Forget eveything you thought you knew about Dubai
Flashes of cash in the form of Tom Ford, Versace, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Ferrari and Lamborghini; sequins, glitter and glamour; fine dining and finer entertainment; boundary-pushing design, art and architecture: dive deep enough into this city and Dubai can be a hell of a drug. It's a beautiful, futuristic wonderland that rose out of the sand to become the fastest growing city in the world; an adult playground of business, technology and entertainment. If you've ever wanted to know what the future could look like, or even, what our future on a desert planet could look like, start here...
Since the 1800s Dubai has been a port for trade. Back then, it was home to the Bani Yas tribe who settled on the coast and created souks and a centre for fishing, pearling and sea trade. Flash forward to the 1960s, after the city boomed in population, and His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum made some future-focused decisions to ensure the city's position as a key export hub, and oil was found. This was the beginning of the Shiekh's vision -he poured the revenue from the oil into infrastructure, communications, education and schools, hospitals, ports, airports and the largest man-made harbour in the world; encouraged expatriates to resettle here for business and introduced zero tax on personal and corporate income and low import duties (even today, Emirati-born newlyweds are gifted a home from the government help build a family). Shortly after, the UAE was formed, ensuring it's place as one of the richest countries in the world. Now, Dubai's biggest trade is tourism, and hoo boy, does this city do hospitality well...
Dubai boasts a lot of accolades: The world's most luxurious hotel (with it's own man-made island), the seven star Burj-al-Arab; the world's tallest building, the beautiful Burj Khalifa; largest man-made island, The Jumeirah Palm; theme and water parks galore (including the largest indoor park, IMG Worlds of Adventure); incredible shopping malls, a panoramic elevator in a giant gold frame to admire the city from, a night souk being built, the world's longest zipline and the world's largest ferris wheel, both about to open and the world's first flying taxis or Volocopters (like huge drones) soon to start test-flying across the sky and, proving it's not just a city with surface level dreams, Dubai recently opened an entire science district dedicated to companies working across biotech, genetic research and pharmaceuticals.
But here's the thing - you probably know all of this. Dubai's world firsts and world's biggest have been well-documented - so here, I'm making a case for forgetting everything you thought you knew about Dubai and consider exploring this city's culture, history and sensorial sumptuousness - beyond the tallest, biggest and glitteriest. From the most majestic and spellbinding resorts to the cultural must-sees and where to find the best traditional cuisine; here's a guide to what to see, do, eat and where to stay, for a completely luxurious, yet different Dubai experience (including where to find the best Australian coffee...sorry about that part, Dubai, we're brats in that respect). I just hope you're hungry...
STAY: Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa
Surrounded by palms and dunes, and overlooking the Dubai desert, with an exquisitely regal pool holding court in the centre, this incredibly beautiful, sprawling oasis is a desert architecture-lover's dream, designed to feel like you're lost among an intricate maze of tunnels, staircases and sandy archways, meaning despite its size (115 rooms), this resort boasts incredible privacy, intimacy and a wonderful element of mystique. Just 45-minutes from the airport and city centre, this 5-star resort is finished with a beautiful sense of understated luxe that is hard to nail in this day and age of designing-for-Instragam. Spanning acres of land, the property boasts multiple restaurants, including Indian, Emirati and Italian, as well as a rooftop bar to watch the sun set over the dunes and various cocktail lounges for a nightcap. Take up an 4x4 desert dune drive across the desert or a camel ride. Borrow a desert mountain bike, play some croquet or desert volleyball. Learn the art of archery and falconry, or just chill out by the stupidly photogenic pools. So, really, you will never have to leave the resort.
DINE: Al Hadheerah Desert restaurant
Like something out of a sumptuous Arabian Nights film set, Al Hadheerah Desert restaurant has to be seen to be believed. Upon being greeted by a line of handsome horsemen through a bazaar selling traditional clothing, souvenirs and trinkets, you'll enter into an enormous open-air complex, with the most incredible (and enormous) banquet buffet of fire, meats, salads, condiments, traditional dishes and the most mouth-watering desserts. Belly dancers, Arabic bands, traditional acrobatics and a crescendo storytelling performance involving camels, horses and goats (that can only be described as the Man from Snow River, meets the Lawrence of Arabia live action show) will keep you spellbound for hours. And even if you're not staying in the Bab Al Shams resort (it's located on the property), if you're going to visit one "entertainment" restaurant, make it this one, and make sure you're hungry.
EXPLORE: Al Fahidi District
Witnessing the call to prayer echo across the tall, historic architecture of Al Fahidi neighbourhood is a beautiful experience, and it's here where you can learn about and absorb the culture of Dubai's traditional community and the city's historic tapestry. Through a sandstone maze of winding alleyways, next to the mosque, art galleries, social hubs, artist studios, boutique motels, cafes and educational centres, this area is a richly creative, intellectual and highly cultured hub for learning. While you're here, visit Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding, a wonderfully welcoming non-profit centre that opens its doors to visitors and explains the nuances of Emirati culture, Islam and life in Dubai. The centre also offers local tours which details architecture, art, history and social culture on a deeper level.
SEE: Alserkal Avenue Art District
If you can't make it to Art Dubai, which takes place during the end of March, Alserkal Avenue is the next best thing. Established in 2007, this industrial park located in Al Quoz is a bursting hub for contemporary galleries, large and small, artist run initiatives and artisanal businesses. You'll want to put aside around two hours to fully immerse yourself in everything Alserkal Avenue has to offer, but it'll be worth it; the fine art on show is of an incredibly high, global calibre and the creative community within is bursting to share ideas and foster discussion.The hub is also home to micro events like talks, artist-in-resident events and film screenings, so have a look at what's on when you're in town.
TASTE: Traditional Food Tours
Want to know the city's best kept foodie secrets? Hire a local willing to spill the beans. With so many incredible places to dine, navigating Dubai's best cuisine can be overwhelming, so it's a wise idea to enlist someone like Frying Pan Adventures, who can uncover the most authentic places to snack, dine and indulge on. Once again, you'll want to make sure you're hungry because signing up for a Middle Eastern food pilgrimage promises to unearth the best Palestinian falafel, introduce you to Egyptian pizza, Kunafa (Nabulsi cheese pie with kataifi noodle pastry on top) worthy of a thousand cheese dreams, show off the best haunt for an Emirati banquet that only the locals know about, and more. Be warned, it's very hard to go back once you've tasted the real stuff. *SIGH*
There's a high chance you'll be craving Aussie coffee by now, so it's lucky that Melbourne's Tom Amel and his Spanish business partner Sergio Lopez have set up shop in Al Quoz with the strongest, boldest roast in town. Well, for our Australian standards, that is. Offering powerful wifi and a clean, chic place to hang, Tom&Serg is also a perfect place to refuel and get some work done. Upstairs you'll find quiet tables to work among other freelance expats and locals. This haunt does a mean breakfast too, (yes with plenty of avocado and excellent smoothies) but I guess being an Aussie cafe, that goes without saying.
PARTY: Nikki Beach
I did say this wasn't a guide to the glamorous side of Dubai, but you have to at least toe-dip at some point. With outposts in Miami, St Barth, Ibiza, Monte Carlo, Babados, among others, Nikki Beach is synonymous with high-glamour pool party vibes (make sure you pack an all-white ensemble). And despite the UAE's conservative culture when it comes to skin and alcohol, Nikki Beach Resort & Spa is pretty much on the money with what you already expect - DJs spinning house music, sun-soaked dancing and Instagram-worthy poolside lounging. Overlooking The Pearl Jumeira island and the baby blue and sapphire waters of the Arabian Gulf, this beach club and resort is arguably the hottest place to cool down in Dubai, either by sipping a cocktail by the pool or hitting the mind-blowingly chic spa. The 5-star-resort is also only 14kms from the city, so if your idea of a holiday has a checklist involving a centrally based serene, sea breeze-y getaway; jaw-dropping wow factor; architecturally chic rooms bathed in light and soaked in clean, high-end ease; with giant baths to drown in and beds that rival actual clouds -you've likely found your "from where you'd rather be" place.
Buro 24/7 and Noelle Faulkner visited Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism.
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