I’ve never been too interested in a trip to Dubai, I’ve always seen it as an artificial city, built with tons of money, which lacks a history of its own. Well, I have to say that after a week spent there, this opinion hasn’t changed much, but in the same time, I must admit that I’ve discovered a cool destination, a city of contrasts, that has plenty of things to offer.
The United Arab Emirates is a young country, declaring its independence from the British Government in December 1971, when six out of the seven emirates agreed to form an union and sign a constitution – the seventh joined a few months later. Since then, the Emirate of Dubai has developed at an incredible pace, thanks initially to the oil industry, and afterwards to the gold trade, real estate and tourism.
Nowadays, the city has the most skyscrapers above 300 meters in the world, but 50 years ago, it was just a small fishing settlement, built alongside a creek. Despite the fact that its area has been populated for millenniums, the history of the city is pretty short and unimpressive. The truth is that there aren’t many places around reminding of the old Dubai, but the Al Bastakiya neighbourhood and the Creek, with its wooden abras (the traditional boats), are two of them.
The majority of Dubai’s inhabitants are expats (somewhere between 80% to 85%), and out of these, 85% are coming from Asia (mainly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines). In spite of the ethnic split and of the fact that most of the foreign residents are construction workers or are working in the tourism sector, Dubai is still a place where money and opulence are supreme. For example, 40 percent of the world’s gold is traded in Dubai. The hotels, restaurants and bars are relatively expensive, and seeing many exotic cars on the streets and in the parking lots is just something normal – by the way, I’ve seen more Rolls-Royce cars in Dubai in seven days than I had seen before in my entire life.
And since the city has been a top tourist destination for years now, I feel that I need to remind you of some of the records set by Dubai. As of May 2018, it has the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), the most luxurious hotel (Burj Al-Arab), the biggest mall by total area (Dubai Mall) – which holds a lot of other records, such as the largest acrylic panel (for its aquarium), largest OLED screen and largest sweet shop, the world’s tallest hotel (Gevora Hotel), the world’s largest choreographed fountain (Dubai Fountain), and the list can go on. If you add the beaches, the large artificial islands (like the Palm and the World), the high-end hotels, the large number of shopping malls and the vibrant nightlife, you will get the full picture and the answer to why so many people choose to spend their holiday here.
Local culture and food
Arab and Islamic cultures are dominant and can be seen everywhere: in the architecture of the city, in the music, the cuisine and the lifestyle. The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country, so tourists must respect at least a few of the dress code regulations and neither eat nor drink during the day in public places, in the Ramadan month. Now, I’m saying “at least a few” because Dubai is more open-minded than many other Middle East places, and women here are not actually obeying the Muslim rules with strictness (of not showing their skin in public). But my advice is: don’t force the limit and go for a decent dress code.
Although there are many Arab restaurants around, Dubai is a multicultural city and has pretty much all the world’s cuisines present, from Indian to Chinese and Mediterranean and from Thai to Mexican and Japanese. There’s one bad news, though: as you might know, it is forbidden to drink alcohol in public, except for licensed venues (like bars or restaurants, but be prepared to pay a fortune for one bottle of beer).
Accommodation and transport
Moving around the city is not easy, if you take into account a few factors, such as the large metropolitan area, the big distances between landmarks, the high temperatures during the day or the metro system, currently still under development. The infrastructure for pedestrians is also not very helpful. For example, you might have to walk a bit in the heat to find a crossing point over a busy road. But since we’re in the Middle East, petrol is cheap, which means that taxis are also quite cheap (the price for one kilometre is below 2 AED).
Still, depending all the time on a cab is not the best solution. To ease my journey, I chose to change locations halfway through the holiday, so I’ve spent the first three nights at a hotel near the Jumeirah beach, named Park Regis Boutique (Jumeirah Street), and the last three in Downtown Dubai, at Rose Rayhaan by Rotana (Sheikh Zayed Road), one of the tallest hotels in the world, at 333 meters. Thinking back as I write, I believe that Dubai Marina also deserved a night or two. Oh, well, have that in mind when making plans. Services were outstanding almost all the time, so I can’t really complain about much. The only annoying thing was the outside traffic noise.
Guide to Dubai
- Let’s start with the old part of Dubai. The areas around the creek, in both Deira and Bur Dubai, are perfect for doing this. You will find here a lot of specialized souks (or bazaars), that sell various products, from gold to textiles and spices. Al Fahidi Fort is the oldest existing building in Dubai (1787). For just 3 AED (more of a symbolic price), you can go inside the fort and check out the Dubai Museum.
- Al Bastakiya is the historic district (built at the end of the 19th century), where you will find preserved traditional houses, which now host small hotels, cafes (like MAKE Art Cafe) or shops. Although relatively small, it’s a nice area to walk in and waste time.
- Downtown Dubai is next on the list. Built along the Sheikh Zayed Road (the main highway of the UAE), it is the home of several major projects, like Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Fountain and Souk Al Bahar. It’s probably the best area for all the skyscrapers fans and shopping enthusiasts.
- A visit to Burj Khalifa’s observation deck, At the Top, situated at the 124th and 125th floor, offers a stunning 360° panorama of Downtown Dubai. There is a second observation deck, situated at the 148th floor, but it’s almost three times more expensive than the one below, and to be honest, I don’t think that the view is much better. Find out more about the opening hours and prices on their official web page.
- Jumeirah Beach is the most popular and the busiest beach of the city. It’s a very long beach, stretching for many kilometres. It has beautiful, white sand and lapping waves. The beach is divided into many areas, from public to private, kite and surfing. Its most famous landmark is definitely the Burj Al Arab, considered to be the first seven star hotel in the world – although officially, hotel ratings are between one and five stars. Some recommendations for eating out: breakfast at Bakemart Gourmet and lunch at The Surf Café.
- Dubai Marina is considered the New Dubai, having developed extremely fast in the past few years. It is an artificial canal city and a popular nightlife area of Dubai, with some of the best looking restaurants you’ll ever see. It’s the place where I’ve felt the European influence the most. While walking along the promenade, I suggest a quick stop at The Cheesecake Factory, part of the American restaurant chain, specialized (of course) in cheesecakes. Their recipes and flavours are legendary!
- In case you want to do more shopping, somewhere between Downtown Dubai and Dubai Marina, on Sheikh Zayed Road, is another well-known mall: the Mall of the Emirates. What’s interesting about this one? Well, it has its own indoor ski resort and snow park, so people can actually ski and snowboard inside, while the temperatures outside reach 45°C.
- No visit to the UAE cannot be completed without a trip to the desert. The easiest way to do that is a safari tour. The prices for such an experience start at around €30, but can go up, depending on the programme. There are many companies that offer this kind of activity, so it’s a matter of personal choice – I used this website to book it. It included 30 minutes of dune bashing in Al Badayer Desert (situated in the Emirate of Sharjah, 80 kilometres away from Dubai), a photo stop on the high desert dunes, 15 minutes of sandboarding and, the only part that I disliked, a short camel ride. The two camels looked tired and unhappy, so I refused to take part in this activity.
- What I’ve missed, but would have liked to try or see: the longest urban zipline in the world, XLine Dubai Marina, and Jumeirah Mosque, the largest mosque of the city. Take my advice and have them in mind, when planning your trip.
I have to admit that at the end of day one I was a bit disappointed by Dubai. But after seeing more and more of what it has to offer, I started to enjoy it. Maybe it was when I discovered the skyscrapers – I admit, I have a weakness for tall buildings. Or maybe the beaches. Well, it’s not relevant right now, the bottom line is that I had a great time.
It’s true that, in the same time, the city still lacks an efficient pedestrian infrastructure and a vast public transport system, but since the investments continue to be huge, I bet that things will only get better. So all in all, I think that Dubai deserves a visit.
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.