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What its Like in Dubai
Dubai is many things to many people. To an American Business Executive, this glittering city might seem like more of a fun-filled playground than to the South Asian temporary worker who built his building or the SouthEast Asian maid that cleans his apartment. Now that all those stereotypes are out of the way, here’s a look at what it will probably be like for the average independent budget traveler visiting the United Arab Emirates.
On the Streets
Dubai originated as a small but important port for the Gulf region, and until the discovery of oil in 1966 remained relatively small. Like many oil dependant nations, though, growth since then has focused largely on the automobile and the layout of the city very much reflects this. Central areas are highly walkable, but outside of here sidewalks disappear and pedestrian bridges across major roads can be miles apart.
Deira and Bur Dubai are good areas to experience Dubai at street level, however, and the Dubai Creek cutting between them makes for scenic views and the mix of cultures represented in stores and languages spoken is fascinating. In the Bastakia district nearby, surviving traditional makes for a really nice area to wander around as well. Strong legal penalties also mean petty crime is very low in the Emirates, so spend some time exploring at night when the heat is gone and the buildings along the Creek have all lit up.
To explore other parts of the city, take the Metro where possible and cabs the rest of the way. In the summer especially walking even a couple of blocks along streets with no shade can leave you hurting from the heat, and for short trips taxis are as cheap as 10 AED for a few kilometers. Just make sure to avoid main roads during rush hour.
Dubai has food from all over the world, whether you’re looking for American fast food or fine French dining. Generally foods from neighboring countries like Iran, the Gulf States, and India can be found for relatively cheap. Many options exist beyond this, from Canadian coffee joints to beachfront Mediterranean restaurants, but they come at a price. The one kitchen that can be surprisingly difficult to find is local food: Emirate cuisine. Those few options that do exist seem to be located exclusively in Dubai’s many shopping centers. If you really want to check one out, try Milas at the Dubai Mall. (One important consideration for dining in Dubai is that alcohol is generally restricted to hotels and their restaurants/bars. If you’re hoping for a boozy meal here, look there and expect to spend for the privilege.)
Travel expenses in Dubai can hit a far wider range than most destinations, with every level available from ‘7 Star Hotel’ to true flophouses. On a comfortable backpacker budget expect around $20 per night on accommodation, $30 for food, and a few dollars per day for public transport. Tourism can be free or really expensive, depending on what you want to do in Dubai. Know that your spending could vary up or down from these estimates, but this makes a good starting point for planning.
It should be well known at this point, but is worth reiterating that despite being tolerant of other faiths Dubai is still a Shariah state. Public drunkenness and public displays of affection are a bad idea here.
On the positive side, Dubai is unusually multicultural. Immigrants from all over the world come to Dubai to seek their fortunes, and this cultural mix is easily the most interesting thing about the city. English is also the de facto working language among most of the residents of Dubai, particularly any whose work is connected to the tourism industry. Make time to strike up a conversation, and you’ll often find that the average resident of Dubai has any number of interesting stories to tell.
The big sites in Dubai are truly BIG. Burj Khalifa holds several world records for height. When completed, the Palm Deira will be the largest man-made island in the world (projected to be bigger than Paris). It already holds the world record for largest fireworks display from New Years Eve 2013/14. The list goes on, and these superlatives are part of the draw that brings so many visitors to the city. Beyond these, the glimpses of an older Dubai are also worth exploring. Small museums provide insight into the history of the Emirate, and the markets (locally known as souks) are atmospheric and especially photogenic for travelers without much experience in the Middle East. Try to focus each day on one area of the city, for the most enjoyment. Dubai Marina, the Jumeirah area, and Bur Dubai/ Deira all have interesting sites but the distance between them makes visiting more than one or two in a day somewhat inefficient.
Planning a trip to the UAE? Make sure to read up on How To Save Money In Dubai.