The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Middle East consists of seven emirates. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the most well-known and popular two emirates of UAE. I have visited Dubai twice and Abu Dhabi once, both are worth visiting. In this article I will tell you about my Dubai experiences, what to do there and what to avoid?
The Dubai cultural experience
If this is your first time in the Middle East, just by being in Dubai is already an exciting and fascinating experience on itself. The heat, the desert, the people, the culture, the language, the food. Many things are different from Europe or North America for example. Some of the cultural differences you may notice:
- Religion is an important part of the culture here. Muslims are called to pray five times a day, you will hear the calls from the mosque over the speakers. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and a lot of things like eating in public are forbidden.
- Muslims cannot drink any alcohol. Dubai tolerates alcohol consumption by tourists, but only in licensed places like bars and restaurants, not in food and not on the beach. Zero tolerance policy for intoxication in public or alcohol in traffic.
- Sexual relationships outside of marriage are officially forbidden by law in UAE. However, most hotels turn a blind eye and accept unmarried male-female tourist couples staying together in one hotel room. Do not go beyond holding hands in public though. Dubai is NOT gay friendly.
- You will see many people smoking. Cigarettes are very cheap. Shisha water pipes are very popular. Smoking is officially prohibited in public places like malls and offices. When I was there smoking still happed frequently in restaurants and bars in Dubai, but rules have become stricter.
- Luxury is very important and present in Dubai, up to the extreme. Many super expensive cars, top brand shops, diamonds, very expensive restaurants, yachts, etc. Oil made UAE rich. How else can you afford all that air-conditioning and a ski slope in the middle of the desert?
What to see and do in Dubai
Next to sand, heat and culture, Dubai has a lot to offer for travelers. These are the main highlights to visit when in Dubai.
With its height of 828 meters, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building world-wide. Before it was opened in 2010, four people died during the construction of the tower. The Burj Khalifa is #9 in the top 10 of the most expensive buildings ever made, with a total construction cost of US$ 4.1 billion. There are 163 floors with mainly apartments, offices, a fancy restaurant (122nd floor) and an observation platform on the 124th floor. To avoid disappointment and having to stand in line, get your tickets in advance online.
The Dubai Mall is the biggest shopping mall around the world with over 1200 shops, a paradise for shopaholics! It is located right next to the Burj Khalifa and includes numerous shops of international brands, from Nike to Chanel to Sephora. The total retail area is more than half a million square meters!
But there is a lot more than just fancy shops. The Dubai Mall also includes:
- The Souk with local products (also on the ground floor)
- Food Court with amazing offerings from all over the world
- Waterfall with diving men statues
- Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo with more than 33K species
- Grand Atrium with a skeleton of a dinosaur on display
- Dubai Ice Rink of Olympic size where you can rent ice skates
- The Dubai Fountain with water shows every ±30 min from 18:00h
Tip: walk outside to the parking lot of Dubai Mall (14K places) and see the most fantastic luxury cars like Ferrari and Rolls Royce.
The Dubai Mall is huge but not the only mall here; there are more than 30 shopping malls in Dubai! According to some locals I spoke to, Ibn Batuta Mall is much nicer than Dubai Mall… Something I need to see next time. I also really like the atmosphere at Souk Medinat in Jumeirah.
Other highlights of Dubai
There is much more to see and do in Dubai, such as:
- Burj Al Arab tower
- Textile Souk, Spice Souk, Gold Souk, Old Souk, Souk Al Bahar
- Souk Madinat & Madinat Jumeirah
- The Walk at Jumeirah
- Cayan Tower (Infinity Tower)
- Palm Jumeirah
- Dubai Marina
- Ski Dubai
- Aquaventure Waterpark and the Lost Chambers
- Ain Dubai observation wheel
- Dubai Museum
- Dubai Legoland (with kids)
- Luxury cinema experience at Reel, Vox or Novo
- Dubai Desert safari
Please do NOT participate in the penguin cuddle sessions offered at Ski Dubai as the keepers allow the penguins getting touched which is not right.
For locations see map below. I would highly suggest to take tours to see a selection of the highlights mentioned while staying in Dubai. To the mall you could take a taxi.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
In Dubai the official language is Arab. Like in any country, when you speak some words or sentences in the local language, it is very helpful and appreciated by the locals. Just learn some simple phrases/words like hello, thank you, etc. You will notice many sentences will include the word ‘Allah’. It says something about how much religion is entwined with culture and language in Arab countries like UAE.
Before my trips to the Middle East I practiced with the book ‘Arabic for Dummies’. Not joking! The book comes with a CD that you can listen to in the car for example and practice the pronunciation for a bit. You can also use Google Translate. However many people in Dubai speak English. Avoid any vulgar language, use common sense and avoid ending up in jail for swearing in public, you would not be the first.
When visting UAE a visit to the desert is an absolute must-do. You can already see it from the airplane. There are plenty of activity possibilities, from jeep safari to quad biking, sandboarding, dune buggy drive, camel ride, etc. Or how about dinner or even spending the night at a desert camp with BBQ?! One time I went with a 4×4 driving through the desert dunes of Dubai. So exciting! Only at one point I became a bit nauseous from all the different angles we were driving LOL
What to wear in Dubai
When traveling to Dubai, you may want to double check the outfits in your suitcases once more before you leave your home. In other words, that naughty hot little dress that you could also wear in the bed room, better leave that in your closet. Dress modest and decent. Cover up a bit, do not show too much naked skin, like when entering a Catholic church in Europe. No see-through fabric, nothing too short, no offensive text on T-shirts, that kind of thing. You do not want to be like that British tourist who got arrested in Dubai mall for wearing too little clothes.
In Dubai, wearing a headscarf is not required for females. Local ladies often do wear a headscarf, niqab, abaja or hijab, but usually the most fashionable versions of the traditional Arab clothing, decorated with small diamonds on the sleeves, things like that. Walking around in places like the Dubai Mall you will see these local ladies in black dresses shopping at high fashion stores like Chanel, Dior and Prada. They wear the fancy clothes underneath and show them off at home, exclusively with their husbands and family.
What to eat in Dubai
About 28% of the residents of UAE comes from India. This makes it a perfect place to eat the most delicious Indian food you will ever taste outside of India. Try one of these Indian restaurants in Dubai. To learn more about the delicious local food of Dubai, take a Street Food Tour. Or join a romantic Dinner Cruise at Dubai Creek. Al Dawaar Restaurant inside the Hyatt Regency Dubai has a 360 degrees view and rotates, which is great for business dinners as well. So many great flavours to try here!
Outside of Dubai
As mentioned earlier, Dubai is just one out of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is another emirate/city of interest, the capital of the UAE. From Dubai, by car Abu Dhabi is about 1.5 to 2 hours southwards. When in Abu Dhabi, try to visit at least the Sheikh Zayed mosque and the Emirates Palace. The Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi opened in November 2017 is also worth a visit!
Besides Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there are two mountainous areas that are worth visiting in the UAE:
- Al Ain with oasis, fort, Jabal Hafeet mountain, etc.
- Jebel Jais mountain in Ras Al Khaima with zip-line
Safety in Dubai
Dubai is relatively safe as long as you respect the laws and do not do anything stupid. Adhere the clothing rules, no topless sunbathing, no alcohol or sex on the beach, do not eat, drink or smoke in public during Ramadan, that kind of behavior. UAE is an Islamic country, never forget that. Check the website of your Ministry of Foreign Affairs for detailed travel advice with regards to safety, health, etc. Bring your medical passport along with any personal medication on prescription to Dubai.
Should UAE Customs pick you out of the line for a random baggage check upon arrival, you may expect any vibrators and drones to get confiscated.
Avoid the islands of Abu Musa and Tunb when taking a boat trip in the Gulf. Both Iran and the United Arab Emirates claim the islands. Are you entering the coastal waters around the islands? Then Iran can accuse you of espionage, with all risks involved. Also, once a local told me to stay away from Al Rigga, Karama and Al Satwa neighborhoods.
Personally I would not rent a car in Middle Eastern countries like UAE due to different traffic rules and situation. Thera are many road accidents and zero alcohol policy in traffic. Better take a taxi or tour instead.
When to go to Dubai
There are about 15 national holidays in Dubai. I would recommend to avoid visiting Dubai during any of those because the sights and shops can get really crowded or have limited opening hours. During certain events prices can go up as well. The Dubai Expo will start as of October 21, 2019 and will last until April 10, 2020.
Something to take into account when planning a trip to Dubai is the Ramadan. The hotel rates will be much lower, but there are limitations. The exact starting date of the Ramadan depends on the position of the moon and may vary by a day or so but is expected to take place from April 24 till May 23. During the Ramadan it is forbidden by law to eat, drink and smoke in public, also dancing and playing loud music. Do not ignore this law, you risk getting arrested by the local police if you do so. If you can stand the heat and do not mind to hide behind a screen inside the hotel while eating or drinking anything, go for it! The shops open up late during Ramadan.
The best time to visit Dubai is between November and March. Better to avoid Dubai Shopping Festival, unless you are a die-hard shopaholic!
Dubai in July: a life indoors
UAE in July, who came up with this planning?! Temperatures can easily reach 50-60 degrees Celsius in Dubai this time of the year. The big black SUV stops right in front of the door of the building, almost kissing the doorpost, to minimize time without air-conditioning. Rarely someone is seen outside walking the streets these days. By personal experience I can say I would not recommend doing that either. As a consequence, life happens inside this time of the year, inside a car, inside a house, inside the mall, inside the university. As long as there is air-conditioning, you will survive.
We had this idea to walk from our hotel to the nearest subway station to check out the Burj Khalifa tower. We did not have any cash dirham for a taxi and thought it would be fine to walk ‘only’ 15 minutes to the metro station. Looking back, this was a crazy idea. Dangerous even. At 50 degrees Celsius! In less than 5 min of walking, the heat already became unbearable, it was so f*cking terribly hot! No wonder obesity is a tremendous problem here. With these temperatures, all you want to do is sit, drink and eat, not move a muscle.
Another day I decided to take a refreshing dive into the Persian Gulf at Jumeirah Beach. OMG, the water felt like a warm bath! Crazy! Fortunately the water of the hotel’s pool was pleasantly cooled down so that is where I should be at! At night the temperatures outside finally becomes bearable and you can normally sit outside for a chat and a drink. Lesson learned: when thinking about going to Dubai in July, think again.
Check with the UAE embassy in your country whether you need a visa to enter Dubai. Tourists with Dutch passport can obtain visa upon arrival at UAE, check CIBT for details.
Where to stay in Dubai
Hilton Jumeirah Beach is a five-star luxury hotel I once stayed in with direct beach access. Next to a gym, pool, wellness and Irish pub, there are 15 (!!) restaurants and a Sky Bar at Hilton Jumeirah Beach. I really liked the ossobuco at the Italian restaurant. The rooms offer all comfort you may need including the much needed air-conditioning and partly or full sea view.
Better familiarize yourself with the currency rate of the Dirham vs. yours so you have an idea of what you are spending. Dubai ain’t cheap!
How to get to Dubai
Emitates Airlines is the biggest airline of UAE, with Dubai as their home base. I love flying with Emirates; great food, friendly staff and very comfy. I travelled twice with them in business class, wonderful! I went on a behind the scenes tour at Dubai International Airport (DXB) and it is amazing to see how Emirates take care of all the stuff they transport on a daily basis, from expensive race horses to Ferraris.
Etihad is the national airline of the UAE, with Abu Dhabi as their home base, which also offers great service. In first class you can shower and get massages! Although served by airlines like Emirates, I would suggest to avoid alcohol on your flight to Dubai. For flight possibilities and prices check Skyscanner.
Dubai is the only destination that I once missed my flight to. OMG! Fortunately it was a business class ticket and I woke up just half-an-hour before the flight left Amsterdam Schiphol airport, so it could be cancelled and rescheduled. Yikes!
Stop-over in Dubai
Dubai has become a popular stop-over for people traveling between Europe and Asia and Australia, especially when traveling with Emirates Airlines. Because of the time needed to exit and re-enter the airport, it only makes makes sense to leave the airport for a short trip into the city and/or its surroundings, when you have a stop-over for at least 5 hours, preferably 7 or more. Emirates Airlines offer stop-over packages.
The easiest and very affordable way seeing something of Dubai from the airport during a stop-over are:
Passport holders of the European Union, USA or Australia do not need a visa to enter Dubai for short stop-over visit (transit). All you need to do is:
- Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months.
- Be able to show proof of continuation of your journey (for example a flight ticket to your next destination within 24h).
- When you check in your baggage at your initial departure airport, check whether your luggage will transfer to the next flight automatically or not. Ask the ground stewardess if your luggage will be labelled to Dubai or to your final destination. This is usually only possible when you continue to travel with the same ticket number, with the same airline and/or at least with an alliance partner.
- Any other access (hand) luggage can be stored temporarily at for example one of the Luggage Storage & Lockers in Terminal 1 or 3 of Dubai airport, which are open 24/7. Preferably store at the terminal of your departure of your next flight.
No flights Dubai-Qatar
Please note that Qatar and the UAE are not the best of friends. Therefore there are no direct flights available between the two Middle Eastern countries.
Dubai airport transfer
It is recommendable to book a road transfer from/to Dubai airport to your hotel and/or between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in advance.
Many thanks to all the great people at AZM UAE, MEALIS and Arvid for making my UAE trips so memorable!
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Do you plan to go to Dubai during Expo 2020? Or have you ever visited UAE? Share your recommendations or questions below!