Dubai is impossible to ignore. As its leaders and property developers proudly trumpet, the city-state along the Persian Gulf has the world’s highest building (the Burj Khalifa), the world’s tallest hotel (JW Marriott Marquis Dubai), the world’s largest artificial island (the Palm Jumeirah) and the world’s biggest mall (Dubai Mall).
Lost in the bravado is the more impressive truth that this formerly sleepy backwater of the United Arab Emirates has emerged as an ethnically diverse metropolis where the world’s populations mingle along a recently opened coastal corniche, on well-kept public beaches, in modern subway and tram systems — the latter inaugurated last year — and within hundreds of Arab-Persian-Indian-Pakistani-Filipino-French-Japanese-Chinese-British-American restaurants, both humble and high-end. And now Dubai is finally developing an alternative, arty side, with a fast-rising gallery district, ambitious indie fashion designers, a crop of cool organic cafes and world-class night-life spots.
1. Straight to the Top | 5 p.m.
Visiting the Burj Khalifa — more than 160 stories soaring 2,716.5 feet in the air — is like catching an airplane. You book your ticket online (125 to 200 dirhams, or $35 to $55 at 3.60 dirhams to the dollar), print it at an electronic kiosk in Dubai Mall, wait in line, undergo a security check and enter a tightly packed metal enclosure. Then, suddenly, liftoff, and the high-speed elevator deposits you on the 124th-floor observation deck. Best viewed at night, the twinkling cityscape — pulsing highways, soaring skyscrapers, desert sprawl — is a powerful introduction to Dubai’s vertical ambitions and outward push.
2. A Colossus Called Rhodes | 8 p.m.
The evolution of British cuisine from global joke to global juggernaut owes much to Gary Rhodes — sometime cooking-show personality, cookbook author and Michelin-starred chef — who opened the much-anticipated Rhodes W1 last year. Within the white, soft-glowing, minimalist-cool interiors, a friendly young staff (sometimes more eager than experienced) delivers modern takes on British country classics, from Welsh rarebit to braised oxtail to offal meatballs in gravy. Especially recommended are the mushy peas — which form the earthy bed for crispy oyster tempura — and slow-roasted pork belly with winter vegetables, apple chunks in honey and green salad with pungent blue cheese. A three-course dinner for two, without wine, costs about 600 dirhams.
3. Dubai’s Got Talent | 10:30 p.m.
Musical decisions are tough. Do you want to hear fez-wearing, oud-strumming troubadours kicking out classic Arabic dance tunes with an orchestra? An ace disco cover band channeling Donna Summer? A portly crooner bellowing Italian opera and a singalong of “We Are the Champions”? All of this and more, from reggae tributes to Egyptian crowd-pleasers, is served up live and loud in the vast, velvety concert space known as MusicHall, on the famous Palm Jumeirah island. Numerous acts perform short, spirited sets during the night, sending the well-dressed, all-ages crowds into a tizzy. Book a bar seat or table in advance and quaff a glass or two of Chivas Regal Scotch (1,200 dirhams for the bottle) or a Spiced Pisang cocktail (spiced rum, aged rum, Pisang Ambon, Midori, banana; 95 dirhams) on arrival.
4. Bohemian Brunch | Noon
Warehouse-chic style arrives in Dubai courtesy of Tom & Serg, an Australian-Spanish pair whose namesake restaurant fills a soaring, neo-industrial space with tall windows, exposed ducts and hanging light bulbs. The menu is equally large and international, mixing brunch-style bites like corned-beef eggs Benedict (49 dirhams) and breakfast burritos (59 dirhams) with lunchtime fare like seared tuna with soba noodles (51 dirhams) and sea bass (69 dirhams) with Mideast-tinged sides like tangy eggplant purée and rice pilaf with pistachios. Then visit the pastry counter to choose among bread pudding, carrot cake and many other house-made desserts.
5. Art Street | 2 p.m.
Like a Hollywood studio lot, each of the warehouses within nearby Alserkal Avenue — an enclosed arts district housing over 20 galleries that is undergoing a major expansion — offers a window into a fascinating universe. Salsali Private Museum, a sleek space outfitted with classic midcentury chairs and a mini-cinema, shows mainly Iranian and Middle Eastern artists. Grey Noise, which has exhibited at international fairs like Frieze and Art Basel, presents highly conceptual projects, while the more accessible Gulf Photo Plus shows international photographic works. For inspiration, hit A4, the district’s dedicated cafe, lounge, library, cinema, fashion boutique and ideas incubator. A cafe latte runs 20 dirhams.
6. Stilettos and Smoothies | 5 p.m.
Megamalls? Meh. Ditch Dubai’s oversized, overpopulated, overwhelming retail cathedrals and instead stroll down Jumeirah Beach Road to seek out its small indie boutiques. Slip into the Closet, part of a small new trend of Dubai consignment stores, for red leather Jimmy Choo stilettos (600 dirhams) and a funky floral Marc Jacobs scarf (200 dirhams) for a fraction of the retail cost. For ethno-chic silvery teapots (315 dirhams), embroidered cushions (350 dirhams) and Taschen tomes, French-owned Comptoir 102 serves it all up — along with fresh juices, smoothies, coffees and teas. Sharing a villa, Bambah stocks the designer Maha Abdul Rasheed’s haute couture — mainly glamorous evening wear recalling Hollywood’s golden age — while the Zoo Concept provides kitsch-cool accessories and novelties (a clear plastic clutch embossed with an Emirati flag, ladies?) chosen by Ms. Rasheed’s brother Hussein.
7. Mideast Feast | 8 p.m.
Get out your hyphens. Qbara fuses an innovative east-west, neo-traditional, Arabo-Levantine-Persian-Ottoman mash-up menu in a bi-level, low-lit, Moorish-chic den of sultriness. Faster than a flying carpet, the kitchen can transport you to Yerevan via Aleppo (a sweet-salty hybrid of air-dried beef basterma with tangy peaches and halloumi cheese) and Marrakesh (a smoky synthesis of quail in grilled grape leaves with Moroccan spices) followed by stops in Istanbul (gelatinous red-fruit Turkish delight coated in a chocolate shell with rosé-flavored ice cream) or Shiraz (Persian pear sorbet). The fat wine book, with vintages extending from the States to Syria, includes a lovely, light, dry, mineral rosé from Chateau Massaya in Lebanon (65 dirhams per glass). Three-course dinner for two, without drinks, is around 700 dirhams.
8. Go With the Glow | 11 p.m.
The roofs are on fire in Dubai as top-floor, open-air bars sprout citywide. Everything glows atop the recently opened Dubai branch of Pacha, the Ibiza-based megaclub. The lights glow red. The dome with the trompe-l’oeil sky glows blue. The futuristic Meduse water pipes glow in multiple hues. And the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel next door glows gargantuan white. You’ll be glowing too after a few Iberian Cherry Rosé Martinis (mixed with vodka, tomato and rosemary; 75 dirhams). The glimmer (and glamour) continues at 40 Kong, a 40-story vantage point over the city with an orange-glowing bar, white-glowing low tables and pillars of fire in wire cages. The Kong cocktail (bourbon, vanilla liqueur, orgeat syrup, lime, mint, ginger beer; 90 dirhams) is king.
9. Beef Blanket Bingo | 10 a.m.
Dubai’s most abundant natural resource — sand — is free and prime for exploitation along the emirate’s expansive, well-maintained public beaches. Kite Beach, tucked behind Le Wazawan restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road, attracts global cool kids, young professionals and hipster families with its golden sands, placid waters, volleyball areas, laid-back vibe and multiple food kiosks. For lunch, follow the swimsuited bodies and smell of grilling Wagyu beef to SALT — the two adjacent Airstream trailers enjoy a cult following for their miniburgers (two for 35 dirhams) topped with melted cheese and jalapeño slices.
10. Spices and Gold | Noon
Save a 1-dirham coin to cross Dubai Creek — actually a wide, powerful river — on one of the old wooden abra boats departing from the embankment near the textile souk. You’ll glide past Sinbad-worthy old dhow ships before alighting in the Iranian-Indian-Pakistani working-class district of Deira. Across the street, the bazaar called Souk El-Kabeer enfolds a warren of shops selling everything from spices to water pipes to ironing boards. A few blocks away, the shop windows of the Gold Souk gleam with buttery and brilliant rings, ropes, necklaces, pendants, brooches and other 24-karat concoctions. Bling notwithstanding, the neighborhood retains a traditional, down-to-earth feel and recalls the Dubai of yore, before the emirate’s skyscrapers, seven-star hotels and world-domination schemes.
Where to Stay
Amid the historic quarter’s galleries and shops, Orient Guest House (Al Fahidi Historical District, orientguesthouse.com) occupies an Old World courtyard house with 11 rooms of traditional Arabian furniture and fabrics. From 300 dirhams.
Opened in 2014 on Palm Jumeirah island, the 319-room Waldorf-Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah (Crescent East; Plot C-34; ar.hilton.com/en) is a palatial spread. Doubles from 920 dirhams (summer low season) or 1,525 (high season).