The slightly more subtle version of the Middle East’s capital of glitz.
Dubai is often viewed like the Mariah Carey of destinations: an attention-grabbing diva. Admittedly, the city is no stranger to luxury superlatives, known around the world for championing the tallest (Burj Khalifa), biggest (Dubai Mall), and best (Burj al Arab). So when I tell fellow New Yorkers that I’ve lived in the storied emirate for the past four years, it’s not uncommon for them to ask me if I’ve ever A) seen a cheetah riding shotgun in a Ferrari or B) tried a 24-karat-gold cappuccino. They seem puzzled, seduced, and skeptical of the so-called “City of Gold.” (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, it’s no to the cheetah and yes to the cappuccino). As you can probably guess, if it’s bad and boujee you’re looking for, it’s undeniable that you can find that in Dubai. However, there’s also an incredibly humble side to the emirate, which includes the less-talked-about clutches of eclectic dining spots and cultural happenings capable of making even the most doubtful New Yorker’s hipster heart beat a little bit faster. Trust me, don’t give Dubai the gold shoulder quite yet. Read on to discover where to stay, eat, and hang when touring the low-key side of Dubai.
If a 7-Star Hotel Isn’t Your Thing
In the city’s historical neighborhood of Al Fahidi you’ll find the XVA Art Hotel and Café. Step inside this boutique property’s courtyard for a refreshing mint lemonade or rocca salad with pomegranate dressing and feta, or to browse some of the best contemporary art from around the Arab world.
Insider Tip: There’s a lovely gentlemen who does personalized Arabic calligraphy prints and has set up shop in the courtyard. Have prints made as gifts for your loved ones stateside—it’s a winning Dubai memento.
This upscale boutique hotel in Dubai’s bustling downtown area is a favorite because it has several popular restaurants on property, including La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, a quaint French bistro with al fresco dining that’s prime for people-watching. There’s also Toko Dubai, a chic Japanese eatery with a magical terrace lined with colorful oil-paper umbrellas that serves green-tea cheesecake and saucer after saucer of chilled sake. After dinner, head to Vida’s sexy pool lounge and snag one of the lush cabanas for a poolside nightcap with incredible views of the iconic Burj Khalifa.
Ok, this resort is technically located in Abu Dhabi, but trust me, it’s worth the trip. If you’ve come to Dubai looking for your own version of One Thousand and One Nights, this is the place to play out the fantasy. From sunrise desert dune walks and camel rides to kebabs and champagne under the stars, you’ll be glad you made the four-hour trip from Dubai to experience this pinch-me desert experience.
Yes, Casual Dining Does Exist
Picture yourself biting into Wagyu beef topped with melted cheddar cheese, sandwiched between a buttery bun while gazing out on views of the Arabian Gulf. Well, this is what a visit to Dubai’s most popular beachside food truck promises. The prime Instagram spot also boasts dishes like a spicy chicken Cheeto sandwich (a truly beautiful marriage of deep-fried chicken and Cheetos), which should immediately be washed down with one of Salt’s lotus milkshakes (featuring crumbles of Belgian Speculoos biscuits). You probably won’t feel beach-body-ready post-dinner, but you’ll definitely be beach-burger happy.
This hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant is loved by Dubai residents for being a cheap, cheerful, and delicious place to score crispy naan and tender meat dishes drenched in flavorful sauces. Be sure to try the mutton peshwari. Delicious.
I’m particularly fond of this adorable whitewashed taverna for its tasty (and affordable!) Greek dishes, such as grilled octopus marinated in white vinegar, and charcoal-grilled lamb chops with hand-cut fries sprinkled with sea salt and oregano. Are you salivating yet?
Things to Do Besides Visiting the Burj Khalifa
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
This dazzling mosque (one of the world’s largest) located in Abu Dhabi never fails to completely take my breath away for its stunning architecture and sheer size (it can accommodate 40,000 worshippers!). It’s my go-to site for when I have visitors in town. Seriously a can’t-miss.
Standing in the face of all the haters who have claimed Dubai “lacks culture” is the city’s new opera house. You’ll find everything from popular Broadway musicals to ballets inside the gorgeous venue, which was designed to resemble a wooden dhow (the traditional boat used in the Arabian Gulf).
Who doesn’t love to eat their way through a city? This popular food tour will take you through the backstreets of the city to discover the most authentic dining spots in Dubai. To get the best of the region, book the Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage. Oh, and be sure to make reservations online about a month in advance—the tours fill up quickly.
With its sought-after beachside location, Jetty is the perfect place to grab a beanbag on the sand with a glass of wine and watch as the sun sets over the glittering Palm Jumeirah.
Okay, this is a less under-the-radar and more a see-and-be-seen place for a cocktail in the city, but I can’t help but include it in my list of must-visit spots. The views from this 40th-floor bar will have your eyes popping out of your head. And all the beautiful people and its extensive drink menu don’t hurt its likability either.
If You Don’t Want to Bring Home An ‘I Love Dubai’ T-Shirt
Head to this bungalow-turned-concept shop for beautiful homeware from the best regional designers. I’m particularly fond of Rana Salam, who creates quirky pillows and prints using vintage Egyptian movie posters.
This homegrown chocolate brand has just opened a new factory in Alserkal, a wonderful hipster stretch of Dubai filled with galleries and concept shops. Pick up one of their mouthwatering chocolate bars (the cardamom-and-coffee flavor is amazing), to earn the undying love of your nearest and dearest back home.
Dylan Essertier is a travel writer based between New York and Dubai.