7 mistakes to avoid when visiting Dubai
Before heading to Dubai, I made a rookie error: I hit Google hard. I’m a travel writer, so I’m accustomed to visiting places across the globe, but this was different.
It was going to be about 100 degrees there (the United Arab Emirates is officially the hottest country in the world), but I wanted to be respectful to the culture and religion there. Translation: I was trying to figure out how to stay cool without simply packing tube tops and cut-off shorts. Google led me down a rabbit hole of so-called Dubai rules, and I ended up purchasing an entirely new wardrobe. Don’t be me.
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Here are the mistakes to avoid when going to Dubai.
Buying a whole new wardrobe
“Elbows to knees” was what I read inside nearly every guidebook about Dubai. Essentially, I thought I needed to be covered from my elbows to my knees, which is why I bought an entirely new wardrobe, searching on Amazon for “conservative dresses.” I will fully admit now that I looked and felt ridiculous in my new wardrobe, and my mistake was laughed at by the many ex-pats and locals I encountered in Dubai.
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Only 20 percent of the total population of Dubai is emiratis, and the rest of the people living there are ex-pats who most certainly want to be respectful but don’t don the elbows-to-knees uniform. In fact, apart from the emiratis -- who are covered from head to toe -- everyone else dresses like they’re on a beach vacation, which is totally appropriate weather-wise.
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On the beaches and in the hotel pool areas, the women wore bikinis, and in the streets of Dubai, it was common to see women and men wearing tiny shorts and t-shirts. The only place where it was recommended (but not enforced by any means) to cover up a tad more was in Old Dubai, the area that contains the traditional markets and older architecture.
Dubai has decency laws that don’t allow for public displays of affection. Sure, you could hold hands with your spouse, but beyond that, you’ll most likely get a few frowns if you kiss in public. In the worst case scenario, you could be arrested, though this is rare. Pro tip: just save the smooching for your hotel room.
Skipping the nightlife
In Normal Times, Dubai isn’t exactly infamous for its nightlife -- and as a single woman traveling solo, I wasn’t totally inclined to hit the bars or the clubs in the evenings. But after sampling the most delicious cocktail ever at the Waldorf Astoria DIFC (The Churchill), I decided to dip my toe into Dubai’s evening scene. Let’s just say they totally know how to party.
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I had been worried about wandering the streets solo, but everyone was respectful and helpful, especially when I continually found myself lost. Dubai isn’t necessarily a walking city but within a short Uber from my hotel were tons of clubs, bars and fun evening spots. White Dubai is an open-air club on the rooftop of the Meydan Grandstand, and this is the place to be if you’re really going to make a night out of it, as they have some really strong DJs to keep the party going until the early hours.
The bars tend to be on the more upscale side, and my favorite was 40 King, located on the 40th floor of the H Hotel. It was filled with local ex-pats. Of course, you should also try the lounge at Burj Khalifa, just to say you did it. It’s located nearly 2,000 feet above Dubai.
Drinking too much
Yes, alcohol is sold here but Dubai is not so lenient when it comes to public intoxication. In fact, it’s illegal to be drunk in public. You also aren’t allowed to drive after you drink -- even a little. This zero-tolerance policy means you can face jail time or a massive fine if stopped.
Related: 5 things you should know before visiting Dubai
Not riding a camel
I tend to avoid so-called “tourist traps” like the plague — but this is not one to be avoided. Taking a desert safari in Dubai was one of the greatest experiences of my life. You’re dropped in the middle of a stunning desert that looks like another planet due to its ridiculously wide expanse of sand and the lack of people or animals anywhere. Then you’re greeted by a handful of grumpy camels. Ride the camel (it’s surprisingly similar to horseback riding) to another stretch of the desert, shed your shoes while you wander through the sand and watch belly dancers do their thing, eat a simple yet delicious Middle eastern meal and get a henna tattoo.
Exploring without a local
There are so many misconceptions about the Middle East, from the traditional clothing to the culture to the religion and practices. I hired a local woman to take me on a tour through Old Dubai, and she encouraged me to ask all.the.questions.
My tour guide made me feel totally comfortable, showed me her favorite spice shop in the market, and gave me pointers when shopping sellers whom my guide thought was too expensive. OceanAir Travels is a fantastic local tour company, as is Orient Tours.
Related: When are the best and worst times to visit Dubai?
Skipping the mall
You could find a mall in your own suburban backyard -- so is it really so necessary to check the mall out in Dubai? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Not only does it contain more than 1,200 stores plus two department stores and hundreds of restaurants it’s also the size of 200 football fields. But that’s not even the crazy part. Located within the mall is an aquarium, underwater zoo, Olympic-sized ice rink, a movie theater and fabulous views from next door’s Burj Khalifa from the At the Top observation deck.
Dubai Marina Skyline Sunlight. Photo by Getty Images