Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dubai: Impressions and Tips

Having just returned from a Dubai vacation I'm naturally full to the brim with experiences and impressions, but I thought I'd focus on some overall impressions and some tips for new visitors to Dubai while they are still fresh in my mind.

Dubai is a very tourist-friendly city, everyone speaks or understands English and all signs are in English and Arabic, and you'll also notice many signs in Russian as well. It's a very multicultural and open city, but it's still a Muslim country so there are a few things to keep in mind. One being that it's hard to buy alcohol outside of hotel bars and night clubs. The other is that stores and such open a bit later on Friday than usual. Also, government offices and most government-run museums close at 2:30 so plan accordingly.

Getting around Dubai is very easy thanks to an excellent public transportation city. Don't get an Uber in Dubai! I've found that the taxis are very cheap, the drivers have all been very polite, and none have tried to cheat me unlike the taxi drivers in Doha. Also, getting around the city using the Dubai Metro is very cheap and very fast. 7 dirhams will get you to, or close to, most of the notable tourist and shopping locations such as Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and so on. To use the buses however, you need to get a bus card at one of the major bus station and then you can load money on it at the machines available at every bus stop (big or small). I only used the taxi three times while I was in Dubai, relying on public transport to get around and I didn't waste much time doing so. Oh yeah, when getting on a metro watch out for women-only entrance and the Gold VIP entrance. I'm not even joking.

Because it's so easy and fast to get to places using public transport don't be afraid to go out of Dubai City to find a cheap good hotel. You can find good cheap hotels as far away as Jumeirah 3 or out in Deira and still be able to go to Dubai downtown easily and cheaply.

Speaking of downtown, it's totally worth it. I'd say plan at least a day to spend just in Dubai Mall and nearby attractions. Dubai Aquarium in the mall is only 100 dirhams to go in and I personally enjoyed it. Burj Khalifa can be entered from the mall, and I highly recommend either booking the tickets online ahead of time or going up to the counter and booking them for later in the day. There's always a huge line waiting to get in and don't count on being able to just waltz in whenever you want. Also to note, you can go up to the 124th and 125 floors for I think 120 dirhams, or you can do the VIP treatment and go up to the 148th floor for 300 dirhams. The latter experience is still worth it, you don't need to stand in line waiting for your turn to go up, instead you get to relax in a nice lounge and get coffee and snacks (provided with the ticket), then go up and experience the amazing view with being plied with more drinks and snacks. Hey, chances are you'd only want to go up once anymore so might as well live a little. :)

The fountain show right outside the Dubai Mall is also unforgettable, but I also enjoyed a much more quiet nearby souq Al Bahar and a little park nearby as a way to wind from the busy and loud mall. Speaking of souqs, definitely try to get to some of the city's souqs to experience a less glamorous but also interesting side of Dubai. What I did was take the Metro to Al Fahidi station, got off, explored the excellent historical village, little museums and art galleries, the Al Fahidi fort and museum. I love this part of the city, it was especially charming and full of character. Then for just 1 dirham I caught a water taxi to go across the Dubai Creek to the older part of Dubai. Skip the Al Fahidi souq, it's really just a cheap indoor mall and not a souq at all, but definitely check out the Gold souq, Spice souq and Bur Dubai souq. They do get tiresome because of very pushy criers and salesmen offering Rolexes, Kashmir scarves, suspiciously cheap smart phones and less legal wares, but they do have character.

To unwind, I highly recommend Jumeirah public beach and in fact the entire Jumeirah (Jumeirah 1 that is) neighbourhood. It's a quiet beachside middle-class and small business neighbourhood, very lovely, lots of bike and running paths, you get to see pretty amazing Grand Jumeirah Mosque and the public beach was very lovely. I went on a weekday around noon and it was empty save for a couple of families and a few joggers and the water was lovely. Word of advice, if you see the famous Burj Al Arab tower in the distance (that's the famous super-posh hotel that's shaped like a sail and has golf courses on the roof) don't even bother to go see it. You can't get close it, you get stopped by security and you can't actually go inside unless you are a guest at the hotel or have an invitation. Don't bother spending your time and money.

Lastly if you are a geek and want to do some shopping or just geek out, I highly recommend checking out Kinokuniya in Dubal Mall, and Battlezone in Jumeirah. Battlezone has great staff, great playing spaces for miniature, board game, and CCG gamers, and very reasonable prices (by Gulf standards).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in Dubai, I did have to spend quite a lot on entertainment and shopping, but I found that transportation and food were cheaper than I expected. Great city to visit!

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