Dubai is a city of extremes. Sand-coloured, modest houses sit comfortably opposite gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers with stunning geometric silhouettes. The Emiratis wear the calm monotones of all-white or all-black traditional dress while the malls are filled with every single international chain and brand you can imagine. The days are glaringly bright, sunny and hot. And yet, this hedonistic city is super easy to travel to with kids and is so full of startling contradictions it makes for a surprisingly fun family holiday that won’t be easily forgotten. Here's the suitcases&strollers travel guide to Dubai with kids.
If ever you aspired to expose your children to different cultures through travel, Dubai is the place to go. It is a truly international city with people from all over the globe – in fact if you come purely for the tourist activity it is doubtful you will interact with any Emiratis at all. But the upside is this is one place where you will see Asians, Africans, Americans and Europeans all living harmoniously in the one place.
Dubai is a city that lives to attract visitors so everything is OTT. The skyscrapers are truly awesome and will have your craning your necks into the blinding sun. The ground level architecture is equally inspiring – space age-inspired train stations and traditional housing live side by side. Everything feels shiny, new and covered in gold or marble. Yes, it is a little tacky. But as a travelling family, if you embrace the tackiness, there are many benefits. The service is impeccable and anything and everything you need is at your fingertips. For a fun few days of shopping, exploring and a little R&R city-style, Dubai is a great choice.
It sounds like a terrible tourist cliché, but a trip to Dubai is not complete without a sunset desert tour. Yes, this is a bit of a money trap and you will come home with souvenirs you never wanted. But the kids will love it and their squeals of delight make the whole experience worthwhile.
Tours typically start in the late afternoon. After a hotel pick up, your driver will take you on sand dune 4WDriving. This is a crazy, slippery, slidey, thrilling ride across the stunning desert scenery that will have the children screaming for more. Afterwards, depending on what package you buy, there is typically a sunset barbeque of traditional foods along with camel riding, belly dancing and henna painting. Tours tend to finish quite early and usually arrive back at the hotels by 9pm. At the end of the day you will have filthy, exhausted but very happy children.
While it is a hilarious and exciting experience doing the dune drives, there are some safety issues to consider. Firstly, it is worth going with a larger company such as Planet Tours & Safari as they drive several Land Rovers in a tandem. This means that if your car breaks down or has an accident there are others who will stop and help you. Also consider the age of your children. The violence of the dune driving will throw you around the car (this is what makes it so fun) which means your safety is heavily reliant on good seat belts. Pregnant women and infants should definitely not partake – if you have pre-schoolers still in car seats, it isn’t advisable to take them either unless your tour guide can securely install a car seat or booster in the vehicle.
Camel rides can also be a bit hairy with pre-schoolers. Parents should always ride with the kids and wait until the camel is standing before you have your child handed up to you. (The same for coming down – hand your child down to someone before the camel sits for you to get off.)
If you are after a more sedate way to view the desert beauty, there are also hot air balloon tours where you can catch a gorgeous sunrise in relative comfort.
If you’ve never been to the Middle East before, it’s worth paying a trip to one of the many souks (traditional-style markets) in town. The most interesting of these for kids is the Spice Souk [Al Khor St., Dubai, United Arab Emirates] because of the bright colours and vibrant smells. The souks tend to close in the middle of the day and are the most interesting when they are the most crowded (late in the evening) but this is when they are also the most difficult to navigate with small children. Vendors are pushy and like to barter hard, so be prepared to have your space invaded.
The Marine and Waterpark at the Atlantis hotel is worthwhile spending a day if you have older children. While there are some attractions for littlies, it’s point of difference are the huge waterslides to satisfy any thrill-seeker (including a massive almost-vertical waterslide that shoots straight into a tunnel where you are surrounded by sharks). The park also has a dolphin swim and interact program that allows a lot of touching and getting very close to the animals.
While much of the architecture in Dubai is very impressive on the outside, the most exclusive hotels such as the Atlantis and Burg Al Arab do not allow non guests into their lobbies so you won’t get to see how the other half lives. You can, however, go to the top of the (currently) world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – which is accessed via The Dubai Mall.
Shopping malls are not just shopping malls in Dubai – they are an entire sensory assault and you can spend a couple of days inside each one. The Dubai Mall is the biggest and includes the Dubai Aquarium which is really more interesting from the outside than in. The huge glass display open to the public is a bit of a false promise – once you pay the entrance fee you can walk through the tunnel inside the big glass enclosure, but the bulk of the underwater zoo is upstairs in far less showy surrounds. If you have been to many aquariums in the past, the displays in Dubai will seem small (although this does allow you to get quite close to the fish and some animals including South American water rats and otters who paint pictures). It is probably an attraction that works best for pre-schoolers or older kids who are very seriously interested in wildlife.
The Dubai Mall also has a vast array of shops and children’s activities on offer. [To read more go to the suitcases&strollers story The Dubai Mall.]
If you don’t care too much about the dubious concept of creating a ski resort in the middle of the desert, Mall of the Emirates (the other major shopping centre of note) is home to Ski Dubai, where kids can ski, snowboard and play in the snow. Under 3s are not allowed.
Every single chain restaurant imaginable from fast food to fine dining is in Dubai so you don’t have to worry about “unusual” local food unless you really want to. (You won't have to drink camel's milk unless you are game to try it!) Most places are family-friendly and will have menus that are remarkably (and a little disconcertingly) familiar to the restaurants at home.
If you are after a special meal that will entertain the kids but still be decent for parents, try Scoozi at The Dubai Mall. Their menu is half Italian (pasta and pizza for the kids) and half Japanese (with a fresh sushi train) and if you get a seat in the enclosed verandah on the waterfront you will be in prime position to see the free Dubai Fountain light and waterworks display in front of the Burj Khalifa.
There are plenty of hotel options in Dubai – most of the major chains are there. It’s worth paying for a 5 star option as you really will get bang for your buck – services and amenities are often excellent and not much looks tired or old.
The JW Marriott has an excellent swimming pool area with enclosed toddler pool perfect for chilling out throughout the day. The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai has a kids’ club and is extremely close to The Dubai Mall.
Despite it’s modernity, Dubai is still in the United Arab Emirates which is largely conservative. This means that you and your kids should be appropriately dressed at all times (especially women and girls) – generally three quarter pants and tee shirts (rather than shorts and singlets) will suffice. It also means they observe an Islamic working week so the weekends are Fridays to Saturdays rather than Saturdays to Sundays.
Don’t underestimate the heat as it can get overwhelming very quickly. The streets are eerily free from pedestrians during the day and with good reason – it is far too hot to walk anywhere. Taxis are a cheap and easier way to move around the city especially if you have young kids. Ensure you are the children are always well hydrated and you will need to take sun protection everywhere with you.
Because of the weather, Dubai often works best if you only commit to one activity per day and plan to spend the rest of the day chilling by the hotel pool or shopping in the air conditioning.
Tap water is safe to drink in the UAE (unless you are staying in a private house or apartment with tank water) but it is reputed to have a strange taste. For this reason you may want to consider using bottled water for baby’s bottles and children’s drinks.
For more travel tips on things to do in the Middle East with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Oman Road Trip