With unfamiliar foreign travel, there is always a moment. Long past the exhaustion of endless airport walkways, navigating through the invisible borders of a foreign nation’s immigration queue, the joy of a successful ATM, and you finally find your ride. You sit down, settle in, exhale, look outside and realize the travel is over, and smile as you know that you … have … arrived.
My moment of arrival in Dubai was with my first Uber driver turned tour guide. The moment I closed the door, the Texas-strength air conditioning whooshed and began to cool me from the mere 30 seconds exposed to the blistering September heat (everyone leaves Dubai in September). As he narrated the tales of the magnificent skyscrapers in his near perfect English, I escaped Seattle, and embraced the first taste of discombobulating foreignness in a three week trip of constant new.
Our family trip this year was to South Africa and Victoria Falls to celebrate my dad’s birthday. Per usual, even though we all live in the same city, we all arrived in different ways. I used miles and managed to get a decent routing on Emirates with a three day layover in Dubai. It was my first time flying with them, however I didn’t have the miles saved up to enjoy their business or first class suites (and was saving them for a special treat on the way home). There isn’t much than can make a 14.5 hour flight any better, although with an aisle seat and my usual sleep kit, I at least made it there rested and ready to go enjoy the city.
I’ll keep this post short. Dubai is a modern Middle Eastern Vegas (sans the gambling, excessive drinking and general sin city vibe), with lovely hotels, world-class restaurants, and awe-inspiring skyscrapers. It is a curious global fusion. More so than Singapore, this is a place where no one is actually from, and where everyone looks different, dresses different, believes different. Wandering the mall is fascinating. But yet everything is the same. You’ve got FlyWheel and Starbucks, you can dine at any American restaurant, from Shake Shack to P. F. Chang’s, to Eatily. A classmate that I ran into on the flight summarized Dubai best: it is as if there are global expat centers where you could be anywhere.
So I spent the next three days seeking out something authentic, something local. I found tiny pockets in a cultural center and the Women’s museum, but I struggled, so mainly I ate, sat by a pool (under construction like everything else), and spent time in cars going back and forth to the mall.
I highly recommend a tour with Neda, (book at Wander with Neda). Despite the fact we were on an outdoor walking tour starting at the high heat of Dubai at 4 p.m., the nearly private tour (there were two of use that day) of the souks, historical neighborhoods, museums, ending with a traditional meal in a local restaurant was the cultural highlight of the visit. If you miss her tour, still check out the Al Fahidi Historical District, including its galleries and tea houses and delightful coffee museum.
If you are planning a layover, three days were more than plenty – I’d recommend two. Relaxed and disconnected, it was time for the trip to really begin!
If you go:
If you are doing a layover, stay close to a mall. I was told this and of course I ignored this. And I regret it. I ended up spending most of my time in Careems (a local Uber service) going back and forth from my hotel on Palm Jumeriah to the tourist areas – a 30 minute ride.
I went with a great value (September is the low season in Dubai) at the Fairmont Palm. It has a lovely beach and pool, when not under construction, which wasn’t mentioned at booking (ask anywhere, everything is under construction!). I also enjoyed the spa and expansive club room (I had multiple meals there). But staying near the Dubai Mall would have been more practical for a short stay and closer to transit. If you are looking for a family beach vacation and happen to be transiting through Dubai, check out the other more family-friendly venues like Atlantis.
If you find yourself hungry in the Dubai Mall, (the biggest one, with the aquarium next to the Burj Al Khalifa) and want something middle Eastern, we enjoyed our meal at Al Hallab. The falafel were a standout, along with the hummus.
If you are hungry at Mall of the Emirates (the one with a ski hill) – head over to the hipster Common Grounds (also by Tom&Serg) for a coffee and treat. I had what looked suspiciously like a Cronut. It was the best pastry I’ve had in a very long time.
At either mall, get some tasty chocolate dipped dates at Bateel.
Go to Atmosphere for a light dinner or drinks rather than doing the observation deck at the Burj al Khalifa. For slightly more than a visit to the observation deck (still pricey), you can sit and enjoy the view, as I did on arrival. However I learned of a weather phenomenon I’d never seen before, humidity so bad it obstructed the what should be phenomonal views.
- Wander with Neda (See above) – do this first since many recommended spots are on her tour.
- Visit the art galleries in Alserkal Avenue, a collection of warehouses housing fine art, photography, and juice bars. Don’t try to walk there from Tom&Serg, even though it looks close. Nothing in Dubai is made for walking. Also, check the hours – I ended up there on a day the galleries were all closed to prepare for new shows the next day.
- Cross Dubai Creek in an Abra.
- Visit the old souks
- See the history of Dubai at the Dubai Museum
- Visit the small, but information rich, Women’s Museum.
- Go to the malls. They are wonders. People of every type, food halls, other wonders. They truly are fascinating. And air conditioned.