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Discovering Dubai's urban vibrance

By Ashley Strickland, Special to CNN
  • A thriving downtown of towering buildings and crowded markets awaits travelers in Dubai
  • Get a 360-degree view from atop the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building
  • From shopping to a sunset desert adventure, get the most out of your trip to Dubai
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Al Ain
  • Burj Al Arab
  • Dubai
  • United Arab Emirates

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. Next week, we'll journey to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Share your story and photos with CNN iReport!

(CNN) -- Fascinating, vibrant and multicultural.

Those are a just a few of the words Dubai's visitors use to capture its essence. You can never prepare for how the ever-shifting landscape will seek to change something within you as well.

The larger-than-life grandeur of its towering city skyline, fleet of construction cranes signaling progress and crowded, fragrant souks -- or markets -- all combine to present the swirling scene of Dubai.

But in order to soak up Dubai's eclectic diversity, you have to prepare for another truth: "Dubai is worth a trip, but not all that glitters is gold," iReporter Holger Bauer said. Knowing how to navigate the city is key to making the most of your trip.

But don't let a fear of the unknown keep you from setting off on a Dubai adventure.

"It's a crossroads of many cultures," iReporter Derek Matthew Koebbe said. "They have a 30-year plan to become one of the largest economic and tourist regions in the world. I would love to travel there again to see this progression."

Dubai's captivating mystique, beauty

City with a view

For first-timers or repeat visitors, taking in the breathtaking view of Dubai from the top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is a must.

"You can get a very good view and 'lay of the land' by going up to the top floors of buildings, such as hotels or the Burj Khalifa," Anderson said. "Going to the viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa in the evening is especially magical. You can view the nightlife below as well as the dancing fountains show, which is absolutely spectacular at night."

iReporter Sara Ruedy recommends taking the elevator ride up to the 160th floor for a 360-degree view of Dubai's overall splendor. And while visiting the Burj Khalifa, located in the heart of downtown Dubai, don't forget to explore the "large variety of trendy restaurants, aesthetic pools and fountains, and upscale shopping," she said.

What to do, where to go

Dubai is full of activities that cater to any traveler's whimsy. From the adventurous recreationalist to the avid shopper, this city is a treasure trove just waiting to be explored.

"The malls are epicenters of activity and entertainment, from indoor ice skating and downhill skiing to aquariums, and of course, the high-end luxury shops," Anderson said.

Dubai is known for its array of fountains, so take the time to stop and enjoy the show. The Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world, features a choreographed fountain show, according to Anderson.

"One of the best ways to view the shows, which run regularly throughout the day, is to grab a seat for lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants in the mall with outside terrace seating. The food is delicious as well!"

Ruedy agrees with Anderson when it comes to the food at Dubai's main mall.

"I ate at a Lebanese restaurant named Karam Beirut within The Dubai Mall. The restaurant was unique in that large plates of every fresh vegetable you can think of were provided during the meal, creating a hearty and healthy eating experience."

Dubai, home of the extravagant, also has the world's only 7-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. But if you can't afford a stay in 7-star luxury, the city has other agreeable options.

"I would recommend staying at any of the Jumeirah properties, as they are on the beach," Koebbe said. "They have Burj Al Arab as well as the very affordable Madinat Jumeirah. The Madinat has a water park called Wadi Wadi that kids really enjoy! The property also has a replica of a traditional souk with over 40 shops and restaurants."

If you haven't satisfied your shopping needs at the world's largest mall, don't forget to browse Dubai's souks.

"Another must see is the gold and spice souks near Dubai Creek," Koebbe said. "Be ready to bargain because they raise the prices for any foreigners."

30 days, 30 kitchens: Making food in the UAE

How to explore

Before you begin, consider Dubai's climate.

Koebbe captures it best: "Think of Florida's humidity combined with Arizona's heat. Average summer temps are 100-plus with 80% humidity. The best time to travel there is between November and March when the highs are in the 80s and the humidity is lower."

Once you get there, take a ride on the Dubai bus system for a fun way to sightsee.

Getting around the city for a dime each trip is easy on your wallet, and it helps you connect with the locals and tourists around you, Bauer said.

If you want to explore Dubai's more natural offerings, get outside the city. The countryside and deserts are a nice balance for the towering skyline.

"It's wonderful to get into the countryside and see Al Ain or Abu Dhabi, not far away," iReporter Eric Kossoff said.

"We took a half day tour with Arabian Adventures called 'The Sun Downer,'" Koebbe said. "They pick you up a few hours before sunset from your hotel and take you into the Al Sahara Desert where you visit a traditional Bedouin camp. The camp provided everything from camel rides to hookahs and traditional foods along with belly dancers."

Take in the diversity

If you take one thing with you from your Dubai experience, let it be the culture. You won't find a replacement for it anywhere on Earth.

"Dubai is such a beautiful and uniquely diverse destination," Koebbe said. "Wandering through the souks, you hear people speaking in Arabic, British and American English, Hindi, Russian, French and even Chinese. The city has both an old and new feel all around it.

"Wonderful smells of the spice souk are wafting around you mixing with the fragrances of some of the finest perfumes Europe has to offer. You'll find older traditional souks on one corner, then on the next, the very American-like Mall of the Emirates with an indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai. I found the local people to be very warm and welcoming."