Dubai is a city where you can race over the desert in a 4×4, laze by the sea and get in some downhill skiing – all in one day.
It has the world’s tallest skyline, shopping malls the size of towns, waterparks with half-million-gallon wave pools and rollercoasters hitting speeds of 60km per hour.
Even nature here is given to excess as the sun shines almost year-round and temperatures range from hot to very, very hot. But Dubai is also a place where graceful camel trains wind across beautiful beaches, ancient souks are as hectic and colourful as ever and acres of theme parks are balanced by turtle rehabilitation projects, gigantic aquariums and nature reserves.
There are over 60,000 hotel rooms and counting across the city, and even legends like Burj Al Arab and Jumeira Beach are child-friendly just as much as luxe these days. So if you still think Dubai is a glossy getaway for the extraordinarily wealthy, it’s time to find out why it’s now a strong contender for the family-holiday wishlist.
Dubai is the Middle East’s main transport hub, and British Airways and Emirates offer direct flights to the city from all major London airports.
A temperate desert climate means guaranteed winter sunshine and hot, hot weather in the summer months.
December to February is the city’s high-season and most expensive time to visit. But even the bus shelters in Dubai have air-con. So, if you don’t mind heat and humidity, summer is the time to travel for better prices, quieter beaches and shorter queues at the waterslides.
Dubai sits on the Arabian Gulf and its legendary skyscraper-dense cityscape is trimmed from end to end with immaculately kept white sands. There are beaches for surfing, kite-flying, watersports or just lazing around. And you can opt for free and lively or pay for private and be treated to a little more solitude, bigger sunloungers and personal service.
A predominantly Muslim city, Dubai is also the most liberal Emirate. Shopping malls, souks and restaurants generally expect you to dress respectfully, but bikinis on the beach are fine. And where a strict dress-code does apply, there are almost always signs to let you know.
Even the most dedicated parent might want a cocktail occasionally, and that is perfectly acceptable in Dubai. Most hotels and restaurants are licensed to sell alcohol to non-Muslims, and the city even has a celebrated Food & Wine Festival every spring.
This quarter is almost quaint – for Dubai. The ancient fish market and celebrated gold, spice and perfume souks are here. You can still see traditional Emirati courtyard houses on charming Al Ahmadiya Street. And Al Ahmadiya School is the place to learn everything there is to know about the ancient art of pearl-diving. Deira is also good for three- and four-star family hotels and a wide range of self-catering accommodation.
Downtown is the heart of Dubai’s skyscraper forest, the financial district and home to Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest tower. Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre, is also here. And, unsurprisingly, it’s the area you’ll find extravagant hotels like Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Armani Hotel Dubai and the Ritz-Carlton.
The city’s oldest district is a complete contrast to glittery glass and chrome downtown. From the Shindagha Watchtower, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House and Dubai Museum to the Bur Dubai Souk and endless heritage exhibitions and galleries, it’s a historic quarter in every sense. Visit at night for the colourful chaos of Hindi Lane and moonlit views of the Creek. Or, base your stay here and soak up the atmosphere from the city’s best-value, most family-friendly hotels.
If you want to be right on the beach, you want Jumeirah. Once a little fishing village and now the most exclusive strip of sand in the Middle East, the entire district is dominated by Burj Al Arab – the world’s most luxurious hotel and third highest. It’s the place for exquisite private beaches and crowded, but fabulous, Jumeirah public beach. And while they won’t make your budget go very far, the resorts here do come with valuable extras like theme-park passes, kids’ clubs and activities ranging from horse-riding to watersports.
Another slice of exclusivity on the Arabian Gulf, this stunning district is designed to attract attention day and night, and led by Atlantis The Palm. The incredible Aquaventure waterpark and Mall of the Emirates cover kid-size fun with everything from 30m-high waterslides to indoor ski slopes. And if you want a night off from parenting, Dubai Marina is the place for chic restaurants, sleek cocktail bars and stunning sea views.