As a city that has risen from the desert in just a few decades, you might at first glance think the only experience on offer in Dubai would be five star hotels, luxury shopping malls and fine dining restaurants.
On my three-day stopover in this popular tourism hub I tried to peel back the shiny veneer to discover what else Dubai has to offer.
There is nowhere better to get to grips with the epic proportions of this city than the Burj Khalifa. Standing at 829.8m tall, this impressive feat of engineering is the tallest building in the world and offers visitors spectacular views over the Dubai skyline. Standing and staring out from such a height, you could be forgiven for thinking you're looking down at a miniature model that hasn't quite been finished.
The Burj Khalifa was built as the centerpiece of the Downtown development, an area close to the oldest and most cultural parts of Dubai. This was to be our base for the stopover, staying at the recently opened Vida Downtown hotel.
In a city where high rises and skyscrapers rule, it's not surprising most hotels are the same. Vida Downtown was different. Built on just five levels, the hotel is boutique in style, by Dubai standards. The décor is light, the service attentive, but not overbearing. The resulting vibe is no coincidence, hotel manager, Daniel Kingston tells me when we sit down. A New Zealander who has managed hotels across the world, he was looking to create an atmosphere of comfort and convenience.
Although the hotel is surrounded by many food outlets, it has itself become somewhat of a mecca for foodies, with four restaurants and lounges. Perhaps most noteworthy is the hotel's adaptation of a Dubai institution. While the rest of the city irons its table cloths for a busy Friday brunch, the Vida Downtown instead fills wicker baskets with gourmet delights for its Urban Picnic hosted by the hotel pool.
The Vida Downtown become somewhat of a mecca for foodies. Photo / James Hacon
When suitably stuffed from a breakfast of gargantuan proportions, it's time to get out and about to explore what the rest of the city has to offer. Avoiding the tourist hubs of Jumeirah Beach and new Dubai, our guide from Arabian Adventures, Renate, whisked us through the narrow streets of the historical districts of Al Ahmadiya and Al Fahadi - crossing the Dubai creek by traditional means in an Abra, whenever needed. The gold and spice souks, or markets, are well worth a visit, but go early to avoid the masses. With an accompanying visit to the nearby Dubai Museum, this will give you the closest glimpse of what the original Dubai would have been like.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
To dig deeper into the culture of the Emirati people, book a brunch at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. A two-hour lunchtime event with traditional food hosted by Emirati students from local universities, you'll learn about Dubai's culture and history as well as some of the issues it currently faces. During our visit, the room was packed with newly-settled expats to the UAE and a handful of visitors. It was a real eye opener and you're even given the opportunity to ask all those awkward questions you may have about the locals' culture, religion or beliefs.
Explore Dubai's colourful souks early to avoid the crowds. Photo / James Hacon
From bustling daytime markets and city streets to Middle Eastern culinary delights, with the cooling temperatures as day turns to night, Dubai comes alive. To escape the bustling streets and busy restaurants, consider heading out of the city with Arabian Adventures for a Sundowner dune dinner safari. The evening-long tour includes some pretty epic off-road driving across the dunes, followed by camel riding, a falconry display and a feast of Middle Eastern cuisine - all with the backdrop of a traditional Bedouin-style camp. Whilst a little touristy, it's great fun and a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the Arabian Desert.
Back in the city, one activity that cannot be missed is Frying Pan Adventures. Over four hours, you and your taste buds are transported on a culinary journey across the Middle East, without leaving Deira, one of the oldest suburbs of Dubai.
Our guide - founder and self-titled 'Chief Executive Muncher' Arva Ahmed - just oozes passion and charisma. With so many restaurants and so much tasting ahead of you, Arva guides you on how much to eat at each stop, ensuring that you'll make it through to the end, where a well-deserved certification of completion awaits. This isn't a glitzy occasion, this is about eating where the real people of Dubai eat and getting to really understand the many cultures that make up this melting pot of a city. Ranked number one of all the tours in Dubai, it fills up quickly so book earl and don't miss out!
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Emirates has regular flights from Auckland and Christchurch to Dubai.
Playing there: Arabian Adventures offers a wide range of private and group guided tours as well as transfers. These include the Sundowner Safari Dune Dinner and Old Town Walking Tours.
Eating there: Frying Pan Adventures' guided walking tour include food at multiple restaurants, selected beverages and great opportunity to learn about the diverse culture of Dubai and the Middle East.
James Hacon travelled as a guest of Emirates and the Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing.