During numerous visits over the decades, I’ve seen it change beyond recognition, developing from a sterile desert enclave into a showy 21st-century metropolis. I’ve also been able to get under its outer, touristy skin—finding pockets of the traditional city now co-existing with inventive new desert adventures, burgeoning world-class dining, and offbeat art districts. Here’s my itinerary for first timers wanting to experience a cross-section of the city in three days.
If you’re planning to explore anywhere on foot, do it in the mornings before the midday heat hits.
If you only have time for one thing, make it a citywide tour that covers both old Dubai’s charms and new Dubai’s skyscrapers.
Start in old Dubai so you can contrast it with the shiny modern city later. A morning tour will reveal Deira’s atmospheric gold and spice souks, Al Shindagha Museum, and the windtower-studded Al Fahidi neighborhood, while also taking you across Dubai Creek by abra boat.
The afternoon is perfect for touring new Dubai's architectural wonders, from downtown’s skyscrapers to the Burj Al Arab and Palm’s fanciful Atlantis. Admiring the sunset vistas from the Burj Khalifa observatories is a memorable prelude to dinner, perhaps at the Armani/Mediterraneo. This high-end eatery inside the Burj has outdoor tables with views over the swaying Dubai Fountain.
Spend the morning relaxing on the sand or having fun in the water at JBR Beach. A quick jaunt brings you to the shopping and dining promenade of JBR Walk. Grab lunch at one of the bistros, oyster bars, and plush hotel eateries.
Devote this afternoon to a Dubai institution—a desert adventure. Exploring the sands independently isn’t advisable for newbies, so book a guided afternoon-evening safari featuring sports and cultural activities. Cue dune bashing, sandboarding, and camel rides capped with dinner and live shows at a starlit desert camp.
For something different, book a tour or ride a bus from Al Safa metro to Alserkal Avenue. This industrial-turned-creative-zone boasts galleries, cafés, and stores worth exploring. Spend the evening at Madinat Jumeirah, an upscale area with a modern-yet-traditional souk, abra rides, and restaurants with views over the floodlit Al Arab.