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The Disneyland of the Desert
When people ask me what it’s like to live in Dubai, I usually answer with “Like visiting an adult Disneyland version on coke” (I’ve never done coke but this is how I imagine it to be).
The city is loud, flashy, glittery, over the top and shows off whenever possible. She’s hungry, she’s ambitious and wants a spot at the table.
Living here can be uplifting and exhausting. It seems like Dubai is always competing with others without them even knowing about the competition.
As a result, Dubai holds close to 100 world records. Some are obvious like the world’s tallest building, the only 7-star hotel in the world, a freaking skiing hall in the middle of the desert, man-made islands, largest vertical maze and other curiosities no one outside of Dubai really cares about.
The city tries hard to proof that she’s better than other big (and way older) cities. Apart from having bred a mix of worldly, truly open-minded and great people of cultural diversity, others feel entitled for no reason.
From Tiny Village to Mega City
So here a couple of details about this weird and crazy city I call home currently:
Dubai borders upon the biggest desert in the world – Rub’ al-Khali, “The Empty Quarter”.
Until the mid-60s, the city was a fishermen’s village, thriving on a much smaller with not much else but lots of sand.
Then there was the oil and – pouf – all of a sudden tons of money, gold and power (ok that was very very summarized). Today, the expansion is still insane, hotels, malls and residential towers grow into the sky with lightning speed, and I really have no clue who should live in all these buildings one day.
They say half of the worlds’ cranes are used in Dubai. That’s not true and even during peak construction times was never more than 2% (lol).
But construction is part of the cityscape, there’s always some half finished structure and it’s always noisy. I’ve never seen so many skyscrapers in my entire life and since I live here, no other skyline is as impressive as the one I see every day.
It’s an ever growing and ever changing place, that can be be annoying and awesome at the same time.
How’s Everyday Life For Me as a Woman?
Dubai is the safest and cleanest city I’ve ever seen. At least the areas, that need to shine for the tourists and western expats are squeaky clean.
Why is it so safe? Because most people are afraid of the consequences should they try to steal something.
They’d lose their visa, put into jail, get kicked out of the country afterwards and banned for a lifetime, therefore losing the possibility of providing for their family back home and probably won’t ever find a job again, that paid so well (tax-free!). Is stealing worth all that?
I’ve forgotten jewelry at a nail salon and lost wallets in taxis – and got everything back a few hours later, without anything missing.
I’ll definitely miss this “forced safety” one day in the future, when I’ll move somewhere else.
Living here is like being in a bubble, where everything is wonderful and pretty all the time. So you need to immerse yourself into the real world every now and then (aka hop on a flight and travel around) to be reminded that the nice and clean Dubai life ain’t reality.
I get often asked, what life for me as a woman is like in Dubai. I don’t need to wear a hijab or any other traditional clothing just because I’m a woman.
Yes, local man speak to me, but not every local man will shake my hand (it’s a muslim thing and they will touch their heart instead to greet me – they don’t distinguish between muslim and non-muslim btw and women do the same vice versa).
I’ve never felt inferior living here and many local women have successful careers in the private and public sector.
But Dubai is an exception when it comes to gender questions and I won’t negate the great inequalities between men and women in the Middle Eastern region in general and even in parts of Dubai hidden from the public.
If you fancy coming for a visit, make sure to book your stay in between November and March, otherwise you will spend a lot of time inside of malls (it gets up to 50° C in the summer and we avoid being outside for more than 2 minutes).
Here’s a summary of things to do in Dubai I always recommend one should explore and see when here for the first time.
My Top 13 Things to Do in Dubai
Despite living in Dubai for a couple of years now, I still love watching the dancing fountains in Downtown Dubai, next to the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. They start at 18:00 every half hour until 23:00 – 7 days a week.
Usually either a western or Arabic pop song accompany the fountains and the show lasts for a few minutes. For the perfect view avoid the masses standing next to the fountains and on the bridge leading to Souk al Bahar.
Either be in one of the restaurants on the first floor of Souk al Bahar close by, on the balcony of the Apple store, by the massive windowfront inside the NIKE store or walk away from the masses towards Burj Khalifa to have a fantastic view.
You’re ok with watching them during the day? The fountains play three times after noon in-between 13:00 and 14:00. That’s a nice low-hanging fruit for sightseeing, especially during the week.
There won’t be the masses of people you normally encounter in the evening. Worst time: Evening hours on a weekend. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
Burj Khalifa – At the Top
Book online beforehand, since it’s much cheaper than buying a ticket right before you wanna go up. You’ll be able to choose a time slot; try to get there an hour before sunset to catch great light for pictures.
Go for level 124/125, these are completely fine. Try to avoid dusty or cloudy days (yep we have these in Dubai) and check your weather app before booking.
Otherwise you won’t see very far and the experience is not as great as it could be. Why not book level 148? Level 148 costs more than double and the experience is just not worth it (other than being around less people and getting some overpriced snacks).
Once you’re higher than any other building around you, you loose your sense of height, so these 20ish floors don’t make as much of a difference, when looking outside.
The Burj Khalifa entrance is on the lower ground floor within Dubai Mall and you should make sure to be there about 15-20 minutes before your time slot begins. There will be queuing and security checks (and annoying + rather costly photo opportunities no one really needs).
If you don’t have time to visit Burj Khalifa, don’t worry. It’s a nice experience but you can always do it during your next visit.
And the nicest thing about that building is anyway to look AT it rather than being IN it.
Desert Tour with Platinum Heritage
One thing I REALLY recommend everyone to do: Visit the desert! It’s one of the most humbling experiences ever!
You stand on a dune and no matter where you look, there’s sand. Orange and yellow as far as the eye can reach. It’s part of natures’ marvels and absolutely puts things in perspective again.
Another nice thing about the desert: It’s as quiet as standing on top of a mountain or chilling by a calm lake. The perfect antidote to the buzzing and hectic city life.
There’s a great company called Platinum Heritage. They offer amazing authentic and top quality desert tours (most of the other companies offer super tacky and touristy stuff). Their experiences are not cheap but well worth it.
Only got limited time to cover the whole city? Book a 15 minute helicopter ride and get a bird’s eye view on Dubai’s major sightseeing spots!
It’s by far not as expensive as I expected and an amazing and unique experience – that is if you’re not helicopter riding all the time already 😉
Are you into arts and crafts? You’ll love the Ripe Market! It’s a market with little stalls where residents sell their handmade products. You’ll find anything from homemade soap, jewelry, accessories like handbags or even baby clothes.
No one will starve there with lots of food trucks and stalls with little treats to choose from. And yes, you can also get your organic veggies and fruits for the week there. It’s perfect for families or to hang out with friends for a bit.
The main event happens during winter months each Friday, but there are smaller Ripe market pop ups during the week in different locations. Best to check their website.
Want to see a different side of Dubai? Head over to Alserkal Avenue. There you’ll find art galleries, small furniture stores, unique design shops and also a few options to not get hangry ;))
And not to forget, located there as well: if you’re keen on a private chef’s table, my hands-down favorite spot for that in Dubai is INKED.
They host a few super creative and innovative events each month, that require you to pre-book online, but you can also always book a completely private evening there. They host their chef’s table for up to 6 people and it’s such an intimate and beautiful experience with amazing food by rockstar chefs!
Art Galleries in DIFC
For a little less edgy art, check out DIFC. That’s Dubai’s Finance Centre and home to many corporate offices (banks, insurances, legal offices, consulting industry etc.).
You’ll need souvenirs to bring back home, won’t you? Sure you could run to the very authentic souks and be stressed out after 5 minutes or you could visit Souk Madinat, a stunning place next to the only 7-star hotel in the world, the Burj al Arab.
Souk Madinat is styled like a historic oriental marketplace, has a lot of big and small shops for all the souvenir shopping you need to do, and great restaurants. In the less hot months, you can sit outside by the waterfront and watch the Burj al Arab during sunset.
Souk Madinat is also part of the Madinat Jumeirah area, which consists of 4 of the best hotels of the Jumeirah hotel chain offering amazing foodie experiences and some cool bar experiences. It’s also home to my favorite wellness spot, the Talise Spa.
Do you like quirky and whimsical spots? The Courtyard is very different than anything you’ll find in Dubai. It’s very green for starters. This small place has a few little shops where you’ll find handmade accessories and unique clothes.
It’s also home to my new favorite hangout spot for a late weekend lunch or a laidback coffee with friends, Cassette DXB.
What is Cassette DXB? A beautifully put together place for a chilled and healthy lunch or late breakfast. The most impressive part (apart from the cute and minimalistic design) when it comes to interiors is the sound proof ceiling.
Despite quite loud background music, you can talk to your friend in a normal voice and understand each other. I wish more places would implement that kind of detail when designing their interior!
What to eat: No-carb Benedict
What to drink: Lucuma Milkshake
La Petite Maison
Wanna have a classy dinner date with your partner? Check out La Petite Maison in bustling DIFC. It’s been in Dubai forever (which is hard considering restaurants pop up everyday and close only a few weeks later) and a go-to favorite of mine for date nights or drinks with friends.
The service is exceptional, the quality of the food as well and the atmosphere is kind of homey yet elegant.
What to eat: Anything. Whatever you choose, it’ll be exceptional!
What to drink: Tomatillo (the BEST drink I had in Dubai so far!)
Bar at Zuma
Also an amazing place to have dinner (choose the lounge over the normal restaurant) but I love their bar. I recommend observing people having a drink after work (or for some before work) and hanging out with friends there.
I usually marvel at the bartenders creating round ice cubes out of a huge junk of ice with a pick.
The Penthouse – FIVE Palm
This bar offers awesome views towards Dubai Marina. It’s situated on the trunk of the Palm in the FIVE Hotel on their rooftop. It can get a bit windy so have a scarf, pashmina or jacket handy.
In case you get hungry while drinking, they also offer light bits and bites to eat.
Which Souvenirs Should You Take With You?
- Dates stuffed with nuts. My favorites are from Cafe Bateel (loads of shops in Dubai) and stuffed with Macadamia nuts.
- Yemeni honey. Not exactly from Dubai, but they sell it here and it’s the best damn honey ever that cures kind of everything.
- Orange sand from the desert (that you got yourself obviously and didn’t buy at the mall).
- If you got a little more space: An oriental lamp.
Things to Keep in Mind:
You are visiting a muslim country and there are things you shouldn’t do. Either out of respect or because you could end up in jail.
1. Dress appropriately.
Dubai is much less conservative in general than her neighbors Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. The uber short pants, where everyone can see your butt cheeks? Leave them at home. Or use them (only!) at the beach.
This rule doesn’t apply to nightlife activities. As seen on a whole lot of British expats and tourists, apparently the less fabric, the better. Sure, there’s always the question about dignity etc. but that’s a whole different story.
2. Public display of affection.
Avoid where possible. Don’t kiss in public, don’t hold hands in public, don’t rub your bodies against each other.
That’s considered haram (Arabic for “bad, dirty”) and if you’re unlucky, it could even get you into jail. Apparently, it’s not much fun there.
That’s a tricky one. Officially, alcohol is not allowed. You’re not able to buy alcohol in supermarkets or similar. However, bars and restaurants which are part of hospitality centers like hotels can get a license (which I heard is very expensive) and serve alcohol.
You can consume alcoholic beverages there (which will cost you a pretty dime or two), BUT you’re not allowed to wander around intoxicated and behave like a dick. Otherwise: Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
So better get your shit together until you arrive at your hotel. I’ve often heard that taxi drivers drop super wasted and sleeping peeps off at the next police station.
4. Be respectful.
People are different no matter where you go in the world. It’s more apparent in some locations than in others. Dubai is the wildest melting pot I’ve ever seen and I love it.
So many different cultures and religions living together (mostly) peacefully and calm.
Here’s my advice: Live and let live. Yes, you will see locals wearing traditional clothes.
Yes, you will see women that are completely covered standing right next to someone like me, who runs around in ripped jeans, hoodie and loose hair.
You will see unfathomable rich people and very poor people sometimes sitting in the same corner coffeeshop.
Don’t play dress-up with the local traditional clothes. You’ll be considered ignorant and a dumbass by locals and expats alike (this advice is targeted towards MEN).
For the greatest travel experience ever, hear me out:
This is not a zoo, don’t stare at people who look different than you, don’t whisper behind their backs, don’t point at them (wtf?), don’t judge, especially without knowing their background story.
Be humble. It’s easy to condemn someone and their culture, if you feel superior (for no reason).
Instead, try getting to know the person, smile at them, start a conversation. Most people are nice and kind. We often are more similar than we imagine – despite speaking a different language, different skin tone, hair color, clothes and food preferences.
Have you ever been to Dubai? What’s your favorite thing to do here?
Never stop exploring and much love!
P.S.: This guide gets updated frequently!