UAE: Old Meets New in Dubai
When offered a stop in Dubai on the way to India as part of Emirates layover program, we couldn’t say no. The idea of visiting a place that you can hear the call to prayer as you’re walking into the world’s tallest building or world’s largest mall was intriguing to say the least. Although not our favorite city we’ve visited, the fascinating culture of Dubai is worth a visit. Our takeaways from Dubai are:
The Heat is Real
(I mean, come on, could my face be any redder?!)
Dubai, it’s HOT, HOT, HOT (sing it with me!). If you visit Dubai during the summer months be ready to sweat more than you’ve ever sweat in your life. After exploring Dubai for about an hour (max) at a time, we were legitimately dripping in sweat. Luckily, our Hotel, Royal Ascot, had a pool, which is a must when visiting Dubai. Apparently Middle Eastern natives get used to the heat because we didn’t see anyone else sweating while I was walking around with a literal sweat mark down the entire back of my pants. #cute
Dubai is a Divided City
After spending 4 nights in Dubai we have learned that it has an extremely vibrant culture that is divided by old meets new and rich meets poor. The division in Dubai is fueled by wealth and tourism. As our favorite cab driver explained to us on the way to the Dubai Mall: “you are staying in the real Dubai [Bur Dubai], all of this over here [Dubai Mall] is for you, for the rich, not for us.” The cosmopolitan tourist areas such as the Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Beach, Dubai Marina, and The Palm are contrasted with the traditional areas such as Bur Dubai, Deira, and Old Dubai.
While walking through the Dubai Mall you will see traditionally dressed emirates alongside tourists in dresses and shorts. The mall is filled to the gills with the fanciest shops and chain restaurants such as Five Guys, California Pizza Kitchen, Johnny Rockets, and Uno’s Pizza (Hey Chicago!!). Despite the strict laws in Dubai, you will find an ice rink blaring pop music, waitresses line dancing in Texas Roadhouse, and couples holding hands. We felt as if the laws didn’t apply inside a tourist destination such as a mall. The only reasoning we could come up with is that places like malls may not be considered “public places”.
We were very thankful that we avoided the big tourist areas and stayed in Bur Dubai. We loved being able to walk to the textile and spice souks to haggle for souvenirs and easily take an abra (boat) across the creek to wander through Old Dubai. These areas give you a glimpse into traditional Middle Eastern life. You trade the shiny buildings for traditional stucco architecture and mosques and high-end shops for local markets. We got to see wooden ships being loaded for export, young boys playing cricket in an alleyway, and locals drinking tea with friends outside their shops.
You Need Cultural Awareness, but it’s Not a Shock
Dubai was the first stop on our trip where we knew would be in for a big cultural change. After visiting Dubai, we decided that all negative reviews of countries should be cut in half. We read about how things like the call to prayer were shocking to see. In reality, before, during, and after the call to prayer life in Dubai seemed to continue along as usual. People ran errands, workers repaired roads, and merchants enthusiastically sold their goods. Like any city and people of any culture, the daily grind went on. Yes, we stuck out like a sore thumb. Yes, I was the only girl A LOT. Yes, we had to be aware of our clothing. Yes, we had to follow social norms such as no photographs of public places and observing the rules for the ladies only cars on the metro. But, no, we did not feel uncomfortable AT ALL.
(As pictured, I always covered my knees, but kept a scarf handy for covering my shoulders)
The people of Dubai were very friendly, welcoming, and helpful. They even called me Shakira. I’ll take it! In all seriousness, just by being aware of our surroundings, we had a great experience. We made sure to cover our shoulders and knees when in a traditional area. We restrained from taking any pictures of government buildings, mosques, or people. We didn’t swear and did absolutely no dancing in public (we’re saving our moves for the clubs in Southeast Asia anyway). With the thriving tourist industry, locals who speak good English, and culture abounds, Dubai is a very accessible place for any traveler.
The Shininess of Dubai Tourism isn’t Cheap
I’ve mentioned all of the shiny tourist areas like The Palm, Dubai Marina, and Jumeirah Beach. These areas take you straight out of the Middle East and straight into any large city or vacation hot spot. Sparkling skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, and exclusive shopping are abound, but it all comes at a price. Dubai isn’t cheap. All of the tourist activities (minus walking around the Dubai Mall) come with pretty steep price tags. At the Top at Burj Khalifa will cost you $35pp for non-prime hours, Ski Dubai is $78pp, and the cheapest tea at the Burj Al Arab is $108pp. Since we’re living on $250 or less a day we skipped most of these activities. The one activity we think is worth shelling out $50pp for is the desert safari, which gets you a ride in a Land Cruiser for dune bashing, a short camel ride, activities such as henna, and a delicious BBQ dinner accompanied by a traditional dance performance. It’s touristy, but fun to have an Arabian night in the desert!
To save some of those precious dolla dolla bills:
- Find a Groupon for Burj Khalifa and a Desert Safari
- Walk the textile, spice, and gold souks
- Ride the abra across the creek for 1AED
- Stroll the Dubai Marina Walk
- Walk around the Dubai Mall
- Watch the Dubai Fountains (in our opinion, far superior to the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas)
- Get a good peak at Burj Khalifa during the fountain show
- Take the metro to spots like the Dubai Mall and Dubai Marina. We found the metro to be very user friendly, affordable and immaculate (as you may expect)!
- Buy huge bottled waters in small markets for about $0.50