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Dubai, the world’s most modern city – the seat of one of the seven United Arab Emirates – changes by the minute, free from the restrictions of an ancient history (it began life as a trading post with a prominent market). But it's also a desert mirage – a city built on the illusion, strongly challenged in the last few years, that money can continually be summoned up, like a genie from a lamp.
So come get it while you can – for the child-friendly beaches (it’s a hot bet for winter sun, with the flight-time only just tipping it over into a long-haul destination), the shopping and the myriad opportunities for family holiday fun, whether you want to explore the souks, splash out in a water-park or ride a camel out into the desert. And also for the hotels – some are so OTT, they’re tourist attractions in their own right.
|Flying Time||7 hours|
|Carbon Footprint||6.05 tonnes CO2|
|Local Currency||United Emirates Dirham|
Head for the beaches. Jumeirah Beach on the Arabian Gulf has soft white sand and shallow, warm turquoise waters; many of the larger hotels that front it have a private strip of it. Or there are five sheltered public beaches with changing rooms and private chalets to hire at Al Mamzar Park on the Deira side of the Creek, plus a swimming pool with a kids’ section, playgrounds, a little train, barbecue sites, food kiosks and picnic areas for families. Watersports, including jet-skiing and water-skiing, are readily available on Dubai’s beaches.
There are more water high-jinks at the vast Wild Wadi, which has more than 20 rides, 14 of them interconnected, from the family-oriented Summit Surge and Rushdown Ravine to the 80km/h Jumeirah Sceirah, with a dizzying 33m freefall drop. Or head for Atlantis the Palm (see Accommodation) and its water-park, dolphin centre and underwater labyrinth, or the Wonderland Theme & Water Park alongside the Creek.
Get back to nature at the Ras el Khor Wildlife Sanctuary near the Creek, which as well as being home to 3000 pink flamingos is the only place in the world where you can see white-collared kingfishers. It’s a better bet than the cramped and often smelly Dubai Zoo.
However, the latter is slated to relocate to larger premises within Dubailand, a monster entertainment complex that will end up twice the size of Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort. At the time of writing, attractions already open were the Dubai Autodrome motor-racing circuit, the Global Village (an annual – Nov-Feb – showcase of world cultures with a funfair featuring themed rides based on characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder and Pingu), and the Al Sahra Desert Resort, where you can see the spectacular show 'Jumana - Secret of the Desert', celebrating Arabian history and folklore themes in an open-air amphitheatre, and including laser and water effects, pyrotechnics and fireworks, acrobats and camels. Al Sahra also offers camel-treks, horse-rides and donkey-cart rides in the dunescape. In time, Dubailand will also contain the Sahara Kingdom theme-park, a Dreamworks park, a Six Flags theme-park, a Marvel Superhoes theme-park and a Legoland.
Shop ‘til you drop – after all, this is a city that hosts a month-long Shopping Festival (Jan/Feb, including children’s events). First explore the atmospheric souks (Arabic markets), especially the colourful, aromatic spice souk and the glittering gold souk (make sure to take your sunglasses). They’re located on both sides of the historic waterway, the Creek, which you can cross in an abra (wooden taxi-boat), admiring the old wind-towers and the contrast between the traditional and the spanking-new architecture. (Organised Creek tours are also available).
Then, for a totally contrasting retail experience, head for a mall – Dubai does these better than virtually anywhere on the planet, with around 50, functioning as social hubs as well as selling goods ranging from bargain-basement to full-on bling. The Dubai Mall is no less than the biggest in the world, with more than 1200 shops, a massive gold souk, a vast aquarium and discovery centre, an Olympic-size ice rink, a SEGA theme-park, a kids’ ‘edu-tainment’ venue called KidZania, a 22-screen Cineplex and plenty more besides. Mall of the Emirates has a mere 450 shops, 70-plus eateries, the two-level Magic Planet indoor amusement park (with soft-play, themed rides, a childcare centre, and its own restaurants), and a 14-screen cineplex. The Deira City Centre mall is also home to a Magic Planet and an 11-screen cinema, while the Egyptian-themed Wafi Mall has the supervised Encounter Zone for kids of all ages.
Watch a camel race – an ancient sport that’s had a popular revival in recent years. Informal tracks spring up in the desert, but the best place to head is the Nad al Sheba Camel Racetrack on the fringes of the city. Races are hosted here on Thursdays and Fridays Oct–April – you’ll need to be an early bird, as they take place from 7 to 9am (alternatively, come for the training sessions at about 5.30pm). Camels – these days ridden by robots rather than children – are surprisingly nifty, reaching speeds of up to 70km/h. You can also watch horse-racing at, among other venues, the Nad al Sheba Racecourse, which hosts the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race. Polo is a popular sport here too – take a picnic to watch one of the (free) chukkas held at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club four times weekly.
If the camel-racing tempts you and the kids, have a ride yourself. The soft option is to head for Mushrif Park, a 30min drive from the city (past the airport), which offers camel and pony rides, plus a mini-train, a ‘world village’ with miniature Thai stilt dwellings, Dutch windmills and other examples of global architecture, and swimming pools. The more adventurous can ride a camel on a desert safari, which might also include driving over the dunes in 4x4s, enjoying an open-air Arabic BBQ, watching a performance of music and belly-dancing or of falconry, and sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin tent. A long-established safari operator is Net Tours, which also offers ‘sand-skiing’ down the dunes, using surfboards. Horse-riding in the desert is available too.
Chill out in the lush waterfront Creekside Park with its botanical gardens, fishing piers, play areas, boat rides, bike hire and 2.5km cable-car ride along the shore, offering gorgeous views. Or try Safa Park, which includes a ‘mini-city’ with scaled-down roads, traffic lights and so on for kids, a lake with boating, a waterfall and a fountain, and more.
Ski! The UAE may not be the most obvious choice to catch some snowy thrills, but Ski Dubai, its year-round indoor ski resort, goes down a treat with locals, especially in the searing heat of summer. As well as a ski slope, it offers tobogganing hills, a bobsled ride, tubing and a snow cavern filled with interactive experiences. Heck, you can even build a snowman here.
Leap aboard a doubledecker bus – again, not what you might expect to do in the UAE, but a good way of getting an overview of the sights, especially for those with little kids in tow. Hop-on hop-off tickets include a Creek cruise and entry to the Dubai Museum (set inside the city’s oldest building, with displays on everything from date farms to pearl diving) and Sheikh Saeed’s House (the residence of the former ruler, now hosting history exhibitions).
For an entirely different overview of the city and the surrounding desert, take a sunrise hot-air balloon trip with Amigos Balloons, best for ages six and over.
Scuba-dive – Dubai has some very good wreck-diving, and many of the hotels have their own diving club. The minimum age for scuba-diving is 10 but the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, for instance, offers pool-based training for ages 8–10.
Head out to the Hajar Mountains, a 1hr journey popular among ‘wadi-bashers’ (people exploring dry stream-beds by 4x4), picnickers and campers (there’s a campsite at Wadi Al Qahfi). Sadly, some of the famous Hatta Pools within a springwater gorge are no longer fit for swimming due to litter-bugs – Shuwayyah Pool is your safest bet. Arabian Adventures leads a ‘mountain safari’ culminating at the Hatta Heritage Village, a restored 16th-century village with a fort housing a museum, watchtowers and a mosque.
Take a collective taxi (fast and frequent) and explore the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, the world’s richest city (it’s been calculated that the average citizen here is worth a cool $17billion).
Drive 40 minutes to the UNESCO-designated ‘Cultural Capital of the Arab World', Sharjah.
In keeping with Dubai’s apparent ambition to become a microcosm of the entire globe, offering everything under the sun to those with the money and/or the leisure time, thoes on family holidays can find virtually anything they care to dream up food-wise here, from local specialities and other Middle Eastern fare to every permutation of global cuisine, whether you’re in the mood for sushi or a juicy steak. The food is generally high quality and the standard of service reliably high.
Most hotel-restaurants offer children’s menus, including Al Mahara at the Burj Al Arab – a suitably weird simulated submarine-ride experience specializing in fish (under-12s are only allowed at lunch). Hotels are also good places to head for a Dubai Friday brunch, many offering a play area and kids’ entertainments such as face-painting.
Venturing beyond your hotel-restaurant (the only places where alcohol is available), you can choose from expensive restaurants and cheaper local cafés. Fresh fish from the Arabian Gulf is always good – try lobster, crab, shrimp, grouper, tuna, kingfish or red snapper, grilled, stuffed or fried with spices.
Come to Dubai in winter, when the weather's terrific – up to 24°C in January – except for wind and occasional heavy rain. Between April and October daily temperatures rise above 40°C (peaking in July), which is far too hot for family holidays with young children and a great many adults too.
It’s a 7hr flight from the UK to Dubai with a variety of airlines, including British Airways. Time-wise, Dubai is four hours ahead of GMT, which means jetlag should be factored into family holidays.
The airport is within a 30min drive of most hotels, so you don’t need to hire a car unless you're exploring further afield.
Considering the high standard of accommodation and service and the length of the flight, Dubai is actually quite a reasonably priced family holiday destination, even in our winter season. And some of what you shell out on travel and accommodation may be offset, to some degree, by the great shopping bargains you score.
Also, with the sheer number of hotels vying for your custom, you can often count on fantastic deals to this playground for adults and kids alike.
There are some famously extravagant hotels here – some are landmarks in their own right, and some with their own tourist attractions, such as waterparks. Dubai isn’t the place for budget family holiday accommodation – and even if there was some, you’d be missing the point of coming here. If you insist, sign up with a home-swap website and see if you can trade your pad for a villa in Dubai for a couple of weeks.
For an escape from the city, head for the Hatta Fort Hotel, a retreat in the Hajar Mountains about an hour from Dubai, close to Hatta Pools (see Things to Do). It has swimming pools, including one for children, a playground and kids’ activities.
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