On our current trip to Sydney (to visit family and friends there), we had a 30-hour stop-over in Dubai. It was great fun, even though a bit short, of course. However, with limited time off work and our priority being on Sydney, 30 hours was about as much time as we could reasonably afford.
Our Emirates Airbus 380 landed at about half eight in the evening at Dubai International Airport (DXB, the world’s third biggest airport) and an hour later we were at our hotel, which was two minutes’ drive (by taxi) from the airport. We just dropped our luggage and freshened up a bit, and were in another cab just a few minutes later, this time headed for nearby old town, also called Al Fahidi quarter, just 4km away from the airport, more or less on the way to downtown Dubai and the rest of Dubai (Jumeirah, Marina, etc.).
We had ourselves dropped off at the Dubai Museum, which is located in a beautiful 19th Century fortress just opposite the Mosque, and explored old town for half an hour, before having late dinner at Al Ustad Special Kebab, (previously Special Ostadi Restaurant) near the corner Khalid Bin Al Waleed Rd and Al Satwa Road (towards north-east on the right-hand side, less than one minute walk from the crossing) next to Al Fahidi Souq (avoid, nothing to see there), but on the other side of Al Satwa Road. This place is a really cool Persian street food grill with lots of foreign currency notes and bodybuilding memorabilia on the walls and very chirpy and cheerful staff that like to crack a joke and make you laugh. The food was absolutely delicious and it was a thoroughly joyful experience. By Dubai standards the meal also cost next to nothing, even though we tried several dishes and sides.
From Al Ustad Special Kebab we walked the 20minutes to the 5-star boutique Spanish luxury hotel Melia, where we enjoyed a cocktail each and the lovely views from their rooftop bar with its pool and (at night) live DJ.
At around 1:30am we fell into our beds and dozed off immediately, which is a pity, because we had been upgraded from a regular double room to a suite (bigger than our two-bedroom, central London flat), and now we didn’t get to see much of it, but never mind.
Just a few hours later, at 7am, the alarm rang and we got ready to have breakfast in one of the quaint cafes in Deira, close to the Gold Souk. After a couple of cups each of Turkish and local Arabian coffee, we explored the spice market, the Gold Souk, and then the highlight: the fish market, which is very un-touristy, rough, commercial, crowded, smelly, and – if you’re into that kind of thing – beautiful. Fishmongers are chopping off fish heads left right and centre with bits of debris flying around.
We just managed to arrive in downtown Dubai, 14km away (it took nearly 40 minutes due to traffic, especially in the area around the fish market; best to walk away from there first and then catch a cab a bit closer to the Creek from from Al Khaleej Road, the road adjacent to the market) on time for our pre-booked (a must!) elevator ride to the top of Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the world (well, for another half year or so). I had been a bit worried about my ears, as I had caught a bit of a cold in London a few days earlier, but the elevator ride, despite being very fast, did not put any excessive strain on the ears or body and several tourists in our cabin who looked like well into their eighties were just as fine as I my young, sporty self was. You have to change elevators at the 124th/125th floor, to get up to the 148th floor ‘At the Top’ bar and viewing platform. The views from up there (at 550m, the top of the building is 822m, but not accessible to the public) are amazing, as you would have guessed. You look down on buildings the size of the Empire State Building and are puzzled how small they are from up there. They even have outdoor viewing platforms that give a very real outdoor experience, with a good feel for the wind and despite the signs advising against it, you see tourists stick their mobile phone cameras with their hands through the holes in the layered, fortified glass fence. The day was slightly misty, so we weren’t able to see much of the Burj el Arab, the famous hotel near Jumeirah Beach.
Dubai with its 2.7 million people covers a stretch of land of more than 40km (28km from Old Town to the Marina, if omitting Deira in the north and the second, smaller airport, Al Maktoum International Airport (Dubai World Central/DWC, planned to become the biggest hub in the world with 160m passengers per year; and the suburbs) in the south along the coast of the Persian Gulf.
After our return from the top of the world, we had a quick look around the Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest by sheer size, 50 soccer fields; in terms of leasable square metres, the most common measure, it only ranks #5; 1,200 shops, an ice rink, 120 restaurants and cafes, and a 5-star hotel) with its gigantic (#2 globally) aquarium (containing large sharks, rays, potato cods, and other exotic marine life), that allows you to do scuba diving tours right between the massive sharks while being gaped at incredulously by people like ourselves from the other side of the glass panes, half wishing they were there, half glad they’re safe and on land.
We had a quick bite at the food court, then called the next cab for some more sight-seeing, this time mainly around Jumeirah Beach, the palm-shaped island ‘The Palm’ (the views of the Marina from Palm Island were fascinating, but the island itself, while being a technological, record-breaking feat, did not have much for the eyes, not for ours anyway), and of course the 321m high (the top floor is just under 200m high) Burj el Arab, ‘the world’s only seven-star hotel’ (they themselves apparently never used that slogan), which looks much smaller in real life than you’d imagine from the pictures, but still very majestic, elegant and impressive, with its helipad two thirds up its sail-shaped core.
We drove past the Jumeirah Madanat, a resort that includes a rebuilt/re-imagined 19th Century fort and souk with luxury pools, parks, and gardens, all very pleasant.
Around 4:30pm we arrived at the Mall of the Emirates, which was named the World’s Leading New Shopping Mall at the World Travel Awards in London in the year of its opening roughly ten years ago, and can still throw a pretty good punch, as far as malls go. The gigantic Christmas decorations were fabulous and came as an unexpected delight in this strongly Muslim country.
We had a quick dinner at the food court, before heading off to the local Ski Dubai, the largest indoor skiing venue of Planet Earth. By Dubai standards the price was a steal (but be sure to arrive 45 minutes before the beginning of your sessions as there are queues and it takes time to get changed); they provide you with everything except beanie and gloves, which you can either bring yourself or buy at one of the various ski equipment stores on location for relatively little money. As someone who grew up skiing in the Alps, I was expecting the experience to be fun in a guess-what-we-recently-did-in-Dubai kind of sense, but not in terms of the skiing experience, but I have to admit that I enjoyed skiing down the 400m-long slope. The three ski lifts are reasonably quick and the queues, at least when we were there, were only short.
It’s also awesome because by Bavarian standards I’m a rather mediocre skier, whereas by local standards I was the king of the slopes by a far margin.
We took a cab back to old town for another stroll, then picked up our luggage at the hotel and went back to the airport, where our plane departed shortly past two in the morning with a half-hour delay. It was almost certainly some of the awful, clearly drunk (it is a crime in Dubai to be drunk in public) Western tourists that had done something to seriously push the local male Arab staff over the edge, but whatever it was, it was clear that they were fuming with anger and not in the mood to play it nicely.
Like many other passengers, I was asked to empty my suitcase, switch on my phone (which I had switched off) and laptop for them to search the files. I was doing my best to be really polite and friendly and in the end convinced them not to make me miss the flight while they’re going through – potentially in their view – insufficiently respectful blog post drafts and research notes about their emirate; having heard stories that a cover of Vogue magazine might be viewed as porn by locals and that half the things we in western societies think of as normal every-day stuff like cough medicine are considered to be illegal in Dubai, my heart rate had increased significantly even though I was pretty sure that I should be ok even if they spent the next day or two searching every last file and item. It’s not our first trip abroad, after all, we came prepared.
Not the perfect end to a lovely day in Dubai, but overall an interesting experience with many pleasant moments. One of our next few trips will also go to an Arab country: Morocco. Over Easter (2017).
A few more travel tips:
- It is important to dress appropriately. In the shopping malls we saw many young western women wearing next to nothing, tank top and super-short, tight jeans, or similar. No need to wear a head-scarf and there is no secret code regarding the precise length of the cover around your arms and legs, just dress conservatively and you’ll be sure not to upset any locals and enjoy your trip. Swim wear is exclusively for the beach. Foreigners are expected to put on some proper clothes, even if they’re just walking from the beach to the corner shop to buy some water.
- If you’re only there for less than three full days, then we wouldn’t recommend doing the (surprisingly pricey) Big Bus (or presumably any other) hop-on-hop-off bus, as it is a lot slower than the affordable taxis and doesn’t add much information. We unfortunately bought Big Bus tickets, but only tried it for an hour, before switching back to taxi. The tape in the downtown and Jumeira area we visited goes on about the real estate market, tax arrangements for foreigners, the various industry special zones’ achievements, and so on, but not much in terms of history or interesting facts. 90% of the time the tape was silent.
- Planning to do weird things? In Dubai? Here you go: http://www.timeoutdubai.com/knowledge/features/41178-47-weird-things-to-do-in-dubai
(A few things, like that roof top swimming pool that is only separated from the multi-storey atrium directly below by a thin layer of transparent plexiglass, looked interesting, but we simply didn’t find the time to do them, the two hour Ski Dubai Session took nearly 4 hours out of our schedule.)
- Dubai time is 4 hours later than London.
- AED = Arab Emirates Dirham 1AED = 0.22GBP 1GBP = 4.59AED
(Fun fact – the word ‘Dubai’ derives from a word meaning ‘money’, because Dubai residents were generally considered to be rich, even in the olden days, due to Dubai being a centre of trade.)
- Since 2006, the weekend has been Friday-Saturday, as a compromise between Friday’s holiness to Muslims and the Western weekend of Saturday-Sunday.
- It is customary to tip in nearly all cases, unless the service has been awful, but it certainly isn’t compulsory. While the majority of restaurants will note at the bottom of the menu that taxes and service charge have already been included in the bill, it is still common to tip 10 to 15% on top of that, depending on the quality of service. Sometimes rounding up to the nearest or second nearest (AED5) figure in your bill could suffice. For taxis, valets, bellboys, etc. also round up to the nearest or second nearest AED5 figure, more if the luggage is heavy, etc.