13 things to know before going to Dubai

I was born and raised in Dubai and have seen the city transform before my very eyes from a modest center of trade and fishing into the multinational metropolis it is today. These are the top tips I tell anyone visiting Dubai: embrace the culture, dress modestly and be aware of local laws and customs.

Home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and an impressive collection of man-made islands — Palm Jumeirah and The World — Dubai’s reputation for luxury and innovation precedes itself. But beyond the ubiquitous glitz, there’s a vibrant culture and warm hospitality that can be directly attributed to the multicultural mix of over 200 nationalities that live and work in the city.

Dubai is a city that dazzles, but it can also bewilder if you’re not prepared; having the right knowledge can help you navigate it like a pro. Whether you’re mesmerized by one-of-a-kind architectural marvels like the Museum of the Future or looking to immerse in the rich cultural heritage of Old Dubai, here are the top things to know before going to Dubai to ensure an enjoyable and stress-free holiday.

1. Visit between October and April

Dubai’s weather can be extreme in the summer months, and it’s not uncommon for temperatures to soar above 40°C (104°F). The best time to visit is in the winter and spring, when the weather is not only cooler and more pleasant, but there’s a marked uptick in outdoor activities like Dubai Shopping Festival and Dubai Design Week. Expect mildly cold evenings between October and April – pack a light jacket, sweater and shawl.

Locals and visitors enjoy the fountain show in Downtown Dubai © Delpixart / Getty Images

2. Plan to spend at least five days in Dubai

Dubai’s plethora of experiences can quickly fill at least five days of travel. Begin by visiting iconic landmarks in Downtown Dubai like the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall and the Dubai Fountain. A traditional abra boat ride across Dubai Creek at sunset takes you straight to the bustling souqs in Deira and Bur Dubai, where you can bargain for spices, textiles and gold.

As the week goes on, relax on Jumeirah’s beautiful beaches and dine along the Dubai Marina waterfront, known for its breezy plazas and stunning skyline. Traveling slowly around Dubai not only helps you to appreciate the grandeur of its modern attractions but also allows you to uncover the city’s hidden gems at your own pace.

3. Explore beyond the city

While Dubai’s skyline is certainly impressive, there are many attractions outside the city that are worth exploring. The Hatta Mountains offer hiking trails, kayaking and a glimpse into traditional Emirati life before the oil boom at the Hatta Heritage Village.

An hour’s drive from the city center takes you into the desert, where the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve lies. This 225 sq km vast reserve accounts for 5% of Dubai’s total land and is an excellent opportunity to experience the desert’s tranquility and elusive wildlife, including the Arabian oryx.

Dinning table filled with different mezze in Dubai
If there is anywhere you really want to eat, make reservations in advance of your trip © xavierarnau / Getty Images

4. Book activities and restaurants in advance

From desert safaris and dhow cruises to dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, booking in advance is perhaps one of the best things to know before going to Dubai. It can save you time and ensure you get the best options, especially if you plan to visit popular attractions like the Burj Khalifa at sunset. Tickets sell out quickly during peak tourist season.

5. Use public transport to save money

Dubai’s public transport system is an efficient and affordable way of getting around the city. It’s best to avoid driving unless you’re comfortable with Dubai’s fast-paced traffic. The metro, buses and trams are clean, air-conditioned and relatively easy to navigate. For longer journeys, taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive compared to other major metropolitan areas.

An artist designing a henna tattoo on a woman's hand in Dubai.
Dressing modestly is key to showing respect here © fatimas / Getty Images

6. Dress modestly to respect local customs

If you’re wondering what travelers should wear in Dubai, you’re not alone. While the city is relatively liberal compared to other emirates, it’s important to remember that the UAE is a Muslim country and dressing modestly is key to respecting local customs.

Wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees when visiting cultural sites and museums like Dubai Creek House and Etihad Museum. Swimsuits and bikinis are acceptable at the beach or by the pool, but always make sure to cover up when you leave.

If visiting Jumeirah Mosque – it’s one of the only mosques open to non-Muslim visitors – you’ll need to wear loose, modest clothing that fully covers your arms and legs; women will also need to cover their heads with a scarf.

7. Adhere to public photography guidelines

While there’s no shortage of Instagram-worthy spots in Dubai, be mindful that certain government buildings and mosques may restrict photography.

Taking photos of people is a sensitive issue in local culture. Avoid photographing people, especially women and children, without their permission. It’s also illegal in the UAE to take photos or videos of people without their consent and post them on social media.

Aquarium in Dubai Mall - world's largest shopping mall , Downtown Burj Dubai
Avoid displays of affection in public to avoid causing offense, or worse © S-F / Shutterstock

8. Avoid public displays of affection

Public displays of affection, such as kissing and hugging, are frowned upon in Dubai and can even result in fines or arrest.

While holding hands for married couples is generally acceptable behavior, use discretion depending on where you are in the city. It may be fine to do so when you’re at a shopping mall or out to dinner, but not when visiting a place of worship or cultural site.

9. Check your medication and avoid drugs

Dubai has very strict drug laws. Even small amounts of marijuana, CBD oil and certain prescription medications can lead to severe penalties, including imprisonment. Ensure you carry a valid prescription for any medications and check the UAE’s official guidelines on restricted substances before traveling.

Drinking alcohol is only permitted in licensed restaurants and bars, so don’t get caught sipping on public beaches. Driving while under the influence, even with the smallest dose of alcohol, can lead to fines, jail time or even deportation. It’s also illegal to be intoxicated in public; being rowdy and loud or yelling obscenities are all punishable offenses that can land you in jail.

10. Respect Islamic traditions during Ramadan

Dubai is a melting pot of cultures, but it’s important to be respectful of Islamic traditions. During the holy month of Ramadan, for example, while it’s not mandatory for non-Muslims to fast, it’s best to avoid eating, drinking (including water), chewing gum or smoking in public during the day.

Although English is widely spoken, it won’t hurt to learn a few basic Arabic phrases as a sign of respect. “Marhaba” (welcome) and “as salam alaykum,” which translates to “peace be upon you,” are two popular greetings that simply mean “hello” and can be used in most everyday situations. Responding with “walaykum as salam,” which means “and upon you be peace,” or “shukran” (thank you) in Arabic is always appreciated by locals.

11. Stay hydrated in the heat

Dubai’s heat can be intense, and dehydration is a real risk if you visit during the summer months. Always stay hydrated when out and about by carrying a refillable water bottle. 

You can fill up at the numerous water stations around town, set up as part of a sustainability initiative to reduce single-use plastic water bottle waste in the city.

While tap water is generally safe to drink, you’ll also find bottled water widely available in restaurants and grocery stores.

Textile souk crowded with people at daytime, Bur Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Older neighborhoods like Bur Dubai are not as accessibility-friendly as modern Dubai © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

12. Is Dubai accessible?

Thanks to the unwavering commitment of government programs like Dubai Disability Strategy 2020, the city is steadily becoming more accessible for people with disabilities – often referred to as People of Determination. This commitment ensures that accessibility is not just a goal, but a reality that is being actively pursued.

Many modern public places, hotels and public transport have ramps, elevators, tactile floor paths and other necessary accessibility features. However, there are still areas that need attention. Older neighborhoods like Bur Dubai and Satwa, for instance, often lack drop-down curbs, which can make getting around challenging for people with disabilities.

13. Discretion is important for LGBTIQ+ travelers

Dubai’s laws regarding homosexuality are strict. It’s a criminal offense to be gay in the UAE. 

Public displays of affection between LGBTIQ+ couples (and heterosexual ones) can attract unwanted attention or legal trouble, so it’s best to be discreet and avoid drawing attention to your relationship in public. Cross-dressing is also illegal, and transgender travelers could run into trouble when filing official documentation.

This article was first published Jul 19, 2019 and updated Jun 27, 2024.

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