This article was first published here: www.getaway.co.za
Dubai is mostly known for its shopping, but if you look a little harder you’ll find that this Arabian city offers a bit of nature, history, culture and even adventure to travellers who’re in the know. Here are my suggestions for things to do in Dubai – whether you’re just popping out of the airport for a day or two en route, or enjoying the city as your final destination.
I visited Dubai courtesy of RwandAir, who have recently launched flights from Kigali to Dubai in their brand-new A330 Airbus fleet.
1. Visit Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
Also known as Bastakiya, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is one of Dubai’s oldest residential areas. Not only is it an opportunity to be surrounded by nineteenth century Persian architecture, there are also many attractions such as the Dubai Museum and the Al Fahidi Fort. You may also find yourself in the Coin, Camel or Horse Museums (free admission) and the famous Textile Souk.
Explore the courtyard cafes and labyrinth-like alleys of Al Fahidi on your own, or pop into the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) which organises visits to the Jumeirah Grand Mosque for less than R80 per person. The SMCCU also offers a guided heritage tour of Al Fahidi which costs approximately R300 per person. This is a good idea if you want to get an introduction to Dubai.
Also: The Etihad Museum provides insight on the emergence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by weaving its political history with personal stories through visual and interactive exhibitions. General admission is about R100 per person.
2. Dune bashing
Bashing the dunes in Dubai is a must, even if you are in the city for just a few hours. Riding the steep dunes in a Toyota Land Cruiser is also as action-packed as it sounds and you can ask the driver to adjust the speed as you wish. It’s just as thrilling as a roller-coaster and you must be strapped in at all times. Being up close and personal with the desert landscape and the view of the Western Hajar Mountains is worth the soaring temperatures – but don’t forget the sunscreen.
3. The Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain
The Burj Khalifa is the jewel in Dubai’s crown and shows the city’s infinite ambition. Level 124 or ‘At the Top’ is an observatory that’s open to the public. It takes 77 seconds to reach level 124 by elevator, but you won’t even feel it because of the multimedia projections inside which show you how high up you are. Seeing as it’s the top tourist attraction in Dubai you may need to squeeze in between people to get a 360 view, but it’s worth it for the amazing contrast of desert, skyscrapers, construction and the Persian Gulf. Visit at dusk for the city lights. You will also see the JW Marriott Marquis, the tallest hotel in the world (read: World’s tallest hotel doubles up on the high life).
If you have enough time, go to the Dubai Fountain on the Burj Lake. A synchronised performance of water, music and light, Dubai Fountain is the most popular tourist attraction that’s also free. The best spot to catch this epic movement of water and light to familiar songs is at the Waterfront Promenade outside Dubai Mall.
4. Jumeirah Open Beach
It’s just like going to the beach… except there’s WiFi. The Smart Palm allows internet connectivity and there are charging stations, just in case you need to upload your photos on Instagram). It might also be the closest that you’ll get to seeing the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the 7-star hotel. It’s like being on a high-tech tropical island.
5. The Green Planet
It might be a man-made tropical rainforest, but the Green Planet has over 3000 plants and animals and offers an educational experience. Tickets are around R340 per person and the park stays open until 10pm on Saturday to Wednesday and until midnight on Thursday and Friday, giving you time to make the most of a stopover.
6. Al Karama
Dubai is better known for its glistening skyscrapers and futuristic architectural developments than its older residential areas, but you’ll be rewarded for exploring the less glamorous side of the city. Al Karama (or just Karama) is a neighbourhood, popular for its diverse and wallet-friendly Asian eateries (think Indonesian, Filipino, Nepalese and Indian) and bargaining shops. More recently, various apartment buildings have been turned into canvases featuring Dubai’s multi-faceted graffiti culture. If downtown cities and murals are your thing, you will enjoy getting to grips with the more artistic side of Dubai.
7. Al Qudra Lake
Instead of camping out in the airport, head to Al Qudra Lake. You may not exactly have time to pitch a tent but you will have an opportunity to be outdoors before you board your next flight. Al Qudra is a man-made freshwater lake in Seih Al Salam desert, about an hour from the centre of Dubai, and is where more than 130 bird species have been found. Migratory birds also populate Al Qudra. Even though the desert night sky is beautiful to look at, it is advisable to leave before the sun starts to set because there are no street lights. Make sure that you also have a GPS or organise with someone who knows the area well because there are reportedly no exit signs.
8. Gold and Spice Souk
The malls in Dubai are no doubt extraordinary, but for a more traditional Emirati shopping experience, go to the Gold and Spice Souk in Deira. The souks are swarming with tourists – make sure that you go with someone who can bargain well, if you’re not that way inclined. It’s also completely okay to bring your camera and just take pics. A photo of the colourful spices is just as good a souvenir. It’s a great cultural experience that’ll give you a taste of the Middle East.
Take an ‘abra’ or a water taxi across Dubai Creek for around R4 per person. The buildings of ‘old Dubai’ look like a movie set and this comparison doesn’t diminish the city itself, it instead adds to the feeling of being stuck in another time. The photographic opportunities in this part are also in abundance.
If you want to see more of Dubai, RwandAir have recently launched flights from Kigali to Dubai. If Rwanda is your destination and you’re on your way to trek gorillas, don’t miss out on an opportunity to explore Kigali. Read Getaway photographer, Teagan Cunniffe’s Kigali: photos from the African city that shines.