Dubai is the financial center of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although Dubai’s popularity has spanned for the last decade and a half, it’s still a growing city. This was evident to me from how different Dubai looked in 2013, when I first visited the city, and now, in 2016. Dubai never disappoints because there’s always something new to see or do.
I find that it can take as few as two days or as many as five days to see all the sites and do all of the activities. The list below has sites and activities from my most recent trip to Dubai, as well as my trip three years ago.
Therefore, I'd recommend staying around the Business Bay area. You could, of course, stay outside this area if you prefer staying either to stay in a more budget friendly hotel or if you wanted to be isolated and take advantage of the amenities at the Palm Atlantis, but you may be limited in food options.
There are plenty of recognizable hotel chains in the Business Bay district, including the world's tallest hotel, the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, or if you can spare the change, you can stay at the hotels within the Burj Khalifa, like the Armani Hotel Dubai.
Getting to Dubai directly from home is pretty easy by air. Many international and regional carriers have Dubai as a destination, and depending on where you’re coming from and which airline, there may be a direct flight (which I find better than having a stop, especially through Europe). From the east coast of the US, this is typically Emirates. You can even fly Etihad to Abu Dhabi, since it provides free transfers to Dubai Airport.
There are also many flight options if you’re planning on going outside of the UAE to another regional or global destination. Between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Dubai is the better place to fly out of, especially to get to another regional destination, like Istanbul.
That’s ok though – taxi rides are very inexpensive in Dubai. The worst part of a taxi ride, unfortunately, is traffic. But, most of the cabbies know the fastest alternate route to the sites.
Unlike Abu Dhabi, there are tons of metered taxis in Dubai, and I had no problem finding one or getting from place to place. Even in places where it seemed like taxis were sparse, there was always one that I could find, if I at least walked towards shops or a hotel.
Although unnecessary, it’s a good idea to keep receipts in case you left something in a cab. It’s also a good idea to use a GPS, though this is only required if you’re going to a relatively unknown place. For example, when I was trying to get to a photo location that I found earlier in the day, I had to help the cabbie by using Google Maps on my phone since his GPS couldn’t find it. I didn’t have any issues with cabbies cheating me in Dubai, and there are cameras in all the cabs to discourage other forms of impropriety.
The city caters to all sorts of budgets, so the main question is accessibility. Most restaurant clusters are around the malls, and Burj Khalifa is in a fairly central location, so that’s a good option.
Most of these places take credit cards.
There are plenty of ATMs around the city and most of them work well with foreign bank cards.
I’ve also been to Dubai in the summer (July). I don’t recommend that if you can avoid it for two reasons. Firstly, it’s effing hot, though the natives would say it’s just very, very hot. Secondly, July, in 2013, was during Ramadan (when Ramadan is observed varies year to year on the Gregorian calendar). Everyone – no matter their residency or religion – is prohibited from consuming food or beverages from sun up to sun down, and this is strictly enforced.
During Ramadan, many places are closed in the middle of the day, though sites like the Burj Khalifa are open. This is still a bad idea, because you’re probably going to feel thirsty, and although you can buy beverages from shops like Subway in the Dubai Mall, you can’t consume them, unless you do so in your hotel room. Remember how I said that it’s strictly enforced? Well, I got this card as a warning when I tried drinking my beverage:
If you have access to hotel lounges, many of them stay open the whole day, and allow guests to consume food and beverages. Some hotels may keep restaurants open, but YMMV.
Local Laws and Customs
Though this country is one of the most progressive countries in the middle east, it’s still a traditional Islamic country and some laws must be followed strictly. This is most apparent during Ramadan, when everyone, including tourists, must abide by the “no food and no beverage” rules in public (they are lenient with people eating in the privacy of their own rooms, and perhaps in hotel lounges).
Other laws that should be observed in the UAE are dressing modestly in public, though some sites, especially religious sites, require more covering, and most importantly – not disparaging the royal family. The latter is severely punished, regardless of who you are or where you’re from.
Hours: 8AM – 12AM.
Time to spend: 2+ hours. Allow at least 45 min for the line, time to go to the top and come back down, and to look around.
Burj Khalifa is the tall building that you are probably familiar with if you’ve seen any pictures of Dubai, or if you saw Mission Impossible 4. At [XXX] feet ([xxx] m), it’s one of the tallest buildings in the world. It has offices, a restaurant or two, and the viewing deck on the 124th story for tourists who reserve tickets, known as “At the Top”. The entrance of the Burj Khalifa is in the Dubai Mall.
Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Hours: 10AM – 12AM
Time to spend: At least 30 min
The Dubai Mall is one of the largest malls that I’ve seen (I think it might be the world’s largest and most visited mall). It has boutiques and very high end stores, but even if you’re not into shopping, it’s quite a sight. It’s where the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, the Dubai Ice Rink, and the Sega Republic indoor amusement park are. I haven’t been to these places, but I have seen the ice rink and Sega Republic from the outside.
Additionally, they exhibit works of art, and even have a 2 piece 4-story waterfall called the Human Waterfalls.
Even outside of the Dubai Mall, there’s a promenade outside along the Burj Khalifa and the mall, separating them from Burj Khalifa Lake, which is where the Dubai Fountain is.
Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Hours: Every 30 min after 6PM
Time to spend: 15 - 30 min
The Dubai Fountain is within Burj Khalifa Lake. I actually didn’t know this was a fountain until this trip, and that was by accident. I had seen the jet sprays from the top of the Burj Khalifa, but it never occurred to me that this was a fountain because water isn’t coming out of them until the shows.
The shows are basically water synchronized to music. Each show goes on for the length of the song, and starts every 30 minutes after 6PM. The promenade gets packed at this time as people are clamoring for the best spots to view the show.
Verdict: Worth it, but skippable if you’re short on time.
Time to spend: 30 min
I didn’t go to the Palm Jumeirah and the Atlantis this time since I was a bit ill, but I went last time. The Palm Jumeirah is a manmade island in the shape of a date palm tree. It’s the original from the manmade palm islands (yes, there are multiple manmade palm islands), and is the smallest. It looks awesome from high up, even from satellite images [link Google Maps].
There are many hotels from the Palm Jumeirah, though none as recognizable as the Atlantis. The recognizable exterior is pretty bland compared to the hotel lobby, which has a large multi-colored glass sculpture that is sort of in the shape of a Christmas tree. I’m not sure whether it’s there now, but I sure hope they didn’t get rid of it, because it was stunning.
Verdict: Nice to go, but skip if short on time.
Time to spend: N/A.
The World Islands are man-made islands like the Palm Jumeirah, in the shape of the world. You can sort of see the world islands from the top of tall buildings like the JW Marriott Marquis, but the best way to see the World Islands is by air, in a helicopter or seaplane ride.
Verdict: Nice to go, but skip if short on time.
Hours: Depends on tour operator.
Time to spend: Depends on tour operator.
Helicopter and seaplane rides are the best way to see the Palm Jumeirah and the World Islands. Helicopter rides last around 20-30 minutes and cost about $220 per person on a sharing basis. The sea planes 30-40 minutes and costs about $460 per person.
Verdict: Very cool to see, but skippable if not in your budget.
Note that tour prices may be negotiable, so don't be discouraged by the prices. Also, better operators will take credit cards as payment without any hassle, while some of the average operators will be resistant to take credit cards, and will insist on cash payments.
Hours: Depends on tour operator, but generally, morning tours run from 9AM to 1PM and evening tours run from 5PM to 9PM.
Time to spend: Approximately 4-5 hours, depending on tour and pickup time from hotel.
The thrill of a Desert Safari is a bit hard to explain but, it's something similar to going on a roller coaster. Basically, you're in an SUV, and the driver drives on sand dunes. This may not sound exciting, but if the driver is doing it right, then you'll drive down pretty steep dunes and be tossed around a bit. Pro-tip: don't eat a big meal before going on a desert safari, especially the evening safaris (see below).
You should also have an opportunity to ride ATVs and/or dune buggies on the dunes (either before or after the desert safari), even though these are typically extra. You can also ride camels, which may or may not be extra, because I think it depends on the tour operator, and also the camel owner.
Also, in the evenings, dinner should be included, and you should have the opportunity to get henna drawings on your hands or tattoos elsewhere (I'm not sure if this is extra).
I personally think evening safaris are better based on personal experiences, though this is highly dependent on the tour operator. (I'll post which tour operator I liked after I find the name.) Verdict: Worth it, though it can be expensive.
Note that the cost depends on the package you take. Check the link listed below to see what's included.
Hours: 10AM - 11PM
Time to spend: At least 1.5 hours
Ski Dubai is an indoor winter park, with penguins and all. There’s two different entrance prices. The basic entrance ticket gives you access to (baby) bobsledding, tubing, tobogganing, and going down in a slope in a giant rubber ball. They also let you borrow winter clothes.
Using the ski lift and skiing costs extra.
Verdict: Skippable (fun, but expensive).
Hours: 10AM – 10PM
Time to spend: 30 min (for general looking around)
The Dubai Gold Souk is the Gold Market, where there is a collection of jewelers who sell jewelry made from gold. I’m not into gold jewelry (or gold), but I’ve been told that the prices are really good.
Verdict: Skippable, unless you are interested in gold or shopping for gold.
(Trip made in July 2013 and November 2016)