Stepping out and about in Dubai might be a sheik-down for your wallet; it isn’t a playground of the rich and famous for nothing.
Everything is mega in Dubai. Mega huge malls (they’ve got the biggest in the world), mega skyscrapers (the Burj Al Arab stands proudly in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest building), mega fountain displays (again, the city hosts the world’s largest synchronised musical fountain display). I think you get where this is going.
I always felt apprehensive about visiting the Arab Emirates. I was indifferent to it. Even after my flights were booked and all plans were confirmed, I still felt somewhat tense about the idea of going there. This may have had something to do with warnings people had given me about all the strict guidelines. I have never been a fan of guidelines- particularly where attire is concerned. Can’t wear what I please? No thank you. I thought I would touch down and instantly be carted off at the airport for being unmarried, visiting a male friend or being inappropriately dressed. These were my somewhat close-minded preconceptions. The reality of Dubai living couldn’t be further from what I imagined.
Enter the uber-chic playground of the monetarily blessed. Why is everything bigger and better here? Because the players who live and play here are just that. Standing out is that much harder when everyone can afford a blasé supercar. You can let people in on how big your game truly is with a one-of-a-kind 12 million Dirham customised number plate, cause that’s a thing. Here are ten things to know prior to stepping into the luxurious oasis that is Dubai.
1. You will feel like a million bucks
The fortnight I stayed in Dubai, I never once opened my own car door. It’s very easy to lose track of reality here. Being a woman comes with some serious advantages too, including ladies night (which actually spans over several nights). On Tuesdays, head to Pier 7 at Dubai Marina and sample the various free drinks offers on all 7 floors. I particularly loved Atelier M, Asia Asia and Cargo, which has a slightly less opulent, gastropub feeling and more down-to-earth crowd. Just take the lift to the next venue when your drinks tokens run out.
2. You can eat like a king
You may have heard of Dubai’s infamous Friday brunches (if you haven’t yet, where have you been?) Friday is THE DAY to put your glad rags on and feast on fabulous star quality grub, washed down by the finest champagne by the bucket load. Dubai’s large expat community means that there is cuisine to cater to every taste. I had Indian at Biryani Street (Golden Mile 2, Palm Jumeirah), delicious Italian at Trattoria Toscana (Souk Madinat), sushi to my hearts content at Asia Asia (Pier 7, Dubai Marina), even more sushi at Scoozi at the Dubai Mall (which happens to be a fine place to take in the ever-popular fountain show) and was blown away by the Japanese-Peruvian combos at Ají (Vista Mare, The Palm). If you’re feeling like shelling out some of your hard-earned cash, go to Hide at the 5-star Madinat Jumeirah resort. Just be sure to reserve in advance whenever you wish to dine out.
Scrumptious lamb chops at Ají, Vista Mare
An Indian experience at Biryani Street, Palm Jumeirah
3. You may indeed drink alcohol
Herds of tourists flock to Dubai specifically to party into the wee hours. Alcohol can only be purchased in hotel bars, restaurants and clubs. Public drunkenness is outlawed, so while you can have as many cocktails as you like, do refrain from appearing intoxicated in public. Clubs are inside hotel complexes so you won’t find a ‘Bourbon Street’ of clubs or bars. If you’re staying by the Marina, Stereo Arcade at the DoubleTree by Hilton (The Walk, JBR) is always a great nightclub shout.
Cocktails at Friday Brunch, Asia Asia
4. The wealth divide is real
It’s impossible not to notice the clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. This is made even more apparent by ethnicity and heritage. The city would go out of business if all the Filipinos and South Asians decided to stage a walkout en-mass. When I arrived, the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport was Pakistani and told me his version of Dubai. He had been living there for ten years and had witnessed the city grow into the scorching la la land that it is today. He has a family back home in Pakistan and would never be able to afford to have them come and join him in the UAE. As such, he goes back for two months every year to visit them. He talked very fondly of his wife and his brood of four children (he either spends his annual two months there exceptionally wisely, or his wife takes up some interesting extra-curricular pursuits during her ten solo months). Nevertheless, his story struck a chord with me. His entire family life is condensed into only two months per year. This is a stark contrast to the super-rich, who have holiday homes here and simply dip in for carefree debauchery, particularly from nearby Saudi Arabia.
5. Many beaches are private
I spent part of my trip staying with a friend who lives at the Palm Jumeirah. One must show a valid residence permit to gain access to the private beaches there. Failure to do so will mean shelling out 25 AED for a day pass. The benefit of this is having long stretches of perfect white sand all to yourself. The beaches attached to hotels are also reserved solely for hotel guests. This needn’t dampen your Dubai experience, however, as there are still some stand out public beaches to get your feet sandy such as the very popular Kite Beach and Jumeirah Beach Walk, where you might just see a camel or two.
6. Malls aren’t just for shopping
I personally don’t enjoy spending my time shopping when I travel. For me, time abroad is best spent taking in the scenery, local culture and ‘real activities’ such as laying on the beach, heavily doing nothing. In Dubai, all three can be combined superbly. Mall of the Emirates houses an indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai, just in case you never thought you’d get to see snow in the desert.
Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates
Dubai Marina Mall
Dubai mall is probably the most ambitious one I have ever visited. It’s the largest in the world (by total area), has an underwater zoo and is an access point to the Dubai Fountain show.
7. It’s exceptionally photogenic
Driving through Sheik Zayed Road (which you’ll probably do several times a day), feels like you’re in an episode of Futurama. We’ve all seen skyscrapers before, but don’t be surprised if you find these ones particularly impressive.
View over the Marina from Pier 7
Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort
If you’re lucky enough to stay at the gorgeous Anantara Resort on the Palm (or know someone staying there), head to the on-site Revo Café once you’re done Instagramming. No visit to Dubai would be complete without stopping at the Souk Madinat. Step outdoors to the array of restaurants littered with pretty tea lights for added magic.
The Souk Madinat at night
8. There is such a thing as too hot
Spending hours on your makeup and hair seems wholly futile as the humidity and immense heat turn you into a sweat-stained dripping mess the second you step out of your plush air-conditioning, particularly in the summer months. Be warned.
9. Uber everywhere
Taxis are surprisingly cheap in Dubai and Uber works too. A 25-minute taxi ride could cost as little as 10 USD.
10. You CAN wear and do what you want… within reason
While Dubai is a mecca for touristic hedonism, the UAE is still a Muslim country, and as such local laws should be respected in order to stay out of trouble. Don’t wear your bikini away from the beach and do bring a pashmina out with you to cover up when out in public areas (you’ll be thankful you did with the excessively cranked up air-conditioning in malls and taxis). Public areas are cafes, malls, public transport and of course pedestrian walkways. In these zones, it’s best for ladies to refrain from wearing revealing tops or showing too much leg. You might attract some stern glances if you do. Hotels, on the other hand, are viewed as more neutral zones, where Emiratis expect to find more foreigners. As such, dress codes are slightly more lenient here (still don’t go crazy though). While in the club (or anywhere in the UAE) forget everything you know about PDA. Handholding, kissing or similar amorous behaviours could get you slammed up in the pokie. Don’t end up as another poor tourist abroad statistic.
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Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.