Best local experiences in Dubai, from dips in the Arabian Sea to winter picnics, Friday brunch and midnight snacking. If you want to experience Dubai like a local, these are the things you need to do.
Dubai was our home for close to eight years, so as local residents we did things that most visitors on a short trip wouldn’t do.
If you’re keen to ‘go local’, these are the best local experiences in Dubai that we think are worth doing, no matter how long you stay.
Best Local Experiences in Dubai
Take a dip in the Arabian Sea
We’d like to say that it’s invigorating, but we’d be so wrong. The truth is that most of the year the water is as warm as a baby’s bath. But remember, it is the Arabian Sea. The UAE has wonderful beaches and some of the best beaches in Dubai are on the Jumeirah coastline. Here you can surf, kite surf or wind-surf or just take advantage of the photo op with the Burj Al Arab as a backdrop. While the water is calm most of the time, there are strong currents – and you don’t want to be drifting off towards Iran with the US warships and pesky pirates around. If you do float as far as Iran, remember to call it the Persian Gulf not the Arabian Gulf.
Catch a local bus
Something so simple as catching a bus is for us one of the best local experiences in Dubai you can have. Most visitors to the city never take the local buses, probably due to the fact that you can actually melt into a sizzling puddle on the sidewalk waiting for one. (Although the city does have some air-conditioned bus stops.) But it’s a great way to mix it with Dubai’s expat workers – not the ones on the executive packages. You’ll see the neighbourhoods where they live and get a feel for the different expat communities. It’s also a terrific way to find those authentic workers cafés. Just look for the crowds around a hole-in-the-wall and get off. There is a double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus for tourists which does the main routes, but that’s cheating.
Shop yourself silly at a mall
Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, Dubai’s cultural activities don’t exclusively consist of shopping, shopping and more shopping, but the mall certainly is a focal point of local activity. Dubai doesn’t have a ‘town square’ or the ritual of the afternoon stroll around its manicured paths – this activity takes place at Dubai’s malls. Why? It’s too ****** hot to do it elsewhere. Whether it’s to meet friends for coffee, to check out the latest designer fashions (local and international), catch a movie, or just escape the heat, you have to hit the mall at least once. Just don’t call it ‘mall culture’. And don’t forget to see our Dubai shopping guide.
Visit a local supermarket
Sure they’re not as exotic as the souqs, but local branches of supermarkets (such as Carrefour) reveal a lot about how people live and what they eat in Dubai. You’ll see old local women, often sporting the traditional burqa (a bronze face mask, not the head-to-toe blue burqa of Afghanistan), doing a monthly shop with a trolley laden with huge bags of flour, rice, cooking oil, and dozens of tissue boxes. There are fresh nuts, olives, pickled vegetables, and other goodies (caviar anyone?) in barrels at the deli counter, but you can also pick up edible souvenirs here as well – we recommend chocolate covered-dates, orange water, rose syrup – all with endearing packaging that hasn’t changed since that old local woman was pulling water from a well.
Brunch is one of the best local experiences in Dubai if your idea of ‘local’ also includes expats. When a Dubai resident says ‘let’s do lunch’, it’s not an empty threat. If you’re in Dubai on a Friday or a Saturday, brunch with the expats is a must. Take excellent people-watching opportunities, add good value food, mix liberally with free drinks, and presto, you’re living the Dubai equivalent of ‘the good life’. Week time lunch specials are also brilliant value. Check the Time Out magazine or website for current dining bargains.
Succumb to the spa
Dubai is fast becoming a world-class spa destination and Emiratis and expats take advantage of the abundance of spas and their affordability (some spas give residents discounts) and nearly always take their visitors to a spa for a treatment. Just about every five-star hotel has at least one spa and the treatment lists are just as extensive as any in Thailand. Given Dubai’s reputation as a luxury travel destination and emphasis on relaxing, it’s no wonder that the spa scene has become so competitive. Cleopatra’s Spa started the ball rolling many years ago and in many ways is still the queen (sorry) of Dubai’s spas. And one of the most reasonably priced.
Picnic at Creekside Park
Local experiences in Dubai don’t get much more local than this. As soon as the weather cools down a little, Dubai’s residents hit the beach or a park. Creekside Park is a favourite because it has great children’s facilities as well as abundant shade and afternoon Creek breezes. Fragrant smells from barbecues (usually from Middle Eastern lamb kebabs) and sheesha (the aromatic water pipe) fills the air, as do the playful sounds of children speaking a dozen or so different languages. Before you head to the park, drop in to the nearby Wafi Mall to Wafi Gourmet for your picnic supplies — juicy olives from the barrel, white cheeses, dips of hummus and muttabal, kebbe, and fabulous fresh bread.
Be a good sport
Watching sport is one of the best local experiences in Dubai as the winter sporting calendar attracts everyone from Tiger Woods to Roger Federer (a part-time Dubai resident). While this provides a great opportunity to see your favourite sporting superstars up close there are plenty of other sports to watch – or participate in. Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan expats play cricket at any time of the day, anytime of the year, and anywhere where there’s room to swing a bat. Watching a game of something with some Emiratis is one of the best local experiences in Dubai and the Emirati boys flock to see their favourite football (soccer) teams play at the stadiums. In winter, the sport of rifle throwing (yes, that’s what we said) at the Dubai Heritage Village also attracts supportive extended families. Even if you’re here at the height of summer that’s no excuse: Thursday night is Freestyle Night at Ski Dubai, complete with DJ spinning tunes.
Emiratis love their coffee, which they tend to drink as a light cardamom-infused brew more akin in colour and consistency to tea, or, less commonly, as a thick, muddy, short black coffee more closely resembling Turkish coffee. The cardamom coffee is often poured to guests on arrival at a home and offered with dates. Fortunately, it’s become a tradition to offer coffee to hotel guests upon check-in or in the lobby. The coffee is poured from a copper or brass coffee pot into a tiny handle-free ceramic cup. It’s customary to accept three cups; any more is considered rude. When you’ve had enough tilt your cup slightly from side to side and the server will offer a tray for you to place it upon. Sheesha cafes are great spots to sample coffee and fragrant sheesha (also known as hubbly bubbly or narghile elsewhere in the Middle East) with the locals. Update: while we haven’t visited yet, a new coffee museum has opened in the charming Bastakiya quarter.
Drink in the views
A Dubai ritual for local residents entertaining visiting family and friends, the ‘drinks with a view’ generally means selecting one of three options. There are the awe-inspiring city views: glam Neos on the 63rd floor at The Address hotel has Burj Khalifa views while busy Bar 44 at Grosvenor House with its awesome champagne menu has Jumeirah vistas. Where window-side tables are coveted so arrive at opening. There is the Burj Al Arab view from colonial style Bahri Bar at Mina A’Salam or from hip 360˚ at Jumeirah Beach Hotel. And finally, there’s the simple Arabian Gulf Sea view from funky Sho Cho (where you can also hear the waves crashing on the sand below) or lofty Skyview Bar at the Burj Al Arab for sweeping coastal vistas. Cheers!
Grab a midnight snack
The post-shopping, post-work shift or post-imbibing ritual is to head to the neon-lit Satwa neighbourhood for a late-night nibble or a full-blown Arabic or Indian meal. There are lots of choices on and around Al Dhiyafa Rd, but the two main attractions are the basic Pakistani curries and sweet lassi (yoghurt-based) drinks at Ravi’s. Or shawarma (juicy, fragrant lamb or chicken rolled up in a pita bread) washed down with fresh juice at Al Mallah. Enjoy!