Where to start! To a certain extent, Dubai is a destination that defies both logic and, potentially, your budget. I’ve traveled through Dubai on my way to Asia and Africa on numerous occasions and never had the desire to do a prolonged layover. I didn’t think Dubai was ‘my kind of destination’. To a certain extent, I proved that assumption correct when I finally visited for four days (which, by the way, is more than enough time). I think the best way to summarise Dubai is that it’s a ‘marmite destination’ – you either love it or your hate it. If you think it will be on the ‘hate-it’ side of your ‘marmite-o-meter’, there’s only one way to truly find out…which is to visit (revelatory advice, I know). I admit a trip to Dubai could be a very costly mistake. Even if it doesn’t end up being the right destination for you, I do think you’ll find enough ‘old-Dubai’ charm to keep you suitably amused.
Dubai has two International Airports. The main international airport is Dubai International (DXB) whilst the secondary option, which is far less frequently used, is Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC). They’re located at opposite ends of Dubai (with DWC being a lot more difficult to get to and from) – so making sure you know which one you’re arriving at is particularly important! Public buses run from both airports (and all terminals) into the city and are operated by the Roads and Transport Authority (I’ve included a link to their website in the Additional Resources section below so you can check out the latest timetables).
A couple of things to note about your transport options from the airports:
Firstly, buses from DWC are fairly infrequent compared to DXB because of limited passenger traffic (you could end up finding yourself waiting an hour in the searing desert heat for the next bus which is not ideal after a long flight).
Secondly, you can’t pay in cash when you get on the bus. Instead, you’ll need to buy an NoI card at one of the vending machines before you board. The NoI card (which can be recharged) can also be used on the Dubai Metro system which runs throughout the city and stops at DXB Terminals 1 and 3. Unfortunately, if you’re landing or leaving from DWC instead, then you’re out of luck as the metro doesn’t extend that far. If you’re flying into DXB, then I would use the metro and transfer to a taxi at the metro stop nearest to your accommodation. The red line interchanges with the green line at Union and Bur Jaman stations covering a total of 47 different stops, so it’s fairly comprehensive and delightfully air conditioned.
If you’re flusher for cash (or perhaps a tad lazy) then taxis are a viable option and won’t break the bank (especially if you’re arriving at DXB as it’s much closer to the city). Taxis are metered which fortunately takes away the frustrating ‘negotiation’ (i.e. arguing) required to secure a fair rate. You’ll have no problem finding taxi ranks outside of the terminal buildings, and if you’re looking for a taxi at any point during your stay, then they’re also easily spotted and flagged down on the street (they are cream in body colour and the roof colour varies by company). To be honest, you’re likely to use taxis a lot in Dubai as it isn’t exactly what I’d call a ‘pedestrian-friendly’ city and many of your destinations might be a fair distance from the metro line. Fortunately, there are taxi ranks outside all of the metro stations.
If you’re looking for ideas on events that might be taking place whilst you’re in Dubai, or looking for some bargains, then there’s good news: both Timeout and Groupon operate in UAE. I’ve added the links in the additional resources section below.
Big Bus Tours operate a hop-on hop-off service in and around Dubai. It’s a particularly comprehensive service with 4 routes over 40 stops and covers pretty much everything you’d want to see. It also includes a free dhow cruise and free entry to 10 museums. That said, it’s pretty damn expensive (and that’s coming from a Londoner), and so you might decide it’s not worth it. However, if you’re planning on traveling throughout the region, or are on one of the many cruise lines that operate throughout the Gulf, then the tri-city hop-on hop-off ticket (covering Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat) can provide decent value. If you buy the tri-city ticket, you’ll get a Big Bus tour in 3 cities plus some other free attractions and add-ons for less than the price you’d pay for two individual city tickets (in addition to a free transfer between Dubai and Abu Dhabi). All in all, it’s pretty decent value!
Deira: Deira is easily accessible on the metro (Al Ras Metro Station), and together with Bur Dubai, it provides a little flavour of what old Dubai was like. Start by visiting the Gold Souk where you can pick yourself up a nice cheap trinket for your souvenir cabinet at home (N.B. this is British sarcasm). In fairness, if you’re keen on buying gold then this is definitely the place to do it. Prices are strictly governed by the government but haggling is expected. Then move on to the Grand Souk which is where you can pick up your herbs, spices and textiles (which were more in my price range, much to the disappointment of my wife). You’ll definitely know when you hit the Grand Souk as you’ll be able to smell the spice clinging to the air. Opposite the Grand Souk is Dubai Creek, which is the beating heart of old Dubai. The creek historically served as a fishing hub and trading gateway, but these days you’ll find small wooden boats called ‘Abras’ transporting locals and tourists across the creek to Bur Dubai as well as up and down the creek on pleasure cruises. For a measly Dirham (the biggest bargain of your entire stay in Dubai), hop on an Abra and go across the creek to Bur Dubai.
Bur Dubai: Bur Dubai holds probably the highest concentration of points of interest that are all within walking distance. Stay for a few hours and never worry where the nearest metro station or taxi stand is. Bur Dubai souk provides the perfect opportunity for a spot of haggling in a, thankfully, shaded undercover setting. Just beware: this is prime tourist territory, so you’ll be able to knock significant amounts off of any prices quoted with some ‘gentle persuasion’. For example, I managed to knock about 60% off of a scarf to add to the closet-full collection my wife cherishes so dearly (word to the wise: haggle too successfully and your partner may simply ask you to buy another scarf with your savings). The Dubai Museum is just across the road on Al Fahidi Street inside Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in Bur Dubai). The museum is well worth a visit, especially if it’s a particularly warm day. Back along Dubai Creek in the Shindagha area you’ll find Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House and the Heritage and Diving Village. The former houses an interesting collection of old photos of Dubai whilst the latter is a recreation of the old fishing village that used to sit on the site. The final place on the Bur Dubai side of the creek, and is worthy of spending some time, is the Bastakiya Quarter. Formerly the home to wealthy Persian traders, the quarter has undergone some fairly significant rehabilitation. As a result, it can feel a bit ‘Disney’ or contrived. Nonetheless, the dense alleyways dotted with wind-towered homes are probably the best example you’ll get of what traditional life was like in Dubai before the construction boom. These days, Bastakiya is slightly more ‘hipster’ as it’s filled with coffee house and art galleries.
Burj Khalifa: It’s a tall building. I mean, really tall. The tallest, in fact! If you’re in to really tall things, expansive vistas, or more generally, just architectural feats, then you’ve come to the right place. You can head up to the 124th floor (which is called the ‘At The Top’ observation level – clever, no?). Alternatively, if you want that really exclusive experience you can only get in Dubai, you can pay a whole heap more to ascend another ‘staggering’ 24 floors of luxury to the VIP ‘At The Top-Sky’ observation level. In all seriousness, it’s a pretty impressive building, and on a clear day, the views are some of the best you can get in Dubai. If you want to buy tickets in advance you can do so from the ‘At The Top’ website that’s listed in the additional resources section below. On the other hand, if you don’t have a head for heights but still want to marvel at the building (or don’t want to pay the entrance fee) then one of the best places for a good photo is on the opposite side of the Burj Khalifa Lake (the Dubai Fountain) out of the back of the Dubai Mall. Just remember to take a super-wide angled lens (I didn’t have one with me that day).
Burj Al Arab (the ‘Sail’ Hotel): From the tallest to the most luxurious (are you sensing the ‘mine is bigger/better than yours’ theme going on here?). You probably know it as the World’s only seven-star hotel (which isn’t really true and is all a big, admittedly successful, marketing ploy to attract those kinds of individuals that take pleasure from being able to say that they’ve stayed at the best). Anyway, if you fancy visiting then you’re going to need to be ready to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a cocktail or spa treatment (unless of course you’re shelling out to stay here). For the mere mortals amongst us, you can get good photos of the hotel from the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel and shopping complex or from the free public beach right next door.
Shopping: Dubai is world-renowned for its shopping. If the souks of Old Dubai don’t quite float your boat then head to one of the many malls dotted throughout the city. Two of the most famous are probably Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates. The former is home to the Dubai Aquarium whilst the latter is home to the infamous indoor ski slopes of Ski Dubai. If you’re looking for something a little different, then I would head to Madinat Jumeirah whose mall has been styled to the souks of old Arabia and is intersected by a creek providing dhow (small wooden boats) rides.
Jumeirah Mosque: If you aren’t a Muslim then you aren’t typically allowed to enter mosques in Dubai. However, at Jumeirah Mosque you can join a guided tour led by the on-site cultural center. If you’ve already visited Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque then please don’t be expecting anything quite so grand, but the tour’s aim is to foster better understanding between religions, so it’s definitely interesting.
Outside the City
Desert Safari and Dune Bashing: If you’re feeling ‘brave’ then you can jump in a 4×4 and head out in to the desert for some dune bashing, desert safaris and dune barbeques (which also typically include entertainment like belly dancers, whirling dervishes, camel rides and falconry). Dune bashing probably isn’t the best choice for you if you’re prone to car sickness. It is pretty exhilarating for the first ten minutes, but then it can pretty quickly feel like you’re on a small boat in rough seas. There are a whole host of tour companies that offer desert experiences locally, but a good place to start some research in to the options before you leave is the Viator website (www.viator .com).
Big Bus Tours Website: www.bigbustours.com
TimeOut Dubai: http://www.timeoutdubai.com
Groupon Dubai: https://www.groupon.ae/coupons/dubai
Roads and Transport Authority Website: http://dubai-buses.com/index.aspx
At The Top Website: https://tickets.atthetop.ae/atthetop/Step0_BookingInfo.aspx