Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Dubai

Burj Khalifa view

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Dubai – more than any other travel destination – divides opinion. Most people I know either love it or hate it, and that’s just the people who’ve never been. For many holidaymakers Dubai now represents the height of aspirational travel – glamorous, fast-paced and relentlessly sunny.

I recently returned from my fourth visit, and one thing I can say for sure: this is a city that doesn’t stand still.

I first stayed in Dubai about 15 years ago in a new hotel on the beachfront. My room at the back of the building looked out on endless desert and nothing else. Today from the same hotel – if it still exists – you’d barely see a slither of sand beyond miles of concrete and glass.

One of the interesting things about Dubai is the way its creators have shifted its centre of gravity, not once but several times. The city originally thrived beside the Creek, a saltwater inlet that became home to a tax-free commercial port. The streets along the waterfront still hold some attractions for tourists, including the famous gold and spice souks, and you can pay £1 to take a ferry ride across the water, as people have done for hundreds of years.

Most sunseekers now spend the majority of their time in the gleaming edifices that line Jumeirah Beach, and it’s here that you’ll find a large chunk of the tourist hotels in Dubai. Some of these are breathtaking in their ambition and scale.


In the past couple of years the epicentre of Dubai has shifted once again to a new $20billion area of high-rise development known – rather confusingly – as Dubai Downtown. This is where you’ll find the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa (pictured above) and the Dubai Mall, which claims to be the world’s largest shopping mall, with 1,200 outlets.

There are plenty of new hotels popping up in the Downtown area, including the five-star Conrad Dubai where I stayed on a recent visit. This is a slick and austerely beautiful hotel aimed primarily at business people but currently attracting large numbers of leisure visitors.

My first thought was: why would tourists choose to stay away from the beach? But after spending a couple days Downtown, and not even going near the seafront, I could see how it might make sense, particularly if you are among the many visitors taking a short stopover in Dubai before flying off to the Maldives or Mauritius. After all, the beach isn’t the most impressive thing about Dubai. Not by a long stretch.

So I stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of my 42nd-floor room at the Conrad (where at the touch of a button the curtains part to reveal stunning views of the sun setting over the Arabian Gulf) to explore Downtown.

COnrad view

First, the Dubai Mall. Shopping isn’t a hobby of mine, but this is an impressive place, not just for the spending opportunities, but for the soaring interiors, the ambitious public art and the many things to do. There is an Olympic-size ice rink where you can rent skates and hit the ice for £9, a 22-screen cinema and an aquarium with a glass wall so big that you can see much of the marine life inside without buying an entry ticket. If you do pay up, you can take a walk-through perspex tunnel to view more than 400 sharks and rays.

The prices in the shops aren’t especially cheap compared to the UK, but the choice is phenomenal. With a huge array of places to eat, it’s not inconceivable that you could spend all day in a shopping mall. I wouldn’t, but I’m sure that many would.

As you walk out of the mall into the blazing sunlight, you come across a vast artificial lake surrounded by restaurants with outdoor seating. The skyline is dominated by the elegantly asymmetric Burj Khalifa though closer to ground level are a number of buildings apparently designed to look like authentic Arabian houses. The whole place has the feel of a Hollywood film set.

The manmade lake holds one of Dubai’s newest attractions, a choreographed fountain display that is – as you’ve now come to expect – the largest in the world. Built at a cost of $218million, it fires water 150m into the air and is illuminated in the evening – when displays are held every half hour – with 6,600 lights. It’s an impressive sight, as you can see from the video below.

And so to Burj Khalifa where a single lift takes you to the observation deck on the 124th floor, about 450m above street level. This is only just over half way up the building but it’s an exciting and fast ear-popping ride skywards, and the views are well worth the £20 entry fee. I particularly liked the virtual telescopes which allow you to switch between daytime, nighttime, live and historic views, revealing how just a few years ago this whole area was nothing but sand.

I took a taxi – one of the few real bargains in Dubai – back to the Conrad, where I spent a couple of hours sunbathing beside the pool, which is set in a walled garden on the seventh floor.

The hotel sits along a 10-lane highway that buzzes with traffic around the clock, but as the palm trees sway overhead and a DJ plays bass-heavy dance music, you’d never know it.

But then nothing is quite what it seems in this larger-than-life adult playground, a soaring city built on sand where the money comes from who knows where. Love it? Hate it? I’m still not really sure.

(* Find the best time to visit Dubai including details of Ramadan dates).

How to do it

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Dubai 21 times a week. The lead-in non sale fare starts at £528.85. Nightly rates at Conrad Dubai start from £183 room-only for a King Deluxe room, excluding 10% tax and 10% service. I was a guest of BA and Conrad Hotels.