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). After a few years of uncertainly, it's now developing faster than ever, and with its ever-growing number of theme parks looks set to become a rival to Orlando.
Come 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 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.
Things to do with kids in Dubai
Head for the beaches. Jumeirah Beach on the Arabian Gulf has soft white sand and shallow, warm waters; many of the larger hotels that front it have a private beach strip. Or there are five sheltered public beaches with changing rooms and private chalets to hire at Al Mamzar Beach Park on the Deira side of the Creek, plus a pool with a kids’ section, playgrounds, a little train, BBQ 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 aquatic high-jinks at the vast Wild Wadi Waterpark, which has more than 30 rides and attractions, many of them interconnected, including the 80km/h Jumeirah Sceirah. Or head for Atlantis the Palm (see Accommodation) and its waterpark, or the Wonder Land Theme & Water Park alongside the Creek.
Get back to nature at the Ras el Khor Wildlife Sanctuary near the Creek, home to 3,000 pink flamingos and also 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 (which is being closed down and will be replaced by Dubai Safari in due course).
Check out the theme parks. Dubai Parks and Resorts houses LEGOLAND Dubai, Motiongate Dubai (a Hollywood themed park including the world's first Hunger Games attractions), Bollywood Parks (Indian movie-themed attractions), Riverland (dining and shopping) and the Lapita Polynesian-themed family resort.
Discover the world's largest indoor theme-park, IMG Worlds of Adventure, with a Cartoon Network zone, Marvel superheroes zone and Lost Valley dinosaur-themed zone. It's part of Dubailand, a monster entertainment complex where other attractions at Dubailand include the Global Village (a Nov-April showcase of world cultures with a funfair featuring themed rides), and the Al Sahra Desert Resort, an equestrian centre with desert rides.
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. They’re 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).
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 bling. The Dubai Mall is no less than the biggest in the world, with more than 1,200 shops, a massive gold souk, a vast aquarium, 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 570 shops, 90-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, as well as being home to Ski Dubai, a year-round indoor ski resort (yes, really!). The Deira City Centre mall is also home to a Magic Planet and a 12-screen cinema, while the Egyptian-themed Wafi Mall has the Kids Connection play zone, a creche, an indoor pool and lazy river, and a glow-in-the-dark mini-golf course.
Watch a camel race – an ancient sport that’s had a popular revival in recent years, at Al Marmoum racetrack in the desert. You can also watch horse-racing at, among other venues, Meydan 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 (usually free) chukkas held at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club.
If the camel-riding tempts you and the kids, have a go yourself. The easiest option is to do it at Mushrif Park, a 30-minute drive from the city (past the airport), which also has pony rides, a mini-train, a ‘world village’ with miniature Thai stilt dwellings, Dutch windmills and other examples of global architecture, and swimming pools. More adventurous is riding a camel on a desert safari, which might also include driving over the dunes in a 4x4s enjoying an Arabic BBQ, watching a performance of music and belly-dancing or of falconry, and sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin tent. ‘Sand-skiing’ down the dunes, using surfboards, and horse-riding in the desert are also available.
Chill out in 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.
Leap aboard a doubledecker bus – a good way to get an overview, especially with little kids in tow. Hop-on hop-off tickets include a Creek cruise and entry to the Dubai Museum (in the city’s oldest building, with displays on everything from date farms to pearl diving) and Sheikh Saeed’s House (residence of the former ruler, 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 (see Accommodation), for instance, offers pool-based training for ages 8–10.
Head out to the Hajar Mountains, an hour's 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 – Shuwayyah Pool is your safest bet. Arabian Adventures' ‘mountain safari’ includes canyons, rocky valleys, date plantations and scenic fishing village Dibba.
Take a collective taxi (fast and frequent) and explore the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, the world’s richest city (the average citizen is said to be worth a cool $17billion).
Drive 40 minutes to Sharjah, known for its mosques, museums, souks and heritage district.
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, you can find anything you 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 iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows onto an aquarium and inventive cuisine (under-10s are welcome 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 between expensive restaurants and cheaper local cafés and shopping-mall food outlets. 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.
When to go to Dubai
For preference, come to Dubai in winter, when the weather's perfect – up to 24°C in January – except for wind and occasional heavy rain. Spring and autumn are also good - April and November average 25°C.
Summer can be too hot for some visitors, especially those with very young children - although kids' clubs and waterparks are both useful in their different ways (and summer deals for Dubai make prices more attractive). May averages 31°C, June and September 33°C, July 35°C and August 36°C - although of course it's possible for temperatures to go higher.
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 (note that Dubai is a popular location for multi-generational holidays with grandparents).
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Flying time7hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint6.05 CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
CurrencyUnited Emirates Dirham
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