Laid out across the desert and overlooking the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the world’s richest countries.
Where to stay in UAE
Where to stay in UAE
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The UAE is an intriguing mix of ancient and modern, where huge glass skyscrapers rise out of the desert like a glittering oasis, traditional souks sit side-by-side with glittering shopping malls, and westerners transform the hotels into vibrant party palaces.
But that’s just one part of the UAE - head out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and you’ll find five more emirates with a Bedouin culture unchanged for centuries, with rolling sand dunes, ancient settlements and an intriguing glimpse of how this ancient country lived in the pre-oil days.
Food and drink
If you’re eating out in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you’re in for a gastronomic treat – both cities have some of the finest restaurants in the world, feeding the 200 nationalities who live and work here, and the millions of visitors who come looking for celebrity chefs, innovation and sophistication.
Much of the mid-range food is a modern take on traditional Middle East and Emirati cuisine – a traditional Arabic mezze is definitely not to be missed.
If you’re looking for something more authentic, head out of the cities into some of the more rural towns and villages, where you’ll experience a traditional menu of meat, fish and rice that has remained unchanged for centuries. Alcohol is only available in hotels in the UAE and there are serious penalties for drinking in public or drink driving.
The UAE is famous for its shopping – many visitors come here to do little else. Dubai’s malls are lavish palaces of retail, with miles of shops selling everything from international designer labels to local brands.
The Emiratis take their shopping very seriously - there’s even an annual shopping festival in Dubai in January. But that’s only part of what the UAE has to offer – the traditional souks and family-run stores are wonderful places to immerse yourself in the region’s heritage while you barter for local handicrafts, rugs, gold and spices.
Many of the souks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been preserved to retain their traditional charm, but it’s worth heading out into the sticks to enjoy the bustle, colour and aromas of the real thing. Be prepared to barter hard if you’re looking for a bargain!
The rich cultural history of the UAE is fascinating – the country didn’t exist until 1971, and the huge developments, booming industry and diverse cultural mix have transformed the region over the past 45 years.
The UAE is a unique blend of Muslim traditions and western consumerism, with a startling contrast between the skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the remote settlements beyond; if you want to experience the real culture of this region, you need to head beyond the cities to the desert souks, fishing harbours and wonderful museums that chart thousands of years of local history.
The people of the UAE are naturally resilient, hospitable and respectful of those who protect their traditional skills, rituals and ancient heritage. Yet equally the locals are proud of what the country has achieved, the status it has gained on the world stage, and the prosperity and opportunity it has brought to the region.
Most tourists stay in hotels or serviced apartments in the major metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, using Dubai’s metro or local taxis to get around – they’re inexpensive and easy to find, even if city driving in the UAE can be a terrifying experience!
If you want to explore further afield, you can travel between the Emirates by bus, but for broader exploration you’ll need to hire a car.
The roads are generally good until you get to very remote areas, at which point you’ll definitely need a four wheel drive. It’s a good idea to hire a car with a local driver if you want to explore the region, as they will be familiar with all the best places to visit, and know the best routes to get there.
Things to watch out for
Common painkillers like codeine are considered illegal drugs in the UAE, so don’t bring any with you unless you have a copy of your prescription – you won’t be the first to be thrown in jail.
Likewise driving under even the smallest amount of alcohol is strictly forbidden, along with kissing in public – the most local police will tolerate is for a married, mixed-gender couple to hold hands.