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Family: 21 things to do in Dubai

The sleek emirate of Dubai is not all glitz and glamour. It’s also an ever-expanding haven for families, from kids to teens. A helicopter flight over this Middle-Eastern metropolis? Check. Journeys over the dunes? Check. Close encounters with 80-year-old turtles? Check. Whether you want to get a soaking at a water park, toboggan down a slope at Ski Dubai or open your kids’ eyes to bartering at a spice-scented souk, we sent a family over to the emirate to explore the very best of Dubai for you and your brood

Family: 21 things to do in Dubai
Image: Getty

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01 See the sights from the sky
Take off from a helipad for a ride over the Gulf and Dubai’s forest of skyscrapers

“I’m almost eye-to-eye with the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. And it’s a wonderful sensation to be looking down at this iconic skyscraper.

We’re in a five-seat helicopter, whisking us tantalisingly close to some of Dubai’s most famous landmarks. We’d arrived early at the helipad at the Atlantis The Palm, for a pre-flight safety briefing — don’t mess around, don’t make rude noises over the pilot’s communication channel… oh dear, we were with children.

But after strapping ourselves in, concern subsides; my son, Calum (age 12) studies his map while we chat over the airwaves.
A near-vertical take-off and we’re heading towards the billowing sail of the Burj al Arab. The views of the old town are magnificent, while Calum spots the famous World Islands far below.

Port Rashid is on the horizon and my eyes follow the twist of the Creek. It’s easy to imagine years gone by, when the dhows and pearl divers found a safe harbour here. Our final flypast dusts the windows of the skyscrapers in Media City and the new Internet City, home to leading technology brands.

It might have been only a 15-minute flight, but we can certainly say we’ve seen the sights.”

Words: Campbell Reid. From AED795 (£146) per person. alphatoursdubai.com 

02 Hit a beach
Spread your towel on a public stretch of sand, such as Kite Beach — it’s great for children of all ages, with areas of shallow and deep water, a playground for little ones and a football pitch for over-eights.

03 Kidzania
Your brood will relish a trip to this interactive city, built to kids’ scale, complete with buildings and streets where they can explore more than 80 roles, from doctor to firefighter. Free for under-twos; AED95 (£17), ages two-three; AED140 (£26), ages four-16. kidzania.ae/en

04 Dine in the desert
Dune driving, falconry and camel rides: Calum Reid (age 12) on why desert adventures are out of this world

“We arrive at the edge of the desert and transfer to 1950s Land Rovers. I bag the front seat — it’s clear our driver, Yasser is determined to have some fun with us as he takes us over the dunes. He explains how different trees and shrubs are used to show desert people where there’s water and give protection from sandstorms. We spot groups of oryx and foxes, then we hop out to scramble up a dune, turned a bright yellowy orange by the setting sun.

We drive to another spot, where we sit on carpets to watch a falconry display. The falconer shows us how he trains the birds and exercises them to keep them fit for hunting. It’s amazing watching the fastest animal on the planet, whizzing over our heads.

As darkness approaches, we move on to a desert camp. The camel ride is a real surprise — the jerky way it moves gives me the giggles.

Finally, we sit at low tables for meatballs (I’m not sure if they’re camel), crispy bread, lamb cooked underground, and barbecued chicken. I find space for the fruit salad while a lady dances.

The dune driving was the best part. I feel like I’ve had a whole day out, and tried new things, all in one evening.”

Words: Calum Reid. From AED495 (£91), adult; AED395 (£72), ages 5-11. platinum-heritage.com

05 Burj Khalifa
Don’t miss a trip up the Burj Khalifa — the symbol of Dubai’s ‘big, bigger, biggest’ mantra and the tallest man-made structure on Earth. The 45-minute experience leads visitors through slick multimedia exhibits before an ear-popping ascent at over 22mph, depositing you at an astonishing 1,483ft above ground level on the 124th floor. You’re only just two-thirds of the way up, but spread out below is an unforgettable view of city, desert and ocean. From AED125/95 (£23/£17, adult/child).

06 Turtle tales
The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project gives families the chance to nurse ailing reptiles

“The turtles are never keen to leave — they get seven-star treatment here,” laughs Ibrahim, who is holding a bucketful of seafood. We’re at the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project to catch one of its free, twice-weekly feeding sessions at the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel.

Adults and excited children are gathered alongside one of the pools. “Oh, look,” gasps Sophie, as a turtle measuring almost 3ft glides through the water. We’re leaning over a pen holding 15 of the older patients — one of whom is about 80. This is the last stop for this group of critically endangered hawksbill turtles. Once they pass the fitness test, they’re tagged for research purposes then released back into the Persian Gulf.

“You see him,” says Ibrahim, pointing at another, “that’s Propeller — he’s missing flippers and has to swim using only his front limbs.” Many of the turtles, he explains, have injuries from collisions with boat propellers or entanglement with fishing lines; others might have ingested plastic bags. Members of the public bring rescued sea turtles to the Wildlife Protection Office or the ‘intensive care’ aquarium at the nearby Burj Al Arab. There, specialist vets treat them until they’re well enough to be transferred to the outdoor pens.

Sophie’s getting twitchy but luckily, Ibrahim has timed his talk perfectly to a child’s attention span. “OK, what’s a turtle’s favourite food?” he shouts. The children stare, waiting for the punchline. “It’s jellyfish. But they like algae, seagrass, coral and crabs, too. Who wants to feed them?”

“Meeee!” The kids plunge their hands into a wet mass of slippery seafood and throw it into the pool.”

Words: Simone Kane. jumeirah.com/turtles

07 Ski Dubai
Cool off in the city’s winter wonderland — which includes a tobogganing hill, five ski and boarding slopes and a park with an igloo filled with ice sculptures. It’s seriously cold, with powdery snow blowing from special guns, but warm gear is provided. AED120/110 (£22/£20, adult/child). theplaymania.com/skidubai

08 Deira souks
“Whenever I visit somewhere interesting I like to take home a model of a landmark and I wanted to find one of the Burj Khalifa. Mum said I’d find it cheapest in the souk and that I’d get a good deal if I bargained. The souk was so busy with tourists and locals — we’d have got lost were it not for our guide, Faoud. I soon spotted my model, but there was one of the Burj Al Arab, too, so the shopkeeper offered me both for a good deal — I didn’t even have to negotiate. Sophie liked some little coloured stones, which turned out to be camel-milk chocolates and the man let her try them before she bought a tubful. In the Gold Souk, we watched a man loading piles of gold bars off a counter onto a trolley (I wondered how much he’d spent), then went to see the biggest gold ring in the world!” Words: Calum Reid (age 12).

09 Dolphin bay
Tick off a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the Atlantis The Palm: a trip to Dolphin Bay. Whether you wallow beside these charismatic creatures in shallow water or dive beside them, a package also buys you a day at the resort’s famous Aquaventure water park and private beach. From AED395 (£72). atlantisthepalm.com

10 Splash out on dinner at a celebrity hot spot
“As we walk past the Rolls Royce cars in the driveway of The Palace at the One&Only Royal Mirage hotel, it’s clear we’re in for a treat at the Beach Bar and Grill.

“Set me a challenge. I feel like cooking off-menu tonight,” offers the head chef, who comes over to say hello. I’m keen to accept, but I’m distracted by the sight of the kids already tucking into a basket of crudites that had been placed on our table. Getting them to eat vegetables is never that easy at home.

I put my trust in the chef — after all, he’s spent most of his career in the kitchens of Alain Ducasse — and I order the hake, with my own twist of tomatoes and saffron. It’s outstanding. Simone’s sea bass is perfectly cooked and presented on a bed of tomatoes cooked on the vine. Calum’s able to indulge his very expensive taste for giant prawns — and these are the biggest he’s ever seen — while Sophie’s catered for with a simplified kids’ menu, opting for prawns with pasta. As is normal when we eat out, the main course is barely over and there’s already a sense of anticipation building on one side of the table about dessert. We order a selection to share — including homemade ice cream, cheesecake, and crisp, melt-in-the-mouth biscuits. Sophie’s chocolate-sauce smile is a testament to the quality. As parents, it’s a dream to find a grown-up restaurant that can be enjoyed as a family.”

Words: Campbell Reid. royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com

11 Wild Wadi water park
“We were really looking forward to our day at the water park. The best thing was the White Water Wadi, which connects to 11 slides, where water jets pushed us upwards really fast until we got to the top. Then we were spun around in our inflatable doughnuts and whooshed down another watery slide. Tantrum Alley and Burj Surj were fun, too. First, we went all together in a four-seat ring and whizzed round really quickly. My dad tried to trick us into going on the one that went upside down, but Mum and I went on a gentle ride where we floated around in doughnuts instead.”

Words: Sophie Reid (age six). Free for guests staying at Jumeirah hotels; AED205/165 (£38/£30, adults/children). wildwadi.com

12 Live like a local
Blogger Sarah Walton has lived in Dubai for five years

“My sons love to head into the old town for a helping of Egyptian feteer, a snack of flaky, bubbly cushions of crispy pastry with savoury or sweet fillings. To watch feteer being made, go to the lively Al Amoor in Karama, then eat it immediately, when it’s still warm. There are numerous places to try this sweet treat around Dubai. My Feteer Treasure Map plots the best places to seek out and sample it: thehedonista.com/2013/04/28/eating-up-dubai/

We often drive into the desert too, just to have cardamom tea and dates in the beautiful surroundings of the Bab al Shams resort. It’s like a luxury fort, so it’s not cheap but you can take tea in its secret nooks on Persian carpets and cushions. meydanhotels.com

Elsewhere, the Madinat Jumeirah is like a little city and even has its own souk. The boys like to watch the guy who makes the sand art jars. And they love the abras (boats) on the Venetian-style canals and turtle conservation area.” jumeirah.com

13 Sega Republic
What more could your kids want than an indoor theme park with five zones of thrilling rides and attractions, including 170 amusement games. Individual rides from AED15 (£3). segarepublic.com

14 Friday brunch
Indulge in a seriously social cultural institution that is Dubai’s Friday brunch. Hotels open their doors, proffering a smorgasbord of fine dining dishes and free-flowing Champagne, whether you want to devour the Brazilian Brunch at Fairmont The Palm’s Frevo, fill up on Milanese cuisine at the Armani Hotel Dubai’s Peck or dine at the Mina A’ Salam Brunch, with its al fresco seating and kids’ club. 

15 Dubai Fountain
For a spectacular piece of free entertainment, catch one of the fountain shows that light up the Burj Khalifa Lake each evening. A display choreographed to a medley of Arab, world and classical music sees the 886ft-long fountain shoot dancing water to a height of nearly 500ft, illuminated by 6,600 ‘superlights’. The attraction is the brightest spot in the Middle East — so incandescent it’s even visible from outer space. Combine a Lake trip with an early-evening visit to the Burj Khalifa or enjoy the show from one of the lakeside restaurants. It’s one of Dubai’s not-to-be-missed spectacles. burjkhalifa.ae

16 Take a break in Bur Dubai
Ride a water taxi to the city’s old quarter, a traditional antidote to Downtown’s glitz and glam

“We jump out of the taxi, which has found a tiny gap in the stream of tooting traffic and rushing people to let us out near Dubai’s ancient heart. It’s hot, it’s dusty, it’s noisy… but the moment we set foot in Bur Dubai, we’re on the edge of a different world.

Since we began planning our trip to Dubai, my 12-year-old son Calum has made it his ambition to see the original ‘village’ that gave birth to this iconic modern city. He’d pored over historical maps and Google images, fascinated by the emirate’s rate of growth from its humble beginnings mere decades ago.

We’re near the stretch of the meandering nine-mile Creek that was first settled by the Bani Yas tribe in 1833. By the early-20th century, it was a busy setting-off point for fishing and pearling expeditions.

We set off for the twisting lanes of Bastakia Quarter, Dubai’s true old town, where the traffic is barely audible. The wealth created by pearl fishing and textile trading is apparent in the restored two-storey wind-tower houses, built by merchants a century ago. They appear simple from the outside, but built around a central courtyard, their interiors hide beautiful carved detail.

The Dubai Museum is next on our list. It’s housed, appropriately, in what is believed to be Dubai’s oldest building — the Al-Fahidi Fort, which dates from 1799, and was once the seat of government and the residence of rulers.

The temperature’s rising, so we head into the museum’s cool interior. Sophie is fascinated by the dioramas depicting various aspects of old Dubai life. Her older brother, meanwhile, is engrossed in the modern multimedia representation of the history of Dubai. At 50p per person, it’s a fascinating place to wander without purpose.”

17 Creekside Park
Give the kids a runaround in the fresh air and over rolling hills at this waterside green space between Al-Maktoum and Al-Garhoud bridges, home to playgrounds and gardens as well as a 30-metre-high cable car ride offering spectacular views (£4.50 adult/£2.70 child). If they’ve still got energy to burn, hire bikes and pedal along its paths. creeksidepark.net

18 Get a henna tattoo
“They’re really pretty, with patterns made of swirly lines and flowers. The lady did it so quickly, even though it was a difficult pattern. She used something like an icing pen to keep the lines thin. My hand looked really nice and it lasted for weeks.” Words: Sophie (age six).

19 Creek life
If you need to cross the Creek between Bur Dubai and Deira, give the busy road bridges a miss and take the short trip on a traditional abra instead. Cheap and cheerful, these water taxis buzz between the Creek’s banks, ferrying passengers one way for just one dirham. Disembark on the Deira side and stroll the wharf, where wooden dhows wait to be loaded with their cargo — from fridges to fish — before setting sail for Iran or India.

An extended ride along the Creek cruises past historic waterfront houses and traditional wind towers, a reminder of the emirate’s village origins. Take one of the air-conditioned hop-on-hop-off water buses. Alternatively, hire your own abra; an hour costs around AED100 (£18). Or if you really want to splash out, book an atmospheric dinner cruise (AED350/£62 for 2.5 hours). bateauxdubai.com

20 The fast food challenge
After exploring the shops of the Dubai Mall, you’ll need to refuel. The buzzing food court on the second floor is a destination in itself. We resolved our competing desires for different food by giving the kids AED30 (£5.30) each and sending them off with the challenge of buying as much as they could for their fistful of notes. thedubaimall.com

21 Authentic flavours
Discover the gastronomically eye-awakening side of Old Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures. We chat to its founder, Arva Ahmed

Q. What’s on the menu?
It changes depending on the season. In summer, we host a four-course mystery menu that’s cooked up in ways to satisfy and surprise guests with every course. Think fluffy falafel made in front of your eyes; then an Iraqi restaurant for Baghdadi masgouf (butterflied carp barbecued on a roaring wood fire). Next stop could be a banquet of rice and mandi chicken, inspired by the Southern Yemen technique of cooking meat underground until it falls off the bone, and eaten the traditional way with fingers, sitting on floor cushions. We round off with a sweet treat such as the Egyptian take on fatayer — hand-tossed, layered pastry, stuffed with sweet cheese or cream, honey and nuts. And more… you need a big, empty stomach for one of our tours.

Q. What can people expect?
We explore on foot in the cooler months and in an air-conditioned minibus in summer. The places we visit have been satisfying the appetites of the ethnically diverse population for years with their traditional dishes.

Q. What kind of places do you visit?
We eat in down-to-earth, authentic restaurants in the Old Town — the cradle of today’s glittering Dubai.

Q. What do you hope people will get out of a tour?
An insight into a less-publicised side of Dubai, with insider information on the best places to eat. To witness how Dubai’s immigrant population cooks up a culinary confluence of the best of Middle Eastern, North African and Asian subcontinent cultures. And that it’s a safe, accessible and great place to pull up a dining chair in a simple yet authentic restaurant. I strive for an interactive journey discussing the food, and the history and culture behind the dishes served.

Q. How do tours reflect Dubai’s history and culture and the emirate today?
We show how Dubai’s unique position in a region known for its Bedouin hospitality, nomadic travel, sea-faring trade and religious history have combined to shape the evolution of Middle Eastern cuisine. People are astounded they can experience authentic food cultures from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan and Palestine in one evening.

Q. Who are tours for?
Visitors and residents. Groups are no bigger than eight to 10 people, and we can organise private itineraries for up to 25. We don’t recommend the public tours for children under 12, given the duration, and the late evening timing.

Q. How long do tours last?
Group tours last from two-and-a-half to four hours, depending on the season and the tour chosen.

Q. How often do they run?
We do three to four per week but it’s always worth enquiring about a date. You can book on the day too if we have space but it’s better to book ahead.

More info: Public tours from AED280 (£50). fryingpanadventures.com 

Published in the National Geographic Traveller Family – Dubai supplement, October 2013