of the sanctuary's most popular sections.

Tip: Entry is free, but it's closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit around 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. for the best photo lighting and fewer crowds.

a flock of seagulls standing next to a body of water: Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. Natasha Amar for Insider

Photograph the colorful murals at La Mer

Head to this lively beachfront retail district and walk around the blocks covered in eclectic, colorful murals.

Many pieces of street art are a nod to Dubai's cosmopolitan culture, language, lifestyle, and maritime heritage.

Tip: Stop at one of the food stalls or get a bite to eat at Sikka Café (for Emirati-Indian cuisine) or Zou Zou (for good Middle Eastern food).

a group of people walking down a street next to a building: La Mer. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider La Mer. Natasha Amar for Insider

Experience immersive exhibits at the Theater of Digital Art

The Theater of Digital Art in Souk Madinat Jumeirah offers immersive installations featuring the works of legendary artists such as Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Paul Cézanne.

Shows typically last an hour, and some feature actors or live music. In addition to multimedia exhibitions, you'll also find a must-see virtual-reality experience.

Tip: To avoid disappointment on crowded weekends, book your tickets online in advance.

Theater of Digital Art. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Theater of Digital Art. Natasha Amar for Insider

Enjoy Dubai's sunny weather with a day at Kite Beach


Gallery: The best outdoor dining in every state (Cheapism)

Plenty of locals flock to Kite Beach, especially from October to April when the afternoons are sunny but temperatures are still pleasant enough to be outdoors.

There's always something happening on the weekends, whether it's kite surfers showing off their skills or live music at neighboring establishments.

Bring a picnic or grab a bite to eat from one of the food trucks or cafés on the beach.

Tip: At the end of the day, walk the short distance along the water to Sunset Beach near the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel. It's the best place in Dubai to watch the sunset.

a sunset over a body of water: Sunset Beach. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Sunset Beach. Natasha Amar for Insider

Stroll through the fish market at Jumeirah Fishing Harbor

The Jumeirah Fishing Harbor offers beautiful views of boats and yachts on the Arabian Sea.

There are plenty of restaurants serving fresh seafood in a variety of cuisines from Middle Eastern to Asian-inspired.

There's also a small fish market with persistent but friendly vendors.

Tip: Many of the restaurants offer alfresco dining to enjoy the view.

Rent a bike at Mushrif Park

When the weather is nice, Mushrif Park is the best place to ride bikes while soaking in the beauty of flowers, birdsong, and blue skies.

There's a shorter loop inside the park and a 6-mile cycling track that loops around the perimeter.

If you don't want to cycle, there are also walking trails featuring thousands of trees (a rarity in Dubai), picnic spots, kids' play areas, swimming pools, and an adventure park.

Tip: You can rent a bike at the park or at the nearby Al Motamaiez Bicycles Rental.

Get a taste of Dubai's history walking through the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood

A wander through the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood near Dubai Creek is like walking through chapters in the city's history book.

The sand-colored houses with central courtyards, latticed windows, and regal wind towers are some of the oldest buildings in Dubai, and they once belonged to prosperous pearl merchants. Today, they house museums, galleries, artist studios, cafés, and boutique hotels.

Make sure to book in advance for the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, which offers cultural meal experiences in a traditional setting. The Coffee Museum and Coins Museum are also a few doors away.

Tip: The neighboring Al Seef retail district is a modern development built in the traditional architectural style, and it feels like a natural extension of the neighborhood. It's a good place to shop for souvenirs or grab a bite to eat.

a large stone building: Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. Natasha Amar for Insider

Take an abra ride to visit the souks in Deira

While exploring the area around Dubai Creek, be sure to hop on an abra, a traditional wooden boat, to the souks (markets) in Deira. It's the city's cheapest public transportation, and it's a fun way to see old Dubai.

There's plenty to see, taste, smell, and buy in the souks, from spices, nuts, and dates to frankincense, traditional clothing, and oud (perfume).

Stop by the Gold Souk to ogle at extravagant window displays of jewelry fit for royalty.

Tip: Bargaining is the norm in the souks.

Where to eat and drink

The hole-in-the-wall Al Ustad Special Kabab is a Dubai institution

You'd never guess that this unassuming restaurant in the Al Fahidi neighborhood of old Dubai has served its legendary kebabs to royals, athletes, diplomats, and celebrities.

It's attracted customers for 42 years thanks to its deliciously juicy chicken and mutton kebabs, affordable prices, and friendly service.

Tip: If you can't decide what to order, ask the staff for a recommendation or choose from one of the combo mixes.

a plate of food: Al Ustad Special Kabab. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Al Ustad Special Kabab. Natasha Amar for Insider

Go to Al Fanar Restaurant and Café for an Emirati feast

For authentic Emirati fare, head to Al Fanar Restaurant and Café.

The interior is modeled on 1960s Dubai. There are mud-and-coral walls surrounding a central courtyard, traditional lamps, wooden doors, old photos, vintage memorabilia, and lifelike re-creations of souk and village scenes.

The food is tasty and hearty, and the portions are big enough to share.

Tip: Save room for date cake and pumpkin pudding for dessert.

a dining room table: Al Fanar Restaurant and Café. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Al Fanar Restaurant and Café. Natasha Amar for Insider

The burgers at Salt might just be the best in Dubai

Join the locals at Kite Beach in the queue for Salt, one of Dubai's oldest and most popular burger chains.

Even with multiple locations around the city, the original one on the beach continues to see hungry customers into the wee hours of the morning until it closes at 3 a.m.

The Wagyu beef sliders with jalapeño and the fried-chicken sliders with Cheetos are intensely satisfying. The popular lotus-flavored shake or softy is also a must-try.

During the cooler months, you'll even find live performances by indie artists and bands on the weekends.

Tip: If you're visiting on a weekend, don't be deterred by the long lines. They move quickly, and the wait is worth it.

a box filled with different types of food on a plate: Salt. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Salt. Natasha Amar for Insider

Visit La Fabbrica Italiana for some authentic focaccia

This cozy, little focacceria is run by an Italian family that keeps things simple with just three menu categories: focaccia, burrata, and tiramisu.

The food here is so good that you should absolutely try all three.

There are over 10 focaccia choices, featuring toppings such as black truffle, onions, San Marzano tomatoes, eggplant, salami, and zucchini.

The burrata is served with figs, tomato salad, beef carpaccio, or gazpacho, and it's perfect for a summer afternoon.

Tip: Wash everything down with a sweet Italian soda or try one of the Italian coffees.

a slice of pizza: La Fabbrica Italiana. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider La Fabbrica Italiana. Natasha Amar for Insider

For Lebanese street food, try Zaatar w Zeit

For a quick, tasty, and affordable meal, head to Zaatar w Zeit.

There are various locations across Dubai that serve Lebanese street food such as toasted kaakeh sandwiches and wraps stuffed with chicken, beef, turkey, tuna, falafel, kebabs, or avocado.

There are also good salads and soups if you're in the mood for a lighter meal.

Tip: The combo deals include appetizers and salads alongside your meal, and they're a good value for the money.

a variety of items including a piece of bread: Zaatar w Zeit. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Zaatar w Zeit. Natasha Amar for Insider

For Dubai's best cheesecake, go to Home Bakery

This Emirati-owned bakery specializes in cakes, pastries, and other baked goods.

In addition to Middle Eastern-inspired desserts, such as chocolate-pistachio kunafa and milk cake, it serves what could easily be Dubai's best cheesecake with a burnt top and soft center.

Tip: The coffee here is also good.

a piece of cake on a plate: Home Bakery. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Home Bakery. Natasha Amar for Insider

Taverna Greek Kitchen is great for a date night

With a fantastic waterfront location, authentic Greek food, and friendly service, Taverna Greek Kitchen is a safe choice for a good time.

The white, wooden interior, twinkling outdoor terrace, and Greek music transport you to a seaside Mediterranean village.

The restaurant is helmed by Greek chef Theo Rouvas, and the Greek salad, flaming cheese saganaki, sea bass carpaccio, wood-fire-grilled octopus, and kadaifi prawns won't disappoint.

It also serves Greek-inspired cocktails, such as the Kalamata martini with lavender gin and Kalamata olives.

Tip: This place gets busy on weekends, so it's best to make a reservation at least a couple days in advance.

a bowl of food on a plate: Taverna Greek Kitchen. Natasha Amar for Insider © Natasha Amar for Insider Taverna Greek Kitchen. Natasha Amar for Insider

Enjoy a local-approved breakfast at the Arabian Tea House

Hidden away in the shaded courtyard of a traditional house in the historic district, the lovely Arabian Tea House is full of romantic charm, fun design touches, and mouthwatering food.

Stop in for breakfast dishes such as breads served with honey, local cheese, olives, and vegetables and vermicelli cooked with cardamom and saffron and topped with an omelet.

Tip: Order a pot of tea from the wide range available.

Final tips before your trip

a bridge over a body of water with a city in the background: Downtown Dubai at night. Owngarden/Getty Images © Owngarden/Getty Images Downtown Dubai at night. Owngarden/Getty Images
  • Double-check if your medicine is on the country's control list. Even if you got it over the counter at home, it might be a controlled substance in Dubai, so you'll need to get prior approval, a valid prescription, and a certificate from your departure country. Don't bring anything on the unauthorized medicines list.
  • Bring comfortable walking shoes and a hat, scarf, or cap to protect your head from the sun. Dubai is home to many neighborhoods, souks, and retail districts that you'll want to spend time walking around.
  • Don't take photos of people, especially locals, without prior permission. The UAE takes its privacy laws seriously, and this could lead to fines.
  • While visiting Al Fahidi and the souks in old Dubai, women should cover their shoulders and knees. Drape a light scarf over spaghetti straps, wear a maxi dress or jeans, and avoid plunging necklines to be respectful. No person should wear clothing featuring expletives or offensive gestures.
  • You're allowed to wear bikinis and swimsuits on public beaches but literally only on the beach. You'll have to cover up with a caftan or a T-shirt and shorts to even go as far as the beachfront cafés.
  • If you're looking to try out some outdoor activities in Dubai, winter might be the best time to travel. Because of the mild weather, October through April is ideal for outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking.
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