5 things you should know before visiting Dubai
I've flown through both Dubai (DXB) and Abu Dhabi (AUH) several times but never managed to stop properly and explore the area. Earlier this month, with the weather cooling down in the U.K., I jumped at the chance to spend some time in the United Arab Emirates where the sun was shining and the temperature was a pleasant 80 degrees each day. I did plenty of research before visiting and thought I knew a fair bit about Dubai already, but here are some things I only learned while there that you should know before visiting too.
It's a huge, spread out city
While DXB Airport is close to the northern parts of the city like Deira, the city itself is enormous. I was surprised at just how spread out it was and this meant travelling great distances from one part to another.
I would classify the area around Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, as roughly the "centre" of Dubai, but the city spreads for many miles north and south of this area. If there's no traffic you can zip around fairly quickly but you can also be stuck in traffic jams for a long time. Trying to get out of Dubai Marina back to Sheik Zayed Road on a Saturday evening for example meant moving only 150 feet in 20 minutes and traffic was backed up in all directions. I ended up getting out of the car and just walking as it was quicker.
You may already know Dubai is not a particularly walkable city, but even in a car or taking the metro system, depending on where you are going you can still expect to spend quite a bit of time getting there because of the vast distances.
Top tip: The Dubai metro system is cheap, clean, air conditioned and efficient. Be aware that it has limited hours though -- for example the Mall of the Emirates Metro station closes before the mall does.
Alcohol is available, but very expensive
While there aren't bars on every corner like in the U.S. and many cafes and restaurants will not serve alcohol due to Muslim traditions and local laws in the city, you can certainly find alcohol if you do wish to drink. You just need to look a bit harder for it. Venues serving alcohol in Dubai must be attached to hotels or private clubs and it's illegal to drink in public spaces.
If having a drink is a key part of your vacation, be prepared for some very high prices. The huge taxes on imported alcohol in the UAE are passed right on to the consumer and if you are combining that with the traditional mark-ups for high-end hotels and resorts you may gasp when you see the menu and convert the dirhams to dollars. You can easily expect to pay $12-plus for a beer (think Heineken) or a standard glass of wine.
I found spirits to be comparatively reasonable -- cocktails in beach bars were also around $12 each, which is not dissimilar to New York prices. Most bars and clubs will do happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. where cocktails will be 2-for-1, which is a great option if you want an affordable alcoholic drink.
If you are doing a month of not drinking, such as a 'Dry January' or a 'February Fast', but still want a sunny beach holiday, Dubai can be an excellent choice. I'm not drinking all this month and because the alcohol was largely hidden away from sight in Dubai I didn't miss the booze at all.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Top tip: If you want to drink affordably, consider stocking up on duty-free liquor when you land in Dubai. Alternatively, there are Ladies Nights virtually every night of the week at various bars and clubs where women can drink either free, or very cheaply.
There's endless things to do
I had always thought of Dubai as a stopover city where you could stop, flop and recharge for a day or two before continuing your journey.
But you could easily spend a week in Dubai and not get bored. There is so much to do. I'm not a big shopper, so spending all day in a huge mall wandering aimlessly from shop to shop had little appeal to me. Fortunately there's plenty of other activities like water parks, beaches, indoor snow skiing, desert safaris, boat rides, old-fashioned souks, fountain shows, mosques and an enormous variety of restaurants and cafes from all over the world.
I can see why Dubai is so popular with American travelers, especially this time of year. It has consistently excellent weather, its very safe and easy to visit, everyone speaks English and there's plenty of activities no matter what your interests.
And if you somehow run out of activities, Abu Dhabi with its spectacular Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque is only an hour down the road.
Top tip: A dhow boat ride across Dubai Creek is an affordable and fun way to see old Dubai from a different perspective before visiting the souks for a spot of haggling.
It's one of the most multicultural places in the world
Think New York is diverse? Around 90% of the population living in Dubai are expats from different countries. Combine that with millions of tourists visiting each year from all over the world thanks to Emirates and FlyDubai's huge route networks, and you have a rich mix of people and a truly global city.
As a tourist, I felt incredibly welcome and comfortable (a stark difference to my recent visit to Pakistan) as it felt like most people there were from a different country. This mix of people meant a fabulous influence on the shopping, dining and cultural activities in Dubai.
Top tip: Step out of your comfort zone and try some cuisine you might not have tried before. I dined one evening at a Syrian restaurant. I don't think I had ever eaten Syrian food -- it was delicious and a wonderful experience.
The public beaches aren't a highlight
With hot sunshine each day I jumped at the chance to check out some of the local beaches. I learned that most beaches in Dubai are man made. Some of the five-star luxury resorts have beautiful beaches but as my hotel didn't, I tried out a couple of the public beaches.
The result? They weren't amazing.
The sand and the water itself was okay but in terms of views and ambience you can expect cranes, construction and man-made breakwaters. La Mer is a decent set-up because there's a huge number of cafes and restaurants nearby though the beach itself is very small and likely to be absolutely packed like it was when I visited. I liked the beach area five minutes south of the La Mer precinct -- while there was not much in the way of dining and shopping facilities it was quiet, peaceful and reasonably picturesque.
I was excited to visit Jumeirah Beach with the iconic view of the Burj Al-Arab hotel in the background. This proved to be a poor choice as it's a physically unattractive beach with lots of construction around. The iconic view of the hotel was marred by the trucks, rubbish and fencing in between the beach and the hotel.
Top tip: If the beaches aren't to your liking but you want to splash around there are some great waterparks in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi like the epic Atlantis Aquaventure at The Palm hotel or Wild Wadi located near the Burj Al Arab.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Emirates First Class
Dubai has something for everyone, and I can see why it's such a popular place for travelers, especially at this time of year. Given how spread out it is and how much there is to do, it's a good idea to do some homework before you so can have an idea of what you want to do, and how to get there.