Travel to the UAE: from Dubai to Abu Dhabi

Playgrounds for the rich and the famous, sweltering deserts and shopping to bring the world to an end...welcome to the United Arab Emirates.
  • United Arab Emirates
    © / Patryk Kosmider
  • United Arab Emirates
    © Anton Maltsev / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination United Arab Emirates

Getting to know the Emirates

You may be forgiven for thinking that the United Arab Emirates begins and ends with Dubai, but you would still be woefully wrong. Beyond the borders of the Emirates' loudest player, you'll find a whole world of Arabian heritage waiting, complete with rolling deserts, crystal clear waters and stunning marine life.

British rule

The UAE is a fascinatingly new nation, only winning independence from British rule in the late 1960s. It was more recent still, in 1972, that the seven emirates eventually agreed to form what is now known as the UAE federation.


With every new arrival, this collection of seven emirates absorbs cultures, traditions and values, welcoming one and all into its harmonious metropolises. Though rooted loosely in Islam, the UAE's culture has shape-shifted so many times that it can no longer be reasonably compared to anywhere else in the world. The only way to truly understand the diversity of this tiny country is through wandering its cities and deserts - all governed by Kings, rich in Bedouin tradition and terrifying bastions of modernity.

An adult's playground

Ever the over-achieving younger sibling, Dubai has devoted itself to being the biggest, boldest and brightest. Aside from the palm-shaped islands, gigantic skyscrapers and a nightlife which can only be described as excessive, this city exudes optimism 24/7. Its diverse population has gradually transformed it into a culinary mecca, exhibiting some of the top restaurants from all around the world.

The elder sibling

As capital, Abu Dhabi has naturally taken a more sensible role, administrative and residential in its approach to daily life. But that doesn't mean it lacks the spirit of its excitable younger sister, instead cramming ancient culture and culinary expertise into the spaces between its walls. It may be the older sibling but once night has fallen, life here is far from tranquil - just expect a little more moderation than flamboyant Dubai.

A platter of destinations

Currently busy hauling itself onto the tourist map is Ras al-Khaimah, home to orange deserts and blue waters lined by white sand beaches, whilst a trip to the north of Dubai will bring you to the glistening emirate of Al Fujairah - far and away the best choice for diving and swimming enthusiasts. If it's culture you're after, Sharjah holds the country's best museums and the tiny emirates of Ajman and Umm al-Quwain give an incredible glimpse into life in the UAE before oil. Age-old architecture abuts slowly-emerging modernity with a charm that the larger emirates lost long ago.

United Arab Emirates: the key figures

Surface area : 32278.0 km2

Population : 8264070 inhabitants

Time difference : Dubai is four hours ahead of London (GMT +4).

  • The contrast between desert, sea and urban metropolis.
  • The UAE is one of the safest places in the world.
  • The unbearable heat in summer (April-September).
  • You are never far from a building site in most city centres in the UAE.

United Arab Emirates: what to visit?

United Arab Emirates: what to buy?

Dubai offers a great selection for shoppers from around the world, ranging from goat-skin flasks to electronics, clothing, leather, watches, perfumes, electronics, caviar, and sport cars. It is home to the Dubai Shopping Festival, which takes place every year in January-February, and is also the location of the world's largest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall. There are no taxes on goods in the Emirates, and the reasonable prices (even before bargaining) add to its shopping allure. From traditional souk districts selling gold and spices to modern shopping malls, department stores and exclusive boutiques, Dubai has it all.

In the souk district, you can find Khandjars (curved daggers carried round the waist), carpets, Bedouin silver jewellery and wooden chests. The spice souk, very famous, carries perfumes, henna, incense and rose petals, and spices, such as cardamom, nutmeg, and saffron. Under the roofs of the gold souk, at Sikkat al-Khali St, more than 400 shops filled with gold and gems are squeezed against one another. Non-taxed gold, from 18 to 24 carats, is here sold at a better price than anywhere else in the world.

Other shoppers may be looking for top brand-name items in fashion and electronics, which they will find here for cheaper than at home in Dubai's sleek, modern shopping malls, around Beniyas Al-Rigga and Al-Hiyafa Rd. Electronic goods can be found along Al Fahidi St. in Bur Dubai. Nearby, Cosmos Lane offers an array of textiles merchants.

Somewhat less romantic, but equally worth a visit, is Dubai International Airport, probably the best duty-free outlet in the world, which also hosts the annual Dubai Shopping Festival.

Most airlines flying out of Dubai International Airport offer reduced airfare, along with the much needed excess baggage allowance during DSF.

United Arab Emirates: what to eat?

In the past, a traditional Bedouin meal was comprised of flat wheat cakes cooked under embers, served with camel's milk, bread and dates, and finished with tea or coffee. The food is spicy, and can often taste similar to Indian cooking. Nowadays, Shawarma is the most popular snack and can be found on just about any street corner (and for a good price). It is a sandwich of mutton which has been cooked on a skewer and then cut into thin strips and placed into a kuhbus (pita) bread with vegetables and dressing, similar to a kebab.

We must stress that Dubai is one of the best places to try dishes from all over the world. Just watch out for those pounds! All good hotels serve a variety of cuisines: Lebanese, Chinese, Italian, American and French but amongst the best in town are Okku at The Monarch Hotel - for Japanese - or Zaika at Al Murooj by Rotana - for Indian. For something a little different, like molecular gastronomy, head for The Observatory at the Marriott Harbour.

United Arab Emirates: what are the cultural particularities?

Haggling is a common and familiar practice in souks and certain shops. Shopkeepers will substantially cut the prices down, especially if you pay cash. As for customs, although the Emirates are quite liberal, bare arms and shorts are not appreciated in town. Taking a picture of a woman can be perceived as a provocation, and you should avoid smoking, eating or drinking in public areas during Ramadan.

The UAE is famous for its camel racecourses, with four or five tracks per square kilometre. Originally, they served as a mode of transport for the native Bedouin people, though nowadays camel racing is one of the most popular sports in the country. Races are organised every year, usually between the months of October and April, though betting is strictly forbidden in accordance with Muslim beliefs. The most prestigious and well-paid race is called the King's Cup, which takes place in Dubai.

Falconry is also an extremely popular pastime. In Dubai, you'll find the National Falcon Center of Nad al Sheba, with a souk for the falcons and a dedicated museum. As part of UNESCO's global cultural heritage, catching a competition at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (ADIHEX) is not to be missed.

United Arab Emirates: travel tips

For those who decide to take in the dizzying heights of Dubai, the choice of activities, restaurants, bars and clubs is exceptional. Take a trip up the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building and home to the JW Marriott Marquis hotel, whose rooms sit at an incredible 355 metres high. From the ground-breaking modernity of the hotel district, take the time to discover the village of Wegan, the city's old centre, which comes to life every morning with the sounds and colours of the camel market.

Otherwise, take an all-terrain vehicle out into the desert to discover dried out wadis, endless dunes and scattered villages and towns such as Hatta, on the border between Dubai and Oman. You can also take a local water taxi out into the Khor Dubai, the emirate's creek, for a great view of the dazzling coastline.

It can often be difficult to remember that despite its glitzy front and its reputation for leniency, the UAE remains a strict Muslim country with traditions and customs that differ greatly from those in the UK. You should respect these local laws and religions at all times, or risk serious penalties. For example, it is against the law to bring in or consume any illegal drug, to drink and be drunk in public, to show any sort of affection towards the opposite sex or to engage in any sort of homosexual behaviour in public.

Out of respect for prevailing customs, men should also avoid wearing sleeveless tops in the city and women should cover their shoulders and legs outside of hotels. As well as local communities, the Emirates are home to expatriate Muslims, many of whom hold conservative views, particularly regarding women's rights and behaviour in public.

United Arab Emirates: Latest hotel reviews
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