World’s tallest building, largest airport, biggest mall – Dubai is a country that prides itself on its superlatives. Things here don’t get done subtly, it’s either go hard or go home and probably the best way to illustrate that to you are these 2 photographs:
The one on the bottom shows Dubai in 2013, a skyscraper city, a weird Las Vegas of the Orient that is all about shopping, bling and show-off. The picture on the top is that same part of Dubai – not 100 years ago, not even 50 years ago but just 23 years ago, in 1990. So how did this happen, you might wonder?
Historically Dubai’s economy was mostly based on a flourishing oil industry but with fears of soon exhausting their natural ressources, the government has since shifted focus on tourism, real estate, aviation and financial services which now make up the majority of the country’s income. It’s an odd but interesting place and 5 days were not enough to really get a good grasp of it, but they were certainly enough to get me intrigued by this weird bling city in the midst of the Arabian Desert.
Opinions and reports about Dubai are often very mixed and prior to my departure I was not too hopeful that I would like it much. I usually love traditional aspects of a country: I’d rather eat at a roadside kitchen than at a star-cuisine restaurant, I prefer the hustle-bustle of a local market over a fancy shopping centre and I will always choose partying with locals to drinking with a bunch of tourists. It’s true that those things can be hard to come by in Dubai but as I was to find out it does have its charms and can definitely provide for a good time when coming here on holiday.
First of all, it should be said that this destination isn’t for everyone because the one thing you should bring when coming here is money. While there are ways to get by without spending too much, the average person will leave a lot of money at the bars and restaurants of Dubai. The good news is that a lot of it well spent. Food is incredible and you’ll rarely be disappointed by something you eat at a restaurant or hotel. Even places that look like they might not try too hard in the kitchen put effort into making their food top notch and so it happens that a tuna salad at a beach bar will come with fresh tuna cooked rare, rather than the can version we’re so often dished up back home.
Dubai is an ideal destination for people looking for a holiday featuring an affordable luxury hotel, a pretty beach, great nightlife and shopping, as well as an array of special experiences such as a jeep safari through the desert, skydiving or waterskiing. It’s a city that is remarkably safe with mostly great service and an easy to navigate transport system provided by a very modern metro and an infinite amount of cheap taxis. Prepare to use the latter to get anywhere, as Dubai is not the most walkable city. Some streets don’t even have traffic lights for pedestrians and matter of factly there are very few people found walking in most of the city. Generally, your hotel will have busy porters arranging cabs for you in the speed of light and most trips will cost you between €2 and €10.
Centrepiece of Dubai tourism is JBR, also referred to as “The Walk”, a pedestrian zone with the beach front on one side and fancy hotels, shops and restaurants on the other. Make this your hub and use taxis to get around for occasional trips further out. If you find yourself getting tired of skyscrapers ask your hotel for a trip to the desert, a unique experience that can take on different shapes. I went for a jeep safari where several jeeps crossed the dunes in a rather freaky way (it’s recommended not to eat much beforehand) where more than once I feared our car would flip over (and this does happen occasionally!) but especially guys seem to take great joy doing this. Personally I prefer the more chilled out camel alternative where you ride on a small caravan of these massive animals. When booking a jeep sarafi chances are they’ll throw in a free dinner, some bellydancers and henna tattoos for free.
The beauty about this experience is that you get a bit closer to Arabian culture, a whole lot more than than Burj Kalifa, the world’s largest shopping center and pride of Dubai, or any of the fancy hotels could ever provide. If it’s history you’re after, get on the skytrain and ride it over to the old part of Dubai. Get off at Al Fahidi station and stroll along the streets of the Bastakiya neighborhood with its narrow lanes and steal a peak at Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai’s oldest building. Every Saturday you’ll find a market here where local artists offer their goods for sale.
Bastakiya lies along the Dubai Creek which is heavily frequented by boats and ferries connecting both sides of the river. Boats offer to take you around the creek for 30 minutes to an hour but might ask steep prices: prepare to negotiate. If you’re fine with just a short tour, hop on the river taxi or river bus to get from A to B. It’s a cheap and easy way to get your hands on a cool river cruise.
If you have a few days in Dubai put Abu Dhabi on your itinerary as it’s only a 2-hour drive away. By cab this will only set you back a little over €20 one way but hotels and travel offices can usually arrange tours here as well. Abu Dhabi is not quite as modern as Dubai so covering up your knees and shoulders as a sign of respect is expected.
Where to stay
My recommendation would be to check booking engines for deals as many hotels offer great ones. To research this post I looked up a 5-day stay for 2 at the end of March and found several 5-star hotels around JBR costing no more than €800 per double room, breakfast included. I did visit a few hotels during my time here and can say that all of them are quite impressive, serve lovely food and have nice staff, so it really is up to your taste and budget to figure out one that suits you. The important bit comes down to location. With transportation being essentially limited to cabs (even walking from the central tourist hub to the nearest metro will set you back about 20 minutes) it’s best to stay around the JBR.
Where to eat
If you love food you have come to the right place. Few other cities in the world hold a higher density of Michelin starred restaurants and they’re not necessarily all that expensive!
Dubai hotels also have been known to excel in buffets. I am not much of a fan of buffets most of the time but I was impressed with the quality of food at the likes of Palace Downtown or Ocean View Hotel, where you can even find things like scallops or crab on an all you can eat basis.
If you have a sweet tooth, do not miss out on desserts at the cafe inside the Ocean View Hotel. Their maccarons are always fresh and their passion fruit panna cotta is simply out of this world.
For a fun experience go to Kung Korean Restaurant & Karaoke at the Byblos Hotel and stick around for a song or 10. I didn’t actually get to go myself in the short time I had in Dubai but it was warmly recommended by a knowledgable friend. Same applies to Brunch at Saffron, a restaurant on Atlantis the Palm, which was dubbed the “party brunch” by Time Out Dubai for its casual athmosphere and the over 220 dishes of outstanding quality served here each Friday from 12pm.
The perfect pendant to the lighthearted daytime meal at Saffron is the sleek Observatory, a dimly lit restaurant with splendid city skyline views, the smooth choice for a romantic evening or a dramatic night out with a friend. The Observatory is part of the Marriot Harbour Hotel.
Where to tan
The beaches in Dubai are pretty spectacular, with crystal clear water, fine sands and gentle waves hitting the shore. The most obvious option is the one right by JBR. Nice perk here are the many colorful seashells which you can collect for giggles. Use them to write messages to your loved ones into the sand and take a photo of your creation.
Barasti Beach, as part of the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, is a great option if you want to bake in the sun on lounge beds and next to people your age. This hugely popular place is always full and a fab spot to meet people and stick around until the evening to enjoy sundowners with your feet in the sand. It’s not hard to forget time at Barasti, you can easily spend an entire day (and night) here without flinching. There is a restaurant serving great beach food (salads, pastas, seafood) and some of the more affordable drinks in town. When the weather cools down at night, the place heats up with the local in-crowd. Definately recommended, if you’re willing to overlook the mediocre service.
Looking to get away from the crowds for a minute? Grab a cab to Al Sufouh Beach, known to most as Palace Beach or even BBQ Beach. It’s beautiful, popular with locals and less crowded than many of the alternatives, guaranteeing you will find a sweet spot to get the tan of a lifetime. For photos of the place go here.
If you prefer pools to beaches I can recommend the Courtyard Marriot or Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach hotel. These and many others are open to anyone, not just hotel residents, so order that pina colada and swim a few laps.
Where to drink
The Rooftop Bar on the first floor of the One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel is a great spot for a sundowner with some of the best views in town. Later in the evening the bar turns into a dimly lit dream out of 1001 night. Think embroidered cushions, ethnic lanterns and candle light. Grab a seat overlooking the sea or snuggle up in the pillows of one of the many corners. Another brilliant hangout at the same hotel is the Jetty Lounge, an elegant beachside bar featuring the usual range of cocktails while offering great people-watching.
Karma Kafe was created by the founders of the internationally popular Buddha Bar and promises to be a good time, whether you come here for a full dinner and drinks experience or just want to while away at the Lounge with a cocktail. It’s open until 2am every day.
If cocktails and views don’t quite do it for you and you’d rather listen to some good live music head over to The Music Room featuring daily changing bands and DJ’s. For their current schedule have a look at their website.
If you now got the picture that Dubai is all about shopping, partying and beaching, then… you’re probably right. But that’s hardly the worst when going on holiday, is it?
Dubai is reached within less than 6 hours from most cities in Europe and return flights can be found for as little as €300. It is hot all year round which makes it an ideal get away location for those who are looking to escape a cold winter. In summer however, Dubai gets excruciatingly hot and most people stay indoors (air-conditioning aaaahhhhhh).
So what do you think – Dubai yey or ney?