If you’re heading from Europe down to Asia/Australia, visiting the Middle East or on just about any RTW ticket for your gap year, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll route through Dubai. You have two options: wander dazed through the giant terminal, take an uncomfortable nap and get on yet another plane OR take a day or two stopover and see what all the fuss is about in the glittering capital of the ‘new Middle East’.
Dubai may not be to everyone’s taste: huge, gaudy, and ostentatious- but it is still a sight to be seen. The city has gone from a sleepy Arab fishing village to a world capital in record time- an entire city where there used to be just desert. But for all the shiny skyscrapers, islands shaped like a map of the world and enormous malls, the essence and experience of the ‘old’ Emirati traditions and culture can still be found… if you know where to look. Taking in an itinerary that combines both the old and the new will give some interesting insights into what the Middle East was and is becoming.
Here are some ‘must-do’ ideas for one or two days in Dubai….
Wander through the Bastakiya (Old quarter) and visit the Dubai museum
The Bastakiya is a small slice of what Dubai looked like in the pre-oil days- a maze of alley ways with carved Arab wooden doors and striking windtowers to keep the houses cool in the stifling Gulf summer. The sons of the old families of Dubai still meet there to sit cross-legged o the floor, drink mint tea and feast on a whole goat, before getting into their luxury sports cars and driving back to beachside mansions. The Dubai Museum (http://www.dubaitourism.ae/CultureHeritage/HistoricalSites/DubaiMuseum/tabid/175/language/en-US/Default.aspx) is located inside the 200 year old Al Fahidi Fort and gives a great sense of the development of the city, complete with kitsch but lovely dioramas. Entrance is a backpacker-friendly 3 dirhams (less than $1/£0.50).
Go on a desert safari
The desert day safari is a sure way to blow off the jet lag- expect to careen over red dunes in a 4×4, have dinner in a tented desert camp and possibly hold on tight for a lurching camel ride. November to April offer the best weather, but if you can brave the 45°C + heat in July/August, you’ll certainly get the authentic desert experience. The safari is a popular activity offered by many tour operators- if you can get a group of 6 or so people together you’ll probably be able to negotiate a better rate.
Visit the Gold Souk
Nothing sums up the ostentatious tendencies of Dubai like the staggering array of jewelry on display at the Gold Souk (market) in Deira. Some might call it tacky, but the Emirati government gives jewelry sets like the ones on display here to new brides as part of an incentive for citizens to marry fellow Emiratis! Gold prices are cheap by world standards but if you decide to purchase a little something, bargain hard.
Take an abra (traditional wooden boat/water taxi) across Dubai creek
Gorgeous at sunset when you feel tiny amidst the towering skyscrapers reflecting the setting desert sun. The contrast between the small rough-hewn boats and the luxury yachts is bizarre and striking.
Hit the malls
‘Bigger is better’ seems to be the motto here- along with the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), the city holds the world’s largest mall. I’m not personally a believer that a mall constitutes a tourist attraction, but the sheer scale of consumerism at the Dubai Mall is an eye-opening, if terrifying, experience. If that wasn’t enough, the Ibn Battuta Mall is ‘themed’ according to the travels of the famous explorer and the Mall of the Emirates has its own indoor ski slope. A better plan is to marvel here and then head to a souk for some more inspired souvenirs- silver daggers from neighboring Oman, curly-toed leather slippers and a classic mosque-shaped alarm clock (with a call to prayer to wake you up, of course).
Party with the Nouveau Riche
Dubai is the city of the rich and stylish and is gaining recognition as one of the up-and-coming party scenes of the world. Bars, clubs and dance parties abound and I couldn’t tell you the hippest spot- it will have changed by next week. Thursday/Friday are the hottest nights- dress nicely and be aware that swankier places are likely to have a cover charge (sometimes for men only) and that drinks are not cheap. Though you need to be 21 to drink and 25 to enter many clubs, these rules are not always strictly enforced…
Visit the Jumeirah Mosque
Jumeirah is the only mosque in Dubai open to non-muslims. Not as historic as many mosques in the Middle East but a fascinating cultural experience and chance to learn more about the religion that shapes this region. Ladies will need to cover up and bring a scarf for your hair.
Dubai travel tips
- Unfortunately Dubai was not designed with the backpacker in mind and is not a budget destination by any stretch of the imagination. Hostels are far from common (there is one YHA, with mixed reviews) and budget hotels tend to be located outside of the centre. Avoid December- though the weather is a little more bearable, this is the high season and hotel rates go up.
- Couchsurfing is a popular option, but as usual, be cautious.
- The new Dubai Metro is cheap and efficient, servicing the airport and several main sights like Dubai Creek. A greater network is currently under construction. Taxis are common and not too expensive for short distances.
- Although Arabic is the official language, English is the most widely spoken and will be understood wherever you go.
- Tap water is safe and drinkable, but as it comes mainly from desalination plants the taste can take a little getting used to- you may prefer to stick with bottled.
- As with many Muslim states, the ‘weekend’ in Dubai is Friday-Saturday rather than Saturday-Sunday.
- Dubai seems so modern that it’s easy to forget you’re still in an Islamic country with conservative laws. Homosexuality, extra-martial sex and public drunkenness are technically illegal- so be discreet. The state also has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs.
This article was written by GYE contributor Fiona Soper. Currently, Fiona is trying to find creative ways to balance travel with a PhD, brushing up on her Arabic and dreaming of Oman.