First-time Dubai visitors should prepare to be awestruck by its bold, futuristic cityscape, surprised by its not-too-distant history, and captivated by the richness of its cosmopolitan culture. The city invites visitors to live the high life for which it’s famous, of course, but there are also myriad ways travelers can explore far beyond preconceived notions of the region.
With countless attractions that compete for attention—the tallest skyscraper here, palm tree–shaped islands there—it might be hard to know where to begin. The good news is that driving distances are fairly short and the city is well-connected by public transportation, so it’s easy to experience a wide range of activities in a short amount of time. From Emirati feasts in the desert and spice-scented walks through the old souks to helicopter rides over the city, here’s how to see the best of Dubai.
Find Bedouin culture in the desert
No visit to Dubai is complete without a trip to the desert, which takes up just 5 percent of the city’s total land area, but once extended far into what is much of the metropolis today. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, spread over nearly 90 square miles, is a protected nature reserve inhabited by local wildlife, such as the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle, and Arabian red fox, and more than 120 bird species. Visitors can choose their own adventure: Take a drive on the dunes, go on a camel ride reminiscent of Bedouin caravans, try sandboarding, or observe a falconry demonstration.
The best desert tours in Dubai
For a glimpse at culinary traditions, book an evening of dining and entertainment with Platinum Heritage, an ecotourism operator with knowledgeable conservation guides that stands out for its commitment to sustainable practices, including ethical animal tourism and nature education initiatives for underprivileged kids. As evening falls, a vintage Land Rover takes guests to a solar-powered Bedouin-style camp, complete with low seating on cushions and jewel-toned carpets with intricate designs. Sip on gahwa, or Arabic coffee with cardamom and cloves, nibble on dates, smoke shisha, and learn to make traditional bread before tucking into a feast of Emirati dishes such as ouzi, lamb slow-cooked in an underground pit for six hours. Then join in on traditional drumming and watch men in Emirati dress perform the slow and rhythmic Ayyala dance under a starry night sky.
For those looking to spend the night in the desert, Platinum Heritage offers stays in basic stone-built houses, followed by sunrise hot-air balloon flights and breakfast in the morning. For something more luxurious, Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa offers 42 villas decorated with embroidered furnishings and antiques and equipped with private infinity pools. Nearby, experiences such as nature walks, horse rides, and wildlife drives beckon.
Wander the souks of Deira
Souks are the restored covered markets that sit along Dubai Creek in the city’s oldest neighborhoods. They’re a reminder of Dubai’s roots as a trading port dating back to the 1800s, when merchants from Asia, North Africa, and Europe arrived to buy and sell pearls, gold, textiles, carpets, and spices among other wares.
Put on comfortable walking shoes, head to the Al Ras area in Deira, and be prepared to haggle. Here, the Spice Souk is filled with colorful displays of mounds of turmeric, sumac, cumin, cardamom, saffron, and dried rose petals. These spices, some rarer than others, come from around the region, from Kashmir all the way to Madagascar. Sample dried figs, lemon-roasted cashews, and medjool dates, all of which are crowd-pleasing gifts to take back home.
At the nearby Gold Souk, the oldest and largest gold market in the Middle East, shop windows display astounding collections of gold and diamond-encrusted jewelry, from understated rings to multilayered Indian wedding necklaces that showcase skilled craftsmanship. An eight-minute walk away, the Perfume Souk sells fragrances of every kind, including well-known branded perfumes, essential oils, and oud, a woody essential oil with an intense fragrance that is traditionally used as perfume within the region.
The best souk tours in Dubai
To get an insider’s perspective, explore the area with the passionate guides at Frying Pan Adventures, a tour company that offers walking tours around the souks that include tastings of snacks that capture the essence of this part of Dubai.
Alternatively, visit the souks as part of an intimate walking tour of old Dubai with longtime resident Nada Badran of Wander With Nada.
See Dubai from the air with a helicopter tour
For a true overview of Dubai’s ambitiously crafted landscape, consider a helicopter tour. A 30-minute trip with Helicopter Tour Dubai offers a bird’s-eye view of the metropolis: Watch small abra boats plying their way across the Dubai Creek from the sand-colored wind towers of Al Fahidi, and catch the old souks of Deira and the two-mile-long Dubai Water Canal that has turned part of the city into an island. Contrasting with these scenes of the past are the city’s newer attractions, such as the Dubai Frame. The frame-shaped structure has a viewing bridge with spectacular vistas of old Dubai, from its low-rise buildings all the way to the sail-shaped luxury hotel Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa, an unmatched feat of architecture and engineering.
Also best appreciated by air are the city’s various man-made islands, including the palm tree–shaped Palm Jumeirah and the world map–shaped World Islands, while the Jumeirah coastline, home to many sandy beaches, stretches for more than a dozen miles along the azure Arabian Sea. See it all from the nearby Ain Dubai, the world’s tallest observation wheel, which stands more than 800 feet high on man-made Bluewaters Island, known for its restaurants and bars.