Dubai has a reputation as a city of superlatives. Huge malls, towering skyscrapers, kilometres of sandy beaches and year-round sunshine have defined it as a top destination on the world scale. But it’s not all about burning around the desert in a Lamborghini or knocking back cocktails by the pool. On a stopover during a recent trip to Australia, I found out that Dubai is so much more than blowing a month’s salary in a weekend.
With it’s bustling creek that fed the rapid growth in the last forty years to the epic display of development that is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, there’s two sides to the coin here. There’s western influences everywhere, but this intersects with Arabian hospitality and tradition, and the result is a friendly desert city definitely worth dropping in on.
Things to See and Do
Attractions and landmarks are what Dubai does best. Water parks, museums, shopping malls, everyone is catered for here. To soak up Dubai and get a clear-cut picture of it in 48 hours, there’s a few sights and experiences you can’t miss.
At 828 metres high, the Burj Khalifa holds the title of the highest structure in the world. With some of the fastest lifts in the world and an observation deck is on the 124th floor, you get to bask in something truly special. The experience they’ve created here really makes you feel like you’re for a short time, part of something significant. Like you’re let into briefly, the pinnacle of human achievement (a big call, I know).
Shortly after you leave the airport and hit the Sheikh Zayed Road, you see the Burj Khalifa. It’s visible for miles around and strikes an imposing mark on the skyline. The “At The Top” observation deck is accessible from the food court of the Dubai Mall, and costs AED 100 to book a time to go up. Alternatively, you can pay AED 400 and go up straight away.
View from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa
With shows on every half hour after dusk, the Dubai Fountain is the largest in the world (surpassing the Bellagio in Las Vegas). See at night and get a place right in front of the Souk Al Bahar or the Dubai Mall.
Here’s a video of the show I watched at night. It’s really hard to grasp how many water jets there are and how high the water shoots up (or how hot it was standing there!)
There’s many different shows with changing water patterns on throughout the afternoon and night, set to a variety of Arabic and Western music types. A good reason to check it out more than once during your stay.
The Dubai Mall
Opened in 2008, The Dubai Mall is the largest in the world. Featuring a three storey waterfall, aquarium, ice rink and over 1200 shops, it’s one of the premier shopping and entertainment destinations in Dubai.
Pretty much every shop you can think of has an outlet here. H&M, Topman, Bloomingdales, the list goes on. You’ll definitely tire yourself out trying to cover every square metre of this joint, and it’s a good snapshot of the shopping culture in Dubai.
The Dubai Museum is nowhere near the glitz and glamour of the city. It’s in the gritty, hot and dusty part, in the Bur Dubai area. When you first walk in you see all the old fishing vessels that were once used in Dubai’s primary production heyday, and there’s small viewing galleries in each wall of the fort that present the tribal history of the area.
Walk down the spiral staircases further into the complex and you start to learn more about Dubai in recent times. How the city developed from a small fishing and pearling village to an oil rich metropolis that’s since become a magnet for tourism. This is the only historical museum experience you’ll get/be exposed to in Dubai.
Around the Dubai Creek
The gritty, authentic Dubai. There’s no 5 star hotels or H&M stores here. On either side of the Dubai Creek you’ll encounter densely developed residential areas and markets, people frantically going about their day, the intense(!) heat and dusty streets.
Abra (a small water taxi) have been plying the Dubai Creek for centuries. They’re the traditional way of getting from from one side to the other and are in themselves an experience, being so small and cramming in ~15 people. Don’t let the Docks Assistant talk you into the 100 AED, hour long tourist cruise. Just get a single crossing from one side to the other for the uber cheap price of 1 AED. Jump on board, try not to fall in the water (they is no railing and you sit about 5cm from the river), pay the driver and enjoy the ride.
Bur Dubai and Deira
Deira is the tightly packed commercial area on the north side of the creek and Bur Dubai is on the south side. You’ll find souks on either side, but the less commercial ones are on the Deira side, selling wood carved trinkets/furniture and gold products. The souks on the Bur Dubai side sells cheap knock off t-shirts, hats, watches, Arabian dress etc.
Deira is a lot more “everyday city”, with people EVERYWHERE and tons of different restaurants and shops, whereas Bur Dubai has the Dubai Museum feels less crowded and more residential.
Sunset Desert Safari
You have to do this to experience what really makes Dubai and the UAE amazing – the desert. A guy will come around in a big Chevy 4WD to your hotel, pick you up and drive you 45 minutes into the desert. You’ll get to barrel over sand dunes in the 4WD, see a sunset like you’ve never seen before, ride a camel and then get a two traditional course meal at a well appointed camp in the middle of nowhere. Once you’ve eaten and watched the belly dance show, all the lights are turned off and you can lay down and gaze at the stars above the desert in the pitch black.
Probably best to do this on your final night, after you’ve got a feel for Dubai. Do it with Arabian Adventures. They’re part of the Emirates group, are very professional and their are staff friendly and knowledgeable. They’ll make sure you have a great time out on the dunes.
Food and Drink
Every kind of food is represented and catered for from around the world in Dubai’s malls. Italian, Thai, Indian (lots actually), Lebanese, Arabian, you can find everything. It’s like someone got all the food courts of the world and smooshed them all into lots of malls in one city. Hell, you can even have burgers taken to you on the ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates.
For more of a street food experience, head back to Deira and go for a wander. Shawarma is in abundance here, and it’s cheap. Like 5 AED cheap. They’re smaller than what you’re used to, but it’s cool to eat something so common everywhere in the part of the world that they’re from.
How to get there
Emirates fly to Dubai from basically any major city in the world. They have such an extensive network of routes and the very international feel in Dubai Airport is testament to this. Chances are if you’re transiting to anywhere in the region, you’ll get a chance to stopover in Dubai.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights I mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Dubai, plus some others I didn’t mention.
Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map. It might look like all sand, but I assure you there are buildings there!
View 48 hours in Dubai in a larger map
Get around in Dubai
Due to the unbearable heat and vast distance, walking around Dubai is more or less ruled out. The only time you might go for a wander is around Bur Dubai/Deira to soak up the atmosphere and snap up a few bargains.
At 14 AED for a daily pass, it’s the cheapest way of getting up and down the coast. The Metro has stops all up and down the stretch of Dubai, but chances are you’ll still need to take a taxi from the metro stop to where you want to go however.
They’re ubiquitous, comfortable and cheap, and are hands-down the easiest way of getting anywhere in Dubai. The minimum fare is 10 AED, but going from one end of Dubai to the other won’t get past 30 AED. They’re all air-conditioned, so it means avoided the sweltering heat outside.
Where to stay
Hostels are pretty few and far between in Dubai. The ones that do exist are not geared towards backpackers, they’re more for travelling sports teams and school trips. Not the kind of place you’re going to meet anyone cool.
You’ll have to bite the bullet and book yourself a hotel for this one. Considering there is no shortage of varying choice, you might find it hard to find something in your budget, but is swish enough to give you a taste of the impeccable service you’ll find in Dubai. I suggest having a look on Booking.com, as they have a great rating system to help you make a decision.
I stayed at a great hotel called the Al Manzil in the Old Town, near the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall during my stay. I wrote a review of them, which you can check out here on the Flight Centre UK blog.
I’m not going to beat around the bush here and say “oh it’s not that expensive, you can probably do it on $xx a day” because you can’t. Straight up, Dubai is expensive. At the time of writing, £1 GBP buys you AED 5.82. Meals will cost you between 100-200 AED and beers 40-50 AED. The Desert Safari will set you back about 300 AED. As I mentioned though, taxis are cheap.
People think of Dubai and their wallet instantly falls out of their pocket and all the cash runs away. Which isn’t that far from the truth, but it’s still exaggerated. The malls here are expansive and you could easily fill another 2 suitcases of crap you don’t need. In addition, the food and service is amazing, but comes at a relative price tag.
It’s not all about uber tall buildings and having caviar served to you on a silver platter either. You can experience a real life, bustling Arabian city around the Dubai Creek. Walk through souks with 10 people throwing themselves at you to sell you a “copy watch”. Haggle for a quirky wooden object to take back home for your mum.
This is the city that offers up a cultural spectrum so varied, you’ll come home understanding the Arabic way of life a bit better, be sporting a tan, and have your understanding of hospitality completely redefined.
Have you been to Dubai for? What made your trip there special? Is there something I’ve missed that you can recommend to fellow travellers?