“Dubai – you’re either going to hate it or love it” I read many times when I was researching things to do & see in Dubai. People seemed to judge it harshly, often by not experiencing enough variety.
That gave me an idea for our itinerary – we allocated 5 nights for our first-time visit to Dubai and decided to spend them in 3 different areas.
To get a taste of the Old Dubai – Deira, Bur Dubai, Souks and the Dubai Museum we stayed at Palazzo Versace. Then, in Shangri-La for easy access to the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi for beach-time, Dubai Marina and The Palm (which we didn’t have time to explore after all).
It worked out really well and made discovering Dubai much easier. We didn’t have to travel back and forth which gave us more time to laze by a pool and saved us some money and we had a chance to experience 3 different areas at various times of the day.
Below are some of our Dubai findings, highlights and opinions.
Great place to start a first Dubai trip and learn about its history. It’s housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which is the oldest existing building in town and features exhibits that recreate places (houses, shops) and scenes (desert life, pearl diving). Sightseeing in Dubai is much more interesting after you learn the history first. I would say it’s a must visit place in Dubai.
Tip: Bring cash (coins or small banknotes are best) – card payments not possible.
Ticket: AED3 | Website
I have mixed feelings here. On one hand, the old souks are part of the heritage and are quite exotic for someone like me. On the other hand, constant nagging to buy something (including counterfeit bags and watches) can make you tired and was a bit of a turn off for us. Although I must say, when I heard “Hey, Angelina Jolie! Come buy a scarf!” I almost wanted to do so. 😉
We walked (sometimes fast and without looking around too much) through the gold, spice and textile souks, purchased a scarf (unfortunately this seller didn’t think I was Angelina Jolie) and probably wouldn’t do it again. It’s a kind of a place that you visit once and that’s enough.
The best spent AED1 ever. Crossing the Dubai Creek on a traditional boat called abra was fast, convenient and fun. The ride from textile souk across to the gold souk was max. 5 minutes long but gave us excellent opportunity to see Dubai from a different perspective. The creek, which historically has been the centre of Dubai’s commerce, is still very busy with all sorts of cargo boats.
How does it work? Very simple. We jumped on a boat, which waited for a moment until every seat was occupied, and paid the fare when the driver walked around to collect the money. No pre-purchased tickets needed. Remember it’s a cash only kind of thing.
One does not simply go to Dubai without visiting the shopping malls.
The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest mall by the surface area. We spent there, no joke, about 5 hours – just walking around without buying a thing (other than food and coffee). There’s an ice skating rink, aquarium, around 1200 shops, the famous waterfall with sculptures and the entrance to the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck. The souk-stylised area is worth a visit. It’s beautiful and has the feel of the traditional souk with two major differences – it’s properly air conditioned and you skip the nagging part.
Mall Of The Emirates is smaller but has something the Dubai Mall is missing – Middle East’s first indoor ski resort. Ski Dubai, visible from the shopping centre, features a ski run, chairlift, tube slide and it’s kept at around -4°C (looking at it was quite… confusing).
Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Fountain
I saw Burj Khalifa three times from an airplane and countless times on photos and videos so naturally, I had to finally see it from up close. “The tallest building in the world” – even the words sound grand. First, a glimpse from our hotel room, then walk around during golden hour. It’s sleek and beautiful. We were supposed to go to the observation deck too, but to be honest, we couldn’t justify the price, especially on a hazy day.
Then, there’s the giant lake with the Dubai Fountain. It is, of course, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system. We watched two shows – one from the Dubai Mall entrance area and the other one from the opposite side of the lake (which almost felt like a private show, there were just a few people around us). Two shows, two different songs and choreographies. Both very entertaining.
Being a pedestrian in Dubai is not easy, being a pedestrian in Dubai in summer is even harder. But because we like us a challenge, we attempted a couple of walks. Around Deira, around the Dubai Mall/fountain area, Dubai Marina and JBR Walk (which even has the “walk” in its official name). They all ended with similar results – we were dripping with sweat, running out of water and had to turn back because the walkway ended abruptly. The verdict is simple: Dubai is not designed for walking. What looks on a map like just across the road can turn out to be impossible to cross, multi-level, way-too-many-lanes road and you need to take a taxi/shuttle which will have to drive around for 20 minutes to get you to that other side of the road.*
*based on a true story which happened to us
Every hotel offers free shuttles to its guests. Most of them go to shopping malls, some to the Dubai Metro stations and some to the airport. When we arrived by one at the Dubai Mall I couldn’t believe how many there were parked, waiting for people. But then I remembered Dubai is not designed for walking and looks like at least they came up with a convenient solution to transport people where they want to go.
Is this an issue? Well, if you ask me – no, I barely noticed the lack of alcohol in places other than hotels.
On some of our walks, I wouldn’t mind a cold beer pit stop. And I caught myself at least once being in a supermarket thinking we should check out the alcohol aisle and search for some local craft beer…oh wait… and these were the kind of scenarios where the alcohol situation was noticeable. Other than that, being a tourist with easy access to a hotel pool bar, everything was in order.
It’s so expensive!
That’s another thing I read many times before going there. After this one trip, I would say it’s as expensive as you’re making it. If you’re staying in a fancy hotel and fine-dining is your option of choice then it may get very pricey. But then again – if that’s what you’re choosing, you must be able to afford it, so no point in saying it is expensive.
Our shopping story may be a good example here. We went to the Dubai Museum and wanted to pay for our tickets with a banknote. They didn’t have change so we had to go to the closest shop. That’s ok, we need to buy a bottle of water anyway – we thought and proceeded to the said shop. The only small-ish bottle of water in the fridge was Evian. AED8.50 for under 1l. Couple hours later we went to another shop, which wasn’t located right next to one of the most popular tourist spots. We bought some more water, some pastries, fruits, snacks and sweets and for this solid grocery purchase we paid only 2-fancy-Evians-worth-of-money – AED15.
Escaping the city and going for a few hours to the desert was one of the highlights of the trip. There are many companies offering desert safaris so it’s easy to pick something that matches your criteria (mine were: a small group and no dune bashing) and budget. We went with Platinum Heritage (read about our experience here).
It was very interesting to see, especially after learning a fair bit about the desert life during our visit to the Dubai Museum, and I would highly recommend joining one of the tours. Also, for me, it was a dream come true as I was ticking two items off of my bucket list – to see a dessert and to ride on a camel.
If you want to see our adventures in Dubai, check out these videos: