I have always wanted to explore as many continents as I can and experience cultures from around the world. I have been very fortunate to have traveled in North America, South America, and Europe. Next on my list was Asia, specifically the Middle East, where my husband was born. Due to all the hype on television and so much fear about the people of the Middle East, I was intrigued and wanted to get to know the people, and to learn and understand their culture.
My sweet husband is native of Lebanon, a very tiny country that borders Syria and Israel. Due to the Civil War, he fled his country to the United States and has been living here for over 30 years. Two of his brothers also migrated to the United States while other siblings migrated to Europe and other parts of the world. With six of his siblings spread out over several continents, their locations have provided excellent opportunities for us to visit interesting places and meet the family.
My husband’s niece and nephew, Donna & Rabih, live in Dubai and encouraged us to make a trip to one of the most ambitious and fastest growing cities in the desert. This was the perfect opportunity to visit Dubai while visiting with the family, who could also be our tour guides. My husband’s brother works in Kuwait and agreed to meet us in Dubai so that I could meet him for the first time as well. I had not met most of my husband’s family in person, so I was very excited not only to travel to Dubai but even more excited to meet members of his immediate family.
Dubai: A Melting Pot
Like London or New York City, Dubai is a melting pot with many different people from around the world living and working there. Locals are called Emiratis and only make up about 10% of the total population. The attraction to this city is that it aims to be the biggest, best, and most modern city in the world. Nothing in Dubai is made or done cheaply as the government here aspires to have top-notch quality everything.
Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates which is in the heart of the Middle East, bordering Saudi Arabia and not far from Iraq and Syria. To Westerners, the idea of traveling to the Middle East may seem dangerous due to all the media coverage. However the population is so diverse, you will find it to be very safe and an extremely welcoming environment. With their world class beaches, fantastic architecture, cutting-edge technology and superb cleanliness, you will be astounded at all Dubai has to offer. Nothing is far-fetched. Hopefully, after reading this blog, your fears will be put to rest and you will plan your next trip to this contemporary country.
The History of Dubai
Dubai is a relatively new city. If you traveled here 50 years ago, you would only find sand dunes and small fishing villages. The rise in oil production in this region caused this city to grow quickly. Now it has become a tourist destination as it’s now the 8th most visited city in the world. This city once only catered to the wealthy, but now because of the many airlines that serve this destination and the drive to bring tourism, they have made this city affordable to explore.
What You Need to Know About Dubai
Before I dive into the many exciting sites to see in Dubai, I need to share some general information to help you prepare for the trip. Dubai is the name for both the emirates and the city. Dubai is one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The official language in Dubai is Arabic although English is widely spoken. Most of the signs are in both Arabic and English to make it easy for tourists to navigate around the city. The currency is the United Arab Emirates Dirham and many currency exchange locations are peppered throughout the city if you need to convert money.
Dubai declares Islam as its religion and therefore respecting the cultural and religious rules is very important. Other religious sanctuaries are also present throughout the city such as Christian churches and Buddhist temples.
The dress code in some places is strict and enforced so please don’t be offended if you’re asked to cover your head. Bathing suits are allowed but only in designated areas of swimming.
Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam, you will find plenty of bars and restaurants that offer alcoholic beverages. Drinking alcohol in public places such as the beach or public parks is not allowed.
Dubai only has two seasons, hot and hotter. The best time to travel to Dubai is November through March because the summers can be brutal and scorching hot. Besides the glittery skylines, Dubai also has six natural preserves; one of them is the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. This destination has so much to offer and should be on your list when visiting Dubai.
Here are some of the most interesting sites and restaurants I encountered on my trip:
A trip to the Middle East would not be complete without a visit to the traditional souks. Dubai offers several souks, each selling local and imported items from the region. Haggling is required if you want to get the best deal.
Depending on where you are staying, you can take a car taxi or the Abra, water taxi. Because I wanted to add this to my experiences in Dubai, we decided to take the Abra. You should plan to spend 2-5 hours in this area. I love to shop at open markets and I especially enjoy the experience of purchasing locally made products, as well as haggling for the right price.
The gold souk is one of the most popular souks to visit and is the ideal place to buy jewelry. Walking past glimmering, shiny glass displays full of gold earrings, necklaces, and bangles made it hard not to try on a few pieces. I have never seen so much gold jewelry in my life. I love wearing jewelry, and thus a purchase was in sight. After stopping at several shops, I finally found a pair of earrings just right for me.
My husband is the cook in the family, so visiting the spice souk was his treat. Here we found fresh organic herbs and spices such as turmeric, cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon. We also found dried fruits such as dates and apricots. There was a wide variety of nuts as well as other everyday food staples, too. We stopped at several shops to smell the fragrances of the spices and sample few items. If you enjoy cooking, this is a dreamy place to hang out!
A custom outfit for men in Dubai is called a Kandura which is an ankle length, loose-fitting robe usually in the color white. For women, the traditional dress is called Abaya which is a long elegant cloak, in black, which covers the whole body.
While walking through the textile souk, we found several shops selling these traditional outfits. Although no one in my husband’s family wears this traditional attire, my husband tried on few garments just for fun. We also found several shops that offer tailor-made Kanduras. For me, I found and bought several beautiful scarves that are made from fabrics such as silk, cotton, and cashmere to compliment my winter outfits.
When visiting the souks, remember that the stores are open from 9 am to 10 pm. They tend to get hectic during the day, so I suggest going early in the morning before all the other tourists.
The Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest malls in the world with over 1,000 different stores. Even if you are not a big shopper there is so much to see and do that you must make this a part of your travel itinerary. Depending on how much time you have and what shopping is in your plans, you can spend several days at the Dubai Mall.
With over 92 million tourists that visit the mall each year, it is sure to be on the list of sites to see and share with your friends. I must say I was quite taken back at the number of stores and all the walking it takes to cover over 5 million square feet. We walked for miles admiring the window displays and looking for interesting things to buy.
Inside the Dubai Mall, you will the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, Kidzania, SEGA Republic and over 20 screen cinemas. If ice skating in the middle of the desert is something you want to brag about, the mall has an Olympic-sized ice rink.
We decided to go gazing at the fish swimming in the 10 million-liter tank and walk through the glass aquarium tunnel. Dubai Aquarium also features crocodiles, penguins and unusual birds. You might even want to scuba dive with these animals, which is offered to guests for a fee.
In addition to shopping and touring the aquarium, we found it enjoyable to sit and people watch as they meandered in and out of stores. I must say it was quite an experience and I am excited to say that I have been to one of the largest malls in the world.
Due to the extreme wealth and hot temperatures in Dubai, there are several massive malls with different activities to do on the inside, such as snow skiing. The Mall of the Emirates has over 600 retail outlets and about 100 eateries.
What brings 92 million visitors to this mail is the Ski Dubai, Magic Planet, and the many other movie theaters as well as a community theater and art exhibits. Since I had already been to one of the largest malls in the world, I didn’t feel the need to shop but definitely wanted to see people skiing indoors.
If you are planning a visit to the Mall of the Emirates, the hours are Sunday – Wednesday, 10:00 am – 10:00 pm, and Thursday-Saturday, 10:00 am – 12:00 am.
Ski Dubai is an indoor ski resort with over 13 miles of indoor ski area. The resort offers five slopes of varying steepness and difficulty. A quad lift and a tow lift carry skiers up the indoor mountain. Next to the slopes is a snow park play area with sled and toboggan runs, an icy body slide, climbing towers, giant snowballs and an ice cave. To keep the snow from melting, the resort must maintain a temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 21 degrees Fahrenheit at night when the snow is produced.
Although we didn’t ski, we did watch people enjoying their time making it down the slopes and riding the ski lifts to the top. Visitors and locals don’t need ski clothes or equipment; all of those items are available for rent when buying your ticket. Snow skiing or snowboarding lessons are available as well.
Ski Dubai opening hours are Sunday –Thursday, 10:00 am – 11:00 pm, and Friday-Saturday, 9:00 am – 11:00 pm.
The Dubai Fountain is one of the largest choreographed fountain systems in the world, which is a must see in Dubai. The Dubai Fountain is next to the Dubai Mall, which is the perfect feature to watch and relax after a day of shopping.
The water show is accompanied by a variety of music, ranging from classical to contemporary along with a magnificent light display. It is truly worth seeing in the evening after dark. We decided to stop at a café on the second floor and enjoy the show as we sipped our coffee and tea. Evening shows occur daily 6:00 pm – 11:00 pm, every 30 minutes.
If you want to see architectural design at its best, you must visit the Dubai Marina. The marina is surrounded by super tall, pristine skyscrapers that are mainly residences to some of the wealthiest people in the world. This neighborhood features oodles of cafes, bars, shopping malls, beautiful hotels, beach access and waterways that wind through the center. You can take a water taxi to have a spectacular view of some of the most meticulously designed high-rise buildings that range from 820 -980 feet tall.
Another interesting feature at the marina is the Dubai Marina Walk, which is a 4-mile walkway that meanders past shops, cafes, and restaurants. Throughout the year many events are hosted in this area as it is a favorite place to hang out with friends. We sat outside at a café and enjoyed the view of the Dubai Yacht Club with some of the most glamourous yachts docked at the harbor.
Other things to do at the Dubai Marina:
- Boat Tour
- JBR Walk
- Marina Beach
- Dubai Marina Mall
Next to the Burj Al Arab, near the Arabian Gulf, is the Madinat Jumeirah, a mini-city in Dubai. Here you will find three grand hotels, each with private beach access, offering watersports as well as some of the most splendid spas.
Our niece and nephew took us on tour through the souk where we found a gold vending machine which I had never seen before. It looks like an ATM and operates the same way. You then place your credit card in the machine and tell it how much you want in gold and it will produce a gold bar.
We browsed through several shops, where we found adorable stuffed camels. If you wish to dine here, you will find over 50 different restaurants, lounges, and bars that span over the entire 40 acres.
To be able to see Burj Al Arab without paying for a one-night stay or expensive Afternoon Tea, you must visit Jumeirah Beach. This is one of the few public beaches in Dubai that will give you a great view of the Burj Al Arab. We paid a visit here so that we could get a bird’s eye view and take some pictures. Although in the picture we may seem close to the hotel, we were actually very far away. We played around at the beach and enjoyed wiggling our toes in the white sand along the Arabian Gulf.
The silky sand beaches and turquoise blue water are two features that make The Beach at JBR a destination for tourists from around the world. I honestly had never seen water so blue and sand so white.
A tremendous spectrum of opportunities are available to visitors such as relaxing on canopy beds or working out at a full gym while overlooking the crystal blue water. Sunbeds, daybeds, and cabanas are available for rent where one could relax with an uninterrupted view of the Arabian Gulf, which is exactly what I chose to do after taking a relaxing swim in the calm, turquoise water.
The Beach offered yoga classes, parasailing, banana boat rides and volleyball courts. If you felt the need to jog or run, a padded four-mile running track along the edge of the beach is ready for you to take it on. Small children can visit the Splash-Pad area that is supervised by certified professionals. Parents can leave to either play on the beach, shop or dine while their kids have fun at the Splash-Pad. The Beach offers an outdoor movie theater as well as an indoor cinema with ten screens.
Interestingly enough, the day of our visit, The Beach was hosting an event. The Market On The Beach is an outdoor artisanal marketplace with a mix of unique stalls, offering a wide selection of homemade products and treats to take home or gift to family and friends.
The Beach has a mission of wellness by the sea and knows that the key to happiness is having a balance in life. Take a half a day and enjoy the water and all the many activities offered here.
Although I didn’t get to step foot into this extravagant hotel, I did manage to get a picture of it in the background as I stood on Jumeirah Beach.
Why is this hotel so intriguing?
Burj Al Arab, is a self-proclaimed seven-star hotel, with its distinctive sail-shaped silhouette design, a symbol of modern wealth. Although there isn’t such a thing as a seven-star hotel, they hold on to their claim to fame as the most luxurious hotel in the world. Burj Al Arab only offers suite accommodations with discreet check-ins within your room, a private reception on every floor and swarms of personal butlers, each with exquisite hospitality.
A helicopter pad is available on the top level for easy access to your room. One-night stay starts at $2,000 a night and unfortunately for me it was out of my budget. The hotel does not allow walk-ins, as you must have a reservation to step foot in the building.
One other option to get inside is to schedule an afternoon tea visit (reservations required) but trust me it will not be cheap!
While at the mall we stopped at Almaz Momo to sit down and rest. The décor was done with vibrant colors of reds, oranges, greens, and blues, with beautiful colorful glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling. We each had a nice cup of hot tea and cookies as we enjoyed the tranquility of the Almaz Momo.
One of the most miraculous views after seeing the Dubai Fountains is Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world and one of the most important attractions in Dubai. It is over 2,500 feet tall and has more than 160 stories. This building holds many world records such as being the tallest free-standing structure and the highest observation deck in the world.
We decided to buy a combination ticket which included a visit to the building and the observation deck. As we walked to the elevators, photographs of the construction of the building and timelines were posted. Amazingly, the elevator ride went fairly quickly, but we could feel the change in air pressure as we ascended to the observation deck.
WHAT’S INSIDE THE BURJ KHALIFA
Armani Hotel Dubai
The Armani Hotel was designed by Giorgio Armani. The chic and stylish hotel features elegant rooms and personally designed hotel amenities. Armani Signature Suites are located on levels 38 and 39.
The Armani Residences were also designed by Giorgio Armani. They feature upscale furnishings and accessories designed by Armani and Casa.
The Burj Khalifa is home to 900 residences including studios, one, two, three, and four bedroom suites. The Residences also feature sky lobbies, fitness facilities, swimming pools, Jacuzzis and recreation rooms.
AT.Mosphere is the place to see and be seen at the Burj Khalifa. Here, guests can enjoy fine dining and a range of signature drinks while overlooking Dubai.
The Corporate Suites are located at the highest levels of the tower and occupy 37 floors of the Burj Khalifa.
The observation deck is located at level 148 and is the highest observation deck in the world. The observation deck offers a panoramic view over Dubai as you can see for miles into the desert as well as directly below where you stand over the edge of the building walls. Be patient as many tourists are here to see and take pictures while standing on the observation deck.
I must say it did creep me out a little seeing directly below my feet, but it was a magnificent view of the city and beyond.
You will also find a gift shop available on this floor if you collect souvenirs. We took a few pictures and enjoyed the breathtaking view of the desert land of Dubai. Plan on your visit to take at least 2-3 hours.
The Palm Islands are two artificial, man-made islands constructed by sand dredged from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf. The Palm Islands are the only structures in the world you can actually see with the naked eye from space that forms the shape of a palm trees. Along the outer branches are residential homes, tourist attractions, hotels, and entertainment centers. The Islands are also home to the well-known Atlantis Resort.
You may drive on the island, but other forms of seeing the island are available like bike riding at the Byky Station. Another exciting way to see the islands is by a helicopter tour, although not cheap it is an amazing experience, and I am sure one you will never forget.
We wanted to explore the Atlantis Hotel and Resort because it offers its guests an assortment of onsite activities such as the Aquaventure Waterpark, Dolphin Encounters, Sea Lion Cuddling, and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. You can visit as a regular guest, even without staying there and meander through the resort.
The Lost Chambers Aquarium costs $30.00 per person. Your ticket allows you to walk through 10 underwater chambers while seeing over 15,000 marine animals. You’ll also get a unique insight into the history of the long-lost civilization.
I thought this was quite captivating as we tried to get the stingray’s attention for a photo. Walking through the chamber made me feel like I was in the water with all the marine life beside me. Atlantis Hotel and Resort is a remarkable place for kids and adults alike.
I must say I am a history guru as I enjoy visiting museums, especially historical museums. Donna, my husband’s niece, encouraged us to visit the Dubai Museum which is located within the Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787. This is the oldest building in Dubai.
I was eager to learn more about the history and culture of Dubai and its people. We purchased our tickets and ventured in. We started with a video telling stories of the past from the 1930s to the 2000s. Next, we viewed a mockup of the old souk with lifelike mannequins demonstrating their roles at the market. Other replicas of natives portrayed what life was like at school, in the desert and at sea, and before the advent of oil were displayed throughout the museum. For fun, we stopped and posed with a few of the mannequins to get some comical pictures.
History of the people can be told through the tools and type of weapons used to sustain their daily life. We viewed ancient artifacts such as pottery and weapons that are on exhibit dating back to 300 B.C.
Museum hours are Saturday-Thursday, 8:30 am – 8:30 pm and Fridays, 2:30 pm – 8:30 pm.
Here at this museum, I learned how Dubai has evolved into the magical city it is today. In the 1920’s the area was an already established fishing village and known for harvesting pearls. The invention of artificial pearls in 1926 and the Great Depression in 1929 caused a collapse in the international pearl market, causing the King to search for other options. Soon he transitioned the port to become one of the busiest export of goods to the world.
Many people from different countries traveled to Dubai to trade in their expansive markets. Between 1940-1960, Dubai spent a lot of money to build a significant infrastructure and during this period the airport and the first Airline Hotel was built.
In 1966 oil was discovered in UAE which helped Dubai become the Emirate it is today. During the Persian Gulf War, Dubai played an intricate role in providing military aid to the coalition. After the Iraq war, due to the increase in oil prices and the tax-free zone for many facilities, an increase in the opportunities for construction of high-rises, such as Burj Khalifa, The Palm, and other major internet businesses multiplied.
We know the Middle East as the oil export of the world, but if all the oil ran out, Dubai would be able to sustain itself because of the strength of the commercial industry as many businesses have relocated here due to the incentives provided.
Dubai is the city on the cutting edge of technology and holding many world records of being the biggest and the greatest at so many things. To the rest of us it may seem a little eccentric, but this is how the royal families of the desert shine to the rest of the world. The people were very friendly, the food was excellent, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The icing on the cake for me was seeing family. While in Dubai, be willing to have many first experiences and stay open minded. I have shared with you a few highlights of my great adventure to Dubai but rest assured there is more to see and do!