When I told people that I got invited to go to Dubai for a weekend nobody seemed overly interested on my behalf. While I had no real knowledge or preconceived notion of Dubai or why I should go, but 30 degrees in November seemed good enough reason as any for me. The most “enthusiastic” comment came from my Dad when he asked me ‘Dubai, mh, isn’t that a bit too hot?’. No, actually those 30 degrees will just do for this Bikram lover especially during her first winter far from the sunny South African shores and so I packed my little bag. Little it was as I had actually vowed to make this my very first trip with just a weekender bag and no checked luggage. I only threw on my winter coat last minute, because the trip to the airport seemed a bit much November just in my Dubai finest and with my panama hat.

There is nothing better than a place you travel to being a pleasant surprise. Dubai was exactly that, I had little expectations, but once I stepped off the plane it kind of hit me – I liked this city. While I think a weekend is too short to explore most places properly I am a big believer that in order to get a feeling for a city it doesn’t take much longer than a hop, skip, and a few pleasant surprises…

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1. Silent night

Arriving at any airport in the middle of the night is never pleasant. However no lines at immigration, no luggage to collect, and a driver waiting for me made the whole thing a lot more bearable. I called shotgun and off we went towards downtown Dubai. Oddly enough my first impression of Dubai was quiet and dark. I had expected a lot more light action with all these skyscrapers, manmade islands, and general technology madness. Not so at three o’clock in the morning and I was happy to sleep that first night with an open window under the dark and majestic landmark of the Burj Khalifa. While New York praises itself to be the city that never sleeps, I kind of liked a city that was a little sleepy too in the middle of the night, just like me – Dubai and I were off to a good start.

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2. Dubai in heels

I believed in order to get around in Dubai you need a car, preferably a Hummer stretch limo. Luckily that ain’t so and I was happy to find out that there are many areas in Dubai that are entirely walkable. Explore downtown, the area around the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall on foot, and you can enjoy sparkling clean streets and sidewalks. Need a bit more atmosphere? Push your way through the old souks and get lost in a maze of stalls selling spices, gold, and Aldi goods. Take the water bus to get around there and for a scenic transport option over the Dubai creek.

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In case you need to cover longer distances or the heat gets too much Dubai has excellent public transport in form of Metro and Monorail lines. Still a cheap and convenient way to get around are metered taxis. And for those who are not happy to share a ride with male stranger, there are exclusive ladies taxis available: driven by women and easily recognizable by a pink roof and interior. Sounds quite traveletty to me!

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3. Get star-struck

Many people complain about the over-the-top-ness of Dubai and it is hard to ignore: 18-lane highways, world-shaped islands, and the probably poshest hotels in the world are competing for your attention. But for a weekend I allowed myself to indulge in observing it all and secretly keeping tap on how many Guinness Records I had witnessed. Biggest gold ring? 21 carats and check. Female police officer in a police Porsche? Check. Seeing Atlantis emerge? Check. Just go with it, dare to be impressed, and just know deep down that when you look at your costume jewelry from H&M that it’s much nicer than that big old gold ring.

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4. Opposites attract

Dubai is not only newer, bigger, and better, it is also full of contrasts and I found that to be very appealing. East meets West, old meets new, and technology meets tradition. At any given corner you will find opposites that attract and make for an exciting city mix. Needless to say there is nothing better than camels on a beach in front of skyscrapers next to a Nivea advertisement during sunset after a swim surrounded by approximately 30 different nationalities.

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5. Under the sea

I’m a complete nerd kid when it comes to aquariums. I love them and usually walk around with my mouth open pointing at everything . At the Dubai Aquarium that got a bit embarrassing considering that you can already view the big tank from the outside of the Dubai Mall where you are surrounded by Louis Vuitton and Gucci fanciness. But really you could have locked me in there, thrown the keys away, and I would have been happy. Well, maybe till night that is, as they have a lot of sharks and some other scary looking fish in there, not even to mention the 750kg King Croc we got to feed with a chicken wing (as in a real chicken wing, feathers and all, no KFC for that croc). I also got to feed the fishes – in a good way – with pre-prepared fish snacks, and learned that birds really like a high top hair bun, making me feel like a disheveled Cinderella. I recommend you book a guided tour for some awesome insider knowledge and then stay for happily ever after!

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6. Something old and something new

Nothing old in Dubai? Take a trip to the Al Bastakiya district and you will see this isn’t so. Characterful traditional houses and windtowers mark this charming area. Restaurants and galleries for artisan crafts and Middle Eastern arts invite to stroll, linger, and explore. Visit the SMCCU (Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding) that hosts cultural breakfasts and meals to explain the traditions, customs, and religion of the UAE to visitors. It would have been the perfect opportunity for brownnosers like myself to ask all the questions I ever had about Dubai to my hearts’ content. Unfortunately it was closed when I was there so my poor tour guide had to fill in.

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7. World flower

I wasn’t sure the whole 828 m of the Burj Khalifa would fit onto one picture, but as per usual in the end it is all about perspective. Truth to be told I find the whole craze of building buildings that go higher and higher a bit silly, it reeks of male architects that need to compensate other shortcomings. But besides being the currently tallest building in the world, I think the Burj Khalifa is absolutely beautiful just like the desert flower it was built after, the Hymenocallis: sleek, simple, and just a little bit eery, like out of a phantasy novel.

Book your tickets in advance, step into an elevator colored in digital clouds, and get your ears popping because that is the only way you will ever know that you just moved 124 floors in under a minute. Welcome to #atthetopburjkhalifa! Yes, there is not only a hashtag, but also free wifi (as pretty much everywhere in Dubai I should add for the online addicts) so you can immediately post your selfie with THE view.

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8. Get your Brooklyn on

When we arrived at Alserkal Avenue in the industrial quarter Al Quoz I felt like I was back in my old hood: Williamsburg. The same run down garages, some glass and steel, and a hopscotch to greet us.

The Avenue is a small but exclusive conglomerate of 20 workshops and galleries that host local and international artists. Growing since 2007 it has become the poster child of the UAE’s contemporary art scene and with some invitations to Art Basel a serious contender for art lovers it seems. Admittedly I am a less than artsy person; I am however appreciative of any space that serves great coffee and a great place for a nap: welcome to A4Space. A4 seems to be the center of it all and is part coffee shop, part mobile office, library, cinema, and pop-up shop all neatly rolled in one awesome airy space that screams creativity. The best part is the beautiful oak installation by designer Fadi Sarieddine that spans two floors and their project #LEAVEYOURNOTE, a donation library where you leave your favorite book with a note saying why you want to pass it forward. Needless to say with chic napping working cocoons and books for a good cause I felt like I had died and gone to hipster heaven.

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9. Sweet with a view

What better than a great cocktail? How about a cocktail with a great view. And what better about a great cocktail with great view than a cocktail, the view, and some miniature chocolate fondue. Head to the 63rd floor of The Address Downtown Dubai to Neos for all that and get a perfect night time view of the light & water show of the Dubai Fountain. You can enjoy the light show, but are spared to have to listen to the mandatory “Time to Say Goodbye” that goes with it.

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10. The little mermaid

As I was thinking a lot about how I would feel in the UAE as a woman traveler. Quite frankly I was a bit apprehensive before though I shouldn’t have been. Dubai is a quite modern Emirate and mostly expats live here. That makes for an international, cosmopolitan vibe. I can’t tell what goes on behind closed doors from one visit, but to me it seems that many Arabic women hold jobs, go shopping, and live “normal”, every day lives with or without men at their sides. As a foreigner I wore what I would wear in other Muslim countries and always covered my knees and shoulders and was treated nothing but kind and courteous. On the beach you can wear your bikini and while I got some stares, I blame that more on the fact that some men will always stare regardless than it being a Dubai beach. If you feel uncomfortable check out the Al Mamzar Beach Park that offers ladies only beach access on Mondays. But whichever beach you chose, I strongly recommend you take a dip in the warm Gulf water, because every woman should feel like a mermaid once in a while.

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Thank you Dubai Tourism for such a lovely surprise and to Emirates for getting me there!

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!