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We lived in the UAE from March 2018 – November 2022. We spent three years in Abu Dhabi before moving to Dubai where we lived for a year and a half. Each city has its benefits, but between the two, we prefer Dubai. To say that Dubai is a vibrant city would be an understatement. There is so much to do and see, and with so much new development, the city is ever evolving. While Dubai is definitely a hot spot for tourism, we’re providing our top 7 based on a combination of activities suitable for tourists or those staying longer. Since we don’t have kids, these recommendations are based on our adult tastes, but since Dubai is so family-friendly, most of our top picks will apply for families as well. Except for brunch. Definitely don’t bring your kids to brunch.
1. Desert Safari
At the top of the list is a desert safari. There are tons of great deals on Groupon or the Entertainer app, so it’s easy to find a budget-friendly option. I recommend a sunset safari as the transition from day to night is beautiful. Before buying, check to see the size of the tour. Personally, I prefer the smaller groups where you’re picked up in a Range Rover vs. a bus. Though you’ll be provided with refreshments and food, be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and an extra layer if you’ve opted in for the sunset/dinner option. I suggest walking shoes which are better for walking in the sand.
After your pickup, it’s generally a 30-60 min drive to the safari. Grab some water while you wait to be assigned to your driver. The air will be let out of the tires, and you’ll spend an hour or so dune bashing. Don’t be surprised if the handles have already been ripped out of your Range Rover! Driving in the desert is exhilarating but definitely be prepared for some bumps and drops.
Once you get back to camp, there are refreshments as well as additional activities like sand skiing, camel rides, or quad biking. Once sunset hits, there is usually an Arabic dinner and traditional entertainment where you’ll have the chance to experience local food and culture.
The desert safaris are 4 hours or more as you need to factor in the transportation there and back which can tack on an additional hour each way. This is definitely a must-do!
2. The Beaches
Beaches are an obvious choice for relaxing, especially during the cooler winter months. If you are traveling during the hottest months of the year (June – September) don’t go to the beach! The water is literally as hot as soup!
JBR and La Mer beaches are the busiest in Dubai which is exactly why we avoid them, especially on the weekend. Don’t get me wrong though, experiencing each is a must! While La Mer is generally a bit more chill, JBR is quite hectic. Both have a unique vibe and tons of activities available which is why they are so popular with tourists. You’ll find all kinds of restaurants and shops, though if you’re looking for sundowners, check ahead as most don’t serve alcohol. There are also kids’ areas, volleyball courts, paddle boats, jet skis, and parasailing available. For a more chill vibe, we like to pack a cooler and head to Kite Beach. The quieter side is towards the Burj Al Arab. However, Kite Beach also has a busier side with lots of restaurants and activities. While at Kite Beach you MUST TRY Salt which is a burger and soft serve place. The ice cream is the best in the country, and the burgers are a perfect size for lunch. Though there are multiple locations across the country, the Kite Beach location is our favorite.
Shopping is definitely a favorite pastime in the UAE and with the intense summer heat, indoor mega malls are a great way to pass the time. Most UAE malls have great entertainment for kids, amazing features (like indoor skating and an aquarium at the Dubai Mall or the infamous indoor skiing at the Mall of the Emirates), incredible food outlets and restaurants, theaters, and of course, shopping. However, the Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall are both packed starting from around noon. So if you want to hit up the malls, I definitely recommend going as early as possible.
In 2022, Dubai Hills opened and is a favorite among residents. The restaurant choices are fantastic; there is an outstanding movie theater, a roller coaster for the kids, plus great shopping with smaller crowds.
If you’re traveling over Christmas, Dubai has a shopping festival that runs from mid-December to the end of January. Expect crowds and deals.
4. Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world and is right beside the Dubai Mall. If you’re planning to go to the Dubai Mall, it offers an indoor aquarium and skating, so you can hit up both the mall and the Burj at the same time.
While I recommend going to the Dubai Mall early in the day because of the crowds, if you want to see the Burj Khalifa, you must go later in the day to enjoy the free light show. These run every half hour or so on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
There are lots of restaurants with views of the Burj light show, but you’ll definitely need reservations. An alternative is to just stand outside and watch the show which lasts about 10 minutes. Before going, be sure to check the current timings.
You can also take a trip up the Burj but this is quite expensive and not really worth it, in my opinion. If you really want to go up the Burj, check for offers on Groupon or Entertainer first. As well, be sure to have your ID with you as it is required for ticket purchases.
5. The Frame or the View at the Palm
While I don’t really think paying to go up the Burj is worth it, I do recommend either the Frame or the View, or both. Both are affordable and offer great value in terms of seeing the city and learning about its history. The Frame is a great year-round option as the tour is indoors. The Palm observation floor is outdoors, so it’s definitely a better option for the cooler winter months.
The UAE is famous for its luxurious brunches. Typically, there are either daytime or night-time options which are all-you-can-eat or drink for a set price, lasting from 3 to 4 hours. You can select from a number of options ranging from non-alcoholic to premium and champagne packages. While opulent and unique, brunches oftentimes lead to overindulgence. There are often after-brunch packages available, so best to keep hydrated and pace yourself! Check the Entertainer and Groupon for deals.
7. Old Town Tour
If you are visiting or moving to the UAE, you really must find time to learn about the local culture. I highly recommend hiring a tour led by Emiratis to learn firsthand about their rich and fascinating history. My Deleel Tours offers a number of tours that usually focus on old Dubai. This part of the city is very historical and includes the spice market and gold souq. They offer a number of packages including a food tour and a historical Emirati tour, which are all affordable.
There are so many things to do in Dubai! Though we only lived here for a year and a half, we still feel like there are so many things to explore.
If you are planning a trip, be sure to explore the main attractions, but also research in advance to see what festivals might be on. With so much to see and do, you won’t have any issues filling your vacation with incredible experiences.
As well, check out this Youtube video which showcases our top 3 must-do picks.
Comment below if you’ve got questions or have any feedback on our top 7.