Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Whether you are visiting or moving to Dubai, it can be very easy to get distracted by the shiny and extravagant things and lured by the tax-free lifestyle (although VAT has recently been introduced at 5%). Friends have told me that while many move to the desert drawn by relatively high wages, if you're not careful and try to keep up with the 5 star lifestyle, you could quickly find yourself in debt!
If you are coming to the UAE, whether you are on a budget (or just love a bargain) or have a limitless credit card (a girl can dream!), here are my suggestions so you can make the most of your time here.
The Burj Khalifa vs. The Dubai Frame
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world at the moment and looks beautiful glistening in the sun. It is 2722ft tall and the design is derived from the Islamic architecture of the region, such as in the Great Mosque of Samarra.
It’s very shiny and when you enter through the Armani Hotel, it smells amazing inside!
Depending on time of day/year and what package you choose, prices can range from AED135 to AED500+. Instead we went to the Atmosphere cocktail bar, where you get to see the views but have a minimum spend of AED250 to use on cocktails or food to have a very glam night out in Dubai.
Although the views from the top are like what you’d see from your plane window, so you might be better off getting photos at the bottom by the fountains and heading to one of the many ladies nights in the city for free cocktails (normally on a Tuesday or Wednesday night).
Instead I would recommend checking out the Dubai Frame to get great views of the skyscrapers of the new town one side, and Dubai Creek of the old town, the other. It also has multimedia experiences showing some of the history of Dubai. At the top there is a 25-square-metre transparent walkway that runs along the centre of the viewing gallery. The walkway looks like frosted glass until you step on it – and then it turns clear, beware if you're not keen on heights!
Dubai Frame is open daily from 9am to 9pm. Tickets cost AED 50 for adults, AED 20 for children, with free entry for children under three and disabled visitors.
The Dubai Mall vs. The Textile Souk
The Dubai Mall is currently the biggest mall in the world with all the designer brands you could possibly think of. Situated next to the Burj Khalifa it is open between 10am and 2am it has an ice rink, cinema, a special kids zone and aquarium inside, and the nicest loos I have ever seen in a shopping centre! This is a perfect place to escape the heat of the day and you can enjoy sitting outside at one of the restaurants watching the fountains. Inside is the huge 24 meter high waterfall (pictured above) with figures representing the pearl divers that originally brought wealth to the region. As the mall is so big this waterfall makes a good meeting point if you are meeting a friend or you get lost! (Like I may have done more than once on my travels, including when I was 6 and got lost in the Edmonton Mall in Canada, which was the largest mall at the time!)
While exploring around Dubai Creek we went to the Textile Souk, because I can never have too many pashmina's and this was 'the' place to get them at the best price. My friend's advice was to only stop when you see something you really want and then get haggling! It's much easier to haggle if you speak Hindi or Urdu, and if you are a Westerner and obviously a tourist, you are likely to pay more, but thanks to the awesome haggling skills of my friend, she managed to negotiate 2 cashmere pashminas for AED100! You will also find, spices, shoes, jewellery, moroccan lamps, cushion covers and much more. Bring cash as not all the stalls have card machines.
3. Afternoon Tea
Burj Al Arab vs. Scones at Jumeriah Beach Hotel
Burj Al Arab is a 7 star hotel situated on its own man-made private island in Dubai. You can only visit Burj Al Arab if you are a guest of the hotel or if you have reservations at one of the restaurants.
The Skyview Bar is located on the top floor of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, with panoramic views of the Palm Jumeirah and The World islands.
Afternoon Tea includes: a selection of teas and coffee sandwiches, fresh pastries and cakes served with delicious homemade jams and Devonshire clotted cream.
Timings: Saturday to Thursday, first seating 13:00; second seating 16:00 Price: AED 650 per person with an additional AED 100 for a table next to a window.
Be aware that the minimum age for Skyview Bar is 21 years old.
Instead we had scones with clotted cream and jam in the Palm Court in the Lobby at the Jumeriah Beach Hotel for AED 25 and Tea for AED 35! You get 3 scones per portion and perfect views of the Burj Al Arab. I call that a win!! The Afternoon Tea package for 2 with prosecco costs AED 370 or the non alcoholic version for AED 260, which is still a huge saving in comparison.
Bubbalicious Brunch vs. Arabian Tea House
All over Instagram and the recommendation I got from friends the most of where to go in Dubai was to go for brunch at Bubbalicious. When I checked out the website I could see why, with so much choice of unlimited food and champagne, but at AED 680 or AED 480 per person for the non alcoholic version, it seemed a little excessive for me. Maybe for a special occasion or you're not planning to eat again for a year after visiting!
I much prefer trying the best of the local authentic food wherever I travel to and I love finding places off of the beaten track, so I was delighted when my friend took me down a traditional allyway in Dubai Creek. It was the traditional Arabian Tea House where there is ancient tree growing in the courtyard and the original well at the entrance (although long since dried up). The food and service was fantastic and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Dubai.
We had the hummus, cheese sambooka (the triangle things in the photo are my new favourite!) the famakabosh salad with pomegranate, local bread and chicken biriani. Everything was so fresh and tasty and we couldn't finish it all! All of the food and drinks pictured (above on the right) cost about AED 150 which could have easily fed 3-4 people!
Prestige Heritage vs. Horse Riding
I love nature and experiencing new cultures, so the opportunity to go into the desert and see the wildlife and get a taste of the traditional bedouin culture was a must for me. I was recommended my many expats in Dubai that Prestige Heritage was the best and doesn't do dune bashing, which I was pleased about. We chose the Heritage Package which costs AED 595 per person and includes:
Complimentary pick up from your hotel in Dubai
Wildlife drive through Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in a vintage 1950's open top Land Rover.
Sunset falcon show with sparkling non alcoholic date juice.
Arrival at the authentic Bedouin camp with traditional welcome of traditional coffee and dates.
Henna tattoos, live bread making, Arabic coffee making and aromatic shisha pipes available.
Dinner includes soup, salad, appetiser, main course and dessert.
Cultural Emirati entertainment performances.
Camel rides (As it is after dark, these are short rides in a lit area near the camp. For longer camel rides check out their Camel Desert Safari)
Return to the Hotel between 09:30pm and 11.30pm depends on the season/sunset.
As a spare of the moment activity a friend organised was horse riding at the Al Jiyad Stables. This was one of my favourite experiences of the whole trip. I love horses, but this was the first time I had ever ridden a Arabian through-bred race horse! It's not every day I would be galloping in the desert at sunset on a nature reserve and was such a special experience I definitely won't forget! The horses were immaculate and the guides knowledgeable and really look after you at your level. And at AED 160 for about an hour ride it is incredibly good value, although to get a taxi here could be expensive as it's quite far out of town in an neighbourhood called Arabian Ranches 2.
Grand Mosque vs. Dubai Museum
A visit to The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, isn't really technically a splurge as it is free to go in and look around and go on one of their very informative 45 min guided tours, and the only expense is really the travel to get there and back unless you go as an organised tour group.
Tips before you go:
Make sure you check the dress code on the website so you don't get caught out. They are a lot stricter with groups, but it is best to be aware. If you are not appropriately dressed ladies can borrow an abaya when going through security. If you on an organised tour, they should provide you with an abaya and security guards will not let you in without it.
Food and drink is not permitted inside the Mosque itself but there is a nice coffee shop just outside.
When taking photos, men and women are not permitted to hug together and don't raise your hands above your head, the security guard will stop you and make you delete photos deemed inappropriate.
Aim to go early or late to avoid crowds. It opens at 9am and the first tour is at 10am.
One of my biggest surprises was the Dubai Museum at Bur Dubai, which is inside the Al Fahidi Fort built in 1787 Dubai. Entry to the museum only costs AED 3 per person and AED 1 for kids under 6! This great bargain was only topped by a boat ride on the traditional arbra to get across the creek which only costs 1AED! Inside the Museum there are displays explaining the history and culture of the country from its bedouin past and how they lived in the desert, to it's growth as a trading centre as part of the silk road and the importance of pearl diving, ship building with ancient archeological finds dating back to 3000 BC.
If you enjoy visiting historic sites and learning more about the country's past I would definitely recommend a visit.
There is so much I didn't have time to see and do, but that might just mean I have to go back ;) Have I missed your favourite things in the UAE? Share your best recommendations (both splurge and saves!) in the comments below.