Backpacker Guide to Dubai

I have had the pleasure of routinely traveling through Dubai since 2002 and also lived / worked there for much of 2011, so I have quite a bit of experience with the city. Unfortunately, even though I have spent a lot of time in Dubai, I have only scratched the surface of all that the city has to offer. I have to thank all of my friends in Dubai for exposing me to the wonderful places that are discussed in this post, as I may have never discovered them on my own.

View from Emirates Towers Hotel

View from Emirates Towers Hotel

Dubai has emerged as a world renowned city for tourism and business. Although Dubai’s economy was originally built on the oil industry, it has diversified so that the city’s main revenues are now from tourism, real estate, and financial services. Dubai has also attracted world attention through many large innovative construction projects and sporting events. Unfortunately, this attention has also highlighted the many human rights and labour  issues concerning Dubai’s largely South Asian workforce – almost half the population of Dubai is comprised of Indians. I must admit that in my first years of visiting Dubai I was quite put off by the income disparity and ‘slave labour’ that was being used to build the city. In those years, I called Dubai the ‘City of Fake Smiles’ since workers were clearly working under horrendous conditions, but still had to put on a brave face or risk losing their jobs or being deported. Thankfully, the 2008 Financial Crises has seemed to fix a lot of these issues as it forced the red hot construction industry to slow down to a sustainable level where better work and living conditions could be achieved.

Accommodation

Unfortunately, I do not have any recommendations for budget backpacker accommodation in the city. Only one hostel exists and the CouchSurfing website is sometimes blocked by government filters. When I was living in Dubai, I was put up in a hotel for work, so the cost was not a consideration like it is when I’m backpacking. I had the opportunity to stay at Le Meridien Hotel by the Airport, and the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in the Financial District. I would highly recommend Le Meridien Hotel, mainly because of their wonderful staff. Over the years I have gotten to know many of the employees at Le Meridien’s Airport Hotel, and think they are amazing people that truly care about the quality of your stay. The hotel itself is a decent 5-star, with comfortable beds, 3 great pools, and several attached restaurants and bars. Another benefit to Le Meridien Airport is that Emirates Cabin Crew get to use the main pool area free of charge, so there is usually some delicious eye-candy lounging around catching the sun! If you’re on a budget, your best option is to try CouchSurfing, and if that doesn’t work, find the cheapest hotel near the Dubai Metro line.

Although beyond the usual backpacker budget, if you feel like really splurging, the Jumeirah Emirates Towers is a brilliant 5-star hotel, with amazing views of Sheikh Zayed Road. Though the hotel itself is amazing, I find the atmosphere a bit stuffy, likely due to the clientele it attracts. If you want the view without the steep cost, you can also check out Vu bar on the 51st floor of JET. The drinks aren’t cheap, but the view is great and it’s cheaper than a trip up the Burj Khalifa.

For acommodation, I would recommend staying anywhere between the airport and Sheikh Zayed Road as it is quite central and there are lots of things to see and do in these areas. Unfortunately, finding budget backpacker-priced accommodation may be tough depending on the season and specials available.

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel

 

Activities

When I first arrived in Dubai, I thought that all there was to do was lie by the pool and shop. In reality, there are many things to do, but I still would not consider it to be an outdoor city due to the hot summer weather.

Shopping

Shop. Shop ’til you Drop. Seriously, Dubai may as well have been built as one giant shopping mall. I’m not a big shopper myself, but have seen the huge malls spread throughout the city and many tourists wheeling suitcases around full of their latest purchases. There is even a Dubai Shopping Festival, which usually occurs from the late January to late February. Many of the activities I’ve listed below are also associated with the shopping malls, making it easy for you to have your fun and burn dirhams too.

History & Culture

For history and culture, check out parts of ‘Old Dubai’. Some of the offerings include:

  • Al Ahmadiya School, Deira – Built in 1912, this was Dubai’s first school and has now been nicely restored.
  • Bastakiya District – One of the last remaining pockets of Old Dubai, home to many reconstructed buildings in the traditional style.
  • Dubai Museum, Al Ibn Abi Talib Road -Worth seeing for anyone interested in the social history of the Emirate (and indeed the country).
  • Jumeirah Mosque, Jumeirah Road – It’s the largest mosque in the city, and a wonderful example of Islamic architecture. Guided tours are available on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday beginning at 10AM, followed by a Q&A session. Located on Jumeirah Road, the mosque is an especially great place to visit in the evening when it’s dramatically illuminated by floodlights.
  • Shindagha District — Home to the open museums of the Heritage Village, and has the home of former Sheikh Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Ski Dubai

Ski Dubai is an indoor ski hill connected to the Mall of the Emirates. Ski Dubai claims to have 5 runs that vary in difficulty, height and gradient, the longest run being 400 meters with a fall of over 60 meters. In reality, it’s basically 2 runs, but still a pretty cool time. The cost for 2 hours is 180 Dirhams, which isn’t too bad for the experience considering it includes disposable socks, a ski suit, and your gear (snowboard or skis). I opted for the Snowboard and enjoyed my experience, but I do wish I had brought or bought some gloves as my hands got cold after handling the bindings so often. The snow was pretty amazing, and it was fun to rip fast circuits, but the hill certainly doesn’t compare to the Canadian Rockies that I’m used to!

Ski Dubai

Ski Dubai

Ski Dubai

Ski Dubai

Jumeirah Beach & Burj Al Arab Hotel

Jumeirah Open Beach (AKA Jumeirah Public Beach) is a beautiful beach open to the public and is FREE, making it a wonderful backpacker destination. The facilities are great, and if the weather is good, the beach can get quite busy. You can wear your standard beach affair, but don’t be surprised to see women swimming in Burqas. You’ll also note signs saying that photography is not allowed – this is due to the creepy men that try to sneak photos of the bikini clad beach babes by having their friends pose for photos while they zoom in on girls in bikinis in the background. Police do patrol for these creeps, but given all of the ‘needy’ men around town, you’ll likely still see it happening. I’ve gone out for a swim at night before in the summer months – the water was warm and amazing – and the view of the lit-up Dubai skyline was beautiful. For fun in the sun, this is a great place. You can also get good views of the Burj Al Arab 7-Start Hotel in this area. The cheapest way to get up the Burj Al Arab, if you are so inclined, is to pay 275 Dhs for High Tea. I’ve never done it, but have heard that reservations are required and the dress code is relatively strict.

Burj Al Arab

Burj Al Arab

Burj Al Arab

Burj Al Arab

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa is the World’s Tallest Building at over 828 Meters. It also has the world record for most stories in the world (160 stories), tallest free-standing structure, highest occupied floor, highest outdoor observation deck, and longest distance travel elevator (as of 2012). The observation deck is on the 124th floor, and can make for an interesting visit. The cheapest way to get tickets is to buy them in advance online for 100 Dhs. You’ll have a specific time that you need to visit, but this is still much cheaper than the 400 Dhs that is charged for immediate entry admissions. I’m happy I did this once, but it really isn’t all that spectacular. It would be best after recent rains, as the Dubai sky can be quite dusty and hazy, but I was still able to see ‘The World’ Islands from the top.

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

The World Islands

The World Islands

View of Sheikh Zayed from Burj Khalifa

View of Sheikh Zayed from Burj Khalifa

Burj Khailfa

Burj Khailfa

Dubai Mall Water Fountain Show & Ice Rink

At the base of the Burj Khalifa is the Dubai Mall, which is one of the biggest shopping centers I’ve ever been in. The highlight of the mall for me is not the shopping though, but rather the Fountain Show set on the 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake. The fountain shoots water jets as high as 500 ft (150 metres), or equivalent to that of a 50-storey building. The show was designed by the same company who created the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and is just as impressive as Bellagio’s. Shows are every 30 minutes, from 6pm – 10pm (11pm on Weekends) and of course it’s FREE, making it a nice cheap way to spend an evening. There is also an ice rink in the Dubai mall, so if you feel like cooling down indoors when it’s hot outside, you can rent skates and hit the ice for a couple hours for 50 Dhs.

Dubai Mall Fountain

Dubai Mall Fountain

Dubai Creek

The Dubai Creek originally served as a port for trading vessels to and from India, Africa and the Middle East and is what drew people to what is now Dubai. A bit of the old shipping culture still remains and it can be interesting to wander the creek area and check out the shipment of goods. You can book a ride on the creek with a dinner cruise or even rent a private boat to take you on a hour long ride up and down the creek. I haven’t done it, but it would probably be quite beautiful at night.

Gold Souk

The gold souk is a market that has been a part of Dubai since the origin of Dubai itself. Located at the mouth of the creek, it is a dazzling street lined with jewelers selling gold (usually very yellow, 22 carat gold) in large quantities and with little visible security. It’s worth a visit for shoppers and sightseers. The gold items are sold by weight with a “making charge” added on top to cover the workmanship and it’s worth bargaining. I’ve been shopping in the area with an Engineer who had a 1 oz. silver coin, which he had the jeweler put on the scale before he made his purchase – the scales were accurate. My favourite piece in the souk is a gold chainmail halter top. It would look pretty hot on a Victoria Secret model, or perhaps one of the many beautiful Emirates Stewardesses in the city, but it will be a while before I can afford such a gift! One problem with the area is that it can be difficult to hail a taxi due to the large number of tourists, and busy roads.

Wild Wadi Waterpark and Sky Dive Dubai

Two activities that look and sound wonderful, but I have not yet had the opportunity to experience, are the Wild Wadi Waterpark and Sky Dive Dubai. The Sky Dive is extremely costly compared to those available elsewhere in the world, but seeing the Palm Islands from the sky would probably make it all worthwhile.

Events

As one of the World’s Great Cities, Dubai also offers many events, so it is definitely worth seeing if any events are happening while you’re in town or planning your trip around something of interest. I have personally been to the Dubai International Motor Show and the Dubai Tennis Championships. The tennis championships were especially great, as I went during the quarter-finals and managed to watch Venus Williams play an attractive Russian girl from the 3rd row quite cheaply.

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Dubai Auto Show

Drink / Eat

Dubai is a young, hip city with nearly 2/3rds of it’s population of 2 million being in the 20-39 category. Not only that, but Emirates cabin crew accounts for over 14,000 employees. For anyone not in the know, Emirates Cabin Crew tend to be beautiful and awesome. They’re from all over the world, usually enjoy traveling, and are up for a party pretty much any night of the week as long as they’re not flying the next day. Weekends in Dubai are Fridays and Saturdays, so Thursday and Friday are the big party nights, and reservations are recommended for more popular restaurants. Luckily, and mostly thanks to the presence of cabin crew in the city, popular bars and clubs will be busy and fun any night of the week and many places offer specials on certain nights of the week. It’s worth noting that it’s not possible to buy alcohol at stores easily, so if you want cheaper pre-game drinks or to have a few cheap drinks at your accommodation, you should take advantage of the large duty free allowance at the Dubai airport. I highly recommend checking out Time Out Dubai magazine, or just reviewing their website at www.timeoutdubai.com for what’s happening while you’re in town. There are often lots of great specials making a night on the town more reasonable for a backpacker budget.

There are usually all you can eat / drink deals available which tend to bring in a young party crowd and be great times. Also worth checking out are the numerous “Drunches” or Drink Brunches, which provide all you can drink deals for reasonable cost on Friday or Saturday mornings / afternoons. These are great parties where you’ll undoubtedly be able to meet expat residents.

Caution: Most restaurants and bars have strict dress codes of trousers, shoes, and collared shirts. This can be tough based on a backpacker’s typical wardrobe, so be aware when choosing your eating or drinking destination! The good news is that the cheaper places also tend to be more relaxed, so if you plan to stick to the very budget options, you should be alright in shorts and sandals.

Restaurants

Dubai is full of amazing restaurants. I’ve been to quite a few, and do have some favourites, but there are loads of great looking places I have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing.

The Warehouse – This is one of my favourite places to go, mostly for the atmosphere and its proximity to the Le Meridien Hotel, where I usually stay (it’s part of the Meridien complex). It’s also relatively inexpensive for the quality of food and they have an extensive beer and wine list. The main floor has a nice restaurant section, a peanut bar (where you can throw shells on the ground), and a beautiful courtyard. The upstairs has another restaurant, with a different menu, including some Japanese fusion cuisine, and also a club area, which picks up later in the evening. The bands that I’ve seen perform here are wonderful, and it’s a place worth heading to for drinks, as well as for food. Emirates crew get a discount here so it is often full of young and beautiful women. Although middle of the road for Dubai restaurants, it’s on the pricey end of a backpacker budget, but nice for a treat.

Zuma – The best restaurant I’ve been to in Dubai. It is expensive, but wonderful. They serve contemporary Japanese cuisine, and have an amazing atmosphere. The restaurant is actually a chain from London, with offerings in London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Beirut, Miami, Bangkok and Istanbul. Even if you just go for a drink in the lounge, this is a facility worth checking out. It’s next to the DIFC Authority Headquarters, one of my favourite buildings in Dubai.

DIFC

DIFC

 

Spectrum on One – This restaurant is part of the Fairmont Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, and offers eight interactive food stations  specializing in influential cuisines from India, Thailand, Japan, China, Europe and the Middle East. I love their Sushi and Sake offer, which provides unlimited sushi and sake from 7-9pm for 150 Dirhams. A great deal for sushi and sake lovers.

Most hotels also have great restaurants available, and if you walk around the Dubai Marina you will undoubtedly come across a good place to eat. If Dubai is just a quick stop-over, I’d recommend trying some Middle Eastern or Ethiopian food as well, as it tends to be better than what is available in most of North America, Australia or Western Europe. There are lots of cheap budget restaurants as well, but they come and go and change so often I haven’t mentioned nay here.

Bars

Barasti – Definitely one of the best bars I’ve ever been to. It is massive with multiple levels, bars, dj’s and dance floors. You can easily dance on the beach, while they have live DJ’s, fire dancers, or other entertainment keeping the crowd happy. Drinks aren’t cheap, but not terribly priced compared to the rest of Dubai either. Barasti is close to the Palms, so a distance from the airport, but not too far from the Sheikh Zayed area if you’re staying there. Well worth the taxi fare! There is also a sports bar, restaurant, and shisha available, for the quieter nights. I have heard that on busy nights, such as New Years, there are upwards of 10,000 people here. The night I went there must have been in excess of 1000 people, but it’s tough to get a good feel for numbers given the vast size of the place. The best part abou Barasti in my opinion is that it has a casual dress code, making shorts and sandals acceptable.

The Music Room – One of the best venues for live music, the Music Room can be a great place to be on the right night. Check out the music line up on their website, http://www.themusicroomdubai.com/

Level 43 – A roof top bar at the Dubai Four Points Sheraton on Sheikh Zayed Road. I love this place because of the amazing views of the city, cooler temperatures, and casual dress code. Most bars in Dubai are stuffy, with a business feel. As Level 43 is a bar around the roof top pool area, casual clothes such as shorts and sandals are acceptable. Prices aren’t bad, but drinks do come in plastic glasses due to the pool. Worth checking out for the view alone.

Rock Bottom – This is the closest you’ll get to a dive bar in Dubai, which is exactly why I like it. The Filipino band is hit or miss, but the crowd usually includes a lot of beautiful Emirates cabin crew, any day of the week, especially later in the night. Drinks are reasonable, and there is even an in-house schwarma joint for if you need your shot of grease at the end of the night.

Tim Hortons – This is a famous Canadian coffee shop which has opened its doors in Dubai near the Financial Centre Metro Station 1. With a Starbucks and French Connection next door, Tim Hortons has proved to be a popular coffee spot in Dubai. Not a bad place to grab a cup of java, especially if you’re a homesick Canuck.

First Tim Hortons in the Middle East

First Tim Hortons in the Middle East

Transport

Getting around Dubai is easy. Taxis are very cheap and widely available. As long as you’re in a busy area and not a quiet residential district, finding a cab should be easy. Dubai also has a very good, and cheap, metro system. To learn more about it, check out this intuitive site: http://dubaimetro.eu/

Visas

Citizens of most developed countries can gain a visa on arrival for 30 days without charge, but check it out for yourself as the rules are subject to change, and they can change often!

Weather

May to October are the hottest months, and should probably be avoided. It’s incredibly hot and humid during the day, and even hitting the beach provides no relief since the water temperature heats up so much. It gets so hot that higher end hotels actually have to cool their pools using refrigeration technologies. Crazy.

March – April and November – December would be the best months to visit in my mind. The weather is still hot during the day, but not unbearable, and it cools down a bit at night. The days are shorter during these months, with only 7-9 hours of Sunshine, but it’s the best weather for doing outdoor activities, hitting the beach / pool, golfing, or walking around town.

January – February are the coldest months, and though comfortable, offer less options for things to do. It’s usually not hot enough for the beach or pool, but is great for golfing or doing outdoor activities.

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