Dubai Cruise Tips, Activities, and Overview
Food and Drink in Dubai
Sitting firmly at the crossroads of East and West, Dubai has every type of cuisine you might imagine -- and then some. Native Emirati dishes borrow heavily from Arabic Bedouin culture; mezzes with hummus, baba ganoush and fattoush may taste familiar, while main dishes might be lamb curry or a bowl of lentils, chicken and rice cooked in a blend of spices known as bezar. Yogurt and cucumber sauce are usually served as sides. Dates served with cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee are a traditional symbol of hospitality. If you want to drink alcohol, check first whether your chosen restaurant has a license.
Even in Dubai, native Emiratis make up less than 12 percent of the city's population; the majority of people who live in the city are foreign workers, and the food culture reflects this diversity. Indian cuisine is popular, both in small curry houses and fancy hotels, and you'll find steakhouses, sushi bars, shisha lounges, celebrity chef outposts and nearly every chain restaurant on the planet across Dubai. Hotels are the easiest options for a nice lunch or dinner (especially if you want wine or a cocktail), although there is a growing number of excellent independent restaurants outside the hotel scene popular with tourists and locals.
As in most Muslim countries, Dubai's weekend starts Friday, and elaborate brunches and barbecues are often served all day Friday and Saturday.
Port Rashid: You might not sail anywhere, but relive the glory days of the QE2, arguably the world's most famous liner, where you can enjoy a stupendous lunch buffet after a tour. The Lido restaurant has been completely refurbished in bright and tasteful contemporary shades and is as much a hit with locals as it is with visitors. The buffet is enormous and features a superb range of Middle Eastern salads, dips and mains as well as more international dishes, not least a daily roast in a nod to the ship's British heritage. (Open daily, 12.30 p.m. to 3 p.m. or for dinner, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
Jumeirah: Souk Madinat is a posh recreation of a traditional souk, set around a series of pretty canals beside the beach at Jumeirah. There are dozens of restaurants here, and several of them are situated on wooden decking beside the water, including the Trattoria Toscana (noon to 11.45 p.m.; ask for a waterfront table) and Shimmers, for modern Greek cuisine (6.30 p.m. to midnight, with a DJ till 7 p.m.)
Burj Khalifa: Abd El Wahab, on the third floor of the Souk Al Bahar shopping and dining complex, has ringside seats overlooking the dancing fountains at the base of the Burj Khalifa. Be sure to ask for an outside table. More to the point, the Lebanese mezze is outstanding -- and just keeps coming, from dips and salads to warm flatbreads, kebabs, grilled chicken, succulent lamb, seafood and fish (open daily, 12.30 p.m. to 12.30 a.m.)
Souk Al Kabeer: The Arabian Tea House, on the edge of the Souk Al Kabeer, just across the creek from the gold souk, is a great meeting place for locals and expats alike and does a fine line in sharing plates for brunch, featuring all kinds of Middle Eastern dips, salads, flatbreads and egg dishes, served in a pretty courtyard. You can get afternoon tea here, too, as well as refreshing drinks -- the fresh lemon, soda and mint is extremely more-ish.
Beaches in Dubai
For true beach-lovers, Dubai has a handful of man-made island complexes that stand as audacious monuments to the city's culture of out-there development. Shaped like a palm tree, Palm Jumeirah is rife with luxury high-rises and world-famous resorts such as Sofitel and Atlantis. Come here for outstanding pool complexes and water sports such as stand-up paddle-boarding and kayaking. Cruisers can purchase day passes.
Even newer is The World, 300 artificial islands shaped like continents and countries making up a world map. While the islands are yet to be developed, and the project has been dogged by scandals and bankruptcies, The World has earned its space in Dubai's tourism pantheon as the focus of the city's helicopter and floatplane tours.
Don't Miss in Dubai
Historic Dubai: Experience the city's history before you indulge in its present. Start at Khor Dubai, otherwise known as Dubai Creek, an inlet which loops through the heart of the city. It separates Deira, a business-oriented part of the city, from Bar Dubai, where many tourist attractions are located. The Dubai Museum is a fabulous ode to the past that is built around the Al Fort, dating back to the late 18th century. Exhibits here do a good job of explaining how Dubai went from a small fishing village to a world capital in just a few decades. (Al Fahidi Fort, Al Fahidi Street; 04-353-1862 and 04-515-5000; open Saturday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Friday, 2:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.)
Burj Khalifa: The world's tallest man-made structure has an observation deck on the 124th floor that offers stunning aerial views of the city's other fantastical architecture. For those looking for a more exclusive experience (and in Dubai, there's always someone), you can go even higher to the 148th floor, which has the world's highest observation deck. Tickets can be purchased at the bottom level of the Dubai Mall (Financial Center Road; 800-38224-6255; open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight, with the last tickets sold 45 minutes before closing). It's strongly advised to book ahead online as tickets are timed; by far, the best (and most popular) time to visit is sunset.
After the visit, spend some time around the plaza at the base of the tower, packed with restaurants and shops and popular with families after sundown. The dancing fountains here, which cost $217 million to build, rival the display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, dramatically choreographed with music and lights. There's a show every half hour and it's free. Sometimes, the Burj Khalifa tower itself is illuminated in dancing light, too. (1 Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai; 800-2875 (domestic), 9714-8888888 (international))
Shopping Malls: Dubai's shopping malls are the largest and most luxurious in the world; tax-free and housing stores from pretty much every well-known fashion designer in the world, they are tourist attractions in their own right. Shopaholics can't miss the sprawling Dubai Mall, the world's largest, in Downtown Dubai right next to Burj Khalifa (Financial Center Road; 800-38224-6255; open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight). In addition to designer shops and restaurants (including many familiar to North Americans such as the Cheesecake Factory), Dubai Mall boasts an aquarium and underwater zoo, the Waterfall (featuring life-size fiberglass sculptures of human divers) and an ice skating rink.
You can get a glimpse of the aquarium for free, as one side of the vast shark and ray tank faces into the shopping center. Along Sheikh Zayed Road near the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), Mall of the Emirates holds Ski Dubai, an indoor winter wonderland where you can ski, snowboard and sled, as well as zorb (roll down a hill in a giant plastic hamster ball). Hop-on, hop-off buses stop at both malls, or you can take a taxi; many cruises and independent tour operators also offer shopping excursions.
The Frame: Dubai's newest attraction (opened in 2018) is a giant, gold picture frame, 492 feet high, towering over Zabeel Park. It's supposed to "frame" Dubai with sweeping views from the 305-foot walkway across the top, a 164-foot stretch of which is a glass floor. There's a display at the entrance of "past" Dubai, when the emirate was just a fishing village, and an audio-visual presentation before you leave of the future, complete with flying cars, space exploration and underwater living. The Frame is a lot of fun as a short activity; most cruise lines offer it as part of a city tour, but it's easy enough to explore independently. (Gate 4, Zabeel Park, Dubai; 800900; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
The QE2: After years of languishing at Port Rashid, the QE2 is now open as a hotel, dining and function venue with a stylish exhibition area on the dockside. You can visit the exhibition area, which includes the hotel reception, a reading space containing all the original library books, a cafe and a display telling the story of the liner, for no charge. Heritage Tours of the ship take place at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and cost AED 170 (about $50), AED 100 (about $30) of which can be offset against food and drinks in either the Lido, the Golden Lion, the gin bar or the Queens Grill. These tours are a great way to see what's changed and what hasn't in the former public areas of the ship. The restoration has been done with sensitivity and taste, so die-hard fans should be delighted. (Mina Rashid, P.O. Box 6, Dubai; 971-4-526-8888; open 24 hours)
Burj Al Arab: You might have seen photos of the iconic hotel Burj Al Arab, which promotes itself as the world's only seven star-rated establishment. (As there is no system for ratings above five, we can't vouch for the claim, but it is one of the world's most glamorous hotels.) The 27-floor hotel, designed to look like a sailboat's sail, has a seemingly underwater restaurant (you have to take a "submarine" to get there) and a foyer with fountains decked out in gold leaf. The best way to gain entrance is to make a reservation at one of its restaurants (note that there's a seriously enforced resort-casual dress code here). A variety of high teas are available for a splurge; most cruise lines sell this activity as a shore excursion. (P.O Box 74147, Dubai; 971-4-301-7777)
Jumeirah: Beyond Burj Al Arab, in the chic Jumeirah area, nearby resorts cluster around Souk Madinat. This sanitized version of an actual souk elegantly showcases a variety of local treasures, ranging from home decor to pashmina scarves and bottles of "designer" sand. Bargaining is not encouraged. Beyond all this, Jumeirah has its own public beaches that are lovely and safe. The city's most prominent mosque (and the only one open to the public), Jumeirah Mosque, is nearby with tours at 10 a.m. daily, except Friday.
Culinary Tours: Beyond the chain restaurants you can find anywhere else in the world, Dubai has a food culture that encompasses the entire Middle East and then some, thanks to the expat workers that make up the majority of the city's population. Access this foodie wonderland through Frying Pan Adventures, a tour company that focuses on street food. The company's five-hour tours lead you through the Deira, where you'll sample Palestinian, Emirati, Iranian, Syrian, Arabic and Egyptian specialties; shorter tours through Bur Dubai focus on the city's sizable Indian population, as well as the Emirati spice souk.
Water Parks: Water parks are a sure bet to keep young ones entertained; Dubai's consistently warm weather makes this a no-brainer. The Wild Wadi Waterpark, next to the swank Jumeirah Beach Hotel, features 30 rides and attractions -- some interconnected -- and on really hot days, the water is cooled. Atlantis, The Palm, in Jumeirah also has a water park.
Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding: Designed to promote understanding between cultures, the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding has a popular brunch where tourists (and a sizable number of expats) can nosh on Middle Eastern specialties and ask native Emiratis questions about their lives. During our visit, volunteers took on everything from arranged marriages (common) to polygamy (not so common) to human rights (U.A.E. follows Islamic law); detailed explanation was given to the crisp white tunics and detailed abaya/hijabs that Emirati men and women wear. The center also runs Heritage and Creek tours. (Al Musallah Street, Bur Dubai; 971-4-353-6666; hours vary, depending on the meal)
Desert Safaris: Desert safaris are a rite of passage, especially if you arrive a day or two before your cruise (or stay a few days afterward). Tour companies, bookable both through your cruise and independently, drive you in Toyota Land Cruiser four-wheel-drive vehicles 50 minutes into the desert where the dunes ripple as far as the distant mountains. Part one of the experience is a mad ride up and down the dunes (bring your motion sickness remedy), racing up to the top, teetering on the crest and plummeting down the other side. You'll see plenty of other vehicles doing the same thing but there's space for everybody. Afterward, you head to a camp where you're feted with a barbecue dinner (Middle Eastern chicken, lamb, ribs, salads -- quite delicious) and given a chance to ride a camel, board down a sand dune, have your feet henna'ed and watch an amazingly trim belly dancer. The whole complex shuts down around 8 p.m., and you're ferried back to the ship.
Horse Racing: The sport of horse racing is huge in Dubai; races are held at Meydan Racecourse from November through April. As you might expect in this hangout for the international set, polo is also popular; you can even take a 90-minute lesson at the Dubai Polo Academy on the grounds of the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club (Al Qudra Road, Arabian Ranches, Dubai; 971-50-887-9847; Monday to Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
For something different, check out camel racing; it's held at the Al Marmoom track periodically during winter months. (P.O. Box 126767, Dubai; 71-4-832-6526)