Last month I booked a last minute trip to Dubai to reunite with a couple of dear friends. I remember feeling shocked at how safe, clean and glamorous Modern Dubai was when I first visited back in 2012 for business. Four years later, the famed “Vegas of the Middle East” has only evolved into an even shinier and ritzier desert metropolis.
I relived a few of the same experiences and embarked on many more new ones during my recent visit. Simply put, Dubai is a city dripping in luxury. No trip is complete without lots of R&R, self-pampering, fine dining and copious amounts of cocktail and wine-drinking.
Here are some of my highlights from Dubai.
Paying another visit to the Burj Khalifa
No trip to Dubai is complete without a visit to the Burj Khalifa. At over 2,716 feet (160 stories), it’s the tallest building in the world!
Dubai kind of reminds of the irritatingly perfect over-achiever in the classroom. The one who always gets straight A’s and is one-upping their peers. Dubai has won world record after world record: tallest building, biggest mall, most luxurious hotel, first indoor ski resort, and most recently, world’s longest painting…. These are just a few examples from Dubai’s long list of shiny achievements, and the city has zero plans to slow down.
Visually-speaking, not much has changed around the Burj Khalifa in the last four years. I noticed a couple of newer big screens at the base of the structure and a larger observation platform next to the fountain below.
The most noticeable difference was the development and construction a bit farther out from the Burj Khalifa. Here are a couple of 2012 photos from At the Top, the observation deck on the 124th floor.
And a couple more pictures of the structure’s exterior from 2016:
High Tea at At.mosphere
On my most recent trip, I enjoyed my first-ever high tea experience at the Burj Khalifa’s At.msophere lounge. My friend Ceyda is a high-tea veteran and she said the afternoon tea at At.mosphere was the best high tea she has had to date.
We kicked off tea-time with sparkling rosé instead of tea. I think being tipsy was the most appropriate way to enjoy a savory lunch and a tower of sweets. We finally drank tea at the end though. It was a bit hazy that day but the view and ambiance were on point.
Malls and Fountains
Next to the Burj Khalifa is the insanely touristy Dubai Mall which is the largest mall in the world. Next to the Dubai Mall is the Dubai Fountain which features the largest choreographed fountain show set in the world. Seriously, how many world records can one city break?!
The Dubai Fountain was designed by the same company who created the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas. There are several fountain shows throughout the day and many more in the evening. I think I had too high of expectations going in because I was left a bit disappointed by the show. The pre-dusk backdrop was gorgeous though.
The entrance of Dubai Mall.
There are many artistic fountains inside of the mall as well as a huge aquarium where can pay to dive and feed some of the underwater animals with a scenic backdrop of H&M and Guess.
My last day in the city, I walked through the Dubai Mall with my huge travelers backpack as I made a bee line for the luggage storage room. The plan was to go straight to the airport from the mall. Ceyda and I were chuckling about the awkwardness of it all – a young backpacker carrying a heavy pack with dirty sneakers dangling off, cruising past high-end shops Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Prada. Ha!
Dubai has an overabundance of malls. A quick wiki search shows that there are 70+ malls with 8 in the making. And remember – Dubai is not a country, it’s a city – one emirate of seven in the country of the United Arab Emirates. To have that many malls in one city is excessive. I have only visited a few, one of the most memorable being the mall with the 1.2km indoor ski slope.
It seems like every “Top Things to do in Dubai” article lists the Desert Safari as an absolute must. I think this may be a fun activity for families with kids, but it certainly wasn’t a “must-do” in my book. There are a handful of tour companies offering desert safaris, but from what I can gather, the experience is pretty comparable. So what did it entail? Our tour vendor picked us up in the late afternoon and drove us to the desert for a jerky, bumpy ride through the dunes.
We stopped to take pictures of the sunset and jumped around a little.
Next we drove to a “campsite” for a buffet dinner and a dance performance. The perimeter of the campsite was lined with a bunch of souvenir booths, henna tattoo stations and Middle Eastern cosplay photo sets. Before the food and dancing began, we had the opportunity to ride a camel along a 15-20 foot stretch (it was mostly a photo opp), but surprisingly, the minute-long ride was just long enough of me. The camel was just so tall that the boarding and de-boarding process was a pinch too heart-pumping.
From pick-up to drop-off, the commitment is about 5-6 hours. I shared the experience with fantastic friends and don’t regret doing it but I wasn’t overly impressed and wouldn’t do it again.
I’ll tell you something I would do again though – a culinary tour of Old Dubai!
Middle Eastern Food Tour in Old Dubai
Ceyda found and booked this tour for us and it ended up being such a highlight! Sisters and Dubai locals Arva and Farida are the creators and owners of Frying Pan Adventures. Arva was our guide and she took us on a 4-hour “Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage” through Old Dubai.
The highlights included a fast food spot where I consumed the most delicious falafel and hummus I have possibly ever eaten.
A private viewing of a chef preparing kunafah in his back kitchen. Kunafah (or künefe in Turkish) is a melted, gooey cheese pastry soaked in syrup and dripping in oil. I had seconds and then went back again for thirds.
An Emirati restaurant where we ate seated on the floor and used only our bare hands as utensils.
And the best of the best – a crazy-refershing, exotic dessert of saffron ice cream paired with crispy noodles!
The key to a successful experience is to start the tour with a completely empty stomach and pace yourself throughout, a feat much easier said than done because there is so much food to be had and it’s all so good! This tour was a great way to experience the grittier, more authentic and older Dubai, a huge departure from the indulgent and luxurious Dubai many have come to known. And you receive a certificate of completion at the end.
Souks aka Markets/Bazaars
The other popular activity in Old Dubai is a stroll through the Spice and Gold Souks. It’s touristy and overwhelming, but it’s a different and recommendable experience for first-time visitors. The overwhelming part has less to do with the quantity of people or wide selection of goods, but rather the level of hassling and nagging you must endure from persistent vendors trying to sell designer bags or shoes or whatever else.
I loved all the mannequins dressed in vibrant local clothing.
And the gold. I am gold > silver any day. I felt like I was going to topple over just by imaging the weight of these ornate gold necklaces and bibs.
Dining at Al Mahara at the Burj Al Arab Hotel
One of the fanciest restaurants i have ever eaten at was for a business dinner at the famous Burj Al Arab Hotel. Al Marhara translates to “the oyster shell” in Arabic and is a 5-star underground seafood restaurant walled with impressive, colorful aquariums. You can watch beautiful sea creatures swim around you as you dine on their underwater family and friends! But in all seriousness, this restaurant is beyond gorgeous with it’s top-notch decor and impeccable service. I would expect no less because eating here comes at a high price – a whopping $300-500/person! Far from cheap but if the opportunity presents itself in the form of a client dinner on the company’s dime or a rich boyfriend wishing to impress you, carpe diem. Seize the day!
Discovering Bateel Dates
Thank god Bateel shops are everywhere in Dubai because once I ate my first Bateel date, I purchased like three dozen more. Bateel sells dates stuffed with almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts, ginger, chocolate. They have soft dates, hard dates, sweet dates and really sweet dates, frozen dates, room-temperature dates… Whoever knew there could be so many varieties and forms of dates!?
Dubai Miracle Garden
There isn’t much else to do nearby and the garden doesn’t offer much shade, but if you love flowers or need a pop of color in your life, the Dubai Miracle Garden could be a good choice. It’s kind of like a Legoland for flowers. Nice photo opps.
The Marina and Strolling JBR
My friend Eren lives in the Dubai Marina. The cover photo of this blog post features the night view from his Dubai apartment. Here’s the daytime view from his crib.
And another evening shot while walking around the perimeter of the marina, right outside of his apartment.
I’m not going to lie – I am slightly jealous of Eren’s life. The Dubai Marina is beautiful and I would love to have an apartment with a stunning view, a beautiful gym and an infinity pool. In moments like these, I have to remind myself that I quit my job to travel the world. Being an (f)unemployed globetrotter is not a bad life either.
5 minutes away from the Dubai Marina is a waterfront shopping and dining boulevard called The Walk at the Jumeirah Beach Residences, commonly known as JBR.
It’s a great place to walk around, window-shop and grab coffee and a few dates from Bateel.
Brunch just may be the best kind of meal. You get to sleep in late, eat breakfast AND lunch foods, day drink with friends and go to bed early. I especially like the last bit because I think there is an 80-something year old grandmother living in my twenty-something year old body. Anyhow, Dubai is known for throwing great weekend brunches, an especially popular activity among the expat community. I have only experienced one Dubai Brunch at West 14th Steakhouse and it was amazing, but there are loads of famous spots. Important to remember weekends in Dubai are Fridays and Saturdays!
Hitting the Beach
The daytime temperatures in Dubai are scary hot. Most people seek refuge in an air-conditioned mall or restaurant, a pool or frying at the beach. During my last trip, I partied on the Palm at the famous Nasimi Beach Club. This time, Ceyda and I got our tan on at the Waldorf Astoria’s private beach on the Palm. While Dubai’s beaches are not anywhere comparable to those in places like Thailand, they aren’t half bad either.