I don’t care what you’ve heard of Dubai. The fancy attractions, the hotels, the impressive buildings, it’s all well and good. But if you want to see the real Dubai, you want to see the area around Dubai Creek. The city was founded here, not really so long ago, in the early 19th century. Until the 1960s the city remained a small fishing village, centred around the Creek, an oasis in an unhospitable desert. And then they struck oil. What happened next is one of the most stunning transformations of a city in modern history. Now a giant metropolis and air hub, Dubai is a convenient stopover on the way from Australia or Asia to Europe. But it’s also worth stopping for a look, despite its huge size, oppressive heat, and obscene displays of wealth and unsustainability, if only you plan your days there well. Here’s what to do.
Dubai at a Glance
Dubai is serious desert zone. This means that in the summer months (June to August) it is freaking hot- expect daytime temperatures over 40°C (104°F) every day. It is a little bit cooler at night, about 30°C (86°F). Winter is actually quite pleasant, more like 30°C (86°F) during the day, but it gets kinda cold at night.
Prices per day:
Dubai has something of a dual economy operating. If you stick the local places it’s cheap as chips, but if you do a lot of expensive touristy stuff it’s easy to spend the big bucks.
Big Mac Index: 12 Dirhams, US$3.27 (25% cheaper than a US Big Mac)
Food: From 20 Dirhams (US$5) for a cheap restaurant meal up to US$50+ for dinner for two at a shiny establishment
Hotel: US$150 (4 star) to $200+ (high end). If you’re arriving late, try the Airport Millenium Hotel. Easy access to the airport, walking distance to the Metro, close to the Creek and half decent itself. If you want to be closer to the “new” Dubai, try the Sheraton at Mall of the Emirates. Very nice inside and out and also well connected to everything via the Metro.
Hostel: Dubai is not really known for its hostel style accommodation but you can get a el cheapo hotel room for US$30 to $50.
Entertainment: Generally pricey as most bars will be inhabited mostly by expats and tourists.
Drink: US$5 – $10 for a beer, because most places you can get it will be a bar in a hotel.
Transport: About 5 Dirhams (US$1.25) for a Metro ticket. A taxi trip to the beach maybe 10 – 20 Dirhams. Generally very good value.
Dubai has a very nice, new, cheap, air conditioned above ground Metro system, which mostly follows the Sheikh Zayed Road along the coast. But beware, distances are vast and there can be a lot of stops, so you can spend a lot of time on the train. Alternatively, you can get taxis cheaply, and it’s not even that expensive to get a guy to drive you around all day. He’ll just chill outside while you check out the sights. I spent about US$40 or $50 for this on one of my days there and I went to a lot of places.
1. Take an Abra (a small wooden boat) Across the Creek
Do yourself a favour and get down to the Creek. Not only will you see the original historical Dubai, with its glittering Souks and twisted, narrow streets, but you’ll be able to do a little walking. If this sounds humdrum, that’s because you don’t realize how hot and huge Dubai is. Think you can walk from your hotel to the coast? You can’t. It’s miles further than it looks, it’s stinking hot, and the 15 lane Sheikh Zayed Freeway is in the way. In contrast, the Creek is a delight. It’s cooler because of the wind over the water and the natural design of the shady streets and buildings with their wind towers. For a real experience, ditch the tourist boats or water taxis and take one of the wooden abras the locals take. You can take the boat from the Old Souk on one side of the river, to several spots on the other side including the Spice Souk. The kicker? It’ll set you back the grand total of 1 Dirham (about US$0.25) and be one of the best things you do all trip, as you putt putt your way peacefully across the cool emerald water, the sights and sounds of Arabia on both banks.
2. Al Bastakiya and the Old Fort
Al Bastakiya is an area of authentic Arab mud brick houses on the Creek. Originally an upmarket housing area for rich citizens of the fledgling fishing town, it was scheduled to be demolished in the late 1980s. In a bizarre twist, a British architect named Rayner Otter petitioned the UAE government to preserve the historic area, and won the support of no less than Prince Charles, who upon visiting Al Bastakiya also asked his hosts to consider its preservation. The demolition order was reversed soon after. It is now a cultural area and a great place to pick up arts and crafts such as brilliantly painted metal plates, multipatterned wooden jewellery boxes, pottery and paintings. Plus you’ll marvel at the mud brick architecture and the ingenuity of the wind towers adorning most of the houses, drawing cool breeze into the abode. I had a little trouble finding Al Bastayika, but the best place to start looking is at the Al Fahidi Fort. The fort is another stunning original mud building and was built in 1787 to defend the city against attacks from neighbouring tribes. Nowdays it houses a very informative museum on the history of Dubai. Entry is 3 Dirhams (US$0.75). From Al Fahidi fort, it’s a few hundred metres walking east along 19th St to get to Al Bastakiya.
3. The Gold Souk and Spice Souk
People raved to me about the Gold Souk of Dubai. I was enchanted, expecting some kind of marketplace surrounded by exotic fabrics with gnarled old men selling masses of loose gold bracelets and the like. The reality was somewhat different and … somewhat underwhelming. Now I know that gold is expensive, so maybe it’s just my wild imagination but I just expected more… gold. And more stores. I walked through the whole thing in about 5 minutes, then had to backtrack to make sure I was in the right place. Alas, I was. Nonetheless, if you are in the market for cheap(ish) gold jewellery and trinkets, you’ll probably enjoy it here. Surprisingly, much more impressive and making the day trip worthwhile is the nearby Spice Souk. Huge open bags of sweet smelling cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper, frankenscence and even shisha fill and spill out of tiny stores onto the street. The shopkeepers are charming, the value is great, the colours are intense and bewildering and the aromas- all I can say is wow. Don’t miss it. Your senses will thank you.
4. Have a Meal at the Creek
If you’ve never had middle eastern food, you’re in for a treat. It’s up there with the best the world has to offer. My mouth waters at the thought of the pan fried lamb kibbeh, the shisk kebabs grilled over hot coals, the vine leaf sarma with lemon and rice, the bread dipped in generous serves of hummus and baba ghanoush. And the tasty olives. Lunch is brilliant, but I will say that the Creek is a very special place at night. Imagine, just you and a special someone and the lights of the wooden boats on the water and the mudbrick streets. DISCLAIMER: Just remember no public affection during or after dinner- it is highly frowned upon and might even land you in the clink! The local Islamic customs also prevent you from enjoying your meal with a drink. But as an alternative, you can try another local custom after dinner- hubbly bubbly, or smoking flavoured tobacco from a water pipe (bong). Try the apple flavour! DISCLAIMER: Smoking is very very bad for your health!
5. Jumeirah Beach Park
If you’re like me and feel disoriented without a dip in the ocean, then you’ll welcome the chance to wash off the sweat and desert dust at Jumeirah. You have to find the correct spot to bathe- there are separated areas of the beach for families, females and males, and if in particular you’re a single male you’ll be sternly warned off if you stray into the wrong area. It’s great to bathe watching the sun set over the ocean at the end of a long day, but beware, finding a taxi on the Jumeirah road afterward can be challenging and like most everything else in Dubai, it’s not within walking distance of anywhere.
6. Do a Desert Tour
Get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and jump on one of the many desert safaris on offer. As the inimitable Russell Coight would say, the best way to enjoy this kind of serenity is flat out. A typical trip includes a good deal of 4WD drive dune bashing, but the rest of the trip is more peaceful, involving a campsite with decent food, bellydancers and camel rides.
7. See the Palm Island
Ok you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve had your fill of authentic Arab culture and now you want Dubai’s ridiculous side. From an engineering perspective, the Palm Island is astonishing- millions of tonnes of sand were dumped into the ocean in a fairly successful attempt at creating a fractal coastline with miles and miles of new ocean frontage. From a sightseeing perspective, the Palm Island is more of a challenge. You can’t really go onto the island itself, unless you own property there or know somebody who does. You therefore have three options: a boat trip around the Palm Island or the monorail up the Palm Trunk are the first two. The boat trip is exciting and fun (most boats leave and return from the Marina, more on that later), particularly if you choose the inflatable jetboat option. As a bonus, it’s nice to get out on the ocean, and most boats will also get up close and personal with the Burj al Arab, further down the coast. However your glimpses of the Palm will be limited to the circular breakwall around the island which protect it from the open ocean, and some shoreline views of the interior when you get to one of three gaps in the breakwall. The boats cannot go inside the breakwall. The monorail gives you an elevated view of the Palm, and you can then visit the Atlantis Hotel at the very tip of the Palm trunk. However at the time of writing the monorail is not yet connected with the Dubai Metro. This makes it somewhat inconvenient and necessitates a taxi ride. Oh and the third option? Ask for a window seat when you fly in or out of Dubai and look out the window. This will probably give you the best photo opportunity for the Palm and the many other bizarre and grandiose structures Dubai has to offer.
8. The Burj al Arab
The Burj is probably the most iconic building of modern Dubai and on the list of many visitors to Dubai. My guess however is that unless you’ve flown in on your private jet, you won’t be staying at this 7-star hotel. Don’t worry because you can still visit to enjoy (exhorbitant) afternoon tea, or cruise past on a boat (from the Marina) to admire this unique sail structure.
9. The Burj Khalifa
The tallest building in the world is a sight to behold and a challenge to photograph. Given the shopping mall surroundings, you might struggle to fit the entire building into one frame! It’s impressive to behold but like many of the modern sights in Dubai I was disappointed by the lack of thought given to public access. The building itself is surrounded by a perimeter fence and you can walk for miles in the heat but you won’t find a way in. There’s an Armani Hotel inside the building, but you can’t even access the lobby. Meanwhile, a ticket to the observation deck (accessed illogically from the mall nearby) is a complete rip-off at 400 Dirhams. However you can book in advance for only 125 Dirhams. And once you’re here, you’ll probably want to go up anyway.
10. Go skiing in the Mall of the Emirates
Among the many crazy things you can do in Dubai is to go skiing or snowboarding at the Mall of the Emirates. What I like about this Mall is that it’s connected beautifully to its own metro station (and thus easy to access). As far as shopping malls go it’s quite nice but it’s real drawcard is the indoor ski slope. Tonnes of man made snow sit inside a sealed-off frozen area. Kid after kid after kid and many adults too slide their way from top to bottom. I shudder somewhat at the thought of the energy required to run this place, but for novelty value it’s hard to beat.
11. The Dubai Marina
Just when you think you’ve had your fix of stupendously tall and impressive skyscrapers, touristy restaurants, glitzy shopping malls and landscaped waterways, the Marina offers up all of the above- but in even dizzyingly greater doses than anywhere else. In particular, the twisting Cayan Tower is eye-popping. If nothing else, the Marina is the place to come for pleasure cruises around the surrounding Palm Island and down to the Burj al Arab, and it’s a great place to go jogging. The Dubai Marina Walk snakes for 7 km and is a great place to try out this popular fad which involves running at a pace slightly greater than that of walking but less than sprinting…
What do you think? Any more suggestions or questions on Dubai you’d like answered?