Gritty and creative? The new Dubai embraces the alternative - here's the best way to see it

Edgy art, indie designers and an emerging food scene: it isn't all about the glitz and glam.

Edgy art, indie designers and an emerging food scene: it isn't all about the glitz and glam.

Dubai. The land of superlatives – home to the world's tallest this and biggest that – is finally developing an alternative side.

It's a grittier, creative one, where cool cafes stand alongside indie designers, and where local talent is shaping future trends. Add in an emerging food scene, with a new-found confidence in its cultural heritage, the exploration of ideas and inventions associated with the upcoming World Expo 2020, an efficient Metro and a broad calendar of art, design and food festivals and you have plenty of reasons to visit Dubai.


Ditch the conventional art hub of the Dubai International Financial Centre in favour of Alserkal Avenue in the gritty industrial zone of Al Quoz.

Not so much an avenue, but a neighbourhood of warehouses hosting more than 60 alternative art spaces, creative businesses, media and design studios, and community-led cultural initiatives.

The latest uber-cool space is Concrete, a multipurpose arts venue designed by the Office for Metropolitan Art. The inaugural exhibition Syria: Into the Light, featured more than 60 works by Syrian masters and emerging artists.

Thanks to the city's multicultural mix and rise of ambitious, homegrown chefs Dubai's culinary scene is hitting its ...

Thanks to the city's multicultural mix and rise of ambitious, homegrown chefs Dubai's culinary scene is hitting its creative stride.

You could easily spend a day here – browse Leila Heller gallery (, sample chocolate at Mirzam (, buy homewares at the Odd Piece (, catch a performance at The Junction ( or enjoy lunch at Wild & The Moon (

Time it right

A year-round destination, Alserkal Avenue explodes into life during Art Dubai, March 21-24, 2018. See

Make it happen

Jot the address down – Street 8, Al Quoz 1 – your taxi driver may have trouble finding it. See

Read more:
You can explore Dubai while changing planes
Dubai firm dreams of harvesting icebergs
Dubai plans $2.5 billion tourist project on new artificial islands


In under an hour you can be in the middle of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a 225-square-kilometre dunescape jumping with Arabian oryx, sand gazelles, red foxes, sand cats, hares and hedgehogs.

Start the day with a morning camel trek or nature safari and enjoy an Emirati breakfast alongside a waterhole. Or, if you're a night owl take an evening safari where you can track scorpions with night vision binoculars, stare at the stars through a telescope and finish with a Bedouin-style banquet.

Dubai is not all gold leaf lattes and celebrity chef restaurants (though you can find those as well).

Dubai is not all gold leaf lattes and celebrity chef restaurants (though you can find those as well).

For an off-road excursion visit Jebel Maleihah (Fossil Rock), a towering monolith in the desert near Al Malaiha, known for its abundance of fossils, or drive through the Hajar Mountains to the coastal village of Dibba near the border with Oman.

Time it right

Don't even think about visiting the desert at midday during the summer months (June-August), but early morning or evening safaris are still fine.

Make it happen

Ad Feedback

Arabian Adventures offers a range of  four-wheel-drive experiences, with pick-ups from most major hotels. See


Dubai is not all gold leaf lattes and celebrity chef restaurants (though you can find those as well). Thanks to the city's multicultural mix and rise of ambitious, homegrown chefs Dubai's culinary scene is hitting its creative stride.

To make sense of it all start with a gastronomic tour of Old Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures where you can sample everything from Lebanese baklava to pistachio-studded Iranian ice-cream, Palestinian falafel to Egyptian pizza.

Hidden Gems is a trail of eateries nominated in 2017 by UAE residents as the best (and most pocket-friendly) places to eat that only locals would know about. For Emirati dishes with a contemporary twist try Local Bites Cafe ( or for authentic Indian there's Rasoi Ghar (

For a bit of frivolous fun don't miss a Friday brunch session. The St Regis Dubai offers a French-inspired Brunch at the Manor, while Street Art Brunch at Nine7One in The Oberoi is all about S.L.O.W. sustainable food.

Time it right

Serious foodies should plan their getaway to coincide with the Dubai Food Festival held annually during late March/early April. See

Make it happen

Frying Pan Adventures offers a wide menu of trails, tours and tastings. See


Operating under the slogan "Open doors. Open minds", the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding strives to help visitors understand the culture and customs of the UAE. Guests can share a communal lunch in a traditional wind tower house in the Al Fahidi district, while young Emirati women patiently answer questions. It's all very relaxed and informal with time to try on a burqa, discuss dating and marriage customs and learn about the Islamic tradition of fasting.

The centre also offers cultural breakfasts, Arabic classes, heritage walking tours and visits to the Jumeirah Mosque.

Time it right

During the month of Ramadan (May 27 to June 25, 2017) an evening meal known as Iftar is offered on selected dates.

Make it happen

Bookings for all events can be made online. See Closed Fridays.


A fly-and-flop mini-break has two requirements – a convenient location and enough in-house activities to keep you blissed out for days. The St Regis Dubai, a luxury hotel modelled on the brand's original hotel St Regis New York, offers both. Start with a Bentley transfer from the airport before heading straight to the Iridium Spa for a Hammam treatment – the best antidote to jetlag ever devised.

While you are being rubbed and scrubbed your private butler (included with every room) can unpack your suitcase, press your garments or ensure there is a coffee or champers on your return.

It's 3pm which signals afternoon tea in the Sidra lounge, a daily ritual based on the sweet-toothed Lady Astor of the St Regis New York fame. The selection of sandwiches, scones, tarts, cheesecakes and sponges, all washed down with a pot of tea or a glass of champagne, should see you through any mid-afternoon slump.

Come 7pm head to the Champagne Bar for the evening ritual of "sabering", a tradition that says goodbye to the day and hello to the evening. Watch as a snappily dressed sommelier chops the head off a chilled bottle of champagne with one fell swoop of his knife. Stick around for the complimentary glass of Champagne R, Pouillon Reserve.

Don't miss dinner at the French-themed Brassiere Quartier, snacks at the rooftop pool or stepping outside for a stroll alongside the Dubai Water Canal.

Time it right

Any time, even the hot summer months of June, July and August, is a good time for pampering

Make it happen

The St Regis Dubai is on Sheikh Zayad Road at Al Habtoor City, a 30-minute drive from Dubai International Airport. See


Start at The Dubai Mall, said to be the largest mall in the world by total area. Stroll down Fashion Avenue for Galleries Lafayette, Gucci, Prada, Cartier and Chanel, stop at Angelina Paris cafe for a coffee and pastry (the place to be "seen") and visit the shoe district (with more than 30 shoe shops it really is its own district).

To make visiting 1200 shops a little easier, organise a porter (70 dirham an hour), stash your loot at the Shop, Drop and Collect counter (70 dirham a day) or book a red taxi-cart to whiz you about (20 dirham between designated points).

If traditional bazaars are more your style, cross the creek to Deira for perfume, gold and spice souks or for small indie boutiques head to the Jumeirah area.

Time it right

The annual Dubai Shopping Festival runs from December 26, 2017-January 28, 2018, with big discounts across most major outlets.

Make it happen

The Dubai Mall is open seven days from 10am to 11pm (Sun-Wed) and 10am to midnight (Thurs-Sat). Porter and concierge services can be organised through the Guest Service Desks. See



Emirates Airlines flies to Dubai from five Australian cities with multiple daily services from Melbourne and Sydney. See


Executive Suites at the St Regis Dubai cost AED3140 a room, a night during high season including butler service, breakfast, Wi-Fi and all charges and taxes. See

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of The St Regis Dubai, Dubai Tourism and Bunnik Tours.


Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback