Essential guide to Dubai

Belinda Jackson shares her tips for exploring the glitz, glamour and a dash of grunge of the UAE's star city.

STAY

Budget

The sparkling Ibis Mall of the Emirates has 204 rooms and is opposite Mall of the Emirates for great shopping, beside the metro and within spitting distance of beaches and Madinat Souk for evening revelry (rooms from 243 dirham, 382 3000, ibishotel.com). Golden Sands Hotel, Dubai, is an apartment hotel with studios (able to fit two adults and a child) up to three-bed apartments with kitchenette, free internet and a pool. It's behind BurJuman shopping centre in Bur Dubai (from 305 dirham a room, 355 5553, goldensandsdubai.com).

Mid-range

Fusion, a boutique B&B at Jumeirah Beach has two slick traditional-style villas with pools and just 20 rooms in all, with flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and chic design. It's near the Dubai Marina and Old Dubai (from 450 dirham, 478 7539, fusionhotels.com /bedandbreakfastsindubai). The serene seven-room XVA Hotel (pictured) is in the beautiful heritage area of Bastakiya, in Old Dubai, which includes an art gallery and vegetarian cafe (from 530 dirham, 353 5383, xvahotel.com). If it's full, try the nearby Orient Guest House, another gorgeous little Arabian villa with 10 rooms (from 500 dirham, 351 7744, orientguesthouse.com). With 250 rooms and free internet, Traders Hotel is a reliable choice (from 610 dirham, 1800 222 448, toll-free from Australia, shangrila.com).

Luxe

Opened late last year, the Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates is enmeshed in one of Dubai's premier shopping malls. The hotel's fabulous rooftop pools have views to Burj Khalifa and the terrace is the place for sunset cocktails (from 996 dirham, 377 2000, pullmanhotels.com) The new 438-room Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach is on the water's edge and the chic The Walk shopping promenade. Rooms with sea views and balconies are from $329 (1300 884 400, toll-free from Australia, sofitel.com). The newest hotel in town is the 216-room Movenpick Hotel Diera (from 714 dirham, 444 0111, moevenpick-hotels.com).

Lash out

There's no check-in desk and no concierge but there are "lifestyle managers" who whisk you through the silk-lined, 160-room Armani Hotel. Highlights include the spa and its well-regarded fine-dining Ristorante (from 2880 dirham, 888 3888, dubai.armanihotels.com). The serenely luxurious Moorish-style Park Hyatt Dubai is refreshing its 225 rooms and Amara Spa in the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, close to the airport and Deira shopping mall (from 1464 dirham/double, 13 12 34, dubai.park.hyatt.com). Arabian architecture and cuisine set the beachfront One&Only away from the bland pack. Set on The Palm Jumeirah (from 4536 dirham, oneandonlythepalm.com). Glam hounds, keep an ear to the ground for launch news of Dubai Versace.

SHOP + PLAY

Go shop

Dubai Mall is the Emirates' premier mall, with a gold souk and giant aquarium — load up the credit card — followed closely by Mall of the Emirates, home of Ski Dubai. Second-tier malls have more affordable fashions and all the big high-street names. Try Wafi, BurJuman, Mercato, Deira City Centre mall or Ibn Battuta, while the Dubai Festival City stretches three kilometres along the historic Dubai Creek. For cheap electronics, cruise al-Fahidi Street in Bur Dubai; fashionistas should walk The Walk at Jumeriah Beach Residence. Stop at arty, independent Creative Art Centre for antiques and unique gifts (closed Friday, al-Jumeriah Road, 344 4394, arabian-arts.com).

To market

Go traditional in Diera by visiting the Gold Souk (pictured) and Spice Souk. The Fish Souk is open before dawn until 11am. Across the Creek, the Textile Souk is good for weaves, Indian fabrics and passamentaries. Unearth fake designer gear in Karama Markets (ask about the good stuff upstairs), while Madinat Souk is clean and kitschy for touristy buys but fun to wander. Stop for lunch in one of the outdoor cafes. For well-priced carpet shopping, eschew Dubai and head to Sharjah's Blue Souk, about 30 minutes' drive from Bur Dubai. The Gold and Diamond Park near the Mall of the Emirates is another good gold-hunting ground.

Live music

The open-air beachside Barasti Bar (pictured) in Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Resort has a chilled vibe and its blend of cocktails, live jazz and DJs has made it a long-running weekend hot spot popular with the young expat set. The antithesis of Dubai glam, Peanut Butter Jam is a mass of beanbagged groovers chowing on burgers and hot dogs as live bands play every Friday night in the cooler months on the garden rooftop at Wafi City (324 4100). Look out for live bands at the Hard Rock Cafe, which is relocating to Festival City.

Nightclubs

As the name suggests, the recently reopened Trilogy in Souk Madinat is divided into three areas: a rooftop with DJs, techno and house in the Main Room and a more chilled Urban Room. New on the scene, Club Atelier makes big promises: to be the most fashion-oriented club in Dubai, with house and upbeat R&B. Note the 21-plus age limit (Emirates Tower, 050 565 5427). Recognised globally as Dubai's top club, 360 is no dungeon — perched atop the Jumeriah Beach Hotel, it has panoramic views of city and beach and sofas from which to soak up the view. Non-hotel guests must register for sunset sessions on Fridays and Saturdays at platinumlist.ae.

SEE + DO

Icons

Could you go to Dubai and not shoot up to the top of the world's tallest tower? The takeoff point for the 828-metre Burj Khalifa (pictured) is in the Dubai Mall. Buy tickets in advance on the day, sunset timeslots sell out quickly (open 10am-10pm/midnight daily, adults 100 dirham, children 75 dirham, atthetop.ae). Beautiful Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in the UAE open to non-Muslims. Dress conservatively. Water fun parks are big business. The largest is the Atlantis on the Palm Jumeirah, with the awesome Lost Chambers Aquarium, frighteningly steep Aquaventure Waterslide and beaches (250 dirham/above 1.2 metres, 200 dirham/below 1.2 metres, atlantisthepalm.com).

Culture

The Dubai Museum is set in al-Fahidi Fort and recreates Dubai when it was a pearling port, with traditional houses, souks and farms (adults three dirham, closed Friday mornings, Bur Dubai). Contemporary art gallery XVA has just reopened in Building 7, Dubai International Financial Centre, the generous space letting it stretch its wings to lure more big-name and up-and-coming artists (closed Fridays, xvagallery.com). The original XVA is in the Bastakiya area, along with Majlis Gallery (themajlisgallery.com). Catch a rifle-throwing competition as well as traditional Bedouin dancing and falconry at Dubai Heritage and Diving Villages (free, on the Creek, al-Shindagha Road).

On foot

Walk the Creek: one of the cheapest and most fun activities in Dubai. From Bur Dubai Abra (boat) station, stroll past waterfront houses and through the textile souk into Bastakiya, a restored heritage area with beautiful mudbrick houses featuring natural aircon: wind towers brought here by Persian merchants. Gorgeous for photos in the afternoon light, it's also close to Dubai Museum. Pile onto an abra with the locals and cross the Creek for a dirham to wander through the spice, gold, electronics and food souks.

Follow the leader

Big Bus Tours' open-top tours cover the major sites including Jumeirah Beach (pictured), the souks, main shopping malls and Diera. Ticket includes entry to Dubai Museum, a dhow cruise and walking tours (adults 220 dirham, children 100 dirham, 4340 7709, bigbustours.com). The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, 45 kilometres from Dubai, is where oryx and gazelles roam. Stay at al-Maha luxury camp (832 9900, al-maha.com), or take a safari with Arabian Adventures (303 4888, arabian-adventures.com). Book a guided walking tour of Bastakiya (50 dirham), or the Jumeirah Mosque (10 dirham) from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which also serves traditional Emirati breakfasts and lunches (free, 353 6666, cultures.ae).

EAT + DRINK

Cafe culture

Stop for an elegant snack of coffee and handmade caramels, chocolates or canapes at the beautiful new Vivel Patisserie, beside the ticket office for Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall (vivel.com). The Basta Art Cafe (pictured) is a cool courtyard perfect for sipping juices and light lunching in between visiting the museums and souks, on al-Fahidi Street, Bastakiya. Sip zafrani chai (saffron tea) at the wildly popular Filli Cafeteria, al-Mamzar public beach park in al-Hamriya. You can't just waltz into the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel (pictured far left) but you can book ahead for coffee or drinks and gawp at the world's first seven-star hotel. Champagne afternoon teas from 375 dirham a person or 395 dirham at the Skyview Bar, Jumeirah (301 7600).

Snack attack

Go local and order great shawarmas from just 3.50 dirham from the Eat & Drink chain across Dubai, including al-Wasl Road (349 9200). The supermarkets (in every mall) are great for stocking up on dried fruits, especially Emirati dates, for an on-the-go sugar hit. Friday champagne brunches are a Dubai institution, usually with set prices depending on the quality of food and bubbles. Hot spots include Spectrum on One (pictured below) with unlimited champagne at the Fairmont hotel, the Park Hyatt for an upmarket brunch with good champagne, while Yalumba at Le Meridian is the party brunch spot. Book ahead.

Top tables

There's no shortage of star chef haunts in Dubai, from Gordon Ramsay's Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek, to Nobu in Atlantis at the Palm Jumeirah and Marco Pierre White's Frankie's at al-Fattan Marine Towers, Dubai Marina. Zuma is a contemporary Japanese-style bar at the Dubai International Financial Centre that's so hot right now. Expect beautifully prepared (but not enormous) dishes (425 5660, zumarestaurant.com). Gary Rhodes's Mezzanine at Grosvenor House also deserves a mention for its British classics with a French twist. Follow with drinks at Buddha Bar, in the same hotel, at Dubai Marina (399 8888, grosvenorhouse-dubai.com).

By the glass

A contender for Dubai's most beautiful bar is The Roof Top at One&Only Royal Mirage, al-Sufouh Road, while the it-crowd flocks to new lounge bar Red, in the peak of the pyramid in Raffles Dubai, for the sunset terrace and health-infused cocktails, Sheikh Rashid Road, Wafi. One of the best wine bars in Dubai, the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi hotel's Oeno cheese and wine bar shines on the weekends, from 4pm-1am Monday to Friday.

Hot tip

Dubai's peak season is the cooler months (October to April) as temperatures can hit 50 degrees in summer. Thus, when the temps go down, hotel and flight prices go up.

Getting there

The UAE national carrier, Emirates Airlines, flies direct from Sydney, while Singapore Airlines, Cathay and British Airways have stopovers en route. Etihad flies into Abu Dhabi, about 90 minutes' drive away.

Getting around

The fastest, cheapest route between the malls is on the newly opened Dubai Metro, tickets from four dirham. Dubai Mall runs a free shuttle across the emirate (800 3822 46255). Taxis are plentiful but peak hours (8-9.30am, 4.30-6.30pm) are horrific.

Visas and currency

Australian tourists don't need a visa to visit the UAE. The national currency is the dirham, $1 = 4 dirham.

Calling Dubai

The UAE country code is (+971) and it's (04) for Dubai, so to call Dubai from abroad, add +9714 to the numbers listed here.

More information

Dubai Tourism, (02) 9956 6620, definitelydubai.com, Time Out Dubai timeoutdubai.com.

The writer was a guest of Pullman Hotels and Escape Travel.

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