Dubai Things to see and do & what to expect

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My last time in Dubai was in 2003 and I was really looking forward to getting an update on this futuristic city.

What strikes you when coming in from Abu Dhabi (Etihad provides free shuttle buses) is how well built-up the area is. In 2003, the main freeway Sheikh Zayed Road was a two lane road and when walking from Jumeirah to Sheikh Zayed Road you'd go through some built-up areas and lots of desert 'hiking' trails. Now this area has become the new Dubai. However, the 'old Dubai' is more or less as it used to be.

The new Dubai is a government effort and roughly comprises (new) Downtown Dubai (with the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa), The Dubai Marina and Palm Island, Jumeirah Beach Park, Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. All these are a good 15-20 miles outside the old Dubai and about 25 miles from Dubai Airport.

The infrastructure is excellent and traffic is rushed; I barely saw standstill traffic in the whole 10 days I was in town.

Of course the trouble with government-initiated development is that you end up with soulless suburbs. Developers simply 'scheme' these places into existence - office space, retail space, a mall, parking and a couple of hotels, a number of (chain) restaurants and grocery outlets (usually a Carrefour). This is copied over and over slightly more or less elegantly. The new Downtown area is more elegant and so is the marina, but in the end many places look strikingly similar.

Many downtown areas and financial centers all over the world aren't exactly tourist magnets, but in Dubai the malls and the Downtown area are - which is a bit puzzling to me.

Downtown Dubai and the Dubai Mall

The Burj Khalifa is awesome (I wrote a separate report on how to see the tallest tower in the world - the Burj Khalifa) and I think it is worth paying $45. Be prepared for lots of camera-twisting tourist groups. Take your time and go before sunset and then wait till after sunset for the best views.

The water fountains at the base of the Burj are fun and the shows lasts just a couple of minutes - it's worth seeing.

The Dubai Mall was a bit of a let down for me. You've seen all these shops before and the place is just so huge that it ends up being intimidating. It's also mainly a tourist attraction with a cheesy aquarium, a dinosaur skeleton and an ice rink.

Glancing at the supercars parked at the Dubai Mall is big fun, though.

Deira and Bur Dubai

These areas comprise the 'old Dubai'. Expect to find a more urban environment that is more nitty-gritty and less glitzy architecture. The neighborhoods are often predominantly Indian and Pakistani and feature some great Indian restaurants such as Aappa Kadai with its delicious South-Indian curries and breads.

Some of the metro stations are quite a sight by themselves - the BurJuman Metro Station was built around a water theme.


Jumeirah is the area just off the beach, south of Bur Dubai. It has lost a bit of its trendy spirit, but remains a great neighborhood. Lime Tree Cafe is a good place to refresh, as is the Aussie Tom & Serg. The latter is located off the freeway in an industrial area, but the inside and the delicious lunch and coffee will make up for the lack of outside trendiness.

Jumeirah's public beach is CLOSED for renovation right now and it's not clear when or if it will reopen.

The Jumeirah Beach Park is a good alternative, and so is Kite Beach, as well as the area just north of Burj Al Arab for a quick dip in the Arabian Sea.

Madinat Jumeirah is modeled after a traditional souk and is a resort with an outdoor/indoor shopping center next to the beach and the Mina A' Salam hotel. It has fantastic views of the Burj Al Arab and the beach. However, it is full of chain stores and tourist touts.

Dubai Marina/Palm Island

The Dubai Marina is a beautiful new development next to the entrance of the Palm. You guessed it - it has malls, restaurants, offices, apartments and a marina.

The Palm had its fair share of global marketing and everyone wants to see it. I found it a bit disappointing. The pretty setting it has looks different from the ground compared to the incredible pictures we have all seen. There are long roads and there is no public beach access unless you stay at one of the hotels.

The Dubai transport authority runs an hour-long cruise from the Dubai Marina to the Atlantis Hotel all along the Dubai Palm. It costs AED 50 and leaves every hour.

The Atlantis Hotel is 'THE Place' to go, but I can't say I found it to be a rewarding experience.

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