There are many reasons why Dubai has grown so rapidly in popularity as a destination, but the main one is probably its convenience as a getaway: just 5-6 hours from Europe or 4-5 hours from the Indian subcontinent. It makes an easy stopover to break the journey between Europe and the Far East or vice versa.
It’s also relatively liberal minded, by the standards of the region (although having said that best not to be gay or prone to public displays of affection, lest you find yourself in jail).
Dubai had never really appealed to me greatly; the fact that I have changed planes there multiple times but never thought to get out and have a look around indicates this.
However I wanted to take a trip from London for my birthday week (awkward first week of January). Ideally I wanted somewhere warm and without a long flight (because I could only spare a week). I wanted there to be things to do, but not so many things that I ended up more tired than I started and frustrated that I didn’t have longer.
So I chose Dubai. Seven hours on a direct flight, temperatures in January average around 24 degrees.
It’s visa free for a whole pile of countries, although worth mentioning they have a zero tolerance on many commonly prescribed drugs. If you are taking prescribed medications then you need to check the list; you may need to travel with a copy of your prescription (ask your pharmacist for a copy when you hand it over) or you may need to get pre-authorisation to bring your medication at all (codeine and some anti depressants come into this category).
Dubai is good to visit from November to March. If you visit outside those times it will be a lot cheaper but it will be very hot; temperatures of 50 with high, high humidity are the norm for summer.
Taxis are cheap by Western standards. I downloaded an app called Careem, which is supposed to be the Dubai version of Uber, but I never used it because taxis were always hanging around.
There is a very clean and efficient metro system that is easy to use and cheap, but many of the metro stops aren’t very convenient.
It is hard to walk anywhere because the city is not geared for people walking. There are often no pavements and often no way of getting across a road if what you want is on the other side. For example my hotel was very close to the Dubai Frame; you could see it from my bedroom window. However it was impossible to walk there because of multiple roads criss-crossing the route. To go there I needed to take a taxi.
Where to stay
The main area where everything is going on is the part around the Dubai Mall. There is also a bunch of hotels dotted around the marina, very convenient for the beach. These areas are both expensive. There is also a human-made island, shaped like a palm tree and lined with expensive beach-fronted hotels and apartments. If you stay on the island you will need to allow an extra 30 minutes to get anywhere, because the traffic is horrendous. I guess when they planned out a palm-shaped island, dotted with beach-fronted luxury, nobody thought to worry about how the traffic would cope with those narrow palm leaf shapes.
If your budget stretches to it there is the Burj Al Arab, the world’s most luxurious hotel (a rather self-proclaimed title, since ratings don’t go up to the seven stars it has awarded itself). I tried to book a table there for my birthday for afternoon tea, but they had nothing left. You need some advance planning skills to get a table here for dinner or drinks, but to get a room you just need £1,128 lying around.
A lot of people think that Dubai is nothing but shopping malls, and that was certainly my impression before I went. It is true that there are many malls but you don’t have to go to them all of course.
I only visited Dubai Mall (it’s the one where they house the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building). The malls contain lots of the same shops that you would find in any high street, and prices are around twenty percent more (sometimes the old tag is still hanging with the price in pounds, Euros or dollars).
However even if you don’t like shopping you should probably still go and visit at least one of the malls. They contain cinemas, ice skating, food courts and all kinds of indoor activities.
When I went, there appeared to plenty of shopping going on. Maybe for some people it’s easy to get sucked into the buying mentality once you go there. I didn’t buy anything but I still enjoyed walking around. The sheer scale of the place was amazing; there was a shoe district (yes, a whole district full of shoes).
I enjoyed a bit of people watching. It’s a bit like going to Vegas; even if you don’t gamble you can still enjoy the whole tackiness of the place and watching other people gamble. You just have to look on the mall as a similar cultural experience.
Dubai Mall houses the entrance to the tallest tower in the world, and you can go up and wonder at the scale of the city. The tower opened in 2010, dwarfing the previous winner (Taipei’s 101, now down to number 11 on the list) and standing almost 200 metres taller than its nearest rival, Shanghai Tower. You normally need to book in advance to go up, and there’s no access to the very top.
The tower was built with migrant labour; I remember news reports at the time saying how the workers were earning a very low wage and often had their passports taken until they had finished their work, to prevent them leaving. There were a few suicides. Strangely, no mention of this when you read the boards on the way up, extolling the virtues of this wonderful feat of engineering.
A different experience of shopping can be found in the souks around Dubai Creek. There is a gold souk, spice souk, textiles, and all kinds of produce (a utensils souk for example). It’s nice to poke around but they are very sales – pushy. At one point I was running along a lane being pursued by three men thrusting pashminas at me.
In order to secure a bargain in these souks you need to be able to haggle. I have pretty much non existent haggling skills (I feel too guilty), so I didn’t bother.
The area around Dubai Creek was probably my favourite. You can take a small wooden boat (an Abra) across the creek and wander around ‘old’ Dubai. Old Dubai was a great place to walk and was awash with photo opportunities.
I always thought Dubai was nothing but five star restaurants and there are plenty of them if fine dining is your thing. However there are also lots of cheap (ish) ethnic food places: Indian, Bangladeshi, Filipino and Iranian, amongst others. I normally ate in these places (I’m not a fan of fine dining even if my budget did stretch to it; I don’t like it when wait staff fuss over me).
One of the best meals I had was at the Sheik Mohammed Cultural Centre. I went for lunch but they do breakfast, brunches, afternoon teas and dinners depending on the day. They provide a huge buffet and a woman was there to talk a bit and answer questions about the UAE.
Unfortunately we were quite a big group and some people were asking somewhat stupid questions (you can ask me anything, she told us, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I beg to differ).
She talked a lot about her clothes and how she made a choice to cover her hair (but not her whole face) and no man was forcing her to make that choice. ‘Women in the west have less choice than me’ she told us. ‘If I were to be equal with men I would actually have less rights’. She then went on to talk about a soap opera where the woman uses her feminine ‘charm’ to get her husband to allow her to drive his car.
Well there was I thinking that equality involved equal pay and opportunity so that I can afford to go and buy myself a car, but it turns out I should be using my femininity so that my man will allow me to drive his.
Never mind, as long as she is happy with her choices that is the important thing. However I think this does ignore the plight of young girls in Afghanistan (for example), forbidden from attending school and who are not making the same free choice when they put on their hijabs.
That said, if you have only a brief one-day stop in Dubai this would probably be what I would recommend you to do. The cultural Centre is right on Dubai Creek and you can spend the rest of the day in the Souks and the old town, crossing the river in the little wooden boat.