Dubai City guide

2012-06-07 11:54

Skydive Dubai

2012-06-06 14:58

Looking for something more adrenaline-pumping than shopping in Dubai? Check out this awesome skydiving video. WATCH

If movies are anything to go by, it would appear that the Americans are pretty damn sure about the fact that when the aliens come, the Nevada desert will be their obvious landing site. However, having just returned from a trip to the mind-boggling city of Dubai, I'm afraid someone's going to have to break it to them softly: the Arabian Desert is the much more likely choice.

Why? Well, if it's true that these little green men (or oversize insects) drifting around out there are so superior, they will probably feel a lot more at home in ever advancing Dubai, with the biggest, fastest, tallest, most-est outlook of the ruling Al-Maktoum family than they would searching for corn fields to form crop circles in. Not to mention the fact that the city's workforce is so cosmopolitan they wouldn't even need to visit the rest of the globe to get a balanced insight into the human race.

Yes, Dubai is a microcosm of post-modernity so fascinating, it's almost frightening. However, once the initial culture shock dissipates, it's really also quite a ball.

Dubai facts

Surface area: 4,114 km2

Economy: It's hard to believe that 50 years ago Dubai's metropolitan area was nothing more than a tiny fishing village at the edge of a desert. Since the discovery of oil in 1976, the city has been growing in leaps and bounds, attracting professionals from right across the globe to be part of the building process. Although the economy suffered a rather serious downturn in 2009, things seem to be steaming ahead once more, as new skyscrapers, hotels, malls and office complexes are mushrooming all over the place.

City: Fed by the Arabian Gulf, the 14 km long Dubai Creek divides the city into two sections - the old known as Bur Dubai and the new, starting with the suburb of Deira. While the new part of the city is a breathtaking display of state-of-the-art development, the old part provides an enchanting peek into bygone days with an abundance of souks (markets) where merchants peddle anything from spices to ‘genuine fake' handbags, fish, pashminas, even gold.

Ruler: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The Al Maktoum family have ruled in Dubai since its establishment in 1833 and it was Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the current Sheikh's father who had the vision to transform Dubai into the multi-cultural, futuristic attraction it is today.

Population: 2,003,170 (estimate at end of 2011). Of these, only 168,029 are Emirates, which means a whopping 1 835 141 (90%) are expatriate workers. The largest expat communities are from India and Pakistan. Bangladesh, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka are also well-represented, while Europeans and Americans make up most of the ‘western' expats. It is, of course, also a popular option for South African professionals.

Official languages: Arabic is the official language, but Persian, English and a whole array of Eastern languages and dialects are also commonly spoken.

Climate: Dubai has a hot, arid climate and remains warm year round. Summers are extremely hot, windy and humid with temperatures averaging at a high of 42 degrees Celsius and a low of 29 degrees Celsius. Winters are more comfortable with the average high reaching 23 degrees Celsius and low 14 degrees. Because of the intense summer heat, school holidays are characterized by wide-spread indoor, and water-based activities to keep kids entertained.

Visa: The UAE Embassy does not issue visas. Visas are issued by Ministry of Interior, Naturalisation and Residence Administration. You require a sponsor who will apply on your behalf. SA sponsors include Emirates Airlines, Travel Agents and Tour Operators, relatives living and working in Dubai.

In order to apply for a visa, you will need  a passport, valid for at least 6 months, a photocopy (scan, Jpeg or PDF) of your passport information page, a recent, full colour digital (e.g. Jpeg or PDF) photograph (head shot), return flight and confirmed accommodation details, and proof of health insurance.

Money & Exchange rate: The currency is United Emirates Dirham and exactly double the value of the Rand. So, it's easy to work out if you're being ripped off or not.

Time difference: Dubai is two hours ahead of South Africa

Getting there

We arrived at Dubai International Airport at 05:00 am after a surprisingly comfortable seven-hour economy class flight aboard Emirates. Even though it was early, dark and foggy, the mercury had already hit 25 degrees Celsius and the humidity 90%. Once we boarded a bus, we were warned that the transfer to the airport terminal could take up to 15 minutes, due to the sheer size of the place, but fortunately, we covered the distance comparatively quicker.

Once inside the airport, there is quite a drill to go through: customs and passport control, followed by a rather nerve-racking eye-scan, which apparently serves as a sort of virtual fingerprint, at the same time also picking up if you have a temperature and whether you should be quarantined or not. Scary stuff.

Being a Monday morning, we arrived slap bang in the middle of Dubai International's rush hour, but with the help of kind Emirates ground staff, we managed to complete the arrival process in record time.


If you're the backpacking type, I'm afraid Dubai doesn't have much to offer. However, if you like a bit of luxurious living, the city is practically your oyster.

Most hotels do serve alcohol in their restaurants, but some carry the alcohol-free tag, meaning that guests may indulge in their bedrooms, but the hotel does not provide.

Recommendations: The Rose Rayhaan Rotana for business travel. At 333 meters and 72 storeys tall, it is currently the tallest hotel in the world and something of a shiny bastion among the city's many skyscrapers, providing mind-boggling views for residents.

InterContinental Festival City if you're looking for something a little more romantic. It's also close to the airport and on the same property as the Dubai Festival City mall, making shopping super easy.

Transport in the city

Although I would highly recommend having a professional tour guide, at least for your first day, transportation in and around the city is easy to find and quite affordable.

Taxis are the most obvious choice, and widely available. There are even special pink taxes for females travelling solo.

Dubai Metro is the latest and fastest transport option, and quite reminiscent of the Gautrein. 14 AED will get you a day pass valid for all zones.

Abras aka water taxis are the quickest way to cross from Deira to Bur Dubai and all its souks. The one-way fare for crossing the creek is a mere 1 AED.

Recommended Tour guides

During our time in Dubai we were very well looked after by Arabian Adventures who form part of the Emirates Group's Destination and Leisure Management division.

Our city guide, Shirley Karunaratne, was quite a treat with his passion for and far-reaching knowledge of Dubai. His? Yes, Shirley is indeed a man, and one with a great sense of humour at that, as he was the first (and the last) to crack a joke about his feminine name. He's also originally from Sri Lanka, but has been living in Dubai for the past ten or so years, making him a prime example of the thriving expat community.

What to expect

I guess it's safe to say that from the very first moment of setting foot in the city, Dubai never ceased to surprise me. While I had expected all the sky-scrapers, the wealth and the glitz, I had not expected to like it half as much as I did. Dubai is by far the least conservative of the United Arab Emirates as well as the other surrounding Gulf states, making it a favourite let-your-hair-down destination for GCC citizens. While dress codes are not strictly enforced, it's a good idea for women to keep their shoulders covered and not wear garments that reveal too much thigh.

10 incredible things to do:

Visit the Burj Khalifa: Perhaps the best place to kick off your sightseeing tour, the Burj Khalifa is pretty much one big Guinness World Record rolled into one. Firstly, and most famously, it's the tallest building in the world at 829.84 meters, and also the building with the most floors, 163 if you're wondering. On the 124th of these you will find the ‘At the Top' observation deck with dizzying views that seem to stretch to infinity.

And to get here? Well, of course, the highest and fastest lift in the world! Starting at its base in the Dubai Mall, the lift speeds up to the Observation deck in 58 seconds. Apart from this, the trip to the top is jazzed up with flashing lights, and up-beat Arabian-tinged music that reaches an impressive crescendo as the doors open on floor 124. Other features worth mentioning: the Armani hotel occupying the first 15 floors, the highest nightclub in the world on floor 144, the highest restaurant in the world on floor 122 and the world's highest display of New Year fireworks.

Cost: AED 100 for adults, AED 75 for children if booked a few days in advance. However, it costs AED 400 if you don't buy tickets beforehand.

Go for a dune dinner in the desert: Do not leave Dubai without a dune adventure. I repeat: do not! To be quite honest, the city can get a bit stifling, so make sure you escape to the desert for an unforgettable 4x4 and dinner experience. Read more about this Arabian Night to remember.

Cost: AED 350 Recommended tour operator: Arabian Adventures

Visit Kidzania: Kids tagging along? Take them to the mind boggling mini city of Kidzania. Located within the Dubai Mall, this is like a parallel universe for kids to learn the ways of the working world while having loads of fun. They enter via an Emirates boarding gate, receive a cheque with a fixed amount that they have to exchange for KidzDollars at the bank upon arrival, and then once inside their new city, they can hop from job to job to add to their wealth.

Jobs include anything from putting a newspaper together at the Abu Dhabi media center, being a fireman, or making pizzas. They can use the money they earn to buy little trinkets and sweets within Kidzania.

Cost: Kids under 2 get in free, Toddlers (2-3 years) - AED 95, Children (4-16 years) - AED 130 and adults accompanying a child - AED 90.

Enjoy a dhow cruise and dinner: Experience the softer side of Dubai while drifting along the Creek on a dhow and enjoying a mouth-watering three course buffet meal of choice Arabian dishes. From this vantage point the city unfolds into a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new.

Cost: roughly AED 310 per person

Feed stingrays at Atlantis: Yes, one may have been the cause of Steve Irwin's untimely death, but the rays we got to feed were small and their barbs had been removed. So, it's totally safe, and quite an experience as you stand in waist-deep water and they come flapping along like puppies. Stingrays' mouths are located pretty much on their belly, so you have to hold the shrimp underwater, fingers folded safely away, so they don't get sucked into the strong bone-like plates, and wait for the ray to hoover it up. It's a pretty cool experience, and gets even stranger when they start sucking onto your legs, sides and stomach. 

Located right at the edge of Dubai's famous man-made island, the Palm Jumeirah, Atlantis Hotel and Resort offers guests a wide array of exhilarating water-based activities. If you're an adrenaline junkie, the Leap of Faith, a near vertical, 27,5 meter drop through a submerged tunnel into shark infested waters, is for you. However, if you're more the cuddly type, opt for up-close interactions with dolphins.

Cost: Between AED 165 and AED 790 depending on what you do.

Feel like a kid again at Wild Wadi: Yet another water park in the heart of the desert, Wild Wadi offers 30 rides and attractions to keep the whole family entertained. Tantrum Alley is the big attraction for the daring, while the Burj Surj offers a slightly less heart-stopping, but no less exhilarating, experience. Located close to the Jumeirah Beach, you can hop over for a quick swim in the Arabian Gulf if the rides and crowds get a bit overwhelming.

Cost: Ranging from AED 145 to AED 215 depending on your ticket type.

Shop! Whether it's designer brands you're after (even if they're fake), spices, gold or more traditional pashminas and Ali Baba shoes, the fact is that in Dubai, you do buy. For a more detailed account of where to shop for what, keep your eyes peeled for our Dubai shopping guide.

Enjoy a lunch at SMCCU: The Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding is another absolute must-visit Dubai destination, especially if you're interested in finding out more about Dubai's history, its Bedouin roots and Arab culture in general. Over a delicious traditional lunch or breakfast, a knowledgeable host will freely interact with guests, answering even the most awkward questions about dress code, Muslim culture, traditions and social interaction. Yes, you can even ask about the polygamy and women's rights and he will answer you honestly!

The meals are presented in the ambient Bastakiya house, located in one of the oldest Emirate neighbourhoods.

Cost: AED 60 for breakfast, AED 75 for lunch.

Ski Dubai: A ski resort in the desert? Yes, indeed! Located in the Mall of the Emirates, Ski Dubai is a winter wonderland that offers a welcome break from the high humidity and soaring degrees Celsius outside. Activities include skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and up-close-and-personal encounters with real penguins. However, the highlight of the whole experience might just be sipping the best hot chocolate, laden with mini marshmallows M&Ms and cream at the St. Moritz café at the top of the slopes.

Cost: Ranging between AED 120 and AED 300 depending on which experience you opt for. Penguin encounters: Between AED 175 and AED 850.

Go to the beach: This is one thing we sadly didn't get round to doing, but every time I caught sight of the aquamarine Arabian Sea, the white sand and the colourful beach umbrellas I longed for a languid swim and even a short tan in the desert sun. Jumeirah Beach is the most popular, but if you're heading to Atlantis, pop onto the resort's beach to feel like you're on a real island.

Heading to Dubai for work from Cape Town? Check out their latest special offer for business travellers. The special, which is valid for all tickets purchased with Emirates until 17 June, offers a 10% discount on business class fares from Cape Town to any destination on the Emirates network (excluding Medina and Jeddah). Business class passengers travelling to Dubai will receive a 15% discount. Visit the Emirates website for more details.

Nadia Krige was a guest of Dubai Tourism, Arabian Adventures and Flight Centre. Contact Flight Centre on 0860 400 747 or visit Flight Centre for more details on travel to Dubai.

Priced from R2 740 per person sharing enjoy three nights accommodation with return transfers, breakfast daily, a travel bag and Sundowner Dune Safari included. Flights to Dubai from Johannesburg on Emirates start from R7260 per person. This package is valid for travel on selected dates until July. Call Flight Centre on 0860 400 747 or visit for more details.

Follow Nadia on Twitter.


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