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Delighted in Dubai: How to have an epic layover in the city

I have a confession to make: I’ve never wanted to visit Dubai.

I understood the appeal for some people, but I always had the perception that Dubai would be flashy, over the top, and strictly for the wealthiest of the wealthy. I always thought: that’s not my style at all. What would a solo female backpacker on a budget do in Dubai? And budget aside, I couldn’t help but be a little concerned over being in what I thought would be a very religiously conservative country. I don’t ever want to offend anyone and try to be sensitive to different cultural norms, but as hard as you can try to respect these, when you step into a completely different culture you’re bound to stick out. I’ve heard alarming news stories and personal tales of women being treated differently, facing many obstacles and double standards when traveling alone in this part of the world. I’ve traveled to other religious and conservative countries before, but would I be safe alone in Dubai? How would it be different? Like most things, going in with little expectations and being a little extra cautious can often lead to a pleasant surprise.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I was wrong about Dubai.

I thought I would get bored of all the glitz and extravagance and not have anything worthwhile to see or do. In fact, I had nowhere near enough time to do everything I had planned and starred in Google Maps (anyone else get joy from seeing lots of stars on their Google world map?). Dubai debunked all the preconceived ideas I had:

- I thought there wouldn’t be any real culture, that everything would be fake and over the top. But there's Old Dubai, a part of the city that isn’t new (something rare) and quite an authentic mix of cultures.

- I thought I would be stared at as a woman alone- that I might potentially be a target for unwanted attention, simply because I didn’t blend in. In fact, even though I didn’t blend in I never once felt like I got unwanted attention, felt uncomfortable, or felt unsafe.

The reality of Dubai is that most of the population consists of expats, leading to a huge mix of nationalities and ethnicities, all coexisting in a small place. While there’s a substantial part of the population that is more conservative, Dubai is quite progressive (I’d argue even more so than the US in a few cases). While I tried extra hard to be respectful of the cultural norms, I think I underestimated how liberal this part of the UAE could be. Sure, I still saw some tourists in skimpy outfits and what seemed to be disinterest in trying to adapt to the local customs (something I find frustrating), but I never saw anyone get any negative attention. No place is perfect and Dubai is far from it, and of course this is only one person’s experience after a short stay and talking to locals. However, it was eye-opening to experience something different than what I was originally expecting.

Dubai is more than the glitz, sky scrapers, and shopping, but even the usual sights offer a unique experience. As a booming international travel hub, you’ll come across many flights with layovers here, and if you’re lucky enough to have one, I would definitely extend it. Oftentimes you can extend without any additional cost, as was my case when extending my layover from 10 hours to 48 hours on Emirates (en route to Cape Town). If you’re going as a main travel destination, there’s enough to fill at least 5 days, but if you’re tight on time and can manage to do a long, 2-day layover, here are some highlights to help you get a taste of Dubai.

EXPERIENCE OLD DUBAI

I stayed in Deira, just a few metro stops away from the downtown area of Dubai. I had heard it was up and coming and was a little hesitant, but so glad I chose to stay here. Parts of Deira are new and bustling (like the Deira City Center), but here you can experience Old Dubai and get a glimpse of life here before all the shiny new development began. Here you can also find the Souks, or markets, of gold, spices and many other things you might find in any Middle Eastern or North African market. I went at night and felt safe, but would recommend dressing more conservatively as you’ll see everyone in modest Islamic clothing and are very near a mosque.

CHECK OUT THE STREET ART IN AL KARAM

I LOVE checking out local street art when I travel and was shocked to find that Dubai has some of it’s own. In the Al Karam Neighborhood (also part of old Dubai) you’ll find many markets for cheap shopping but the best part is the whole street of art on street 18b. These murals are colorful and several stories high. They were part of an initiative to bring in artists from Dubai and abroad to create these about a year ago. Night caught up with me when I went to see them, but better to go during the day to see them at their most colorful.

SOAK UP THE SUN AT KITE BEACH

I’m a Floridian beach bum at heart and always craving some beach time. Living in San Francisco, the opportunities to get in the water were scarce, so I could have easily spent a whole day at Kite Beach. The sand is white and soft, and water perfectly warm and turquoise. Rules for modest clothing don't apply at the beach and you’ll see many in bikinis. Dubai gets HOT so bring sandals for the hot sand and lots of sunscreen. As the name suggests, you can see lots of people kite surfing here and can even take lessons. Kite Beach also has a really nice running path and a whole area for food trucks and stalls that sell all kinds of food. There’s music playing and good vibes all around to get you in the perfect holiday beach mood. You can also visit the popular Jumeirah Beach, another white sand beach.

EXPERIENCE THE MALLS

Dubai loves a good mall and they do them bigger and better than anyone else. I wasn’t into the idea of checking out the Dubai Mall but after reading all the good reviews I thought I just had to- and glad I did. It’s a spectacle and incredibly over the top, but also just fascinating to see. You’ll everything from every possible high end store, to your usual mall shops, and then of course there’s the largest aquarium I’ve ever seen (which you can actually go diving in) right in the middle of the mall. There’s also a fountain show with lights that really gives the Bellagio in Vegas a run for it’s money. The fountain show runs every 30 min. Get there 10 min early (it’s right behind the Apple store) to get a good viewing spot. Other malls that are also massive but good for lower key shopping (of that’s even a thing in Dubai) are the Mall of the Emirates and the Deira City Center.

SEE THE BURJ KHALIFA UP CLOSE

Unsurprisingly, the tallest building in the world can be seen from almost anywhere in Dubai, but head to the Dubai Mall and while you’re waiting for the fountain show, you’ve got a great photo opp for the Burj Khalifa. I’ve never been one for going to the top of these types of sky scrapers since you can grab views from a lot of different places. Skip the expensive trip to the top and get a picture of the skyscraper itself from below. If you decide to go up, general admission for adults is 200AED ($55 USD) for level 125 or 500AED ($136 USD) to reach the top ("SKY" level 148). Book in advance.

EAT

Literally any cuisine you want from American (IHOP and Denny’s are in Dubai! Mind blown) to Lebanese, Indian, Japanese and beyond.

Or just soak up the mix of people and cultures. You’ll find local Emiratis, Pakistanis, Saudis, Malaysians, Indian, Chinese, European and so many others here. It’s a unique experience for sure.

IF YOU GO:

Where to stay

I stayed at the awesome Rove Hotel City Center in Deira (they have other locations as well). Hostels are scarce in Dubai and pretty expensive (starting at around $30 a night). Dubai is the place to splurge and I could go on and on about how much I loved Rove. Modern, artsy vibe, new, clean, great food available on site, helpful staff, and perfectly located right by the metro.

When to go

Locals and expats will remind you often about how hot it gets, and it’s no joke with temperatures reaching 45 °C (or 113 °F) and sometimes higher. Opt for the more bearable weather from November-March for temps around 24-31°C (75-88°F).

What to bring/wear

You’ll read a lot about how you need to stay very covered while in Dubai. While I think some guides are are little extra when it comes to wardrobe and what’s allowed, it’s still best to err on the conservative side. Don’t be that tourist wearing short shorts and crop top, but keep things around knee length and a light jacket to cover shoulders (mainly if going into more conservative spots) should suffice. Also take a jacket for visiting indoors spots as they tend to put the air conditioning quite high.

Getting around

Taxis are safe and will usually follow meters. You can also take Uber and the metro is quite good here (my first choice). The metro can take you to most places and if staying for a long weekend, I get a day pass or a reloadable Nol card. Metro rides cost around $2 each and on the day pass your ticket his good for busses as well.

You can find anything and everything in Dubai. And in true Dubai fashion it’ll probably be bigger and better than what you knew or expected. There’s a fantastic and unique mix of people across a wide spectrum and I would highly recommend visiting and experiencing it for yourself.

Have you been to do Dubai? How was your experience?

Looking for more travel inspo for your next adventure? Follow me on Instagram @wherealexwent for more pics of Dubai and other fun destinations.

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