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Dubai – 13 travel tips for the city of superlatives

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“Dubai – you either love it or you hate it” is how a colleague of mine summed up the city for me. Dubai hadn’t really appealed to me until then, so I decided to find out for myself if the city would be my cup of tea.

So let’s go! Dubai, here we come!

Dubai is the city of superlatives. Here, everything is just a bit taller, bigger, and more luxurious than in any other metropolis.

Here I share my highlights with you:

  1. Burj Khalifa – The tallest tower in the world
  2. Dubai Mall – Shopping mall of superlatives
  3. Dubai Fountain – Fountain that dances to music
  4. Palm island “The Palm”
  5. Burj Al Arab
  6. Souk Madinat Jumeirah
  7. Textile souk in Bur Dubai old town
  8. The Frame – the biggest picture frame in the world
  9. Marina Dubai und Marina Walk
  10. The Walk – Jumeirah Beach Residence
  11. Dubai golf courses
  12. Side trip to the desert
  13. Dubai vs. Abu Dhabi

In addition, the list is followed by practical travel tips for a round trip Dubai – Abu Dhabi with an excursion into the desert.

One thing I learned is that Dubai is definitely a far-out city of extremes. First-time visitors to this master-planned city can’t help being almost overwhelmed by all the impressions that come at them.

Dubai Skyline with Burj Khalifa and Emirates Towers at sunset

Dubai skyline with Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the Emirates Twin Towers (right) at sunset.

Dubai breaks a few records: it boasts the world’s highest building, biggest shopping mall, and what feels like the highest density of luxury wheels from Rolls Royce through Ferrari to Lamborghini. They tool around town there like the VWs and Toyotas back home :-).

What’s more, I have never seen so many construction cranes as in Dubai. They make the city look like one vast construction site: here a new high rise, there a completely new city district.

Few major urban centers change as quickly as Dubai. Add to this that EXPO 2020 is already omnipresent.

Construction cranes by Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Construction cranes by Burj Khalifa in Dubai

New high rise by the Dubai Marina

New high rise by the Dubai Marina

I actually prefer natural, authentic vacation destinations; nevertheless, I confess that I ended up being fascinated by the city.

1. Burj Khalifa — (still) the tallest tower in the world

A visit to the 828-meter tall Burj Khalifa, still the current title holder of world’s tallest building, is part of the must-see program for a Dubai trip.

That said, Dubai is already working on its next skyscraper, as it battles to hold on to its title of having the tallest building in the world. It’s called Dubai Creek Tower, designed by the Spanish-Swiss architect and civil engineer Santiago Calatrava, and is slated to open in November with EXPO 2020.

But, back to the Burj Khalifa. You’ll find observation platforms on both the 124th and 125th as well as the 148th floor with sweeping 360-degree panoramic views.

The view from Burj Khalifa

The view from Burj Khalifa

Urban landscape view from Burj Khalifa

Urban landscape view from Burj Khalifa

Locals also like to visit Burj Khalifa for the view

Locals also like to visit Burj Khalifa for the view

Selfie mania on Burj Khalifa

Selfie mania on Burj Khalifa

The view from the 124th or 125th floor (at 450 meters) is already a peak experience – but it comes at peak expense.

You will need to plunk down between 40 and 100 Swiss francs per person – depending on the time of day (sunset comes with an added premium) and if you want to avoid the queue by purchasing a quick-admission ticket (In our case, because the line for a November sunset was short, it wasn’t worth the additional 30 francs).

Tickets for the Sky Lounge on the 148th floor will set you about 100 francs. Several of the reviews I read said that the extra height doesn’t add all that much.

In any event, I highly recommend getting the ticket in advance online – for example, from GetYourGuide. You’ll save the wait time that way.

Moreover, paying for admission online is cheaper than buying the ticket on site.

Allow roughly 60 – 90 minutes for your visit to the Burj Khalifa.

You enter the Burj Khalifa from the Dubai Mall – our next Dubai superlative.

Back to the highlights list

2. Dubai Mall

This is far and away the biggest mall in the world, with endless shopping, entertainment, and leisure options.

But, it’s much more than just a shopping mall. It’s a whole world of its own!

On the mall’s 1.1 million square meters (!), you’ll find over 1,200 stores, more than 100 places to eat, a giant aquarium, an artificial ice rink, a water slide and a multiplex movie theater.

If it’s hard to picture what 1.1. million square meters look like: it’s equivalent to roughly 200 soccer pitches.

There’s nothing more I can say other than “Shop till you drop”!

Dubai Mall

Shop till you drop in Dubai Mall

Entrance to the Dubai Mall aquarium

Entrance to the Dubai Mall aquarium

Creatures of the Dubai Mall aquarium

Creatures of the Dubai Mall aquarium

Waterfall in the Dubai Mall

Waterfall in the Dubai Mall

The Mall of the Emirates is another large shopping center in Dubai.

It is home to a ontroversial ski hall: While the thermometer tops 104 degrees outside, inside you could hit the ski slopes. Ecological madness?

Better believe it! There’s plenty of that too in Dubai. We, at all events, gave the ski hall the cold shoulder.

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3. Dubai Fountain

Right next to the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa comes the next highlight: the 275-meter long Dubai Fountain

The fountain’s water jets in Dubai Lake put on a water, light, and music show, where the water jets’ spray keeps time with the music and shoots up to 150 meters into the air.

Naturally, this too is a world record!

Dubai Fountain near the Burj Khalifa

Dubai Fountain near the Burj Khalifa

Dubai Mall by night

Dubai Mall by night

Dubai Mall on Burj Khalifa Lake

Dubai Mall on Burj Khalifa Lake

This spectacle with the Burj Khalifa as backdrop takes place daily at 13:00 and 13:30 and every half hour between 18:00 and 23:00.

Depending on the length of the accompanying tune, the spectacle lasts between two and four minutes. The music changes every 30 minutes, as does the fountain show.

A sizable crowd gathers all around the water fountain every time. So, if you’re eager to find a good photo spot, arrive early.

A small tip: You can get a perfect view of the water-and-light show from the Apple store’s terrace in the Dubai Mall. But by all means, get there 10-15 minutes before show start to stake out a spot.

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4. Palm island “The Palm”

The Palm and “The World” and other artificial islands are more of Dubai’s far-out projects.

Located on what is also called Palm Jumeirah Island are a few luxury hotels. Visually the most spectacular of all is the Atlantis the Palm and the aqua park Aquaventure Dubai that belongs to it.

Although I’d say at least one visit to The Palm would be worth “losing your cool”, we ourselves would not book a hotel on the island. Unless you you’re only interested in a beach holiday.

At peak times, the traffic on The Palm’s “stem” is really very heavy and getting back to the city will take a long time.

Also, the room rates here are in the upper price category.

Atlantis The Palm Hotel Dubai

Atlantis The Palm Hotel Dubai

Lobby of the W design hotel on The Palm Dubai

Lobby of the W design hotel on The Palm Dubai

Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in the distance

Katja on The Palm Dubai with Dubai City and the Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in the distance

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5. Burj Al Arab – the hotel with the sail

The Burj Al Arab is Dubai’s symbol, and rightly so: it’s a genuine eye catcher. I can’t begin to imagine the number of photos that have been taken of the 321-meter high sail…

The hotel with the sail is not only one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels in the world but also one of the tallest (how could it be otherwise).

You can take some money shots of the Burj al Arab from Jumeirah Beach or from the new Souk Madinat Jumeirah.

As it happens, you can’t just simply stroll into the hotel. If you want to see the inside, it takes purchasing a cocktail or afternoon tea service in the Skyview Bar.

But, just as with the hotel rooms, this experience does not come cheap! For that sort of package, you can easily wind up shelling out 170 francs per person.

Burj Al Arab Hotel Dubai

Burj Al Arab Hotel viewed from The Palm

Burj Al Arab Dubai

And here is the view of Burj Al Arab from the new Souk Madinat Jumeirah

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6. Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Souks are what they call markets in the Arab world. This one near Madinat Jumeirah belongs to the hotel of the same name.

Besides the typical souvenirs, here you’ll also find antiques, handicrafts, jewelry, clothes and Middle Eastern groceries.

The Madinat was laid out as small Arab-style lagoon city. Incidentally, you have a cool photography spot with a view of the Burj Al Arab at the souk’s far end.

Clothing shops in the new souk

Clothing shops in the new souk

Middle Eastern lighting in Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Middle Eastern lighting in Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Burj Al Arab Hotel Dubai

Burj Al Arab Hotel viewed from the souk at Madinat Jumeirah

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7. Textile souk in Bur Dubai old town

The toing and froing at the textile souk in Dubai’s old town are a bit less on the touristic side.

That said, the sales people here are also more pushy and continually try to entice you into their shops.

As is true in every Arab market place: bargaining is mandatory!

But really, I’m hard pressed to bargain for a beach cover-up costing all of 30 dirhams (just about 8 francs)

Old textile souk in Dubai

Old textile souk in Dubai

Old Souk in Dubai

Ali wants to sell Walter a Pakistani winter cap (nooo!)

In case you still don’t have your fill of markets yet, visit the gold and spices souk on the opposite side of Dubai Creek. The water taxi taking you across costs all of one dirham, that’s about 25 cents.

Dubai Creek canal by the old textile souk

Dubai Creek canal by the old textile souk

Dubai Creek

Boat landing by the spice souk on the canal’s other side

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8. The Frame – the world’s largest picture frame

Between the new and the old Dubai, a golden picture frame rears into the sky. From a glassed-in bridge atop it at 150 meters above the ground you can take in all of the city.

The 93-meter long bridge forming the crosspiece that connects the two vertical sides of the frame has a glass floor.

If you are prone to acrophobia, better just admire this work of art from a distance ;-)

The Frame Dubai

The Frame – the largest picture frame in the world

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9. Marina Dubai and Marina Walk

Actually, the Dubai Marina is Dubai’s yacht harbor. But it is also a city district – with its own skyline.

It is an unbelievably impressive skyline that can very well hold its own against mega-city skylines. No wonder Roger Federer chose his apartment here…

Here, along a man-made canal, one skyscraper after another lines up. And more are being added! still under construction.

The lively canal-side Marina Walk lets you stroll past hotels, moored yachts, restaurants, cafes and shops.

Dubai Marina by night

Residential high rises and hotels of The Residences at Marina Gate

Dubai Marina at night

High rises of the Dubai Marina at night

Sunrise with Dubai Marina

Sunrise with Dubai Marina

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10. The Walk – Jumeirah Beach Residence

Right around the corner of Dubai Marina lies the Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). The JBR beach is among the most popular in Dubai because of its immense The Walk promenade.

The trendy beach promenade is ideal for some relaxed shopping, dining, and just dawdling.

Another attraction are the open air markets where they peddle jewelry, street food and household goods.

The beach by Jumeirah Beach Residence

The beach by Jumeirah Beach Residence

Cabanas along JBR Walk

Cabanas along JBR Walk

The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence

The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence

The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence

Nighttime reflections on The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence

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11. Dubai’s golf courses

Dubai is a popular destination for golfers in winter because of the balmy temperatures and plenty of courses to choose from.

The most famous club is Dubai Creek Golf with its iconic club house.

Dubai Creek golf course and clubhouse

Dubai Creek golf course and clubhouse

Club house at the Dubai Creek golf course

Club house at the Dubai Creek golf course

Dubai Creek golf course with seaplane

Dubai Creek golf course with seaplane

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12. Desert excursion

As long as you are visiting the desert city Dubai, you really owe it to yourself to venture into some actual empty desert.

Walter for while had been bending my ear about the Al Maha Desert Camp in the Luxury Collection by Marriot.

But the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, a desert fort south of Abu Dhabi, caught my eye instead.

Qasr Al Sarab Hotel

Alluring hotel entrance

Two nights at the Qasr Al Sarab cost a pretty penny, but the side trip really was worth it. Here is Walter’s report on our desert experience. Note: includes video of a huge sandstorm

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13. Comparing Dubai with Abu Dhabi

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are located just a 90-minute drive apart.

If you have time during your Dubai stay, I recommend a side trip to the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Because even though Abu Dhabi is not quite as big and crazy, it also has much to offer.

I was most impressed by Abu Dhabi’s gigantic Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Abu Dhabi's Scheikh Zayid Mosque

Abu Dhabi’s Scheikh Zayid Mosque

Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayid Mosque at night

Look here for my Abu Dhabi travelogue.

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My bottom line for Dubai

I did not fall in love with Dubai. It comes up just a bit short in the charm department…but, that said, the city definitely impressed me – and there is a kind of fascination to staying in this slightly crazy but cool city.

The bottom line: for me, a short visit to Dubai absolutely recommendable.

I love Dubai

I love Dubai

We spent three days in Dubai and combined our stay with a drive to Abu Dhabi and an excursion into the desert (click the link for our report).

Riding camels in the Liwa desert

Riding camels in the Liwa desert

Have you ever been to Dubai? How did you like it? Let us know…

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Practical travel tips for Dubai

Flying to Dubai

Swiss and Emirates both operate direct flights from Zurich to Dubai. We chose Emirates because its flight schedule suited us better (Swiss has a red-eye return flight to Zurich). Zurich-Dubai flight time is about a 6.5 hours.

It is fitting that Emirates flies you to Dubai, the city of superlatives, in the Airbus A380, currently the world’s largest passenger jet. It will deliver you to the new Terminal 3.

Getting around in Dubai

Moving around Dubai is best done by rented car or taxi. The latter are really cheap, because of the low pay for guest workers and low gas prices.

That’s because gas is not taxed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Gas sells for around 45 cents per liter (about $1.70/gallon). A real bargain compared to our prices.

That said, we however went for a rental car, even if driving on the six-lane freeway though the city is not always as relaxed as in the more sedate city traffic in Muscat.

But, a car makes getting to the different neighborhoods easiest in the spread-out city, for example the Dubai Marina, which is a 20-minute drive from the Burj Khalifa on an eight-lane freeway.

All the relevant traffic signs are in Arabic and English.

Freeways through Dubai

Freeways through Dubai

Taxis on the freeway in Dubai

Taxis on the freeway in Dubai

Public transportation, such as the metro and tram are not yet well-developed. And as for walking…the city is simply toooo spread out! Besides, there are hardly any sidewalks.

Hop On, Hop Off

To get a good overview of the city, we recommend the Hop-On/Hop-Off-Bus. In Dubai they even have three lines that run to the various city hot spots.

Check here for details and fares:

For additional valuable pointers for your trip, check out our country page on the United Arab Emirates .

And, in closing a little word of warning: Dubai is not a cheap date.

Aside from the taxi fares, prices are very high for meals, hotel rooms, and admission to attractions, comparable to Swiss prices.

Alcohol is even (more) expensive. For Muslims, drinking alcohol is against their religion. Consuming alcoholic beverages in public is even prohibited.

To even buy alcohol requires getting a license. Of course, it’s offered in all the hotels. But, again, not that cheap. In addition, keep in mind that blood alcohol limit is zero for drivers!

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About Author

Katja is travelmemo.com’s destination research and booking expert. She always has the upper hand on itineraries and travel details. When not on the road, Katja is a corporate communications manager.

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