Day 1: Cultural Tour
Begin your day in Bur Dubai with a morning walk through the historic area of Bastakiya. If you're not staying close by, a taxi can drop you off here. Wander the meandering pathways surrounded by wind towers and traditional Arabian homes. Check in at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to gather information about Emirati culture (the center also arranges walking tours of the old quarter). You can then visit the Majlis Gallery, which was Dubai's first art gallery, and stop for a coffee at the Basta Art Café.
Take a Break -- XVA -- The cafe at the boutique XVA hotel and gallery in the center of Bastakiya is a perfect place to grab a light snack and a cold drink. This hidden spot offers creative salads, soups, and vegetarian sandwiches, as well as refreshing mint lemonade.
Just to the north you'll see the Al-Fahidi fort, the city's oldest surviving building. The Dubai Museum is here, offering the emirate's best opportunity to discover the history, culture, and traditions of Dubai. This key cultural museum can be visited in just a few hours.
Pass by the Grand Mosque and the Bur Dubai Souk, a bustling textile and clothing market in business since the 1830s.
Take a Break -- Fatafeet Café -- There are several traditional Arabic restaurants of similar quality along the creek near the Bur Dubai Souk, where you can stop for a bite before you catch a water taxi to the other side.
Continue walking along the creekside pathway toward the Al Shindagha Tunnel, before which you will find the Sheikh Saeed House, the carefully restored courtyard home of Dubai's former ruler. It's a good example of the 19th-century architectural style of the Gulf coast, and includes an excellent collection of photographs from Dubai's pre-oil days.
Next to the Sheikh Saeed House and near the mouth of the creek, the Heritage & Diving Village showcases Dubai's maritime and pearl-diving traditions.
Just in front of the Bur Dubai Souk along the creek, you'll find the abra (water taxi) station. The short boat ride across the creek will drop you off in the dhow wharfage area of Deira, just in front of Baniyas Road. Here you can watch the colorful dhows as they make their way back and forth along the creek to the Gulf. Take the pedestrian underpass to the left to the Grand Souk Deira, Dubai's oldest and busiest bazaar. Just behind the Grand Souk lies the Spice Souk.
From the Grand Souk, walk a short distance along Sikkat Al-Khaif Road to the heart of Al Ras, where you'll find the square with the Heritage House and, next to it, the Al-Ahmadiya School. The fully restored Heritage House is an excellent example of late-19th-century Arabian architecture and furnishings. Then visit the Al-Ahmadiya School, which sheds light on the history of education in Dubai. You will also see the Bin Lootah Mosque, dating from 1910, in front of the Al-Ahmadiya School.
Heading back on Sikkat Al-Khaif Road, and passing the Grand Souk Deira to your right, you will make your way to the Gold Souk, which is spread out to the left. The best time to visit is after 4pm, since most shops close during the heat of the afternoon. Nighttime is especially busy. Just beyond the Gold Souk lies the fragrant Perfume Souk.
Finish your day in Old Dubai with a dinner dhow cruise, an enchanting way to view the city at night while enjoying Arabic food and music. Many of the 2-hour dinner dhow cruises depart at 8:30pm from the Al-Boom Tourist Village in Deira, located near Garhoud Bridge between Creekside Park and Wonderland waterpark. There are also romantic late-night dhow trips that operate from 10:30pm to midnight.
If you'd rather skip the dhow trip and see Dubai's more modern side, I recommend you head to Downtown Dubai to visit the enormous Dubai Mall and the observation deck at the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. If you're in need of cooling down, check out the mall's Olympic-size ice rink. After 6pm, you can also watch the dazzling, free water show that happens intermittently until closing at the Dubai Fountains.
Day 2: Creekside Dubai
Having explored Dubai's historic area in depth on the first day, it's time on day 2 to broaden your exposure. Spend the morning discovering Dubai aboard a double-decker bus and creek tour before cooling off at midday in one of Dubai's best shopping centers. As the afternoon heat fades, take a stroll through Dubai's best waterfront park. Then get ready for an unforgettable desert safari that will last into the night.
Start the day with an English-speaking tour of Dubai on one of the Big Bus Company's open-air double-decker buses (tel. 04-324-4187; www.bigbustours.com/eng/dubai), starting at Wafi City with hop-on hop-off privileges as you explore the city. A 1-hour guided creek tour is included in the price, so hop off at stop no. seven, and explore Dubai from the water on the Big Bus Arabian Dhow Creek Cruise (note that admission to the Dubai Museum and Sheikh Saeed House is also included in the price). If you'd prefer to skip the bus and just take a boat cruise, Tour Dubai (tel. 04-336-8407; www.tour-dubai.com) offers creek tours aboard a traditional dhow, with departures daily at 11:30am, 1:30, 3:30, and 5:30pm.
Take a Break -- Asha's -- The Big Bus Company has returned you to Wafi City, and you're probably very hungry. You'll need some nourishment for the upcoming activities, and one of Wafi's best options is Asha's serving outstanding Indian cuisine created by legendary Indian singer Asha Bhosle.
Although it's lost some of its luster with the opening of Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall, Wafi City remains one of Dubai's favorite shopping centers, particularly among locals, with hundreds of high-end stores, delectable cafes and restaurants, and fun places for families such as the Encounter Zone. It tends to be a bit less crowded than the newer malls, as well. Depending on your desire to shop, you could easily spend some hours here, especially when the midday outdoor temperatures make the mall's air-conditioning all the more alluring. The recently added modern souk area is especially impressive.
Once you break away from Wafi, take a short taxi ride to Creekside Park, one of my favorite outdoor spots in Dubai. The beautiful park offers waterfront pathways leading to fishing piers, botanical gardens, restaurants, and an amphitheater. Ride a cable car as it makes its way over the creek. You could easily while away the afternoon here.
By 4pm, you'll be on the road to the expansive dunes of the Arabian Desert. Your desert safari, organized by a tour operator, begins with a thrilling ride over the dunes in a 4WD followed by a visit to a camel farm. You'll then continue with a sunset dinner at an Arabian campsite with live entertainment, including belly dancing and henna artists. This quintessential Dubai experience lasts until about 9pm and is a wonderful adventure.
Day 3: Sun & Snow
Visit Jumeirah's beautiful Islamic mosque, take a walk along the waterfront and go for a swim, and as the midday heat increases, make a run for the slopes at Ski Dubai. After skiing, you can do a bit of shopping in the fabulous Mall of the Emirates. Then, as the sun sets, make your way back to the coast for a carefully crafted cocktail at the Burj Al Arab followed by dinner and drinks at Madinat Jumeirah.
If you're here on a Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday, start your day with a tour of the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque. This is the only mosque in Dubai open to non-Muslims, and it's breathtaking. Conservative attire is required, so if you're going to the beach after, be sure to bring a change of clothes.
Take a Break -- Lime Tree Cafe -- Jumeirah's most charming spot for breakfast is the casual Lime Tree Cafe, set in a converted villa on Jumeirah Beach Road. Breakfast delights include hotcakes with blueberry sauce or toasted bagels with eggs. It's just a short walk from the mosque, and you can sit inside or out.
After breakfast, take a walk along the Jumeirah Beach Road, where you'll pass boutique shops, gourmet food stores, popular cafes and restaurants, and some extravagant villas. Dubai feels less crowded and assuredly beachy in this area. Mercato Mall is the most glamorous shopping center along this strip, but there are many smaller malls from which to choose. Traveling farther into New Dubai, you'll find the Marina Mall and The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), with its fashionable shops and eateries.
The road to the Palm Jumeirah lies close to JBR, and you'll want to find time to visit the Atlantis resort at the island's end. The city's best waterpark, Aquaventure is here, along with numerous other wonderful kids' activities. You could also come out just to get a feeling for the island, view the resort, and have a meal or snack at one of the many restaurants here.
What could be more surreal than leaving the beach in the midday sun and substituting your bathing suit for a winter jacket? It's exactly what I recommend you do. Take the 15-minute drive to Mall of the Emirates where Ski Dubai is located, and they'll provide all your winter gear, included in the price of the ticket. You can ski or snowboard by the hour.
Dubai's number one après-ski activity is shopping. Completed in 2005 and already being expanded, the Mall of the Emirates is a shopper's paradise. You'll find more than 400 stores and 65 restaurants here, as well as extensive entertainment options.
Take a Break -- Skyview -- By now you've walked, swam, skied, and shopped, and you've had a blast but you're also exhausted. The solution is a sunset cocktail, prepared by a trained mixologist, at the Skyview Bar atop the Burj Al Arab. You must make a reservation in advance, and this is the best opportunity to visit the famous hotel short of spending an arm and a leg on a guest room. tel. 04-301-7600.
Plan to spend your evening at Madinat Jumeirah, the captivating Arabian complex adjacent to the sea. You can wander the fashionable souk, take a small boat along one of the many waterways, have dinner at one of the romantic restaurants, and smoke shisha and enjoy a drink at one of the chic nightspots. There are 75 shops and galleries and more than 20 waterfront cafes, restaurants, and bars here. Madinat Jumeirah looks especially enchanted at night, with flickering lanterns illuminating pathways that meander along the water's edge past the opulent Arabian resorts of Mina A'Salam and Al Qasr and besides countless entertainment venues.
Day 4: Beach Day
If you're not staying at a beach resort or don't feel like paying for a private beach club, your best option is the Jumeirah Beach Park. If you happen to be staying in Deira and would like a closer public beach, you can go to Mamzar Beach Park. The two best private beach clubs are at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Le Méridien Mina Seyahi, which allow non-hotel guests entrance for a fee.
If you're not getting enough action at the beach, head to Aquaventure at the Atlantis or to Wild Wadi at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. There's no better place to cool off than either of these two exhilarating waterparks. I know from personal experience that adults will have every bit as much fun here as kids. While Wild Wadi remains great fun, I'd recommend Aquaventure over the two just because it's newer and more advanced.
Take a Break -- Barasti -- For a beachfront happy hour, head to Barasti at Le Méridien Mina Seyahi. If Jimmy Buffet were in Dubai, you can imagine this is where he'd hang out. The casual beach bar fills with a fun-loving Western crowd and has a different theme every night.
Day 5: Shop 'Til You Drop
Return to Deira to explore the age-old souks. You've walked through the Gold and Spice souks on day 1, but this is an opportunity to visit three more quintessential Dubai markets: The Fish Souk, Perfume Souk, and Grand Souk Deira, all located within easy walking proximity in the Al Ras section of Deira (you can also return to the Gold and Spice souks, which are here as well). The best time to visit is during the cooler hours of the morning or at night.
Next, take time to explore the shops along Jumeirah Beach Road. In addition to the Renaissance-style Mercato shopping center, there are a number of smaller malls popular with local residents, including Town Centre (next to Mercato), Beach Centre (near the Dubai zoo), Jumeirah Centre (near the Jumeirah Mosque), Magrudy's Mall (also near the Jumeirah Mosque), and Palm Strip (across from the Jumeirah Mosque). Shops in these malls tend to have a relaxed beach feel and are not as crowded as some of the bigger shopping centers.
As for the big malls, you've already had a chance to visit Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and Wafi City, three of the best Dubai offers. But there are a few other spectacular malls you should be aware of. In Deira, BurJuman Centre is especially popular for its high-street brands. Deira City Centre is a perennial favorite, more accessible and less pretentious than BurJuman. On the other side of the city, Ibn Battuta Mall has shops categorized in six distinct shopping zones representing Andalusia, China, Egypt, India, Persia, and Tunisia. It's located about 20 minutes from the city center, on Sheikh Zayed Road near the Dubai Marina. The recently opened Marina Mall is another excellent option. Closer to the center is the exclusive Emirates Boulevard, situated in the beautiful Emirates Towers complex. It's significantly smaller than Dubai's other malls and features some of the city's most upscale boutique shops.
Day 6: Abu Dhabi
Allow about 2 hours to get to Abu Dhabi from Dubai. Begin your experience at Heritage Village in the city's Breakwater area. Here, you'll find Abu Dhabi as it originally was, before the city's unbelievable oil wealth transformed it from a simple Bedouin village to an enviable Arab capital. You'll get a good feel for traditional Emirati life and can take home a souvenir from a local craftsman.
If you want to visit Abu Dhabi's best shopping center, the Marina Mall, it lies almost next door to Heritage Village. The modern center at the edge of the Breakwater offers designer shops, restaurants, cafes, and tons of entertainment options. These include a cinema, bowling alley, ice rink, and even a ski slope.
Take a Break -- Hiltonia Beach Club -- If it's sun you seek, the Hiltonia Beach Club is open to non-hotel guests and offers extensive facilities. In addition to an excellent beach with watersports activities, there's an outstanding health club and spa.
Next, you're off to the Emirates Palace to take in the most expensive hotel ever built. The magnificent resort sits on 1.3-km (3/4-mile) of beachfront and is truly a man-made marvel. The hotel no longer offers tours, but you can visit by booking a lunch reservation at one of the Palace's many gourmet restaurants.
Make your way now to the east side of the city taking the waterfront Corniche. Stop along the way to walk on the landscaped greens and admire the city from the water's edge. Continue toward the Dhow Harbor, where you can visit the Iranian souk, carpet souk, and fish and vegetable souks. Although they're not picturesque, they are authentic. Then take a stroll to the harbor and watch the traditional dhows return from sea at the end of the day.
A visit to Abu Dhabi is not complete without a stop at the Grand Mosque, the third-largest mosque in the world. Free tours of the palatial mosque, decked out in marble, crystal, and gold, are available at 10am Sunday to Thursday.
Finish your day at the Cultural Foundation, which lies on the grounds of the old fort. Many of the activities take place in the evenings, including literary and cultural events, photographic and other artistic exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances, and festivals. Check the website (www.cultural.org.ae) for schedule information.
Day 7: Sharjah
Budget about an hour to get to Sharjah from Dubai, and remember not to travel there during rush hour, when the road connecting the two cities becomes a parking lot. The best time to go is after the morning commute or on the weekend.
Your first activity should be a walking tour of the emirate's historic neighborhood, called Heritage Square, which will take about 3 hours. The first stop is the Souk Al Arsah, where you can browse in one of the U.A.E.'s most traditional and authentic bazaars. Around 100 shops line covered alleyways, selling everything from antiques and jewelry to perfumes and Arabic souvenirs.
Next, cross the courtyard to the Al Naboodah House, an excellent reconstruction of a 19th-century Arabian home, which today doubles as a heritage museum. Almost next door lies the Islamic Museum, which illustrates the cultural history of Islam through an impressive collection of antiques, manuscripts, and artifacts. While in Heritage Square, you can also visit the peaceful Midfaa House and the austere Sharjah Fort (Al Hisn).
Your final stop in Heritage Square is the Sharjah Art Museum, which is the largest art museum in the Arabian Gulf. It contains the Sharjah ruler's outstanding personal art collection as well as frequently changing exhibits.
Take a Break -- Arts Cafe -- Grab a drink and perhaps a snack at the Arts Cafe located in front of the Sharjah Art Museum in what's called the Arts Area. There are a number of galleries, workshops, and studios surrounding the cafe.
Now you're refreshed from your time at the Arts Cafe and are ready to continue your tour of this cultural capital. Make your way to the Sharjah Archaeological Museum, not far from Heritage Square. This creative museum unveils the history of human progress across the Arabian Peninsula, including the emirate's earliest archaeological finds.
Before you finish your museum tour, there's one more you need to see. The Sharjah Natural History Museum highlights the emirate's unique ecology. There are five fascinating exhibition halls to explore. The site incorporates the Desert Park, a breeding center for animals native to the Arabian Peninsula, which children in particular love.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.