The UAE was a destination I wanted to tick off my bucket list for a long time. Located on the south-eastern end of the Arabian peninsula on the Persian Gulf, I was intrigued by this prosperous, modern and glamorous country that sprung out of the desert at amazing speed with its record-setting mega-structures. I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to visit Dubai for a girls’ vacation with my cousin Shena who worked in Cairo. In spite of my excitement, I admit I was bloody scared of leaving my Caribbean/ American comfort zone, nervous about horror stories I read of people running afoul of the UAE’s Sharia laws and terrorism! I was also anxious about being left alone for the day, so far away from home while awaiting Shena’s evening arrival. In the end, my worries were unfounded and I spent that first day relishing my freedom to explore! To learn about my experience in this desert city, read on for my Ultimate Beginner’s Travel Guide to Dubai!
How to get from Dubai International Airport (DXB) to your Hotel
The easiest way to get to your hotel in the city is by taking an Uber or a metered taxi. Single female travelers can find themselves being hurriedly directed towards a Ladies and Families Taxi (Pink Taxi) . This service is provided exclusively for ladies, driven by females in pink headscarves and jumpsuits (think I Dream of Jeannie !) for the peace of mind of solo female travelers/families, especially at night or wee morning hours. Mind you, I never felt unsafe with a male driver at any time!
The Dubai Metro is a cheaper option to get close to major hotels and many tourist destinations. Buses can shuttle you between the airport and Ibn Battuta metro station. Most stations also have connecting buses and taxis for onward journeys.
Where to Stay
There is a widely held perception that a vacation in Dubai is astronomically expensive. Not necessarily so ! In recent years, the city has become a top international tourism destination and stopover point on major flight routes. Hotel prices are therefore competitive with a plethora of options from which to choose, depending on the type of accommodation you’re seeking.
If you’re after unparalleled luxury and exceptional service, the following options range from USD $500 – $1500 per night:
Affordable luxury can be found at the 5-star business hotels on Sheikh Zayed Road – Downtown Dubai, close to all the action ! The following options range between USD $200 – $350 per night :
Accustomed to the consistent quality and efficiency provided by chain hotels? The options below are priced at approx. USD $75-$200 per night:
Rove Hotels Downtown is a trendy local hotel chain that bustles with young energy. It caters to modern, hip travellers seeking intelligent and no-frills hospitality.
Air BnB is a great and popular way to save on hotel costs in Dubai. A luxurious and well-appointed apartment, suite or bungalow can be yours for approx. USD $150 per day !
What to Do after the Hotel – The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa
Drop your bags off at the hotel and head down to the Dubai Mall using the following options:
- Your hotel’s complimentary shuttle (if available)
- Metered taxi
- Metro to the Burj Khalifa Station where feeder buses take you directly to the Mall
Ask to be dropped off at the downtown entrance and after a short walk, you will find yourself gazing up in awe at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world! Walk down the terraces past the many cafes, while taking in the superstructure and then enter the gigantic Dubai Mall. Stand before the floor to ceiling aquarium, watch ice skating at the large indoor rink and enjoy the people-watching while you grab a bite to eat.
The Dubai Mall is a shopaholic’s wildest dream! Catering to the luxury-loving fashionistas and the high street hunnies alike, the Dubai Mall is a one stop shop. The mall is home to the annual Dubai Shopping Festival, a retail bonanza that kicks off in January. The Dubai Mall’s Souk (Arabic word for market) is a joy to stroll through, not so much for the shopping but for the gorgeous Arabic architecture. I admired the stone corridors, high archways, ornately carved patterns, and mosaics. The subdued lighting gave the whole place a very romantic aura!
At the Dubai Mall Souk, visit the Majlis Café and try camel milk, a natural lactose- free alternative to cow’s milk !
Looking for a Unique Souvenir ? – What to Buy
Camel milk Chocolate
Go against the norm of key-rings , refrigerator magnets, and mini figurines. Surprise family and friends with bars of Al Nassma camel milk chocolate as a special and delightful souvenir!
I visited a store called Artizana Ahjar where the owner allowed me to try on some beautiful traditional Arabic ladies clothing, sky blue and fuchsia butterfly-style jalabiyas and a black abaya.
Oud and Custom-blend Fragrances
The store assistant helped me custom- blend my own fragrance! I chose a blend of jasmine, apple and peach scents. As a personal treat, I also bought a tiny bottle of a traditional Arabian fragrance called Oud. Oud is rare and costly so I use this mysterious and sexy scent very sparingly!
What to Do at the Burj Khalifa – Go to the Top !
Purchase tickets in the Dubai Mall and make your way up to the top of the tallest building in the world to take in spectacular views of this impressive city!
Where to Bargain Shop : Deira Souks
Bargain hunters will love Dubai’s souks (traditional markets) in Deira, one of the oldest parts of Dubai. Here, you can shop for clothing, accessories, souvenirs, electronics, food items, household decorations, and furniture. Naif Souk is a popular one to visit and is one of the city’s oldest souks.
Don’t miss out on the nearby Gold Souk for 22 and 24 karat gold jewelry and the Spice Souk with its enticing array of aromatic spices! Haggling is expected so never pay full price for anything! Folks who are unaccustomed to this will feel intimidated when confronted with a pushy salesman, but I recommend that you go with (or fake !) a confident attitude. If you’re jittery, a local guide who has experience can do it for you ! The Souks are accessible via taxi and metro. Don’t bother driving, finding parking is difficult.
How to Haggle – My Tips
Haggling is a process that takes some time to master. Everyone has their own method that works for them. These tips work for me:
- Walk with cash broken down into small denominations
- Contain your enthusiasm if you see something that you absolutely love ! Keep your facial expression neutral.
- Browse for the best prices and decide how much you want to spend on a particular item.
- Sort out your money aside from the shop. Don’t open your purse or wallet in full view of shop salesmen.
- Offer just under half of the item price so that you have some wiggle room to increase if the salesman asks for a bit more. Offering too low a price would be considered insulting. Remember the process is a give and take!
- Walk away if the salesman is being overly stubborn and time is passing by. Not wanting to miss out on a sale, they will often come running after you and give you the price you offered.
Sightseeing & Culture – What to Do
Visit Dubai’s famous landmarks, museums and historical locations via the Big Bus, Dubai , an open -top, hop on -hop off, London-style red double decker bus. Three routes are available on one ticket that includes free entry to museums, dhow cruises, and shuttles. Step off the bus at your desired destination and wait to catch another one when you’re done!
Local Culture and Traditions
Many hold the viewpoint that Dubai is a city bereft of any real character and soul. Not true! Emiratis are a patriotic people who are fiercely proud of their national identity and Bedouin culture. Many interesting elements of the city’s history can be seen at the Dubai Museum, from its origin as an important trading and fishing port to the prosperous metropolis it is today. Examples of the UAE’s Bedouin cultural traditions are also displayed.
Experience Emirati culture in a more personal way by visiting the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding located in the historic Al Fahidi District. The Centre was established in 1998 in order to educate and build respect and understanding between UAE locals and other nationalities resident in Dubai. Here, one can enjoy a delicious traditional meal, visit a mosque, walk through the Bastakiya district and learn about local customs via interaction with Emirati hosts and hostesses. This interaction includes a Q&A session where guests can ask questions with no subject being taboo.
Supercars and Skis !
Bugattis, Ferraris and Bentleys oh my ! Gas brains unite, the UAE is supercar heaven ! Due to Dubai’s concentration of wealth, such envy-inducing vehicles can be seen everywhere ! The local police even added various models to their fleet ! However, from what I’ve witnessed first hand, Emiratis have a special love affair with the Lamborghini.
The Mall of the Emirates is home to Ski Dubai , the first indoor ski-resort in the Middle East that caters to all levels of expertise! Ski, snowboard, roll down the slope in a giant ball or hang out with the penguins, there is something for everyone to enjoy!
What to do for Lunch
Try a brunch buffet
Dubai is a gastronomic adventure with food from all over the globe ! There is a wide variety of lunch options in the malls but I encourage you to try a brunch buffet at one of the major hotels. I loved the one at The Address, Downtown Dubai.
What to do for Dinner
Arabic Cuisine and Dancing Fountains!
Enjoy dinner at the Crowne Plaza’s popular Al Tannour Restaurant with a sumptuous Lebanese spread of salads, hummus, flatbreads made on hot- on -spot, stuffed grape leaves, well-seasoned kebabs, and dessert. Wash everything down with my favourite Dubai drink – fresh mint lemonade! If you have the time, stay for the after dinner entertainment featuring belly dancing, local music, and shisha smoking.
A second great option is the Lebanese restaurant, Abdel Wahab, at the Souk al Bahar in downtown Dubai. We were lucky to get a table with a stunning close-up view of the Burj Khalifa that sparkled as dancing Fountain started their routine ! The Dubai Fountain is the largest fountain system in the world, created by the designers of the fountain at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Water jets shoot up to 500 ft in choreographed routines to Arabic, Classical, Indian and contemporary Western music.
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