Travel Destinations / Dubai

In the middle of the desert Dubai is a 21st-century city against a beautiful prehistoric backdrop. Its spires of steel and glass rise from the seemingly endless sandscape that covers most of the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai is one of the Emirates' older settlements. Although now the money pours in from the UAE's vast reserves of oil it has always been a traders' city and in the past pearls and the lucrative spices of the East were the commodities bought and sold here. It is a venerable history that makes the city a favourite destination for tourists eager to see the wildness of the desert with modern-day comforts.

The city is nothing if not contradictory, the skyscrapers of downtown seeming more typical of Tokyo. Yet, from the top of one, you could look down on traditional dhows plying the deep water creek that divides the city, the old souks of Deira, the modern harbour of Port Rashid or out to where the great desert begins.

The Jumeirah Mosque is among the world's most stunning works of Islamic architecture while the Burj Al Arab is one of the most innovative hotel buildings, its name "The Arab Tower" symbolic of its importance to the city.

Dubai, like everywhere in the Emirates, is surprisingly cosmopolitan and you'll find international languages, cuisines and merchandise available almost everywhere. You can go to the horse races or enjoy a round of golf on a world class course - but it's impossible to forget that the great desert begins barely a tee shot away.

Culture

UAE nationals are polite and unassuming, except for their impressively immaculate dress and penchant for strong perfume. The majority of UAE nationals are Sunni Muslims and their lives are rooted in family values and in Islamic religious culture.

Traditional Emirati dress The Emirates society, however, is the most liberal in the Gulf and far less austere than in Saudi Arabia. Increasing numbers of women are entering the workplace and being given more choice in marriage partners. Western culture and lifestyle - particularly cars, gadgetry, music and sport - are popular, not to mention a love of ostentatious blue glass skyscrapers.

However, amidst all this affluence you'll still find ancient traditions surviving. Camel racing and falconry are still popular sports while many men still choose to wear the distinctive ankle-length shirt (dishdasha), the chequered headcloth (gutra) and the twisted, black rope (agal), holding the gutra in place.

The most striking aspect of the Emirates' population is the number of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. They make up 80 per cent of the population, providing cheap labour, but do not share the privileges, rights or wealth of nationals. They do, however, bring vibrancy and variety to UAE life.

The official language is Arabic, but Farsi and English are widely used, and Hindi and Urdu are spoken by many of the Asians. Alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden for local people although Westerners are permitted to consume alcohol in restaurants and bars attached to hotels (except in Sharjah where alcohol is banned entirely).

Transport

The only public transport option in and around Dubai is the bus and this can get pretty crowded at peak hours. Taxis are widely available and cheap, and represent a better option for getting around the city particularly if you don't know the language.

Shopping

Shopping is one of Dubai's main attractions and there is plenty of opportunity to grab both international and local goods. Reduced import duties and the lack of a sales tax keep prices low for everything so the items worth looking out for aren't necessarily what you might expect.

The Dubai Shopping Festival in early February/March is a massive event all over the city. All the larger stores and malls slash prices and you can obtain vast reductions on international goods. Even the haggling in the souks becomes easier (only joking). In addition to bargain hunting all the malls offer entertainment and the world's richest raffle takes place in the city. The Festival normally takes place in early March for a full month.

The central business district offers up plenty of shopping opportunity in large-scale modern malls. Here you'll find designer labels from around the world as well as electronic goods, something Dubai is rightly famous for. Everything is available at knock down prices. Check out the large shopping malls dotted around the city, especially around Beniyas Square, Al-Rigga and Al-Hiyafa Road.

The Dubai Mall is claimed to be the world's largest shopping mall encompassing 12 million square feet of retail space at the foot of the Burj Al Arab hotel. It houses some of the most famous department stores including Bloomingdales, Gallery Lafayette and Marks and Spencers with more than 1,200 stores to choose from. Open: daily 10h00-00h00.

The Al Bustan is one of the city's most popular malls. Located in Al Ghusais it is a shopping palace offering some great bargains in its stores, both international and domestic.

At the other extreme of the retail spectrum there are the old souks of Deira and Dubai Souk in Bur Dubai. These offer an atmospheric shopping experience with intoxicating sights, sounds and aromas. In Deira Westerners are often found in the "Electronics Souk", no money back and no guarantees but plenty of software and computer hardware at absolutely rock bottom prices. You get more traditional "Souk flavour" in the Gold or Spice Souk however. The latter is not just home to spice traders - you get traditional tradesmen selling everything from silver teapots to bolts of silk here.

Money

Currency: Dirham (AED). AED1=100 Fils

Credit cards: You'll find all international credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and modern stores in Dubai. You may be better off dealing in cash if you're shopping at the souks however.

Traveller's cheques are widely accepted. To avoid exchange rate charges, it is better to take traveller's cheques in US Dollars or Pounds Sterling.

Highstreet banks handle the exchange of foreign currency, as do some of the larger hotels. International currency exchange services can also be obtained at Bureaux de change around the city.

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The best season to visit Dubai for tourists is the winter season which falls from the month of November and lasts till March. The temperature during this period ranges from 23 C to 25° C. This season witnesses sunny skies, warm days and cool nights which may sometimes turn a bit chilly.

Summer season in Dubai starts from mid April and lasts until the month of October. The temperature can soar up to 45°C in summer. Humidity is at is highest during this period.