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Dubai's mystique, beauty captivate travelers' imaginations

By Caroline Faraj, CNN
  • Dubai is associated with huge architectural feats, but there's a "real" side to the place, too
  • Look for the markets and desert dunes, and of course visit the towering Burj Khalifa
  • Cosmopolitan food options and expansive palaces tempt the adventurous traveler
  • Have you been to Dubai? Share your story with CNN iReport.

Editor's note: CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at travel locations for the explorer at heart. This week, we're taking a look at Dubai, United Arab Emirates. We'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to Dubai? Share your story with CNN iReport.

I have been in Dubai for almost 10 years, and every time I receive a friend who is visiting for a day or two, I discover new and unique adventures.

As one of the seven small emirates in the United Arab Emirates, it has managed to put itself on the international map relatively quickly.

In the last two decades, Dubai became very popular and attractive to a lot of globetrotters, business people and media for many different reasons.

If you're thinking about visiting, here are some tips to help you escape into the mystical world of the fabled "A Thousand and One Nights" and discover the culture, history and captivating beauty of Dubai.

Start with the 'real' part of Dubai

Dubai is often promoted as a modern architectural wonder and luxury shopping, dining and lodging destination, but first-time visitors should not miss starting their adventure with a visit to the "real part of Dubai" which is Souq Nayef (souq in Arabic means market) which is in Deira, a suburb of Dubai.

Although the government has recently demolished the old souq and rebuilt it again, you can still find the most delicious and cheapest bread, maybe in the whole UAE.

In one of the small streets, between small shops that are selling the oldest mobiles ever, you definitely smell the bread, and you will be surprised to find that it is coming from a small shop not larger than 1.5 meter by one meter. Inside it, you look up and you will find the baker, who is Afghani, asking you in mixed Arabic and Afghani words: "How many loafs do you want? (Be advised that the size of the bread is pretty big.) In few seconds you will find the hot bread is sliding down to the small window where you are standing. Take it, don't be surprised when you know that it is less than two cents and enjoy it.

Visiting 'souqs' as a real experience

For a true Dubai experience, proceed to its three popular souqs, but keep in mind that they are all tourist traps. However, they are worth visiting.

Start with the Gold Souq, where you will feel as if you are entering an Indian neighborhood, for it is run by three generations who came before the independence of the UAE in 1971, and the products are mainly Indian yellow gold. Dubai is also known as the City of Gold and for relatively cheap gold, but you will have to haggle for it.

While walking towards a creek, a Gulf inlet, you can clearly smell spices, originating from the next souq, in which you will be introduced by the smiley Iranian merchants to an array of spices, such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and, of course, Iranian saffron.

Here you are only a few steps away from an abra station. The abra is a small crossing boat. Hop onto one of them, ignore the smell of the diesel and head to the other side of the creek, disembarking at the textile and curio-filled covered souq in Bur Dubai.

If you explore the streets further back, into the heart of the dizzyingly-colorful Textile Souq, you will find a real community feel. Here you will also see tailors working on old-fashioned sewing machines.

Definitely, it is time for you to eat, but no need yet to go to the fancy hotel. Choose any of the small restaurants and grab a radiantly Turkish meal, but done in Indian style: a chicken Shawerma sandwich with potato and lots of pickles, together with fresh juice.

It is highly recommended, however, to avoid the weekend crowds in these places if you can.

A unique shopping experience comes next, not in the regular big shopping malls that are known in Dubai, but rather in Karama, one of the liveliest areas in this glitzy emirate.

The Karama souq is mostly known for its "copy" items -- knockoffs of everything from souvenirs to watches, such as Rolex or Omega, and of course the latest women's handbags, like Louis Vuitton.

Remember again that once you see something that catches your attention, make sure you bargain because the price they offer you is a lot more than you should actually pay.

Desert dunes, Burj Khalifa are must to visit

It is time now to enjoy the desert, so a three-hour safari trip in the middle of the dunes is a must.

If you are into heights, you may like trying the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in the newly-built "Old Town" area. The tower's observation deck at the top offers unforgettable views.

While there, enjoy the Dancing Fountain on a lake outside the Burj (Burj means tower in Arabic) and choreographed water shows, which are put on multiple times each evening.

Traditional seafood meals worth trying

Seeing the multinational cuisines in Old Town and experiencing the other adventures will make you feel hungry, so go for it.

Food is really an enjoyable experience in Dubai, as you will find almost all cuisines available in the small cosmopolitan city.

So, if you like seafood, then a must-try is a fish cooked the traditional way, which is either salt cured (called Maleh), sun-dried (Al kaseef) or ground-dried fish (Sahnah).

Before midnight go to one of the local souvenir shops and get a small gift, like the seven colors sand bottle that represents the seven emirates in the UAE.

Time to live the luxury life

Now, if you are into opulence, try one of the palaces, such as Burj al Arab, the One & Only Royal Mirage, the Atlantis or the newly opened Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel and Resort, and enjoy the luxury like a sheikh or a sheikha.

There is a lot to see and experience but this is only a teaser, leaving you with one question: Do you think the "A Thousand and One Nights" came alive in Dubai?

If you've ever visited Dubai, share your photos, videos and travel tips with CNN iReport.