Dubai is a city celebrated for its cosmopolitan feel, endless beaches and all-over glamour. A sparkling locale on the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf, Dubai holds a spot on many top 10 tourism lists and even boasts the world’s busiest international airport. It’s hard to believe the city barely warranted mention in travel guidebooks not long ago.
With its impeccable beaches, larger-than-life skyline and world-class cuisine, Dubai is perfect for both urban- and resort-leaning vacationers. But what did this bold, glitzy city have to offer to a history- and culture-loving gluten-free traveler like me? I couldn’t wait to find out and was surprised to find it satisfied all of my needs from the historic to the gluten-free gastronomical.
Learn about Emirati culture
The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding is just the place to start, whether you have a little or a lot to learn about the United Arab Emirates and its culture. Located in Bur Dubai, one of the city’s historic districts, the center promotes cultural education with a series of regular events. The cultural breakfasts and lunches are popular but rife with gluten-containing traditional dishes. Gluten-free eaters will likely enjoy the offerings available at the historic tours more.
Sign up for one of the center’s heritage tours, which include a guided walk through Dubai’s Al Bastakiya and Al Fahidi neighborhoods. Cool off with an icy beverage in a shaded café or under the historic wind towers, an early sort of air conditioning in this hot city. Afterward you’ll be treated to Arabic coffee or tea and dates, along with time for questions and answers at the center. If you’d prefer more insight into Dubai’s religious culture, attend one of the center’s daily tours of the Grand Jumeirah Mosque, located on the southern end of the city.
Visit the international districts
Dubai is a melting pot in every sense of the term. Only about 15 percent of the population here is native Emirati, while the remaining 85 percent of Dubai’s residents hail from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran, the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The result is a unique cultural mix that you’ll encounter from the architecture to the music to the food. For a taste of the city’s global appeal, visit Dubai’s international districts centered around Bur Dubai. No matter what’s on your shopping list, there’s plenty of bargaining to be had in Al Satwa and Al Karama. If you’re craving a homelike Indian or Pakistani meal, there are also countless restaurants serving extensive brunches and dinners here. Many are naturally gluten free, but it’s always a good idea to inquire with the restaurant manager.
For a healthy and worry-free lunch in this area, head straight for the modern Dubai International Financial Centre, which towers over the southern end of Bur Dubai. Inside is the Gluten-Free Kitchen & Café, a completely gluten-free shop that focuses on nutrition and wellness. Owner Areej Jomaa has been baking gluten free for many years, and her expertise shines in the wide range of sweet and savory goodies. The quiches and breakfast sandwiches are great for brunch, while the sandwiches and protein-packed salads make for a tasty and healthy lunch. Don’t leave without one of the Gluten-Free Kitchen & Café’s raspberry tarts, chocolate éclairs or my favorite, the raw coconut brownies.
Explore the old city
Though Dubai is building a well-deserved reputation for rapid growth and reaching new heights with its awe-inspiring skyscrapers, there’s plenty to see, smell and experience in the old city. Deira, the historic commercial center, is the best place to get a feel for old Dubai.
Here you’ll see alleyways bustling with shoppers, souks or markets, filled with vendors plying their wares and the small blue boats called dhows, moored at the edge of Dubai Creek’s equally blue water. The souks here are the ideal spot to shop for some of Dubai’s traditional goods and test out your haggling chops.
At the Deira Souk, it’s easy to get lost among the narrow passageways, where entire streets are dedicated to particular items such as jewelry or textiles. At the spice and herb souks, for instance, you’ll be greeted by mound after mound of fragrant dried spices, herbs, teas and flowers.
At the gold souk, more than 300 vendors will be ready to sell you everything from gold bracelets to necklaces to crowns. At the textile souk across the creek, you’ll find endless rows of scarves, pashminas and headwear. If you intend to do some serious shopping, it’s best to arrive here with a budget in mind. Of course if you’re just looking, Deira Souk is also a fun place to browse.
Marvel at the Burj Khalifa
Though you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Burj Khalifa tower from nearly anywhere in Dubai, it’s worth a trip to see the world’s tallest building up close. Get a ticket to go to the top of the tower, and you’ll get to see the city from the world’s highest observation deck.
For a more personal experience, reserve a table at At.mosphere and enjoy a drink at the world’s highest restaurant. You won’t find gluten-free options on the food menu here, so toast with a glass of champagne instead.
The Dubai Mall, a huge shopping center that offers much more than just retail stores, is adjacent to the Burj Khalifa. For a late afternoon nosh, visit Fortnum & Mason, the only international outpost of the U.K. institution that serves a classic afternoon tea.
The gluten-free version comes with your choice of beverage, several tea sandwiches, fresh scones and a selection of gluten-free baked goods. The buttery scones were some of the best I’ve tried, especially with liberal applications of clotted cream and jam.
For a nice sit-down meal after an hour or two of shopping and people watching at Dubai Mall, try Carluccio’s. This Italian chain is based in the U.K. and thankfully has locations all over Dubai. All restaurants have a gluten-free menu featuring everything from antipasti to pasta to grilled meats and fish. The pasta dishes really stand out here, from the Smoky Spaghetti Carbonara to the Frutti Di Mare, with prawns, mussels and calamari in a light garlic sauce.
If you visit later in the evening, you’ll even get to catch the Dubai Fountain’s performance in the mall’s courtyard area, right at the foot of the Burj Khalifa. Yet another superlative, this is the world’s largest choreographed fountain. In the evenings, it puts on an impressive show, complete with music, lights and admiring crowds.
Indulge in Jumeirah
Once a quiet expat community in Dubai, Jumeirah has grown into a large coastal area peppered with luxury hotels and white sand beaches. Whether or not you stay in Jumeirah, this is the best place for a swim in the sea or a snooze under a shady umbrella.
Jumeirah Beach features soft sand and crystal clear water, while Kite Beach has plenty of activities for visitors of all ages. Get a kite surfing lesson, join a beach volleyball game or try stand-up paddle boarding. At both beaches there’s also ample space to catch some rays and gaze out at the magnificent sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, a luxury hotel built on its own manmade island just offshore.
Back on land, Madinat Jumeirah is one of the area’s biggest attractions. A sort of contemporary take on an Arab village, this complex has an extensive market that looks like a modern version of the Deira Souk, along with multiple hotels and lush grounds. At the bazaar-like Souk Madinat, you’ll find dozens of shops selling everything from antiques to textiles to handicrafts. In the courtyard you don’t want to miss the sweets at the Gluten-Free Kitchen & Café kiosk or the organic market on the weekends.
One of my favorite Dubai experiences is hidden partway through the maze of Madinat Jumeirah in the Al Qasr hotel. Here you’ll find the hotel’s sumptuous lobby space, Al Fayrooz Lounge.
From the lounge’s outdoor patio there’s a gorgeous view of the sparkling Persian Gulf and the Burj Al Arab. But inside is the real jewel. The atmosphere here is elegant, with local touches like rich fabrics and intricate patterns, gigantic dark-paneled ceiling fans, and comfortable sofas for relaxing with friends and family.
Afternoon tea is a specialty at the lounge, and with just a little advance notice, pastry chef Paul Hayward can prepare a gluten-free tea fit for royalty. From quiches to foie gras tea sandwiches, all of the savory items are perfectly delectable. The sweets, including profiteroles with cream, passion fruit cheesecakes, mango tarts, and scones with cream and rose petal jam, are almost too beautiful to eat.
The absolute star of the show, however, is the miniature chocolate fountain for dipping your fruit, jellies and gluten-free cake pops. For a truly decadent gluten-free time in Dubai, don’t miss the tea at Al Fayrooz Lounge.
Ride the dunes
If you’re seeking a little adventure after all that decadence, a trip to Dubai isn’t complete without an excursion into the desert just outside the city.
Opt for one of the extreme dune-bashing rides, which treat the dunes like a natural roller coaster, or book one of the all-encompassing desert safari packages, with camel rides and belly dancing. Some tours are geared toward adults, while others are safe for kids, so if you’re traveling with family be sure to get the scoop beforehand.
Take a day trip to Abu Dhabi
If you can spare an extra day during your trip, make Abu Dhabi your destination. Only 90 miles away, the capital of the UAE is a completely different world. While Dubai features nonstop movement, Abu Dhabi moves at a much slower pace.
If Dubai’s speed has taken its toll, Abu Dhabi is the perfect respite. To travel between the two cities, you can easily take a taxi or one of the frequent public buses. For a family, a taxi is the most convenient option, while the bus is a reasonable choice for couples or solo travelers.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the city’s most fascinating attractions and is the one Abu Dhabi site where I wish I could have spent an entire day. Take a self-guided tour of this massive complex. Your jaw will quite literally drop as you take in the crystal chandeliers, inlaid marble and calligraphy, not to mention the largest carpet in the world. Outside, meditate on the reflecting pools and relax with a wander through the landscaped grounds. Guided tours are also available, and it’s all free.
For lunch head over to one of the nearby hotel restaurants for an upscale gluten-free meal. Inside the Souk Qaryat Al Beri hotel and shopping area, Ushna serves some of the most memorable North Indian cuisine.
Many of the dishes are naturally gluten free, but Chef Sandeep Ail is also well-versed in safe gluten-free preparation. From the almost architectural aloo chaat, a wonderfully fresh potato and chickpea starter, to the dal makhani, a buttery black lentil dish, to the flourless chocolate cake, you’ll have a fantastically flavorful meal with a view of the Grand Mosque.
For an incredible Italian meal try Frankie’s Italian Restaurant & Bar in the neighboring Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel. The emphasis here is on deliciously healthy food, and you’ll find separate menus here for gluten-free, vegan and diabetic diners.
Chef Gianluca Cazzin can also easily customize dishes and will wow you with gluten-free versions of creamy polenta with burrata cheese or rich gnocchi with pink sauce. The gluten-free tiramisu is a must for dessert.
In the late afternoon take a stroll along Abu Dhabi’s corniche, the boardwalk that stretches for miles along the beach. It will almost certainly be sunny, but you’ll find shady spots and places to grab a cool drink, along with your choice of beaches. Be sure to take a break and dip your toes into the sparkling waters of the protected bay, just off the Persian Gulf.
For dinner, reserve an early table at Hakkasan, inside the Emirates Palace at the western end of the corniche. An outpost of the original Michelin-starred location, the Abu Dhabi restaurant is an intoxicating mix of traditional Chinese and modern Emirati design. Be sure to ask for the gluten-free menu here, but be assured that Chef Lee Kok Hua is a master at gluten-free Chinese cuisine. Don’t miss the signature Roasted Mango Duck, the marvelously artistic Golden Fried Soft Shell Crab, or the cool Housemade Sorbet.
When to go
It should come as no surprise that due to its desert location, Dubai is warm year-round. The temperature is lowest in late fall to early spring, but it’s always warm if not downright hot.
During my February visit the temperature averaged a pleasant 80 degrees. The mercury regularly climbs over 100 degrees from about May to September, though. If you do visit during the summer, rest assured that you’ll find plenty of infrastructure in place to help you stay cool. Dubai’s many shopping malls and Western hotels are well air-conditioned, as is the metro system.
How to navigate the city
If Dubai lacks one thing, it’s walkability. While you can wander around in specific neighborhoods, it’s simply not possible to cover very much ground on foot. The city stretches for miles along the Persian Gulf and the Dubai Creek, and neighborhoods either aren’t connected or are just too far apart.
Fortunately transportation in Dubai is affordable. Licensed taxis are plentiful, and you can easily hail one at a hotel or shopping center. The Dubai metro will also take you to all major neighborhoods, and the system is easy to navigate.
Where to stay
Dubai has hundreds of hotels, thanks to its booming tourism industry and the city’s preparation for the World Expo in 2020. If you want to experience Dubai at its finest, seek out one of the city’s numerous beachfront resorts, where you’ll find a level of luxury unlike anywhere else. If you’re on a tighter budget, there are plenty of more affordable options, from local inns to international hotel chains.
Live like royalty at Al Qasr, a palatial hotel within the Madinat Jumeirah complex. Designed as a summer abode fit for a sheikh, this hotel is like a luxurious little oasis. Stroll over to the Talise Spa for a beachside massage, take a spin through the waterpark, or do some high-end shopping at the adjacent Souk Madinat. For breakfast request some of the gluten-free delicacies at the hotel’s Al Fayrooz Lounge.
An excellent Western option near Deira, the Hyatt Place Dubai Al Rigga offers friendly and somewhat upscale accommodations with easy access to the rest of the city. The morning breakfast buffet is complimentary for all guests, and you’ll have your choice of about a dozen naturally gluten-free items.
Fuel up for a day of adventures with fresh fruit, raw vegetables, hummus, cheese, scrambled eggs, juice and coffee. Don’t hesitate to inquire with the chef if you have concerns about cross-contamination at the buffet.
Whether you’re traveling for the historical aspects, the futuristic elements, or the luxurious accommodations, Dubai is well worth a visit. You’ll find plenty to keep your family entertained or ample time to relax. With a little advance planning you’ll be able to indulge in Dubai’s multicultural world-class gluten-free cuisine as well.