Over the last couple of months, I’ve found myself on travel forums, answering the same nervous question coming from those who are traveling to the UAE to spend a week in Dubai. They ask what to do during their week’s stay, what the done thing is in Dubai, will they be safe? Quite frankly, it’s getting a little boring, so hopefully this post will answer everybody’s questions on how to make the most of your week in Dubai whilst being culturally respectful.
Personally, I can’t understand why anybody in their right mind would want to spend an entire week in Dubai city alone. Firstly, it’s outrageously expensive: an entire week in Dubai would leave your bank account a quivering mess. Secondly, the flashiness wears thin. Yes, there are loads of tall buildings that glisten in the sun like mermaid’s scales, and sipping cocktails on The Palm in your Armani sunglasses does sound appealing, but doing that every single day? Your tan might be topped up, but you will have missed out on an opportunity to experience the real culture of a new country – there is so much to see.
Before I list my top things to do in the UAE whilst spending a week in Dubai, I’m going to give a little introduction to the country, as a majority of the people who I speak to about my time there don’t actually realise that it is a country at all. The UAE stands for the United Arab Emirates. There are seven emirates, that are sort of like counties if you’re from the UK, or tiny states if you’re from the USA. The seven emirates are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharja, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm Al Quwain. Each emirate has a city of the same name, hence Dubai and Abu Dhabi city. Abu Dhabi is the richest city, and is the country’s capital, closely followed by Dubai. Just over 40 years ago, the UAE was still sheikh-lands, and the people lived as different tribes, following a Sheikh: a man who is a leader, a king, or however you would like to imagine him. One day, the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi called all of the Sheikhs together and came up with the brilliant idea of them coming together to form one country, sharing an economy, and their oil. Each Sheikh would still ‘rule’ their land, but it was time for the UAE to start developing like the rest of the world. Since then they’ve come on leaps and bounds, as can be seen by the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their artificial islands (that totally destroy marine life, by the way), destruction of mangroves for those plush beachside hotels, and huge apartment buildings that are built by slave-workers trapped in the country having had their Indian, Phillipino, or Sri Lankan passports taken from them by their employers, that now stand empty as nobody living in the cities can afford the rent. Of course, I personally hate these facts, but everybody is entitled to an opinion, and if you can see past this and try the other emirates, then good for you.
I also see a lot of women, or couples, concerned about the cultural regulations on skin exposure, and touching of the opposite sex (or the same sex). In Dubai, they are a lot more accepting of foreigners being a little more exposed, and of couples holding hands. However, that doesn’t mean you have to do it, or shove it in the locals’ faces. Remember, you are in their country and just because they’re not arresting you, does not mean that they feel comfortable around it. To be respectful, and most importantly safe, if you are a woman, don’t wear strap tops: keep your shoulders covered, whether that’s with a shawl or by wearing a t-shirt, always have something with you that you can use to quickly cover yourself. Also, don’t wear butt shorts. I mean, that should go without saying as nobody, no matter what their religion, wants to see your arse wiggling about as you walk. Try to stick with knee-length shorts or skirts if you are in the malls or very touristy areas. If you are travelling to somewhere more traditional, like the souks, or other emirates, then buy yourself some elephant/fisherman pants, and wear a vest top with a shawl over your shoulders and your chest.
OK, so you’re going on holiday to spend a week in Dubai. What should you do whilst you’re there, to get the best experience from the country? Firslty, I think that it would be totally necessary to hire a car, so that you can explore out of Dubai, however be warned that the way people drive there is terrifying. If you’re coming from somewhere like LA, you’ll probably be used to it. What follows is my list of what I would do while I’m there:
Day 1: Dubai Mall
While you are still acclimatizing to the intense heat, it is worth taking a trip to Dubai Mall to marvel at it’s huge size. Inside the mall there is an aquarium, that has a killer croc and a huge tank that passers-by can ogle at. Next to the mall is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. Outside the Burj Khalifa, you will see a big pool, and very half an hour or so there is a fountain show, which is definitely worth a watch. The show changes daily, and the fountains are synchronized to a song, so the water literally dances. Today would be the day to pop down to the beaches in Dubai, to laugh at the basic white men flexing their muscles, whilst you pay £15 for a beer.
Day 2: The Mangroves
I might be a bit biased here, having spent eight months teaching kids in the mangroves, but I firmly believe that this is a marvel you have to see. The western coast of the UAE used to be totally covered in mangrove forests. Mangroves are a unique plant, in that that they can survive in the intertidal salt water where other plants would suffer. They are also a unique habitat, full of crabs, baby fish waiting until they are large enough to return to sea, upside-down jellyfish that grow their own algae gardens, and an array of birdlife. Depending on the time of year, you might see flamingoes, that stop by here on their migratory path (I cried the first time I saw one). A majority of the mangroves have been removed for coastal development, but there are still some in Abu Dhabi, that you can often see as you land by plane, and also in Umm Al Quwain. If you’re looking for a day experience, it would be worth contacting Ecoventure, the company that I worked for, who may well organize a day trip for you if you are in a group. Otherwise, just go for a nosey!
Day 3: The Beach
The west coast of the UAE has lost quite a bit of it’s charm in terms of beaches, snorkeling, and diving. However, the eastern coast is a little hidden gem of incredible beaches and marine life not to be rivaled. Drive to Dibba in Fujairah, take some lunch, a towel, and a snorkel. You’re aiming to get to Dibba Rock or Snoopy Island, a big rock that is about half a km from the beach. It’s on the front of a hotel, but you do not need to go through the hotel or be a guest to snorkel around here. On the trips that my friends and I took here, we saw thousands of fish species, cuttlefish, turtles, black-tip reef sharks, and much more. So this is well worth the drive. If you are a diver, you’ll find that most of the hotels in this area have dive centres, however I don’t think that the diving is particularly rated: I would personally stick to snorkeling, it’s all you need!
Day 4: The Wadis
It might actually be worth you spending the night between day 3 and 4 out of Dubai. Perhaps get a room in one of the hotels in Dibba, before taking the time to go Wadi exploring today. A wadi is a dried-up riverbed, with an underground river supplying the trees and shrubs with enough water to flourish. Occasionally, when it does rain, they can flash flood. However, most of the year finds them as canyons, with huge rock faces on either side. You can drive up part of the way (get a 4 wheel drive), but then you should pull up and walk. You can get these ‘Wadi Tours’ from Dubai, which is basically off-roading, but is really terrible for the environment, and is basically destroying it one selfish tourist at a time, so try to be mindful, do it yourself, and walk. On the walk you will most likely encounter wildlife, so this is one for the photographers. There are lots of varieties of snakes, lizards, and insects in the surrounding rock and occasional pools. In addition to this, you will stumble across deep pools of fresh water, perfect for swimming, and maybe rock jumping. Try finding Wadi Shawka.
Day 5: The Desert
Off-roading in the desert is REALLY FUN, and is known as ‘dune bashing’. You get to tear through the dunes in a 4×4, fearing for your life whilst getting the adrenaline kick. I would actually recommend getting a tour for this one – there is nothing as embarrassing or soul destroying as getting your car stuck in sand, and believe me, you will get it stuck.
If being in a car still seems a little too flashy for you, and you’re more of the outdoorsy, adventurous type, go for a desert hack (if you don’t know what a hack is, it’s probably not for you). Al Barari stables can provide the real Arabian experience for you, as you ride their horses across the golden, windswept dunes. Whilst on the ride, you will see camels, perhaps some gazelles, and falcon training. Anna, from the stables, has agreed to do a deal for my readers, so that you will get all of the above plus free pick-up and drop-off, they will provide you with enough drinks and snacks to make it through the experience, and if you book as a group you can arrange a BBQ. On top of that, if you feel like you made a connection with your gallant steed, give him/her a wash-down afterwards to say thanks. You’ll get all of this, for a mere 350 AED. Sounds pretty bloody good to me! Book by calling her on +97155 5622866, or visit their Facebook page, quoting ‘Jessica15’ when booking, to make sure that you get the most from your deal!
That night, camp in the desert. The biting insect life is fairly minimal, and the stars are breathtaking, due to the lack of light pollution.
Day 6: The Souks
Now we are back in Dubai, and it’s time to take a trip to Deira, the more traditional side of town. It’s imperative that you dress appropriately ladies, as traditions are upstanding here. This is where you can get all of your presents for friends: spices, teas, coffees, and so on. The souks are little markets, full of sight and smells that will send your senses into overdrive. You will be approached my many men offering to sell you counterfeit watches and handbags, if you say yes they will take you down a tiny back alley, up some stairs and into a room that they will probably lock, full of extremely realistic ‘designer’ goods. I was tempted, believe me. Make sure to check out the boats on the river outside.
Day 7: A Brunch
If you enjoy drinking, it would be worth you looking up a brunch. These are not like conventional brunches. These are events that start at about midday and run until about 4pm, and you pay a set price for all you can eat, and all you can drink. They turn out to be crazy fun, but only happen on a Friday. At the end of the day, this is the day to do whatever you want. This is your free day, if you want to go up the Burj, do it. If you’ve stuck to my guide and done everything, I’m proud of you, and you deserve a day to be a soulless tourist. You go, girl/boy.