My recent trip to Dubai was significant. As a matter of fact, it was only the second time in my entire life where I felt more nervous than I did excited in the days leading up to departure, and I couldn’t help but to have vivid flashbacks of my first trip to Asia way back in 2002.
Keep in mind that I was a very inexperienced traveler back then, and thought of hopping on a plane and flying 15 hours to Hong Kong took every bit of courage I had. Would I be able to handle the food?
What if I couldn’t read the signs and understand the language? What if I lose my passport and…I know. I used to worry about some really stupid and irrelevant shit when I was younger, so doing something adventurous like going to Asia for the very first time put me into anxiety overload.
Thinking back on it, it was easily one of the best trips of my life and I’m so glad that I had the willingness to step outside my comfort zone and do it. And even though I’m not anywhere near as much of a worrier as I used to be, I was still feeling a twinge of anxiety on the 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Dubai which kicked off this entire trip.
I didn’t have any worries about not understanding the language or being able to handle the food, but it was mostly political thoughts and how a snow-white American dude like me (Midwest represent!) would be perceived by the locals.
I know. Dubai is one of the richest and most extravagant cities in the world, diverse and multicultural, and really not all that much different than anywhere else.
So even though I knew that wasn’t going to be complete culture shock, it was going to be my first ever visit to the Middle East and I just couldn’t help feeling a little bit nervous about what the coming days would bring.
Those of you who have been to Dubai before are most certainly falling out of your chair and laughing hysterically by now. I know this because it only took me all of about 10 minutes of being there to make me realize that all of my worrying was for naught since it’s essentially just a huge tourist trap (and a stunningly beautiful one at that).
The entirety of my three days on the ground in Dubai were spent mingling with tourists from the US, Europe and Australia – not that I was trying to mingle with them, but they were everywhere and after a while it kind of felt like I was at an amusement park – or perhaps Las Vegas on steroids.
Setting reasonable expectations for your very first trip to Dubai
The somewhat disappointing realization of Dubai feeling like an amusement park was the inspiration for this post, and I hope what I am about to write will help first time visitors to this glitzy desert oasis get the most out of their trip.
Dubai is not a walking city
One of my favorite things to do as a traveler is to strap comfortable shoes to my feet and spend entire days walking around and checking things out. I generally try to avoid taxicabs or other public modes of transportation as much as I can, because I really enjoy taking my time to slow down and see the sights.
I realize that I don’t see as much by doing it this way, but getting some exercise while sightseeing is a total win-win.
Unfortunately, as beautiful and modern as Dubai is, it’s so bloody hot that walking outside for longer than 10 minutes in the middle of the day will kill you dead (or at least put you in the hospital).
Seriously – you have to ignore the fact that even though they built some really nice bike paths all around the city, they are completely useless for at least 16 hours of the day due to the heat.
Maybe it’s possible to go cycling or running at 11 PM, but even then you still have to be a total badass because it will be above 90°F (32°C) with oppressive amounts of humidity.
Thankfully, shopping seems to be a national sport in the United Arab Emirates, and there are two ridiculously huge shopping malls in the city which you can spend entire days in walking around in air-conditioned comfort if you really feel the need to put some miles underneath your feet.
Public transportation in Dubai is plentiful and cheap
As I mentioned above, I’m not normally the kind a guy who likes to use public transportation so much when traveling.
However, Dubai was a complete exception because of the oppressive heat, which ended up being kind of a good thing because it made me realize how plentiful and cheap public transportation is in Dubai.
Of all the cities that I’ve ever been to in the world, I found taxi fares to be quite reasonable within the city limits of Dubai.
Fares are normally so expensive that it’s a last resort option in most places, but I was able to go from one end of the city to the other several times spending less than US$50 total – which is really impressive considering how much of a large area it covers.
Another nice thing about taxi service in Dubai is the fact that they are literally everywhere and I never had difficulty finding one ready to take me wherever I needed to go.
I’m sure that one of the main reasons for this is the fact that it’s so hot and most people don’t normally walk from place to place, so there needs to be enough taxes to cover the demand.
The other option for getting around Dubai quickly and cheaply is to use the elevated rapid-transit metro system. For roughly US$10, I was able to get a day pass for unlimited use which covered the entire network.
The elevated metro is obviously a better deal than using taxis when it comes to getting from place to place, and it’s what I would recommend as your primary mode of transportation in Dubai. Go get that card (officially referred to as a “Nol Card”) and save yourself a ton of money!
It’s not always necessary to make reservations for the Burj Khalifa observation deck
One of the things that all first-time visitors to Dubai must to do is to take a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It’s the world’s tallest building, and a very impressive one at that!
Even better, it serves as a very good way to get your bearings in this amazing city since you will be able to see all of it from such a high vantage point.
A trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa was my only goal for this trip to Dubai, and I tackled it the very first morning after my arrival the evening prior.
Unfortunately, I got too busy and distracted, and I forgot to make reservations online ahead of time like so many other websites and travel guides suggested that I do.
Fortunately, despite my forgetfulness leading up to this trip, I was able to make a reservation online the morning of, and even though not all timeslots were available, I showed up an hour early and they were still able to let me in (they were also allowing people to walk up and purchase tickets for immediate access as well).
Keep in mind that this was a Monday, and you may not have much luck showing up without a reservation on a weekend. But from my experience, weekdays are a much better time to go.
Nearly all restaurants in Dubai are closed during Ramadan
I’ll be honest when I say that I felt kind of stupid for showing up in Dubai not knowing that it was Ramadan.
For those that don’t know, Ramadan is a holy month of fasting and avoiding impure thoughts (which may be the most simplistic definition ever – there’s much more to it of course, and Wikipedia is a good source of info if you’re interested).
Muslims are not to eat from sunrise to sunset for each day of Ramadan, which means that most restaurants and cafés are closed. It is also disrespectful to eat or drink in public whether you’re Muslim or not, so as you can imagine, eating will be challenge for non-Muslim tourists in Dubai during this time.
That being said, I did run across a few cafés that were open to non-Muslims only, but they were very few and far between. You’ll have to creative with your dining habits if you show up in Dubai during Ramadan having no clue like I did.
While I did find the food options to be limited, room service was available in my hotel room 24 hours a day – so I had that as a last resort option if I couldn’t find anything else.
I did find that as long as I ate a really big breakfast and a really big dinner, I was able to skip lunch altogether, so it was never really an issue for me. But still – if you’re not expecting it (or you have small kids who eat like elephants), it can be kind of a big deal.
Final words of advice
My biggest take away from this trip and the final point that I would like to leave you with is the fact that Dubai felt just as western as any other city that I’ve ever been to.
Additionally, if it wasn’t for the Arabic script on all the signs, I would’ve never been able to guess that I was in the Middle East at all.
Dubai is an engineering masterpiece that needs to be seen to be believed, and it is a very fun and easy destination for travelers on any level (even those with very little experience exploring countries other than their own). Heck, If I can do it, anybody can.