Dubai is the youngest city I have ever been to and it looks like the young development that it is. The whole of Dubai sprang up only a few decades ago so everything looks new, clean and oddly perfect. It felt like walking into a new but furnished mansion that hasn’t been lived in. Dubai looks like a “show city”, the perfect city you sell to people, a dream, an aspiration.
However, there is an area in the city called old Dubai, which I will talk about later on. Now old Dubai looks more like a well-lived in space with all the quirks, character and anomalies that emerge as things get older.
I was in Dubai for 4 and a half days in November 2019, which was a pleasant time to go as its their “winter”, meaning the sun isn’t so hot that you’re tempted to peel your own skin off. We had bearable temperatures of about 20 to 25 degrees celsius during the day which is my happy place, weather-wise.
I stayed at Five hotel. As at November, 2019, the hotel had only been open for a few months. It is cool and fresh, with interesting architecture – the whole 50 something floors of the hotel is in a cylindrical structure. Never stayed in a circular hotel before! Talk about thinking out of the box, literally! The hotel is definitely geared towards young 20 somethings (or the young at heart) as the pool side is a makeshift bar with loud music playing from afternoon till evening almost daily.
So, what did I get up to in this Emirati City?
- Desert Experience – I had an amazing afternoon/evening organised by an experience curating company called Carlton Noble Group. We were picked up by a four by four at around 3pm. The vehicle could fit 6 people, and already had one couple in it when myself and my friend were picked up. We collected one more couple from their hotel and then headed to the desert. We went dune bashing (where the four by four takes us on a rollercoaster ride up and down the many dunes), quad biking and camel back riding. We also watched a nice show out in the desert under the night sky – there were dancers and a fire breather. The food served was simple but delicious and even had vegetarian options (Hello, I’m Sope and I’m a Vegetarian). A henna service was also part of the experience. We were delivered back to our hotel around 10pm that same day. I was pleased we went for the Carlton Noble option as it meant less crowds. As said earlier, there were 6 people in our car whom we had most of the experiences with, so no waiting around for quad bikes or anything. Also, at the location, (where we watched the night entertainment) there was only about 40 of us all together. On our way to the location, we saw other groups having similar experiences in much bigger groups. We paid a little more for our less crowded experience and it was worth every penny.
- The Burj Khalifa – Of course we went up the Burj Khalifa – but it was my least favourite experience in Dubai. You know how our desert experience was amazing because we were in a small group? Well, our Burj Khalifa experience was meh, because it was way too busy and crowded – understandably so. We got our tickets online and the ticket included a visit to the Burj and also entrance to the Dubai Mall Aquarium. We paid about $60 for both sites and I believe entry to just the Burj costs the same amount, so I am happy we found this bargain. The Burj is stunning and breathtaking – when you are looking at it from outside on the ground. The Burj becomes a gigantic screen after 6pm showing colourful graphics just as the famous Dubai Fountain displays, just beside it, begins. Experiencing the Burj Khalifa from the outside is fun and less claustrophobic. You really do appreciate human ingenuity. Inside, however, there are way too many people, so the queues are quite long, except you get some sort of queue-jumping ticket. Once up the Burj, there are people everywhere fighting for the best spots to take panoramic pictures of sprawling Dubai and the Gulf Sea below. We struggled to take good pictures with our phone cameras and finding a clear vantage spot to take a picture was next to impossible. Once you finally get a spot, you can’t comfortably stay there long enough to get a good shot as you can see others wanting to use that same spot huffing, puffing and staring at you, waiting for your exit from the prime piece of space. By the way, most tourists, like ourselves, can only get to the 124th floor of the Burj as opposed to the actual top floor which is the 163rd.
- Dubai Fountain – The glorious Dubai fountain, located beside the Burj Khalifa, deserves a mention of its own. It is the world’s largest choreographed water fountain display. The display is on at certain times of the day and it is just an amazing creative spectacle. The company behind building the fountain is the same one responsible for the famous fountain in Las Vegas by the Bellagio Hotel. Apparently, the music that is played alongside the water display is tightly controlled and chosen by either the company that operate it or by EMAAR Properties, the developer.
- Aquaventure – I LOVE water and I love slides and rollercoasters. So, for me, waterparks are the perfect combination! I recently learnt to swim (a story for another day) and going to a waterpark was a perfect way to celebrate and try out my new found confidence in water. I have been to a waterpark before in Greece, but I spent a lot of the time slightly paranoid that I may drown and latching on to my friends legs to buoy myself. This time, at Aquaventure waterpark in Dubai, I handled myself in water much better. I loved Aquaventure, it is not an overwhelming park in the sense that you can go on all the rides in a day easily and also go to the beach. However, it is overpriced as these sorts of places always are. I did cringe forking out over £70 for the experience but I REALLY wanted to go as I REALLY LOVE waterparks! Aquaventure is right beside the humoungous Atlantis hotel on the Palm. There is also a Dolphin experience next to Aquaventure, where you can watch Dolphin shows and swim with them. You need a separate ticket for that. After splashing, sliding and floating around at Aquaventure, we had a more sedate experience at Hakkasan, the famous International Chinese restaurant which is also at Atlantis, so a few mins walk from Aquaventure. I highly recommend Aquaventure. If you do go, let me know how the Leap of Faith body slide is, I did not have the courage to make that drop….
- Old Dubai – You must visit old Dubai. Old Dubai is really nothing like the Dubai you see on TV. It is more traditional and not as perfect as “new” Dubai. It’s in old Dubai you will find the souks such as the spice and gold souks. We got to old Dubai by crossing a river on a 1AED per person boat which was a nice chill evening experience before our wander in the markets. You can also just get a cab to old Dubai if you’d rather. Old Dubai is more vibrant and less plasticy. New Dubai is like your glossy perfect over-achieving cousin and old Dubai is the spontaneous rogue cousin that doesn’t care what you think of them and their crazy hair.
- The Dubai Mall – Now I can’t talk about Dubai and not talk about the consumerist temple that is the Dubai Mall! People actually come to Dubai solely to shop at this vast outlet which boasts thousands of stores. Apparently, in 2011, the mall attracted more visitors than the whole of New York City! The mall is so huge that it has a luxury hotel, an ice rink, an aquarium (which I visited) and many other attractions besides shops. It really is a mind boggling experience to be in a mall that huge. I usually hate malls as I prefer an outdoor shopping experience, I tend to fill jammed in inside enclosed malls but for some reason I didn’t feel as claustrophobic as I thought I would at the Dubai Mall. I would suggest that the Dubai Mall management initiates indoor scooters or motorised vehicles of some sort that people can hire, because after a while, it becomes an existential pain in the back to take even one more step.
I also visited the Dubai Mall aquarium which was a part of my Burj Khalifa package, the aquarium is much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. On the outside, you get a sneak peek of all sorts of sea life including sharks and huge sting rays. Inside, however, there are many more creatures including two enormous crocodiles to see and birds flying around freely.
Dubai is quite an expensive place to be in but like most places in the world, you can always find restaurants and hotel options that are more pocket-friendly if you look close enough. Something else not to miss out on is the variety of cuisines available in Dubai. Dubai is made up of over 70% internationals, so local Emiratis are actually in the minority. Hence, there are restaurants offering delicacies from all over the world.
In terms of hospitality, I found the people welcoming and kind generally speaking and I also felt safe through out my stay even late at night when outside.
A note on what to wear – Although Dubai is in the UAE which of course is a conservative muslim nation, you can dress as you please there. Dress the way you’d normally dress in the summer, and for most people this includes shorts and tank tops. Don’t wear anything crazy, as I assume you won’t at home, and you’ll be fine.
I really enjoyed my final trip of the year in Dubai and if there is one place I wish I went to and didn’t, it would be the Burj al Arab, which is the iconic sail boat structure that houses a seven star hotel. They do high tea and brunches and if it wasn’t that we’d run out of time, I’d have loved to go.