Dubai For First Timers: 9 Essential Tips For An Amazing Trip


Atiqah Mokhtar •  Jun 27, 2019

When people think of Dubai, things that come to mind may include stunning skyscrapers and luxurious developments within an exotic backdrop of the desert. But after visiting Dubai for ourselves, we can say that this only scratches the surface of what this fascinating city has to offer.

Credit: Giphy

When we started planning for our trip to Dubai, we also realised we knew so little about what to expect. How hot would it be? How would we travel around the city? What are the locals like? Well, we’ve got you covered on all this and more with our tips for visitors travelling to Dubai for the first time!

1. Best time to visit Dubai

Dubai lies in the Arabian desert, which is often known for having hot and harsh weather. But did you know that the city has two distinct seasons, summer and winter? The summer months are indeed hot and dry, with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees Celsius during the peak months of July and August. Tourists tend to avoid this period, as it can get unbearably uncomfortable to be outside during the scorching daytime.

Dubai’s winter starts in November and lasts until early April. Average temperatures (in degrees Celsius) reach the low-to-mid-twenties in December to February, which often makes it the most pleasant time to visit the city weather-wise. However, the desirable weather also makes this Dubai’s peak season in terms of visitors and tourists, which means flight and hotel rates may be higher. If you do plan to visit during this time, do book your flights and hotels well in advance to get better deals.

We visited Dubai in mid-April - the temperatures then were pretty similar to back home in Singapore (average highs of around thirty degrees plus Celsius), but it’s much drier compared to our humid tropical climate. You’ll want to pack sunblock and lip balm, as you’ll likely be in the sun for a number of activities such as desert excursions, going to theme parks or walking around the historical Old Dubai area.

2. Getting to and around Dubai

Dubai has come a long way in its development - besides iconic skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa and luxurious resorts such as The Palm Jumeirah, the city has invested a lot in its transportation and connectivity too! We break down what you need to know about getting to and around the city.

Flying to Dubai

Dubai is home to Emirates airline, which has risen in reputation not only as an airline servicing routes to the UAE, but also the rest of the world. Given Dubai’s position as a major transit hub, there are no shortages of Emirates flights to the city, with non-stop flights available from Singapore, KL and Jakarta.  In addition, Singapore Airlines flies direct from Singapore to Dubai too! The flight takes between 7 - 8 hours, depending on which city you fly from.

From the airport to the city

Depending on where you stay in Dubai, the airport is located anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes drive away. There are a number of options available to get you from the airport to where you’ll be staying. Dubai has a Metro operating two lines (Red and Green) throughout the city - from the airport, there are two stations available (at Terminal 1 and 3 respectively) which are on the Red line that runs straight to the downtown area. Trips typically cost about AED8.50 per person to get to downtown Dubai (more if your hotel is further).

You can also book an airport transfer available on Klook that offers a pick-up at the airport and sends you directly to your hotel. We opted for this during our trip and really liked how convenient and comfortable it was. We were greeted by a representative right at the arrival area and sent in a spacious car straight to our hotel. The price for the transfer is comparable to taking a taxi, but rather than having to queue in line, you get a direct pick-up! This is also a great option for families or those with lots of luggage that would make it hard to manoeuvre on the Metro.

There are also public buses that you can take from the airport. While this is a cheaper option (from around AED5), however, depending on where you headed, this may require changes to different buses and will take a lot longer. You can plan your route and see which buses you would need to take via the journey planner available on Dubai’s Road Transport Authority’s website. Do make sure to purchase a NOL card (a prepaid card used for public transport services similar to EZ Link in Singapore or Touch N’ Go in Malaysia).

Around Dubai

Similar to getting from Dubai Airport to your hotel, you can use the Metro, buses and taxis to get around the city. Dubai Metro has stations at some of the major attractions (such as the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall and the Old Dubai area. Using buses and the Metro requires a NOL card. There are a few different types of NOL cards you can purchase, depending on your length of stay and how often you plan to use the train (read more about the different types here). If you plan to only use it only a few times, you could opt for the Red NOL card, which is a paper ticket that you can top up with an adequate amount of credit for your journey (up to 10 trips).

Taxis are probably the most common method for tourists and visitors to get around Dubai (especially to places not serviced by the Metro). Taxis are plentiful especially at hotels and tourist attractions, and it seems relatively easy to hail one in the street where there’s a decent flow of traffic. The taxis are usually cream and red in colour and are metered.

Besides taxis, you also have the option of ride-hailing apps Uber as well as Careem. While these tend to cost slightly more than taking taxis, they can be useful for visiting more remote areas where it may be harder to hail taxis.

#HHWT Tip: During our trip, we found that it was useful to have data while we were out exploring the city - not just to call Uber or Careem when we visited more remote locations, but also to have Google Maps on hand to help us navigate certain areas, particularly in Old Dubai. We used Google Maps to help us walk from one souk to another. Klook offers 4G SIM Cards that you can book ahead of time on and pick up at the airport when you land - it proved to be a very handy purchase for us (besides being able to post on Instagram ?).

3. Choosing where to stay

Dubai as a city is relatively compact, however, its attractions are somewhat spread out from one another. The main areas which are usually frequented by tourists stretch from Dubai Creek (which is also historically where the city was founded, with settlers living along the creek) all the way down the coast to the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s iconic development that looks like a palm tree from up above. It takes anywhere between 10 to 40 minutes-drive to get to and from different attractions, so choosing where to stay in Dubai would depend on what you plan to do during your stay. Here are a few key areas that are popular choices:

Downtown Dubai and its surrounds

The Downtown Dubai area is where the Burj Khalifa is located, along with Dubai Mall and its immediate surrounding developments. Similar to Orchard Road in Singapore or the Golden Triangle in KL, it’s a very popular area for tourists, given its proximity to the iconic skyscraper and vast retail offerings. There are a number of hotels available in the Downtown Dubai area itself, however, it’s worth noting that these hotels tend to be 5-star luxury hotels that can be pretty pricey (starting from around USD220 per night all the way up to USD600 and above, just for a standard room!).

An alternative to this is to stay just outside of the Downtown Dubai area - there are many hotels available that range from budget hostels to upscale hotels. Many hotels are located along Sheikh Zayed Road, the city’s main highway that connects Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

For first-timers to Dubai, Downtown Dubai and its surrounding area is a great choice given the proximity to major attractions as well as connectivity, with the Metro as well as taxis easily available. During our trip, we stayed at Sofitel Dubai Downtown - the hotel was conveniently located right next to the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Metro station and was within walking distance to Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall via a covered walkway.

#HHWT Tip: If you’re staying in the surrounding area to Downtown Dubai, it’s a good idea to pick a hotel that’s located near a Dubai Metro station. This would allow you to take the Metro to attractions like the Burj Khalifa and Old Dubai.

Old Dubai neighbourhoods - Deira and Bur Dubai

There are two main neighbourhoods located along Dubai Creek - Deira (north of the creek) and Bur Dubai (south of the creek). Both areas are popular for showing a side of Dubai that goes back to its roots, away from the modern developments in Downtown Dubai. Bur Dubai has particularly retained the old world charm of Dubai’s past, with many historical attractions  (such as the Al Fahidi neighbourhood and the Dubai Museum) that exhibit Dubai’s traditional architecture. Deira, on the other hand, has evolved over the years and become a fascinating blend of modern and traditional.

Hotels in both Deira and Bur Dubai tend to be cheaper, with a wide range available from hostels to popular chain hotels. However, given the location of the areas to the north, they tend to be a bit further away from some of the must-visit attractions like the Burj Khalifa.

Palm Jumeirah

The Palm Jumeirah is one of Dubai’s most iconic developments. This palm tree-shaped archipelago is filled with luxury hotels and attractions such as the Atlantis Aquaventure Water Park.

We visited the Aquaventure Water Park and enjoyed it immensely - we could easily understand why many people, especially families, choose to stay at the Atlantis, The Palm hotel next door. Staying at the hotel automatically entitles you to access the water park, and given the beach, shops and restaurants on-site at the hotel, you wouldn’t even have to leave the area. However, it is definitely on the pricier side (room rates for Atlantis, The Palm start around USD330 per night).

Dubai Marina

Dubai Marina is a waterside development located near the Palm Jumeirah. This affluent neighbourhood features a waterside promenade, al fresco dining options, a mall, nearby Jumeirah Beach and a yacht club. It’s a popular area for visitors given its picturesque surrounds, with a number of hotels as well as more affordable serviced apartments available.

4. Must-visit attractions

As a first-timer to Dubai, here are some of our picks for attractions you can’t miss.

Burj Khalifa + Dubai Mall

No visit to Dubai is complete without visiting the current tallest building in the world. Going to At The Top Burj Khalifa (the observatory deck located on the 124th and 125th floor) is a right of passage for every tourist to Dubai and for good reason - not only do you get to see magnificent views of the city, but you also get to learn how it was built. We were genuinely fascinated by the engineering feats behind the skyscraper and the amount of labour (and spending!) that went into it.

Given the popularity of At The Top Burj Khalifa, it makes sense to book your tickets ahead of time. When you book on Klook (which also includes access to the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo) you can choose your preferred time slots to visit (we recommend the earlier slots in the morning to avoid the crowds - peak visiting hours tend to be during the evening before sunset).

Desert excursion

Given the skyscrapers, beaches and upscale waterside developments in Dubai, it can be easy to forget that Dubai actually sits within the desert. But the desert holds such significance to Dubai’s past, plus the sand dunes are such a vastly different setting from the urban landscapes we’re used to and can’t be missed.

There are many different tours available offering an array of desert activities - from dune-bashing and camel-trekking to overnight camping and sandboarding, there’s something for everyone. We booked an evening desert safari on Klook that provided an awesome half day out in the desert.

Between going dune-bashing for the first time to riding camels, going quad-biking and eating dinner underneath the stars while watching traditional performances, it was an experience to remember. The pick-up and drop-off directly at our hotel were super convenient too! Read more about the desert safari and book your excursion on Klook here.

Old Dubai

Another part of Dubai that is a must-visit is Old Dubai, which sits to the north of the city along Dubai Creek. The creek divides Old Dubai into Deira and Bur Dubai and served as an important waterway for the city in its early days. Today, Old Dubai is THE place to take a peek into Dubai’s past. Visit the souks, walk around the traditional-style alleyways and buildings, and ride an abra (traditional water taxi) across the creek.

There are even guided tours that can give you a better insight into the history and significance of the area. Klook offers a two-hour walking tour where you can visit Old Dubai, including the main souks as well as ride the abra. An English-speaking guide will bring you on the tour and help you dive into Dubai’s heritage.

5. Make the most of your visit with a day trip to Abu Dhabi

We have a confession to make - even though we vaguely knew that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are both emirates within the UAE, before visiting Dubai we didn’t know much about its proximity to Abu Dhabi nor much about Abu Dhabi itself (besides the fact it’s the capital of the UAE and home to Etihad Airways).

It turns out that Abu Dhabi is only about an hour and 20-minute drive away from downtown Dubai and devoting one day of your trip to visit Abu Dhabi is definitely a great way to enrich your Dubai adventure. There are a number of attractions in Abu Dhabi, but the most popular one by far is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest and arguably most impressive mosque in the country. An easy way to arrange a visit to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque is through a day tour that you can book on Klook. This group tour includes a pick-up at your hotel before heading directly to Abu Dhabi to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque as well as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an art and civilisation museum housed in a remarkably distinct building that has become another icon of Abu Dhabi. After the tour, you’ll be dropped off back at your hotel, which is wonderfully convenient!

We found the tour very informative as the tour guide shared many fascinating details about Abu Dhabi, the mosque, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Visiting both attractions was a feast for the eyes as we were able to marvel at the Islamic architecture of the mosque (with over 82 blindingly white domes) as well as the modern design of the museum that was inspired by the leaves of a date palm tree.

6. Be aware of local etiquette and customs

One question that often pops up when visiting Dubai is on local customs and whether there are things visitors should be aware of. Even though Dubai is known to be quite cosmopolitan, given that it’s an Arab country (which are generally more conservative relative to other parts of the world), there is sometimes uncertainty amongst visitors on what’s the norm and if there are any dos and don'ts to follow.

After our visit to the city, we learned a few tips and pointers that are useful for first-time visitors to know:

  • Don’t take photos of locals (including staff of tourist attractions) without their permission, especially for women.
  • Be aware of any dress codes, especially when visiting mosques. While Dubai is quite relaxed in terms of clothing (foreigners are not required to wear a hijab or cover up, though it’s generally advised to dress modestly as a sign of respect), visitors are required to wear appropriate clothing, including a headscarf for women, at mosques (such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai).
  • Don’t worry about language barriers - English is widely spoken as a second language.
  • Public displays of affection are not common practice in Dubai and are generally frowned upon (even if you are a married couple). It’s generally advisable to avoid it while visiting the city.

7. Savour all the amazing halal international eateries

One of our favourite parts of visiting Dubai was the incredible array of international brand eateries that are present (and halal!) in Dubai. Given the UAE’s strict rules on the import of food items, the majority of Dubai’s restaurants are all halal (restaurants or hotel eateries that serve non-halal foods are required to serve it separately in an area clearly marked). Here are some of the ones we tried and enjoyed:

Shake Shack

This eatery should come as no surprise, given how many travellers have raved about eating at this popular restaurant when visiting or transiting through Dubai (with an outlet available at Terminal 3 of Dubai Airport). We loved the burgers here, which are cooked smashed-burger style which imparts such a nice caramelised flavour and texture to the beef patties! Read a full review of our experience eating at Shake Shack here.

Din Tai Fung

We ate at the Shake Shack store at Dubai Mall, where we also found Din Tai Fung! We were excited to eat at this Taiwanese eatery as it’s hard to find a halal outlet back home. We tried their famous xiaolongbao - these broth-filled dumplings were savoury and comforting while still being light. If you’re looking for something less sinful after indulging in all the delicious food in Dubai, this is a great choice.

Five Guys

We also managed to try Five Guys, another popular American burger joint that we also enjoyed - you can customise your burger toppings here, plus they’re super generous with their fries!

Magnolia Bakery

If you’ve been to New York or have a sweet tooth, chances are you’ve heard of Magnolia Bakery. This famous bakery chain is known for serving an array of sweet treats, including cupcakes, pies, and puddings. We managed to stop by their outlet at Dubai Mall and had some of their famous banana pudding! We loved how it was super creamy and the banana flavour didn’t taste artificial.

Besides the eateries mentioned here, there were so many more places in Dubai that we wished we could have tried! Other popular names you can find here that you won’t find back home include IHOP, The Cheesecake Factory, Le Pain Quotidien, P.F. Changs and Tim Hortons, just to name a few. We saw many of these eateries at Dubai Mall, however, they often have multiple outlets throughout Dubai, especially in areas such as Jumeirah Beach, Dubai Marina, other malls (such as Mall of the Emirates), and the Palm Jumeirah. Dubai also has a thriving fine dining scene, with many notable chefs like Gordon Ramsay running restaurants in in the city. So if you’re visiting Dubai, it’s a great idea to research any particular restaurants you may want to try while you’re there!

#HHWT Tip: If you’ll be visiting Dubai Mall, download the Dubai Mall app to easily see the list of eateries as well as other stores that you may want to visit. Given the mall’s sheer size (it’s one of the largest malls in the world!), the app is mighty useful for navigating the mall.

8. Immerse in Emirati culture through SMCCU activities

If indulging in the awesome halal food offerings in Dubai was one of our favourite parts of visiting the city, learning more about Emirati people and culture was another. Learning about other Muslim communities is always fascinating, especially when it’s a community founded in history and geography that’s vastly different from our own. We came across a wonderfully accessible and easy way to do so in Dubai, namely through a non-profit organisation called the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). SMCCU aims to promote awareness about Emirate traditions by hosting cultural events open to expatriates or other visitors to Dubai.

We went for two of those events - the Jumeirah Mosque tour (AED25 per person) as well as a cultural lunch (AED130 per person), which we enjoyed immensely. The mosque tour was led by our charismatic guide, Mr Rashid, who talked about some of the fundamental religious practices in Islam such as taking ablution, performing prayers, and going for Hajj. He also touched on cultural aspects such as the clothes worn by Emiratis and their history.

At the cultural lunch, we were able to try authentic Emirati biriyani while learning more about the food and everyday Dubai life from our guide Ruqayya. At both events, we were impressed by the openness of the sessions, with questions encouraged and answered in a candid and frank manner. We were also heartened by the number and diversity of the participants. While the mosque tour may be more geared towards non-Muslims who may be unfamiliar with Islamic practices, it was still an interesting and eye-opening session. However, if you want to focus more on learning about Emirati food and culture, the cultural meal may be a better option.

Going for an event hosted by the SMCCU is a unique and easy way to immerse and learn more about Emirati people that will surely enhance your visit to Dubai.

9. Pick up local souvenirs

What’s a trip without picking up a souvenir or two? And in Dubai, you have several great options you can bring home. Here are some of our top picks:

Food items from the souks

You can’t really go wrong with purchasing food, and when you go to the souks in Old Dubai (in particular, Grand Souq Deira) you’ll have loads to choose from. Whether you go for one of the myriads of spices available in the Spice Souk, nuts (such as pistachios, almonds or cashews) or chocolate covered dates, it’ll be a great treat to bring home.

#HHWT Tip: Do be vigilant when shopping at the souks - there are many incidents reported on Tripadvisor of certain shopkeepers attempting to overcharge or practising aggressive sales tactics. Be sure to be clear on the price you bargain with shopkeepers and avoid buying if the prices seem inflated. Do browse the market with a travel buddy and opt to pay in cash rather than credit card (be sure to check your change given, if any, is the right amount).

Abayas from Naik Souk

Also located in Old Dubai is Naif Souk, which has an awesome array of abayas (traditional robes worn by women in Dubai) in a variety of designs. From simple embroidered designs to bling-ed out gems, there’s an abaya out there perfect for you (or your mom/sister/wife/friend back home!). Abayas here can cost from around AED120 and above - don’t forget to bargain for a good deal!

Bateel dates

We had asked our readers on Instagram where to buy dates in Dubai, and Bateel was the number one recommendation. After trying the dates at the Dubai Mall outlet of this popular Middle-Eastern brand for ourselves, we were sold. The dates cost on average AED100 per kilo, but the good news is you can buy as little (and by little, we mean even one or two pieces of dates) or as much as you please. Be sure to try the stuffed dates too - the one with pecans or macadamia nuts are so good!

Dubai has so much to offer visitors and is sure to charm with its multi-faceted characteristics. This gem in the UAE is calling to be discovered, not just because it’s a Muslim a country that makes eating and finding prayer spaces a complete breeze, but also because it has such a fascinating blend between its desert traditions and its awe-inspiring modern developments. It’s time to put our tips to good use and discover Dubai for yourself. [P.S. To get you started on your journey, check our 6D5N itinerary for the perfect Dubai escape!].