As expats living in Prague, we had always heard about the extravagant marvels of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and how easy a trip it is from Europe — direct flights to Dubai leave from nearly all the European capitals. Thus, when the opportunity arose, we jumped at the chance to visit the UAE for a long weekend in May. The idea of a tropical escape to the Arabian Gulf, particularly after a long winter in overcast Europe, was a delightful idea. We had never been to the Middle East and did not know what to expect, but lucky for me, my family is always up for an adventure.
Best Activities in Dubai with Kids
Dubai is an extraordinarily international and cosmopolitan city. What’s fascinating is how incredibly modern and urban it is while still being a tropical resort destination. Dubai was a modest fishing village in the early 1900s. The discovery of oil in the 1960s changed that drastically, and the oil wealth brought to the region has quickly transformed the city into a global hub of international trade, commerce and tourism. The modern skyline is a sight to behold, and everywhere you look, more buildings are on the rise. Dubai’s extensive highway system rivals Los Angeles; its Arabian desert mirrors the Sahara; and the warm turquoise water is reminiscent of the Caribbean Sea.
For my sun-deprived former Los Angeleno children, the hardest thing about our weekend was getting them to leave the resort pool and beach. Also, for those who stay at the stunning Four Seasons Dubai at Jumeirah Bay, as we did, pulling yourself away from the luxurious resort will most certainly be a challenge. I did manage to convince everyone to explore some of the city’s extraordinary sites, outlined here, but a family could arrive at the airport, be shuttled to a lovely beach resort and have a perfectly divine Dubai holiday unwinding in the sun.
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It’s no surprise that our first morning in Dubai was spent splashing around in the hotel pool and private beach. The weather in Dubai is hot, and the temperatures neared 100 degrees in May when we visited. Yet the humidity was low, so we were very comfortable outside, especially as we stayed by the water. Plus, everywhere in Dubai is air conditioned, so it’s easy to forget that you are in an extreme climate.
TIP: It’s important to drink lots of water and, of course, keep dousing sunscreen on the kids. Especially when they’re splashing about in the water, they don’t realize how strong the sun actually is.After brunch at the hotel, we ventured to the famed Dubai Mall. The city is a sprawl, and taxis are a must to get around; fortunately, they are plentiful, reliable and inexpensive. It’s easy to catch one from your hotel or hail one at the many taxi points in the city. The Dubai Mall, which is less of a mall and more of a city in itself, was only a 15-minute ride from our hotel. The mall holds 1,200 stores, an aquarium, an indoor ice rink, a cinema with more than 22 screens, and Kidzania, an interactive “edutainment” center. It is the biggest mall in the world, and it certainly feels like it.
The vast number of shops and restaurants is astounding. American standards like Bloomingdales, Pottery Barn Kids and Gap were surprises, and stepping into these familiar haunts, it was hard to remember we were actually in the Middle East. Our entire holiday could have been spent in the Dubai mall spellbound at the diverse array of products and attractions. A short stop gazing at the exotic fish (visible even without going into the aquarium) was a highlight, as was a pop into a sumptuous candy store.
The kids begged us for a Five Guys milkshake on our way out. As we exited, we caught a spectacular fountain show where 459-foot water jets “danced” to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Kids of all ages are sure to love that, and it’s hard to miss the evening shows, as they begin every 30 minutes after 6p.Adjacent to the Dubai Mall is the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. It’s well worth venturing to the top floor: At 2,722 feet, the building boasts the highest observatory in the world. It is an extraordinary piece of architecture and a fascinating vantage point from which to see the sprawl of the city. The view can be hazy, but we were lucky the day we went and had a clear view of the surrounding area. From the 124th floor, one really does feel perched on top of the world.
My son’s passion right now is skateboarding, and he brings his skateboard everywhere we go. Lucky for him, Dubai has many family-friendly parks and outdoor spaces. On our second day, we found a state-of-the-art skateboard park 10 minutes from the hotel. A beautiful stretch of sand, Kite Beach, sprawls along the Arabian Coast and leads to a charming cluster of open-air restaurants and play spaces for kids. So, after we strolled on the beach, my son checked out the halfpipes while my daughter took some bounces on the outdoor trampoline area nearby.
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The skate park was gorgeous, and even had an attendant checking that all the kids were wearing proper helmets. Also, it was completely free (there was a small charge for the trampoline park). Playing with local kids at a park is a wonderful way to explore a new city, as it gives a glimpse into daily life. We ate lunch at a delicious outdoor Mexican restaurant, Taqado Mexican Kitchen, and enjoyed the guacamole and ocean breeze.
I felt strongly that we should see the old part of the city. After the morning at the park, we headed to Dubai Creek to board an old-fashioned wooden boat (or abra), which costs 25 cents a person, and crossed the river to the souks (markets). The boat ride in itself was a thrill and did not feel touristy at all; we saw many old-fashioned cargo boats being loaded with odds and ends from around the world. This felt like the authentic Dubai and was an interesting contrast to the glitzy skyscrapers.We twisted our way through the different open-air markets, which had stalls of all varieties; housewares, lanterns, clothes, toys and more. The vendors are entertaining, trying to lure passersby with promises of designer handbags. Another highlight was gazing at the immense displays of gold jewelry in the lavish gold souk. We drove a hard bargain for some beach cover-ups and a colorful ottoman, and left excited to bring home chic ethnic souvenirs.
After a leisurely breakfast came the biggest adventure of the weekend: an SUV excursion to the Arabian Desert, about an hour outside the city. My daughter was determined to ride a camel, if only, I imagined, for the Instagram photo op. It was beautiful seeing the desert peaks and mountains of sand; however, one of the primary features of the excursion was “sand bashing,” or driving very quickly up and down the rims of the sand dunes, twisting and turning, like an amusement park ride.
This is definitely not suitable for small children and not for the faint of heart, or those who get carsick easily. My teen daughter loved it, but my tween son said, “Make it stop!” Our driver was very accommodating and stopped the bashing early at our request.The camel riding, unless you book a half-day desert ride, is really a quick few minutes on a camel’s back being led in a circle. Still, for kids who have never seen a camel up close, it’s a thrill indeed. Before we left the camp, my son dragged a sand board up a smallish dune for a slide. Given the opportunity he would have done this all day. Sometimes an outing like this one in the Dubai desert makes for the best family memories, fraught with laughter, a little terror and a lot of fun. We rushed back to the hotel to catch the sunset over drinks and sliders in the Mercury Lounge at the Four Seasons — the perfect end of a beautiful weekend in this multifaceted city.
The kids are already scheming to go back. Must-dos for next time include swimming with dolphins at Atlantis Water Park and taking a few runs down the indoor ski mountain at Mall of the Emirates. And I plan on honing my bargaining skills for the gold souk, so perhaps next time I’ll come back adorned in Arabian gold.
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Families Should Know
Dubai is the capital of the Emirate of Dubai, one of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE. It is the most populated city in the UAE, and expats make up 70 percent of its population. The vibe of the city is incredibly sophisticated. The official language is Arabic, but English is so widely spoken that we had no trouble communicating wherever we went.
It was our family’s second time in a Muslim country, yet we were struck by how many Emirates wear traditional dress while going about their daily lives. The women are covered; they wear abayas, long black robes with hijabs (head scarves). Many Emirate men, too, wear traditional dress; long white robes, or dishdash, and head scarves as well. That said, we never felt uncomfortable as Western foreigners in Dubai. I made a point to pack modest clothes for my daughter and me, but even when we were outside the resort in the city, foreign women wore a wide range of attire and no one seemed to bat an eye.
We did not visit any mosques on this trip, but if we had, we would have been required to cover our hair out of respect for the local customs. Dubai has made a great effort to welcome visitors openly from around the world while still holding true to its own cultural traditions, and we felt this.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Lee Rose Emery.