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Courtesy Burj Al Arab

Once a tiny fishing village at the edge of an empty desert, Dubai has morphed into a tax-free bastion of mega-malls, five-star hotels and wildly elaborate real estate projects. Vegas comes to mind as a knee-jerk reference, but Dubai is much more interesting and culturally nuanced than many people give it credit for. If a big-city counterpart must be named, then it is closer in spirit to Miami – a cosmopolitan town with an international vibe, great dining and shopping, and a gorgeous coastline. And yet in spite of its much-ballyhooed Westernization, this Middle Eastern city has a strong undercurrent of Arabian tradition, one the Emirati people have every reason to be proud of.

Cheat Sheet

Lay of the Land

“The cool parts –the parts that have won Dubai its reputation as 'the Vegas of the Middle East' or 'the Venice of the Middle East' or 'the Disney World of the Middle East, if Disney World were the size of San Francisco and out in a desert' - have been built in the last ten years.”
~George Saunders

Dubai’s continually expanding skyline follows a straight path on Sheik Zayed Road, a highway buttressed by skyscrapers looking out over the Persian Gulf. This is the main road that connects most areas of the city, and as you exit the airport, it is what provides the impressive image of Dubai as a city of gleaming towers in the desert.

Dubai Creek runs though the older part of the city. While the downtown business center, Deira, lies to the east of the creek bordering the emirate called Sharjah, the area known as Bur Dubai—the commercial and historical hub—lies to the west.

Farther west are districts Za’abeel, home to the World Trade Center; Jumeirah, where you’ll find the first phase of luxury vacation-oriented beach resorts including the Burj al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah. Continue down Sheik Zayed Road to reach The Palm, one of three man-made islands Dubai famously built to expand its coastline. The Palm is the only island completed, with luxury residences lining the fronds and five-star resorts built on the outer crescent. The World (300 man-made islands arranged in the shape of a world map) was finished in 2008, but has yet to see structures populating the countries and continents.

Across from The Palm is the Dubai Marina, the former downtown district before that title shifted east to a new development, the site of the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall.

It takes about 20-30 minutes to get from one district to another by car, although traffic can make the ride longer, especially at rush hour. For more independent travelers, there is a metro that runs along Sheik Zayed Road, as well as around Dubai Creek. En route to neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi in the southwest, you’ll pass by Jebel Ali, another resort community.

Getting There

A major hub and transit point between East and West, Dubai International Airport is the 7th busiest airport in the world, with flights to all continents except Antarctica. Emirates Airlines has direct flights from New York, Boston and San Francisco, and operates in five other major cities in the US. The airline’s Airbus 380, which flies between JFK and Dubai, famously has the shower spa in First Class.

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