Editor’s Note: Terry Carter and his wife and writing partner, Lara Dunston, have written half a dozen travel guides to Dubai and the UAE and have made it their home base since 1998.
When you think of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a holiday spot, sun and sand probably come to mind. You picture yourself working on your tan on the beach all day, punctuated by dips in the Arabian Sea – which you would normally associate with summer anywhere else.
Yet summer in the Persian Gulf region is unbearably hot and humid. Winter is actually high season in the UAE and Dubai; November to April is the best time to visit this easygoing Middle East destination. With that in mind here are 10 reasons to visit the UAE in winter.
#1 – Winter is warm in the UAE
While the UK and Europe and parts of the USA are experiencing freezing winter temperatures, in the UAE there is a balmy average of around 20C (70F). You can still bask in the sun on the beaches of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, and the resorts that line the dramatic east coast of Fujairah and Khor Fakkhan, without turning into burnt toast.
Even if you’re not staying at a beach resort, there are plenty of pristine, white-sand, public beaches, including Open Beach (AKA Russian Beach), Kite Beach and Umm Suqeim at Jumeirah in Dubai, and beaches dotted all along the UAE’s coastline. Ajman has loads of lovely creamy sand beaches and Khor Fakkhan’s main beach is backed by a grassy park with has more facilities than most.
#2 – The cities are walkable!
For most of the year it’s impossible to walk anywhere in the UAE – let’s just say it’s akin to being inside a hot oven. Fortunately in winter the country’s cities are wonderfully walkable. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Khor Fakkhan all have stunning Corniches or seaside promenades, where locals like to stroll, jog and rollerblade, and in the evening and on weekends they really buzz.
In Dubai you can walk right along the Creek: start at Al Seef Road Park in Bur Dubai, meander the labyrinthine lanes of the artsy Bastakiya quarter, then mosey through the textile souq all the way to historic Shindagha; backtrack to the abra station and take one of the small wooden boats across the Creek where you can wander along the fascinating dhow docks.
Sharjah also has a wharf where the dhows anchor that is interesting to amble, and the pedestrianised heritage and arts precincts that are much more pleasant to saunter in winter. In Al Ain, the shady paths of the date plantations are infinitely more pleasurable to meander at this time of the year.
#3 – Throw a snag on the grill
Winter means it’s time to get the barbecue out for most locals and expats. On weekends and weeknights the cities’ parks are crowded with families and friends picnicking and grilling smoky kebabs on tiny portable barbecues.
This they’ll follow with coffee and sheesha (water pipe) and a game of something – for the Indians and expats from Commonwealth countries it’s cricket season, and for everyone else it will be some other kind of ball sport or a more sedate game of backgammon on a fold-up table. Grab some picnic supplies from the deli counter of a supermarket and join them.
In Dubai, head for palm-shaded Creekside Park with manicured lawns stretching from Al Garhoud Bridge all the way to Al Maktoum Bridge, kiosks, a cable car and gorgeous city views; 51-hectare park Za’abeel Park, Dubai’s answer to New York’s Central Park, boasts lakes and ponds, sports facilities, a café, and jaw-dropping views of Sheikh Zayed Road’s skyline at sunset; and Jumeirah Beach Park, on Jumeirah Rd, where palm trees shade barbeques and picnic tables set on lush lawns overlooking a lovely long stretch of beach.
#4 – Winter shopping is best
Every UAE city has a chaotic souq (market) of some kind, and gaping at the dazzling displays of gold, haggling for fine Persian carpets, or browsing stalls crammed with sacks of frankincense and spices are a must no matter what time of year you visit. But it’s much more fun to haggle with the stall-holders for bargains when the perspiration is not dripping from your brow, your clothes are not drenched with sweat, and you don’t feel the need to retreat to an air-conditioned shopping mall every few minutes.
The most lively and interesting souqs are in Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain; Ras Al Khaimah and Um Al Quwein have tiny ramshackle souqs; Abu Dhabi has an interesting Iranian souq at the mina (port) although it’s mainly household goods. In winter, you’ll also get to discover markets that are only held during the cooler months. In Dubai there is a weekend arts and crafts market at Dubai Marina, a flea market at Safa Park, and an art fair in the Bastakiya quarter. In Fujairah, you’ll find a colourful market right along the waterfront.
#5 – It’s festival time!
Winter also sees plenty of festivals in the country. Given the country’s preoccupation with shopping, we’ll start with the one that helped put Dubai on the map, the Dubai Shopping Festival (Jan 28–Feb 28). It’s a month of credit-card-busting bargains best explored at Dubai’s mega-malls such as Mall of the Emirates and The Dubai Mall. It’s incredibly popular, but the popularity of Modhesh the event mascot with the head of a yellow M&M and the body of a concertina footpump, remains a mystery.
From late November until the end of February Dubai is home to the Global Village, with pavilions representing an array of cultures from around the world with plenty of entertainment and, of course, shopping. Attracting acts from all over the world is the Dubai Jazz Fest in Mid-February, with a more eclectic program than the name would suggest.
A little bit more ‘earthy’ is Dubai’s Heritage & Diving Village on the Creek at Shindagha, which comes alive on winter nights. There’s no denying this recreation of a traditional Bedouin coastal village is touristy, but in winter you’ll find more Emiratis here than foreigners, when there are traditional song and dance performances, including the mesmerising Liwa dance where Emirati men in crisp white dishdashas stand in rows facing each other and sway back and forth with their canes.
#6 – Spectator Sports Galore
The cooler months sees Dubai’s sporting calendar move into top gear. Starting it off was the 3-day Dubai Rugby 7s held in December – a big set of dates on Dubai’s social calendar for expats, so much so that they had to construct a purpose-built venue for the event. Dubai’s penchant for ugly mascots continues unimpeded, mascot Saba’a the camel is perhaps the least attractive on earth.
For those who want to participate in an international sporting event rather than just watch, the Dubai Marathon is held late-January and features a full marathon, 10km road race and 3km fun run. Dubai is so flat you might just record your best time ever.
Back to watching the worlds’ best: the action heats up with The Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament early February featuring some of the best players in the world, followed later in the month by Dubai Tennis Championships that attracts the world’s best women’s players followed by the men’s tournament a week later.
While horse racing is on all winter, late March sees the end of the sports season marked by the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse racing program, with a total purse prize of over US$26 million.
#7 – You can do stuff
November to April is the best time to visit Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can admire Dubai’s 3,000-plus, pretty, pink flamingo population that flocks here in winter months; binoculars can be borrowed at the viewing hides.
If you’re in a hurry to see the city, you could do worse than take the open-top, hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tour of Dubai – riding in the breeze at other times of the year will leave your skin red as a beet.
Sometimes pointlessly derided as ‘fake’ by those who don’t know how to have fun, a desert safari offers the opportunity to get out and tick off a bunch of must-do Dubai boxes: wild desert driving (only in approved areas, of course), camel riding, sandboarding, smoking sheesha, feasting on Middle Eastern food, bellydancing, henna tattoos and, of course, drooling at the desert sunset.
Winter is the best time for a safari by far. We think it’s worth it for the sunset over the sand dunes alone.
#8 – You can eat al fresco
UAE cities boast countless cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating that are impossible to enjoy most of the year, but in winter lunching in the sun or dining under the stars is sublime.
In Dubai, Basta Art Café, located in the leafy courtyard of a traditional windtower building in the Bastakiya, is one of the most atmospheric places for lunch. In the evenings, an Arabic meal and sheesha at creekside Kan Zaman at Al Shindagha is an enchanting spot to watch the nightly parade of illuminated party boats on the Creek.
For a romantic meal, Pier Chic, a seafood restaurant on a wharf offshore from Al Qasr Hotel has magical views of Madinat Jumeirah; Chinese restaurant Zheng He’s nearby at Mina A’Salam Hotel has breathtaking vistas of Burj Al Arab; alluring Eauzone, at the One&Only Royal Mirage hotel, is accessed across a low-list boardwalk and surrounded by tranquil ponds and a swimming pool; while Maya, a chic Mexican restaurant at Le Royal Méridien Hotel, has alfresco dining tables as well as a rooftop bar with sea views.
Many of the cheap shwarma (like doner kebab) stands and simple Lebanese and Indian restaurants often have outdoor seating where you can watch the world go by. In Dubai, try Al Mallah for tasty Lebanese food on buzzy Al Dhiyafah Street, Satwa; and Al Mateena Rd, Deira, with its palm-filled median and dozens of Iraqi and Persian kebab restaurants. Ashwaq Cafeteria, one block from the Gold Souq, has tiny tables and stools you can perch while you people-watch.
#9 – You can drink in the breeze
Winter evenings are wonderful in the UAE, like spring nights elsewhere, and there are some fantastic outdoor bars where you can down some drinks with friends while enjoying the salty sea breeze.
In Dubai, you can watch the boats bobbing on the water with a glass of bubbly at The Terrace at the Park Hyatt Hotel, a waterfront vodka and champagne bar. Or drink Guinness on the grass as you watch a live band at the Irish Village, Al-Garhoud. Sip a glass of white as you enjoy the Burj Al Arab light show from the wooden veranda of colonial-style Bahri Bar, Mina A’ Salam Hotel; or smoke aromatic sheesha reclining on cushions surrounded by palm trees illuminated with fairy lights at the Sheesha Courtyard, One&Only Royal Mirage Hotel. If your thing is cocktails to the beat of a DJ overlooking the Arabian Seam, head to the funky rooftop bar 360 degrees at Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
#10 -And if you really want, you can still ski!
If, after all this, you’re starting to get anxious over the white winter you’re missing while you’re here, you can always hit the slopes at Ski Dubai, Dubai’s first indoor ski resort. It’s the real deal, with a quad lift and a drag lift, a ‘black’ run, and a kid’s snowpark. All the equipment is included in the price, you just need to bring gloves. There’s even a café where you can have a hot chocolate on the snow – and you won’t need to de-ice the rental car to get home…