Happy New Year! We’re getting stuck into 2018 already, and I hope you’ve had a great start to the year. Those of you who have been following us over the holiday period will know that we spent it travelling around peninsular Malaysia, and we had a fantastic time exploring that wonderful country. This post isn’t about Malaysia however, but a different part of the same trip which is the 18-hour stopover that we had in Dubai on the way to Kuala Lumpur. It was partly through choice that we had such a long stop, as we thought it would be a good opportunity to see some of the city, as well as a way to keep the cost of the flights down. So after landing at Dubai airport just after 3 a.m. on Boxing Day, we set about exploring as much as we could and we’re pleased now to bring you our guide to making the most of a long stopover in this totally unique place.
If, like us, your flight arrives in Dubai in the early hours of the morning, you may wish to try and catch a few hours sleep before heading into the city. Our flight arrived around 3 a.m. so we planned to do just that, as we thought there wouldn’t be much point in exploring while the city is still asleep anyway. Dubai airport is open 24 hours a day so you won’t need to worry about being turfed out onto the street, unfortunately the good news stops there. Apart from in the departure hall (after security checks so only accessible once you’re ready for your departing flight), all of the chairs have armrests between them making it impossible to lay down and forcing you to try and sleep sitting up. You will also need to bring warm clothes or blankets as the air conditioning is always on full here, and the airport is generally very cold. On a positive note, at least you won’t sweat too much, which is a very good thing as the only showers in the airport are also located near to the departure gates. These may all sound like good reasons to pay to use an airline’s lounge, which I’m sure are a lot more comfortable, but it is still possible to get some rest before heading off to the city. We managed to sleep for at least a couple of hours, and we didn’t encounter any problems in doing so.
Once you’re suitably refreshed, it’s time to make your way towards Dubai city centre. There are plenty of people and kiosks offering taxi and minibus fares to the city, but I can’t recommend the Metro highly enough. It was only AED 22 each (approximately £4.50) for an unlimited use day pass, and the metro station is just outside the terminal building, above the car parks. It’s fast and efficient, and the two metro lines should be sufficient to allow you to see the main sights. The pass can also be used on the city’s buses, providing you with even more flexibility, but they can get stuck in traffic during busy periods. There really isn’t any disadvantages I can think of in using the public transport in Dubai, they’ve managed to make it very user and wallet friendly! There is just two things to note, the front carriage of every metro train is Gold Class only and you are only allowed to travel in this carriage if you have paid the premium price for a Gold Class pass. Also, both buses and metro trains have designated areas for women only (the front section of buses and two carriages in the middle of the trains). It is allowed for men to pass through these areas, although one bus driver wouldn’t open the front doors because I was in front of the queue, but please be mindful of where you are sitting or standing in order to comply with this rule. Women are not confined to these areas however, and can choose to sit or stand anywhere on the bus or train.
Gold Souk area
The first area we visited is also the closest to the airport, about ten minutes on the Metro and just a few stops. This was the market, or souk, area located in Deira. The closest metro station is Palm Deira and, if you’re also coming from the airport, you’ll need to change lines at Union station. This area is the traditional trading area of Dubai, with many marketplaces selling all kinds of goods. The two main marketplaces are the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk, and there are also many others specialising in different products. We wanted to visit both of these, but in the end we only went to the Gold Souk which is the closest one to the metro station.
As soon as you step outside it is obvious that this is a trading area, as the merchants spot their favourite prey (tourists!) and the hard sales techniques begin. This brought back some unhappy memories from Egypt of similar behaviour from shop-owners, and I was already determined not to be coerced into anything! The streets are full of shops, mainly selling jewellery or spices, but there are the usual convenience stores thrown in as well. When you reach the souk area, it becomes more focussed on jewellery and every shop window is filled with huge, extremely decorative, gold necklaces. Neither of us are particularly interested in gold jewellery, and this style is most certainly not to our taste! So we walked through without really stopping, just taking in the atmosphere. To me, every shop seemed to be selling the exact same things, so I’m a little dubious about the quality of the items, but I am definitely not an expert!
Satisfied with the visit, we then walked back to the metro station to continue our journey into Dubai city centre. Personally I wish we had gone to the Spice Souk instead, as it would have been more to my taste and more interesting to see. We still wouldn’t have bought anything as we would have had to carry it around with us for the entire holiday, but it would have been nice to experience. However the heat was already making us weary and we weren’t entirely sure where it was, so we decided to move on. That’s probably my top tip for anyone planning a similar visit; make sure you know how to get where you want to go in advance, this city is huge and not the place to be wandering around aimlessly, especially if you don’t have a map or internet connection!
Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall
The main sight to see in Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. This was our next destination also, and it is easily accessible using the Metro. Helpfully, the station needed is called Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall so it’s quite hard to get it wrong! If you’ve been looking out of the window during the train ride, you’ll already have noticed the Burj Khalifa from a distance and been able to see how much taller it is than the buildings around it. Once you’re standing right underneath it, this is partly lost due to the perspective and it doesn’t seem to tower over the other buildings quite so much. Nevertheless it is still very impressive, and the sun glinting off of the windows gives it a very clean appearance. Just try not to spend too much time looking up at it, unless you want a very sore neck! It is possible to visit the Burj Khalifa and to go up to one of the top floors for views of the city, but it is quite expensive (like most things in Dubai!) and we decided to give it a miss. I imagine the views are incredible of the famous sights of Dubai such as The Palm and the Burj al-Arab hotel, although I have no idea how well you would be able to see them from so high up!
To give our necks a bit of a break, and to enjoy some air conditioning again, we went to the Dubai Mall which is situated almost next-door. Dubai is quite famous for its huge shopping centres and Dubai Mall, along with the Mall of the Emirates, is one of the largest. As I said before, we weren’t very keen on buying anything that we would have to carry with us for the next two weeks, so we didn’t spend too long looking at the shops. There seemed to be the usual stores that you would expect to find in shopping centres throughout Europe or North America, just on a bigger scale than usual, with local souvenir and craft traders occupying the shops along the entrance and exit routes of the mall. We had come mainly for lunch though, and we made our way to the food court. Here you can find places selling cuisine from all around the world, we opted to go to a Japanese stall which was opposite one selling British fish and chips. There is a great deal to choose from and there are also the usual fast food chains, so you should be able to find something that takes your fancy!
Once you have satisfied your shopping cravings, there is one more thing to see in this area that shouldn’t be missed. Just outside the mall, and in front of the Burj Khalifa, there is a small lake with a traditional style bridge crossing it. At frequent intervals during the afternoon and evenings, there are water fountain shows here with fountains coordinated to ‘dance’ along with a music and light show. I was a little sceptical before seeing it, thinking that it would be a huge disappointment, but in fact it was very impressive and we even stayed to watch another performance. It would have been nice to see it in darkness as well, as I have read that the lights make the show even more spectacular, however it was still worth the time to see during the day. It has been choreographed wonderfully to match the music, and having the Burj Khalifa in the background finishes off the scene perfectly.
Burj al-Arab/Jumeirah Beach
The last stop on our itinerary was one I had insisted on, to see the Burj al-Arab hotel. Despite the Burj Khalifa being the most famous building in this city, probably because it can be seen from almost anywhere, it is the Burj al-Arab building that springs to my mind whenever I think of Dubai. This is the sail-shaped hotel that was completed in 1999, built on an artificial island jutting out to sea. There are a number of options for getting to the area, all of which require taking a bus from the metro station. We arrived at Sharaf DG station and then took the 81 bus to the stop bearing the same name as the hotel. From here you can see the hotel through the entrance gate, but I personally think that the best view is from the beach just a short walk along the road. This is called Jumeirah Beach and would make a great place to relax by the sea in its own right, but the view of the hotel perfects the location. The beach isn’t too long, but it seemed clean and not too busy. The water also seemed to be clean and suitable for swimming. Unfortunately only paying guests are allowed to enter the hotel and witness the decadent interior, and the cheapest way to do this is to book an afternoon tea at one of the hotel’s restaurants. I wasn’t interested in the inside of the building though, and, content with having seen the hotel and enjoying the beach, we decided to start heading back to the airport.
On our way back to the bus stop we also came across the Marhaba mosque, a beautiful building that also overlooks the beach. This was a great reminder of Dubai’s heritage and history, and proof that there is more to this city than just skyscrapers and shopping malls. We’ll definitely be back to Dubai soon to discover more of what it has to offer, and to explore the rest of the city. But for now we had run out of time and our day trip had come to an end, and as Dubai gave us a beautiful sunset for a send-off we took the Metro back to the airport. I cannot say enough how easy it was to get around Dubai and to see so much in one day, and if you find yourself with a long stopover here it really is worth heading out of the airport. You won’t see everything but you’ll definitely get a good feel for the city and a taster of what it has to offer.
Stay tuned for more from our trip to Malaysia, next we’ll be talking about the other major city that we visited, Kuala Lumpur.
For now, happy travels!
When I wrote this post, we were at Dubai Airport waiting for my brother to pop in and say hi before we boarded our plane back home, and the nostalgia for the wonderful time spent in Malaysia was starting to kick in. Are you one of those who never has enough of holidays or are you glad when you arrive back home to your familiar things? This time more than ever I would have stayed for a lot longer, repacking my backpack with less and less clean clothes on the top and more and more dirty stuff at the bottom, washing a few things on the go, and taking another bus to another breathtaking location.
But enough melancholy, there is so much to tell you that it is hard to start and focus on a subject without wandering around with my memories. If you followed our Instagram, you will have realised that our first stop was Dubai where we managed to spend almost a whole day before boarding our plane again. As my brother was also on holiday, we had the city to ourselves, no family time but also no private guide. We had a walk around and we will give you our ideas for how to spend your half day stop in Dubai. We arrived at 3 a.m. but we had a bit of a rest before leaving the airport as nothing really opens too early in the city, 10 a.m. according to my brother’s instructions.
The metro has two lines, the red one is the main one with all the most known spots, and the green is a smaller one with few stops; with the help of monorail and buses, it is quite easy to move around. Remember that public transport has dedicated areas for women only, a few carriages in the metro and the front area in the buses; these are usually respected, especially by locals, while tourists often suddenly forget how to speak and understand English when they end up in these carriages. On the bus it is easier because the driver doesn’t even open the door in the front if men are queuing. Apart from carrying a scarf and something for your shoulders if you plan to visit places of worship, always carry a light jacket for the public transport as the air conditioning, although quite pleasant from time to time, is quite strong.
As I said, the red line takes you from the airport to the main sights of the city. We started with the markets, or souqs, just on the left when you get out of Palm Deira Metro station. This area is part of Deira, originally the commercial centre of the city and here you will find the gold souq, the perfume souq, and the spices souq. While you walk almost along the river from the station to the main part of the gold souq, you already start seeing some of the shops and to smell the beautiful aromas of the spices. The main part of the gold souq is a maze of streets covered by a tall canopy. This place is just impressive to see, although a bit disturbing if you don’t like jewels and definitely if gold is the one you like the least. As this is my case, I didn’t find the place interesting in itself but I definitely recognise the enchantment that such a place has in a traditional and cultural way. In a matter of moments you cross some invisible, permeable border and all at once the shop windows with gold necklaces are fewer and they are replaced by deep baskets full of powders, seeds, and flowers. The actual perfume and spices souks are a bit further away but you can already see the transition just by turning the corner. Trust me, it is a feast for your senses, and it will be hard to resist shopping next time we visit! If you want to stay a bit longer, you can also visit the textile souq on the other side of the creek, in Bur Dubai. The abra, a traditional boat, is the easiest way and it is very frequent, all just for one dirham per person per trip.
As for us this time, we just had our little backpack with essentials and a whole holiday ahead of us so we decided not to start shopping already; also, we were a bit tired by the night flight. This is when we decided to head towards the Dubai Mall for a bite and to enjoy the water show outside the Burj Khalifa. This is similar to the one we later found in Kuala Lumpur as well, with water jets moving choreographically to follow the music, you can see a short clip here. The heat was a bit strong at 1 p.m. but you have several locations from where you can enjoy it, both in the shopping centre and outside, including some benches in the shade. You can visit the tower if you want to spare some time to do that. Personally, I am not a big fan of visiting modern buildings as they are not usually interesting inside and the only good thing is the view of the city, which is usually an annoying experience if you are pushed around by tens of people taking selfies. The shopping centre is exactly what you would expect, big, shiny, new, and full of known brands: Not very interesting for us. One little note, there is quite a walk between the station (Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall) to the actual shopping centre but along the way you start finding shops and stalls with food and drinks and that makes the walk a bit more interesting than just walking between tube stations for example.
The weather was not extremely hot and dry but definitely tolerable, but a quick trip to the beach was still a refreshing change in every sense, so we headed to Jumeirah public beach to have a quick look at the Burj Al Arab. We got off at Sharaf DG and from there took bus 81; you have two choices for getting off, either the Burj Al Arab Hotel 2 stop, which leaves you almost in front of the hotel complex, or to keep going for one or two stops. We stopped at the first one and crossed the road in front of the water park. From the road, you have a good close view of the building from the front, but if you keep walking along the hotels for about 15 minutes, you reach the beach and you can see the sail-like structure from the side. The beach was extremely quiet, which surprised me because the afternoon was lovely to spend there, and we just took some time to take some photos, have a chat with a nice couple from Colombia, and to refresh our feet in the warm water. Just in front of Jumeirah beach you have a beautiful mosque called Maharba Mosque, the one that gives the name to your bus stop if you decide to make your way back from there. The beach is actually nice and if you are wearing your swimming gear you may even have a quick swim before you head back. You have showers available at the airport in the departures area, and extremely clean and comfortable toilets, so you may want to keep that in mind and pack a change of clothes if you are going to spend the day out and about in the heat like we did, swimming or not. I was definitely glad I did!
I was supposed to visit Dubai once before and I had to cancel last minute but I have to admit that I have never been extremely interested in it as a holiday destination if not for visiting the family. In my head it was just fake and all that I consider non environmentally friendly. I guess we always have some kind of stereotype about places. This short stop has now showed me a different side of the city, a more human side that somehow I was not expecting but that I am glad to have seen. As my brother keeps inviting us, I guess there will be a more in depth post soon but for today this is all. Stay tuned,