Dubai: it's big and brash, flashy and ostentatious. It's a super-car traffic jam on a big-city street. It's a $1000 bottle of champagne when a cheap sparkling would do. It's the biggest, the best and the most expensive of everything.
At least, that's what people expect when they arrive in this Middle Eastern metropolis. Dubai is supposed to be small on culture, and big on bling. It's here for a good time, not a long time, and it doesn't mind telling you so.
But is that really the case? First-time visitors might be surprised…
The food is good, and it's cheap
Thanks to a large immigrant population, including a huge influx of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Jordan, Dubai has an incredibly good and affordable food scene. Simply wander the streets of Deira, one of the city's older and cheaper neighbourhoods, and you'll find tasty treats from around the world, available on the street for only a few dirhams. And for the best Pakistani food this side of Lahore, call past the suburb of Satwa to dine at the shabby-but-famous Ravi restaurant.
A souk in Deira. Photo: Getty Images
It's also good, and expensive
Dubai has a reputation for fine-dining excellence, and it certainly lives up to that, with plenty of celebrity chefs from around the world setting up outposts in hotels and resorts across the city. You'll have to lay down some serious coin to enjoy meals by the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White and Sanjeev Kapoor, but it will be worth the expense.
There aren't many locals
This takes a while to sink in for most first-time visitors: the fact that there don't seem to be any local Emiratis around at all. That's due to a few factors, most notably that only 11 per cent of Dubai's population is Emirati. The local culture, too, is quite a private one, meaning for many visitors the only Emirati they'll meet will be the one who stamps their passport at the airport. Those keen to learn more about local culture, however, should call in to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (cultures.ae).
You can drink. A lot.
China Moon Champagne Bar at Raffles Dubai. Photo: Getty Images
Yes, there are laws against public inebriation, alcohol is extremely expensive, you have to be over 21 to drink it, and it's only served in bars attached to hotels or clubs. But that doesn't mean no one imbibes in Dubai. Any traveller expecting to have a dry holiday will be very surprised to find champagne brunches, happy hour drinks prices, and an expat culture of party-friendly boozing.
The weekend begins on Friday – with brunch
Why are the cafes and restaurants packed on a Friday morning, when everyone should be at work? This is the Islamic world, which means weekends are Fridays and Saturdays. Among the Dubai expat crowd, as well as many short-term visitors, the beginning of the weekend means one thing: brunch. And this is no light snack; Friday brunches are typically vast feasts as sumptuousness as they are boozy. Many hotels put on huge buffets of every food imaginable on which you can gorge yourself before lurching back to the hotel room for a snooze.
There's history in Dubai
It's true: 50 years ago this heaving metropolis was little more than a creekside fishing village (before oil was discovered). But that doesn't mean there isn't history in Dubai. The oldest part of the city is al-Fahidi, a well-preserved cultural area that dates back to the early 1900s. The narrow alleyways and traditional homes here are a pleasant break from the skyscrapers and superhighways of Dubai proper.
The Burj Khalifa is incredible
The view from the Burj. Photo: iStock
Even if a the sight of really, really tall building doesn't sound that amazing to you, prepare to be stunned. The 829-metre Burj Khalifa (burjkhalifa.ae) is the tallest building in the world, and it really is difficult to take in just how stupendously big it is. The view from the observation deck, some 148 storeys above the ground, is mind-boggling. Nothing looks real from that height – it's like staring at a child's miniature of the world. Going to the top is not cheap (from $46), but it's worth every dirham.
This is not a city for walking
Those who love to explore on foot will be sorely disappointed by Dubai. For starters, it's usually about a million degrees outside – you don't want to be trekking around in the sun. Plus most things in Dubai are miles apart, and the city has certainly not been designed with pedestrians in mind. About the only places you'll feel comfortable walking are the enormous shopping malls, which, in fairness, do provide plenty of room to stretch the legs.
It's a shopper's paradise
Speaking of shopping malls, Dubai is a heaven on par with Hong Kong or Singapore for those who take pleasure in the purchasing of goods. You can buy just about anything here, from designer clothes to jewellery, spices, top-quality foodstuffs and souvenirs. At Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com), there's even a "Gold to Go" ATM, at which you well-heeled shoppers can withdraw one-ounce bars of solid gold, provided they have the funds. Only in Dubai.
The architecture is amazing
Dubai is not staggering merely in size and grandiosity alone – it's also a place of surprising architectural beauty. We're talking icons like the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Dubai (the sail-shaped luxury hotel), as well as the amazing Palm project featuring the Atlantis Hotel, the twisting Cayan Tower, and the JW Marriott Marquis, the world's tallest hotel.
The desert is right there
Dune bashing in the Dubai desert. Photo: Alamy
It takes such a small amount of time – we're talking minutes here – to go from the skyscrapers and tarmac of Dubai to proper, endless desert. As soon as the city ends, the sand dunes begin. There are plenty of companies offering varying experiences out there in the wilderness, from 4WD safaris to Bedouin-style dinners to sand-boarding trips to quad-biking. It certainly makes a change from the shopping malls and fancy restaurants.
You'd only go to the beach in winter
Given its proximity to the desert, it should come as little shock that Dubai gets hot – very, very hot. Average high temperatures in the summer months, June to August, range from 38 to 40 degrees. That's too hot to do anything outside except run to the next bit of air-conditioning. In winter, meanwhile, it's a mild 23 to 26 degrees during the day, making it ideal for wandering the streets or hitting the beach.
The locals are rich – really, really rich
Your first brush with a local Emirati will probably be having your passport stamped at the airport. Your second brush with a local Emirati will probably be watching as one zooms past in a Range Rover or a Ferrari. Emirati tends to do quite well, financially – that much will certainly be clear if you ever find yourself driving past one of their extensive houses. Very few sit outside the 1 per cent.
There aren't many women around
This isn't a comment on culture, but on raw statistics. Dubai's population, thanks to a large influx of blue-collar migrant workers, is made up of about 69 per cent men. That means that by far the bulk of the people you'll see wandering around the place – unless you're in the foyer of your hotel – will be of the male persuasion.
You can do pretty much anything
Feel like going skiing when it's 40 degrees outside? You can do that, at the indoor Ski Dubai. Feel like playing golf on a lush green course in the middle of the desert? You can do that as well, at several courses throughout the city. And if you feel like riding a camel, or going boating, or drinking French champagne, or seeing a concert, or going to an art gallery, or going stand-up paddle-boarding, or skydiving, or driving an F1 car, or swimming with dolphins, or going bungy-jumping… you can do that too.
It's a place of high culture
Though the city might appear a little gaudy and gauche, there's plenty in Dubai for culture vultures. The recently opened Dubai Opera (dubaiopera.com) hosts regular concerts and events, while it's also possible to view contemporary Middle Eastern art at a number of galleries throughout town, or catch concerts by bands from around the world at places like Burj Park, The Music Hall, and The Music Room.
Camel racing is insane
So much about one of Dubai's favourite sports is completely bonkers. For starters, there are no actual jockeys on these camels, but rather small robots that sit on top of the animals and are controlled by someone nearby. How is there someone constantly nearby, you ask? Easy – a flotilla of luxury, air-conditioned 4WDs follows the camels around while they're racing, allowing the passengers to control the robot. The camel-racing tracks are also so big that you'll barely be able to see the participants most of the time from your grandstand perch. But still, this is a proper experience.
It's possible to travel on a budget
If you choose to stay in fancy resorts and eat out at the best restaurants and do your shopping in big malls, then a stay in Dubai will be very, very expensive. But it doesn't have to be that way. Spend time in the suburb of Deira, haggling at markets, eating Middle Eastern street food, staying in budget hotels and getting around on foot, and you'll suddenly find that this city can be extremely affordable.
Everything seems like a world-record breaker
After a few days in Dubai you'll become so used to hearing that something is the biggest/fastest/most expensive/tallest/most beautiful in the world that those facts will cease to even register as being interesting. Dubai has many, many claims to world records for all sorts of things, including the world's tallest building and the world's largest shopping mall. Get used to hearing about it.
It's not as conservative as you think
You've probably read the stories of foreigners being locked up in Dubai for public displays of affection, or being too drunk, or even being gay. And it's true, occasionally people do get caught out for activities that would be very much OK back home. But Dubai, on the whole, is not that conservative. You can wear whatever you feel comfortable in. You'll find expats and tourists from around the world drinking and canoodling in bars and clubs. And there's even a pretty healthy gay scene. Just be aware of cultural sensitivities, and you'll be fine.
See also: Inside Dubai's crazy, super luxury hotel