From an endless expanse of sand, incredible architecture sets new boundaries and rises up in awe of an ever-changing landscape; a city shaped by man and created by money drawn up from the ground.
Dubai is a city of contradictions. Where there are beautiful hotels, underpaid, underprivileged people built them, where there are man-made islands, oceans use to flourish. It is a city of extremes, where the temperature moves from hot to hotter and the division between rich and poor only seems to get richer for richer, poorer for poorer.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Dubai since the moment I arrived there and there’s a lot of things that you can’t ignore. But I’ll try to focus on the incredible experiences that Dubai has to offer – and there are plenty, because that’s what you’re here for and that’s why you go.
Since 91% of Dubai’s population is made up of expatriates, predominately from Asia but from all over the globe, I managed to live there for 2.5 years and never speak Arabic or have an Arabic speaking friend. I’m not proud of this point, so I only make it to show you just how cosmopolitan Dubai is, that it’s a community coming together from all over the world, living beside each other in a new foreign home but remembering their own.
The median age in the UAE is 27 and compared to 40 years old in Canada, this makes it a young, fun transient city that really caters life towards the young professional and was an extraordinary place to be twenty-something.
need to know Dubai
the Weather – Dubai’s weather is hot and hotter, with June – August being scorching hot (I use to have to put two towels down at the pool) to a breezy, almost perfect “winter” season in January. The Persian Gulf waters are always warm to swim in and rain falls on less than a handful of days a year. Travelling to Dubai is best avoided during Ramadan and the Summer season, as these times aren’t very accommodating if you aren’t use to the desert.
the Food – Arabic food isn’t my favourite but they still have some super star dishes across the Middle East. Here are some good ones:
Falafel/Shawarma you’ve had them in your own country but try them authentic! Ground chickpeas or shaved meat wrapped in a pita + tabbouleh + garlic paste = the Arabic Subway. Hummus everyone knows what hummus is now that it has made its way into Western culture, but hummus is an Arabic dip best made by the Lebanese (I’d say) so ordering hummus for the table at any restaurant is always a good idea. Labneh, a type of Greek yogurt, is also great with pita bread. (Lamb) Kofta is minced lamb mixed with spices, it looks like meatloaf and is about the size of a scoop of ice cream. It tastes a lot better than it sounds! and goes well with hummus. Dates are a popular Arabic desert and can come plain, with nuts, covered in pistachios, dipped in chocolate and so on. My favourite’s are from the regular grocery store “Carrefour”, where you can get white chocolate dipped dates and milk chocolate almond ones by the handful.
The Food is also incredibly diverse, with major chains from all over the world setting up shop in Dubai’s malls. The Red Lobster, Domino’s, P.F Changs, and even Tim Horton’s are all restaurants that have sprung up around town, literally every major company you can think of. Carrefour from France, Waitrose from England and Magnolia Bakery from New York City are also easy places to grab groceries and cupcakes from, in that order. Dubai is truly a multi-cultural city.
the Tours – Dubai is known for many malls and many architectural feats but it’s impossible to spend time in the Middle East without going to the desert. Desert Safari Dubai www.desertsafaridubai.com offers different safari’s that pick you up at your hotel and take you dune bashing in the desert, sand surfing and camel riding. They also provide a bbq dinner in the desert made authentic by a belly dancer, a shisha pipe and as many dates as you can eat. I definitely recommend taking this safari once.
I also always recommend that travellers take themselves down to the Gold Souk in Old Dubai, a tour isn’t necessary but you can spend half a day in this neighbourhood.The Gold Souk is a spectacular market full of real gold where you can haggle for prices and take in all the sparkly things, its a feast for your eyes and a cool place to see.
Around here you can also jump on a Dhow boat taxi for 3 dirhams (1 cent CAD) for a quick sail down Dubai Creek. Then find the Spice Souk.
For authentic market shopping, knock off Prada bags and fake luggage, for an authentic dish dash or for beautiful pashminas, spend an afternoon haggling at the markets in Karama.
the Spots – there are so many places in Dubai to sit by the pool and have a cocktail, catch sundowners on the beach or experience some of the most luxurious clubs from around the world. Some of my favourite places to forget what 400 people in economy feels like are:
Mahiki: originally from London and modelled after a tiki bar, Mahiki is a fun lively spot to dance the night away and drink creative cocktails.
360 Bar: is my favourite bar in Dubai because of its ambiance, the bar is located 200m out from the beach and is right beside the famous Burj Al Arab. They play jazz funk and have the best view in all of Dubai – a 360 panorama that catches the Burj Khalfa, the Jumeriah Beach Hotel, the Burrj Al Arab and Atlantis Hotel all lit up.
Barasti Beach Bar: is a chill place to have drinks at night or during the day. Lots of young, foreign foxy people hang out here and they have plenty of tv screens, outdoor space and a dance floor made of sand. The dress code here is whatever you want.
XL: was a cool pool party when I lived in Dubai, great for sundowners and pretty laid back.
Crew Bars: if you’re looking to meet a flight attendant or to go to a place less glamorous and more reminiscent of home, Rock Bottom, The Irish Village and Zinc Night Club. Try a Bullfrog at Zinc.
Cirque de Soir is worth going to once in your life, sober or silly this place is a feast for your senses with acrobats performing, clowns walking around on stilts, midgets in cages and so much more. Cirque de Soir is located in the Fairmont Hotel on Sheik Zayeed Road. www.timeoutdubai.com is a great resource for planning your night out in Dubai.
Brunch – Dubai takes the word “Brunch” to a whole new level and it doesn’t mean the same over there that it does here (like most things.) But Brunch in Dubai is a smorgasbord of food, liquor and ladies in lovely dresses, it is 3 hours of all-you-can-eat King Crab Legs, lobster tails, pork tacos, dim sum, roast beef with pudding and all-you-can-drink champagne, draught, tequila, wine and they even have jager on tap.
Brunch is the definition of excess and luxury, it takes place across the city every Friday in many hotels with stunning views, luxurious decor and impeccable service. For about 3 hours Dubai’s pretty young things all flock to brunch, it costs anywhere from 70-150$ (those are the reasonable ones) and is something that you absolutely must experience when you come to Dubai.
The best places to book brunch are at Saffron in the Atlantis Hotel, they have such great atmosphere, offer brunch goers the chance to get colourful with art and easels and amazing food with room for an after party. Other great brunches include: Yalumba, Bubbalicious and Al Qasar or Mina Masalam at the Madinant Jumeriah hotel. http://www.timeoutdubai.com/restaurants/brunch
the Messy Details – Because Dubai is in the Middle East and often confused with Saudi Arabia, I experienced a lot of misconceptions about where I lived by nearly everyone from close friends to Customs Officials. But the United Arab Emirates is by far the most progressive country in the Middle East and Dubai is the most modern, so dressing in my own Western clothing, enjoying the luxurious night life and practicing my own religion were all perfectly fine there.
Some things to remember when you’re in the Middle East that I found invaluable over time are:
Dress Code: When the sun goes down in Dubai nobody seems to care what you wear, but until then its smart to wear shirts with sleeves and shorts to just above your knees in public places such as the mall, the souks, or just walking on the street. Shoulders and short shorts are offensive to the Muslim culture and it’s rather embarrassing to be stopped by the security at the Emirates mall to be asked to put on a sweater. (Trust me, I know.)
The Taxis: The taxi’s are cheap and plentiful in Dubai, but the cab drivers are often recently landed immigrants themselves and don’t know where they’re re going. GPS is surprisingly useless here as well since they’re always building, and the driver’s confusion over similarly named towers and malls is understandable because the skyline is forever changing. When you get in a taxi in Dubai, it’s best to have directions or an idea of where you’re going and always bring Dirhams (Dubai currency.) When I left the country two years ago, taxi’s were unable and unwilling to accept anything but cash.
The Taxes: The UAE is a tax free economy and this is a great advantage when buying expensive purchases or luxury items. Keep in mind that when shopping in Dubai that whatever price on the tag is the price on the register, except for when shopping in the Souks – you have to haggle there!
The Delivery: Dubai is quite possibly the worst walkable city in the world, which results in the best solution to the problem: everywhere delivers. And I mean, everywhere. Starbucks delivers Frapuccinos a few blocks to your hungover door, grocery stores will deliver the eggs that you forgot to buy and even my little local corner store use to walk the 10 paces and fly the 38 floors to my flat in an elevator to bring me PHONE CREDIT and 1 coke zero when my hair was wrapped in a towel, my body in a robe and my future in a rum and coke. So if you need something, just ask and Dubai will find a way to deliver it to you.
The Bacon: a curious thing that you’ll notice in all the grocery stores and food shops here is that if there’s any pork in the place, it will be in its own separate section with a big sign that says “NO MUSLIMS” over it. Since so much of the population in Dubai is from everywhere else, the grocers do a good job of providing our comforts from home but it’s important to know when you arrive in Dubai that abstaining from pork products is an important part of the Muslim faith and that not appreciating this is hugely disrespectful. The same thing goes for
The Alcohol: which is also forbidden for Muslims to have but available in restaurants and bars for other cultures. When I first arrived in Dubai I wasn’t able to buy alcohol from the liquor store despite being 21 – Government rules insisted that I go through the process of applying for an alcohol licence that is sponsored by the company that employs me and paid for with a fee. I never did that, because I’m badass.
No, I never did it because I hate line ups. I was always going in and out of duty free from other countries anyways and you don’t need a license to bring alcohol into the country … so I was always well stocked. But traveller beware: if there was to be a fire in my flat and the police came to put it out, and then spotted a bottle of vodka, they could essentially save me and then arrest me, since I didn’t have a license.
These conflicting rules and hopeless contradictions are old news in Dubai, navigating them is the tricky part.
There are no elderly people in Dubai, children run rampant in movie theaters, bus stops are air-conditioned glass rooms and you can go skiing inside. If an Emirati driver cuts you off and gives you road rage, don’t give them the finger because you’ll probably end up in jail. Also don’t stay over at your boyfriend’s house, don’t drink water on the scorching hot streets during Ramadan and don’t make your taxi driver too angry or you will end up in jail.
To be honest, there are a lot of ways to end up in a Dubai jail. So I’m going to go with my man Ice Cube on this one and say: “check yo self before yo wreck yo self” and everything will be fine.
You can never be Emirati and there will always be a set of rules for them and a second set for you. If you go against the rules or show poor work performance, you can be fired at any point with your working permit revoked and asked to leave your life and the country within a week. The game isn’t yours, but the stakes seem higher, you have pretty chips to play with and if you can handle the heat (quite literally and not) you can drive an Aston Martin before you’re thirty, brunch like you’re a billionaire and live in an endless summer.
And though it wasn’t for me, Dubai is most definitely worth a visit, it offers the best of the best, the shiniest of new and is truly the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever been to.
This photo was taken from flick.