Already the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world, Dubai is gearing up to host the World Expo in 2020. Its skyline reaches to the heavens with its bold architecture and audacious style. The United Arab Emirates’ largest city is a mashup of its Bedouin heritage and an ultra-modern style all its own.
Dubai may be known for its glittering skyscrapers, but the city also has a fascinating history. From a humble fishing village to a global metropolis that is home to more than 20 nationalities, Dubai has come a long way. I invite you to come along as I visit Dubai.
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world
I started my visit to Dubai by being transported like a rocket to the 124th-floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa. At over 828 meters (2,716.5 feet) and 160 stories, this architectural masterpiece needs no introduction and is currently the tallest building in the world. It is twice the size of the Empire State Building and the amount of reinforced steel used to construct the tower would, if laid end to end, extend over a quarter of the way around the world!
The “At the Top” ticket gets you access to the lower observation deck on the 124th floor with panoramic views of the city and desert beyond. The elevator up was incredibly fast, smooth and quiet, but my ears started popping midway to the top.
Dubai Indoor Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo is one of the most captivating attractions when you visit Dubai, offering a memorable journey into ocean life. Located within the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world)—with a capacity to hold 10 million liters of water—Dubai Aquarium is one of the largest suspended aquariums in the world. It illuminates the marvels of the ocean floor, showcasing one of the most diverse collections of aquatic life.
Strolling through the 48-meter aquarium tunnel gives you fantastic 270-degree views of the gigantic aquarium. It immerses you in an ocean of sharks, rays and a host of other fish varieties and aquatic life. It is mesmerizing and otherworldly. Located just above the aquarium, the underwater zoo brings visitors up close with penguins, piranhas, crabs, sea horses, jellyfish, and other unique creatures.
Dubai Miracle Garden
A world of flower wonder awaits in the Dubai Miracle Garden. The Miracle Garden is the world’s largest natural flower garden featuring more than 50 million flowers and 250 million plants—another world’s record.
You can immerse yourself in identifiable structures completely covered with flowers in many different exhibits and areas of the gardens. You will discover topiary Disney characters and a giant flower-covered teddy bear. Be sure to check out the Emirati Airbus A380 covered in flowers—designated as the biggest flower structure in the world by Guinness World Records. All of this in an area that was once parched desert. The Miracle Garden is a fantastic wonderland to bring the family and let the kids loose to play and run around, with shade trees and areas for the adults to sit and relax.
Dubai Creek and the Historic Souks
I discovered how traditional merges with modern living as I meandered the alleyways of Dubai’s bustling souks. What is a souk, you may ask? Also known as an Arab marketplace or bazaar, you can find almost anything your heart desires in one of the stalls within the souk.
The Textile Souk is located in the Bur Dubai side of the Deira Creek. If you are on the hunt for exotic fabrics, definitely visit this covered market and be amazed by the bursts of color from all the fabrics.
One can weave through the covered walkways and feel the beauty of the silk, cashmere, and wool. Popular items are the bright pashmina-shawls and traditional brightly colored Arabian slippers. For the men, this large souk has leather wallets and belts in all sorts and colors. It’s fun to hear the good-natured calls from vendors trying to entice you to their stalls. Those selling clothes seemed to excel at persuasion; friendly and persistent and always with a smile even if you don’t buy anything. Aside from the textiles, souvenir items are also here, don’t forget to haggle for your purchases, that’s half the fun!
Abra Boat Ride on Dubai Creek
The best way to cross Dubai Creek is to glide across the waters on an Abra water taxi. The Creek is a natural seawater harbor for ships traversing the Arabian Gulf region.
The Creek waterway continues to reflect Dubai’s historic roots, back when early settlers relied on its waters for their livelihood. Visitors mix with locals in the queue for a short trip across the Creek to the Deira side of the river on traditional wooden boats, a bargain at just 1 Dirham (about 27 cents). A short breezy ride later you are on the other side of the Creek; the journey only lasts for about 10 minutes—if you’re like me, you’ll wish it could last an hour!
The Deira Gold Souk is the ultimate shopping destination for gold hunters. The amount of shiny gold will blind you, as this must surely be the origin for the saying that says “all that glitters is gold.” The Gold Souk is a sight to behold as you walk through the alleyway with more gawkers and hawkers than buyers.
Gold, Gold, and More Gold
The Gold Souk has more than 300 retailers offering 10 tons of gold at any given time—not to worry, as the shops are under strict government oversight to ensure that all purchases are genuine. Even if you’re not out to buy gold, a stroll around the market is a must if only to marvel at the intricacy of some of the gold pieces on display. In many cultures, gold is an important part of wedding traditions. The biggest shoppers for gold in Dubai are Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Indian shoppers.
Gold bars, gold jewelry, and unique gold creations such as a golden bodice and golden headpieces are on display. I was able to view the heaviest gold ring in the world, weighing in at 63.856 Kg in 21-carat gold. The Guinness World Records certificate was framed in the shop window beside the ring.
The Art of Haggling
There are other shopping places that offer gold but the best bargains can only be found at the Deira Gold Souk. As a useful tip, start bargaining at 50% off and haggle your way around until you get a good price that you are willing to pay for. Around 30% discount is a good buy. The more you buy, the higher chance you have of getting a bargain. Opening hours are Saturday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The Spice Souk feels ages old, with its winding, twisting alleyways, having the bustling appeal of an Arabian marketplace of long ago.
Take a deep breath and inhale all the scents surrounding you. Hints of cardamom, rose, chili, cinnamon, vanilla, herbs, and incense enter your nose and spill at your feet. Shops with huge colorful bags of exotic spices are a visual feast. The mix of spices will give your olfactory senses a jolt as you take in all the aromas.
You can sample fresh or sundried organic dates, bargain for saffron, and even stock up on candied nuts, dried fruits, and locally blended teas. Interacting with the vendors is part of the fun, and friendly bargaining is often welcomed with a smile. Even though we are in the 21st century, it is easy to imagine what it was like decades ago, with shopkeepers shouting and calling out to the market-goers to buy their goods.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood (Bastakiya Quarter)
Overshadowed by the city’s modern skyscrapers, the Al Fahidi historical neighborhood is a peaceful slice of Dubai. It reflects the true history of the Emirate and gives you a glance at how the city appeared back in the day.
The Al Fahidi historical neighborhood along Dubai Creek represents the traditional life of Old Dubai during the mid-19th century. It offers a plethora of cultural activities, museums, art galleries, and traditional food.
The wind towers constructed from stone, palm wood, and gypsum only represent a small part of the history. Each alley, twisting pathway, and breezy tower tells a story of life before the Emirates.
Situated in the heritage hub of Al Fahidi in Bur Dubai, the coffee museum is part café, part shop, and part cultural experience. The dallah is a traditional Arabic coffee pot for serving Arabian coffee. It is a symbol of the Emirati culture, featured on the AED dirham coin.
Serving Arabic coffee (kawa) is both a production and a talent. Kawa should be served to important guests first, and there is a strict “etiquette” that must be observed by the host as well as the guest. This coffee ritual is the start of every business and family gathering and is prominent in marriage proposals.
The Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding
Long before Dubai transformed into an urban metropolis, the area now known as Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood was the epicenter of city life. Wander through the winding alleyways of this old town district and along the Dubai Creek to follow in the footsteps of Dubai’s early settlers.
Dubai is a uniquely modern and cosmopolitan city and the United Arab Emirates is home to families from all over the world with their own distinctive cultures. His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum saw the need to reach out and educate expats in the traditions and customs of the UAE, leading to the creation of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding.
Located in a beautifully restored wind tower house in this historical neighborhood of Bur Dubai, the center offers a range of activities, from tasting of traditional cuisine to conversations with local Emiratis. With its motto of “Open Doors, Open Minds,” all questions—no matter how sensitive—are welcomed and answered. Its aim is to make sure every visitor walks away with a greater understanding of Arabic culture, beliefs, lifestyles, and traditions.
I participated in a traditional Emirati family-style dining experience at the center seated on Bedouin-style carpets and pillows in the courtyard of the center’s beautiful merchant house, enjoying a selection of customary dishes while our host answered questions about life in the Emirate.
Dishes were prepared using age-old recipes preserving the traditions and customs of the Bedouin meal that started with spiced Arabic coffee and dates.
After our shared meal, we talked about the clothing of the Emirati people. Local Emirati people wear distinct clothing; we learned all about the traditional clothing of the UAE and the meaning and history behind it. We were invited to try the garments on—a Kandura with Keffiyeh head covering for a man and an Abaya & Hijab headscarf for women. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity!
Jumeirah Beach Walk
The best way to end a visit to Dubai is to stroll the waterfront along Jumeirah Beach, a 6-mile stretch of golden coastline along the Arabian Gulf—often referred to as “the golden mile.” This area is lined by some of the city’s most desirable villa accommodations and hotels and offers shopping, dining and strolling along the chic waterfront strip known as The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR).
Along the buzzing beachside boulevard, there are plenty of opportunities to satisfy your retail cravings with an array of shops, boutiques and pop-up markets where you can check out the stalls offering jewelry and food treats. Street entertainers and an open-air cinema add to the eclectic entertainment offerings that combine with the sand and beach activities.
So that is where you find me now, picturing my walk along the shore as the sun is waning in the west, watching the children romp and play in the surf as the sunset casts a brilliant golden glow against the sky.
Dubai didn’t just live up to its reputation… it completely exceeded my expectations.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary meals, accommodations, and tours for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.