We’ve all read a scathing review or two on Dubai. It’s the kind of place that attracts mixed opinions.
I have friends who absolutely love it and others who swear they’d never set foot on its sandy shores. Truthfully, it’s probably not somewhere I’d choose to visit for a full-blown holiday. However, when we decided to travel to Amsterdam, (read my city guide here) I knew I didn’t want to fly all the way from New Zealand to Europe without stopping somewhere in between. I’ve been fortunate to visit most of the usual stopover destinations: Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Los Angeles and of course, Vancouver. So when Dubai came up in conversation, I was intrigued by this megacity in the desert and eager to form my own opinion about it. As an aside, Nick and I have a friend who lives in Abu Dhabi, so we were quite keen to catch up with him.
Dubai is a city of contrasts. Its population relies on expats and international labour (those dizzyingly high skyscrapers didn’t build themselves…) Its class system is very apparent from first encounter. We immediately noticed busloads of foreign workers, all crammed into non-air conditioned vehicles on 40+ degree days. Foreigners contribute to society but, as outsiders, are not part of that society. Dubai markets itself and masquerades as a modern playground on the Persian Gulf, but remains a deeply conservative Islamic state.
From an urban planning point-of-view, it’s a bit of a nightmare and completely impossible to walk anywhere. Nick and I attempted to walk from our hotel to the nearest beach and got about 200 metres before the sidewalk ended… I get that many cities were designed around the automobile, but Dubai’s sense of place seems to be borrowed from all corners of the globe. It’s like Ibiza, Guangzhou, Houston and Monaco all rolled into one. As a city, it’s a jack of all trades yet master of none.
For all its shortcomings, there are plenty of positives as well. While many people say there’s no culture in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you only need to visit the spice souks or go for a boat ride across Dubai Creek to know that’s not true. We ventured to the Louvre and the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. All of these experiences will offer a closer look at these Emirati cities and help you understand their many facets. Riding an abra across Dubai Creek, for instance, is one of the quaintest ways to get a feel for life in Dubai. These traditional wooden boats carry about twenty people and many locals use them to avoid traffic.
Despite the extreme heat, we enjoyed exploring the desert with Platinum Heritage. On the tour, we rode camelback, drove over the sand dunes in vintage Land Rovers and enjoyed Arabic dancing and cuisine at sunset. I even tried camel milk, which was super creamy. Arabic food is delicious (so much hummus and falafel, yum!) and we loved dining outside and cooling off with watermelon and pomegranate juice. I think I drank my weight in juice during those three days.
If you’re looking for a reason to visit, the food scene alone might convince you. Many well-known chefs from around the world got their starts in Dubai. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés that are well worth visiting, but a few of our favourites included:
- Home Bakery Kitchen in the Design District
- Tom & Serg has a beautiful interior and incredible breakfast menu
- Wild & the Moon (we actually went to the Paris location) but it’s the best place for healthy smoothies and plant-based meals
- Salt – Kite Beach for the best burgers in Dubai
- Blacksmith was our favourite coffee shop in Abu Dhabi. It’s located next to NYU Abu Dhabi (yes, they have a campus here, which Nick and I both found quite surprising!)
Like in other muslim countries, women should dress conservatively in the UAE (with the exception of hotels). Covering your head is obviously essential at mosques, but wearing long dresses and pants is fine elsewhere. Out of respect, you should abide by local customs, plus it’ll save you sun damage during. Drinking is illegal except at 5-star hotels (where cocktails are $20-30 NZD a pop…) but shisha is everywhere.
I was hesitant to share my thoughts on Dubai. I appreciate every single travel experience and consider myself lucky to be able to visit far-flung destinations. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t love cooling off with overpriced cocktails at our hotel’s rooftop pool (it’s easy to lure me in…) We stayed at the FIVE Palm Jumeirah Beach. Hotels can be expensive in Dubai, but prices are heavily discounted during July/August. On a deeper level, there’s also something to be learned from every destination and I’m not one to take any experience for granted.
While I probably wouldn’t recommend an extended holiday in Dubai, (though we met a German father and daughter duo who visit every year) two or three days in the desert city is a fun way to break up long haul travel. Have you ever been to Dubai? What did you think?