One day doesn’t come close to enough time to discover all the facets of this rich and multilayered city. But if you do find yourself with only one day to explore Dubai, make it a Friday, when the city kicks off its weekend, before the start of the workweek on Sunday. Follow the trails of two in-the-know residents and find out what they get up to on their days off.
For Dubai-born Mohammed Kazim, a perfect day starts in the city’s oldest neighborhoods and ends on the Palm.
Kazim is the cofounder of Tamashee, a stylish high-end footwear brand in the heart of the creative community on Alserkal Avenue. His company offers cultural tours and design workshops aimed at providing a contemporary redefinition of the region’s visual identity.
To understand the early history of the city, head to the Jumeirah Archaeological Site in the residential neighborhood of the same name. Another secret hiding in plain sight, it’s located between the beach and the city’s main artery, Sheikh Zayed Road. The Abassid-era settlement dates back 1,000 years and features the remains of a caravanserai, or roadside inn, and a mosque, market, and houses. It holds a particular significance for Kazim. “The site is related to my family history,” he says. “My mom is a descendant of the Abassids.”
The city’s older neighborhoods are home to some of the best street food and casual dining. “I like to pick up fresh bread from the small Afghan-run bakeries in Bur Dubai,” says Kazim. But for a bigger meal, the narrow lanes of Karama, filled with small Indian restaurants, are worth exploring. “There’s a place called Sigdi that makes amazing parathas, and Aaraamam is also great for parathas and chai. Go to Puranmal for pure veg Indian snacks, and be sure to try their pani puris.”
“If you go to the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary close to the center of the city, you’ll see our local population of flamingos,” he says. Even though some of the greater flamingos are year-round residents, “go in winter when they gather in thousands. Keep an eye out for spoonbills, herons, and, if you’re lucky, kingfishers.”
With its mostly west-facing coastline, Dubai has no shortage of spectacular sunsets. While most visitors head to the top of the city’s many skyscrapers for sunset views, Kazim has his own favorite spot. “Head all the way around the West Crescent of the Palm Jumeirah until you’re opposite the new Ain Dubai Ferris wheel. From here you have views of practically everything,” he says. Best of all, they’re free.
Kathy Johnston, chief chocolate officer of Mirzam, loves being on the waterfront (be it beach or canal) and appreciating Dubai’s creative scene.
Born in New Zealand, Johnston moved to the UAE when she was three; today she runs Mirzam, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory and café in Dubai, which makes truffles that incorporate Emirati ingredients like halvah and khabeesa, and the best chocolate ice cream in town.
In spite of its party-hard image, Dubai favors the early bird, with invitingly cool, fresh mornings with clear desert skies. The five-mile exercise track alongside Kite Beach in the Jumeirah neighborhood is a great place for some morning seaside therapy, with some of the city’s best views of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. “I’m up with the first call to prayer every day, so after my walk at Kite Beach I like to head over to Brew Café, famous for being open early and having the best flat white in Dubai,” Johnston says.
To the Moon & Back is her favorite spot for long, lazy breakfasts. “It has a little terrace outside, and is hidden along the Dubai Water Canal,” she says. The restaurant isn’t easy to find, but make the effort and you’ll see why it has such a loyal following. Tackle a stack of fluffy ricotta pancakes with strawberries and maple syrup, or go for the popular dates and cocoa nib granola with toasted almonds, mandarin-infused pistachio paste, and a generous drizzle of Yemeni honey. Its pies are also worth seeking out—one day it might be cheese-crust apple pie, and the next it’s pecan or choco-espresso. Walk it all off with a stroll along the canal, and keep an eye on the waters for a chance at spotting cownose rays.
Anyone who’s visited in the past few years will know that the city is home to a thriving creative community. “For some inspiration, the art space at Tashkeel is one of my favorite stops,” Johnston says. “It’s a place for regional creatives to come together in order to make and exhibit their designs.” Tashkeel organizes regular exhibitions, workshops, photo walks, and talks, and it’s a marketplace for affordable homeware designs that capture the essence of the UAE.
Over near Dubai Creek, the XVA Art Hotel was another early pioneer of the Dubai arts scene, and it remains a brilliant showcase of regional creativity. Located in a restored century-old house, the hotel has regularly changing exhibitions and a vegetarian café in the courtyard. “If I have a few hours to enjoy the city, I’ll begin at XVA, and then wander around the Al Fahidi heritage district and the creekside old town. It’s such a beautiful little pocket of the city, especially when the weather is cooler,” says Johnston.
And in the evening? “Around sunset I’ll pick up dinner and head back to the beach for a picnic,” she says. “There are a lot of local cafeterias along Jumeirah Beach Road for shwarma, ragag (traditional Emirati bread), juices, and mezze, which are quick and easy to pack up. Ijaza is one of the more famous places, and I also like Abu Jad and Blends.”
These old-school cafeterias have been fueling Dubai for decades with quality affordable fast food and nonalcoholic fruit juice blends with names like Dubai Metro and Lady Killer. At dinnertime, there’s usually a lineup of Lamborghinis outside Ijaza as regulars queue up for their famous shwarma sandwiches—at less than $2 each, they’re one of the city’s best deals.
Nicola Chilton Writer Nicola Chilton tells the stories of people, places, and unexpected adventures from her home base in Dubai.