This post is part of a series of posts based on our recent visit to Dubai. While we saw many of the highlights, this series includes:
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We arrived in Dubai at 2:30AM – an odd time for a scheduled landing but apparently, not for Dubai. There were plenty of other passengers arriving in the wee hours as well.
I expected the airport to be grander than it really was after hearing stories about their selling cars in the airport, but it looked like any other airport.
Since we arrived so late (or early, depending on your frame of reference) we caught a shuttle to a nearby airport hotel so that we could catch some shut eye before we started our day. The older we’ve grown, the less we’ve been able to handle red-eyes and late arrivals so it’s been well worth it to pay for an extra night to sleep in while we recuperate from the flight.
We woke up around noon and made our way to our actual hotel by the Dubai Marina, which took about a 20-30 min car ride. Since this was our first chance at seeing the city in daylight, we immediately realized this city was unlike any others we’ve been.
Our first impressions of Dubai was that it looked so futuristic. All the buildings look different. It was as if the builders had to one-up each other and add their own personal twist to every project.
Speaking of twist, someone obviously decided to put their own twist on this building – literally:
Everything in Dubai has to be “fancy” – even the freeway pylons had intricately carved designs built into them.
Dubai has the world’s longest unmanned metro at about 46 miles long and the metro stations look like little sci-fi pods against the freeway.
The city is also extremely new having started being built/revamped only 10-15 years ago but still. Even the souks reminded me of the indoor shopping malls in Vegas! When we strolled through Al Bastakiya, the “old town”, we weren’t even sure if we were in the right place because it was the nicest looking “old town” we’ve ever seen.
The whole place reminded us of a theme park pretending to show you what the heritage is like instead of an authentic “old town”, which is a shame because we felt like we traveled half way around the world only to find ourselves in a place that reminded us of attractions (Las Vegas and Disneyland) near where we live!
The city is also extremely spread out and we grossly underestimated how big this city is. Just to get from the Marina to the “old town”, would take about 20-30 minutes to drive when there’s no traffic. Despite their new metro system, we did not see people roaming the streets either. After visiting a while, we realized that the metro just wasn’t a very good option for travelers because you’d still likely have to walk a mile just to get to your hotel (or wherever you’re headed) from the metro. And that walk may entail crossing a big expressway. Nope, Dubai is made for cars.
The next thing we noticed is that Dubai is crazy proud of hosting the 2020 World Expo as there are banners everywhere reminding you of that. At the airport, there were literally three World Expo banners hanging in the SAME space; so you know, if you turned your head and didn’t catch it the first time, you’d be sure to catch it the second time. Or the third.
Now about the people who live here. 80% of Dubai’s population consists of immigrants from all over the world. The city was not only built on the backs of immigrants, it runs on the backs of immigrants. In fact, I’m not sure if I met one Emirate the whole time I was there. Immigrants come here for the opportunity to work, make money (tax free), and send it back home to their loved ones, but the sad reality is that even if they love living and working in Dubai, they will never be able to get citizenship since that’s reserved for the other 20%. The only way around it is if an immigrant woman marries an Emirate man and they have children but it doesn’t work if an immigrant man marries an Emirate woman; the citizenship follows the man. It is a shame that an immigrant could be living and working for ten years in Dubai and never ever be offered the opportunity to be a real citizen of the UAE (real citizens get perks like free villas if you’re below an income threshold!).
And lastly, I can’t really end my observations about Dubai without mentioning the culture or lack thereof. Coming back from the trip, I was so tempted to write an entire post dedicated to why I think Dubai has no culture which was a really frustrating reality for me since part of the reason I love traveling is to see the culture. Unfortunately, of all the 60+ countries I’ve been to now and of all the 300+ cities I’ve seen, Dubai has the least culture I’ve ever seen. I know they are the first to manufacture islands and the world’s biggest and tallest everything, but must everything feel so man-made – even their lame attempts at showing their heritage in their “old town”? If you can’t find culture in the “old town”, where can you find it?! Sigh. If I wanted man-made, super-sized, caricatures of real places, I could just go to Las Vegas or Disneyland.
The only semblance of culture I could find was in their strict dress code (which my hotel did not hesitate to remind guests of) or the Muslim call to prayers that rang at the malls and in the hotel TV’s.
There were also woman dressed in abiyas although I only ever saw them at the malls. Women do a good job otherwise hiding from plain sight when they are out in the open. The men, however, were often seen in dishdashas – the classic white “robes” – with their red checkered scarfs draped over their head and topped off with a black agal. But not everyone dressed like this. Tourists often wore whatever it is they’d wear at home (probably to the dismay of the conservative folks living in Dubai) and immigrants also wore whatever it is they’d normally wear which was a lot more “covered” than the tourists: long pants and long sleeve shirts or blouses. But aside from the occasional abiyas and dishdashas and the call to prayers, there was nothing distinctly Arab about Dubai (I couldn’t even find it in the food. In fact, Dubai is so diverse that you could have a buffet of international dishes for every meal if you wanted to.). I’m sure others who have spent more time there could argue against my observation, and I’m sure if I dug around more, I could have find small bits of culture here and there, but I’ve never had to work that hard to find culture anywhere else around the globe so I wasn’t about to start in Dubai!
If you’re planning a visit:
- There are plenty of food options in Dubai including every international chain you can think of. Also, if you’re going thinking that you’ll get to eat Arab food everyday, you might actually have a hard time finding an Arab restaurant.
- Please respect their dress code. A lot of tourists don’t and wear skimpy bikinis and shorts but that’s just disrespectful especially given how conservative their dress is over there.
- If you don’t know where to stay in Dubai, keep in mind that the distances between sites are far. My advice is to stay in an area based on what you hope to see/do the most. For instance, consider if you want spend most of your time in their “old town”, lounge by the beach, or live it up at a 5 star (or 7 star resort) and find accommodations in those neighborhoods.
- Taxis are fairly inexpensive given the distances they are traveling. To give you an idea, a taxi ride from one end of the city to the other (Marina to the harbor where the old town is) is about $20USD. If you’d rather not exercise your calves (and who can blame you) taking the metro, a taxi is a great alternative.
- Yes, they do accept tips in Dubai. However, if 10% was already added as a service charge to the bill, I did not tip.
- ATM’s are available and safe to use. I’d recommend using an ATM over exchanging money since you usually get a better rate.
- Speaking of safety, Dubai has one of the lowest crime rates anywhere (perhaps because of the high penalties you pay if you’re convicted of a crime), which is refreshing fact for a tourist.