From a bone-dry desert to become a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, nothing is impossible here in Dubai. Its strategic geographic location made Dubai the perfect location for a layover for many long haul flights via this city. That’s exactly what I did last year, spending two days in Dubai after a trip in Jordan and had my first taste of what this city has to offer. I was very lucky to be back in Dubai recently as part of an international media famil hosted by Dubai Tourism and get to experience a whole lot more than I thought I would. Dubai is exactly what you would have imagined and beyond; it is over the top, it has the tallest and also the largest. To really experience this ever changing city, you seriously need to be in it to really understand what the fuss is all about.
One not necessarily has to go all out and splurge to have a good time here in Dubai, you can easily find yourself a little piece of oasis in this desert city on a decent budget.
And here’s my Top 10 things to do in Dubai:
10. Up, up and way at Burj Khalifa
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You want to see Dubai? Then the best way to see Dubai is obviously from the highest point in this city, right on top of the tallest man-made structure in the world, Burj Khalifa. It took five years to build and cost a total of US$1.5 billion, this impressive 829.8 metres building officially opened on 4 January 2010. There are 163 levels in total but the observation deck is actually on level 124, it is high enough to give you an unobtrusive bird’s eye view of the whole city and beyond.
Don’t be a fool and only wait till the day you want to visit to get your ticket, because usually tickets are sold out days ahead, unless you are willing to purchase the ‘fast track’ entry which will cost a hefty AED400(AU$117.30) instead of the normal ticket price of AED125(AU$36.70) per entry. So book in advance is the way to go.
I’ve been up Burj Khalifa on both occasions at different time of day. If I have to choose, I personally prefer the night viewing as the Dubai skyline at night was simply stunning. If you seriously want to experience both, they also offer a Day & Night pass which allows you entry once during the day and again on the same evening for AED550 (AU$161.55).
Since you have seen the tallest, you can also experience the largest while in the complex. Connected from Burj Khalifa is The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall based on total area with over 1,200 shops. You seriously can shop till you drop since everything here is tax free. I had sore feet just by walking from one end of the mall to another over four levels.
At the Dubai Mall, you also do not want to miss out on the Dubai Fountain show every 30 minutes from 6pm till midnight daily. Guess what, it is also the largest dancing fountain in the world, designed by the creators of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas.
And did I mention about shopping?
9. Step back in time in Old Dubai
Dubai is considered a relative new city (established in 1833), and because of the constant construction and development, there are only a very small amount of history remains. Get away from the concrete jungle and head north to Old Bastakiya District to get a sense of the Old Dubai. This area is a step back in time to the days before electricity and air-conditioning, where traditional courtyard houses were cooled by wind towers.
The Bastakiya district is now an art and culture hub where old houses had been converted into galleries, boutiques and cafes. Not far from Bastakiya district is the old Al Fahidi Fort which is now served as the Dubai Museum. Built in 1787 and it is the oldest existing building in Dubai.
While you are in the area, one must try is of course camel; and I don’t mean riding one either.
8. My camel milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
Camel milk has been a part of Bedouin, nomad and pastoral diets since the domestication of camels millennia ago. It is still largely a subsistence product with only a few certain places in Dubai that serve camel products. Some researchers claim that camel milk is supposed to be better for you than cow’s milk; it is low in lactose and cholesterol than cow or goat milk. Camel milk has enough nutrients to sustain a person through the day.
If you would like to try some camel milk, then head over to Local House Restaurant in Bastakiya District where you will be able to try anything camel. So what does camel milk taste like? I think we drink so much diluted skim milk these days and almost forgot how good full cream milk taste like. The full cream camel milk taste very much like cow milk to be honest but it does have a hint of saltiness lingers on the back of the tongue. Try the dates flavoured milkshake which is sweet with caramel flavour from the local dates.
You simply can’t leave this place without trying camel meat just for novelty sake. Camel meat is not something common here in Dubai, just like kangaroo meat in Australia, the meat is there but not necessary a common protein in the normal diet. Local House Restaurant offers camel biryani and also camel wellington (what the?), but most tourists are here to try their camel burgers. I can’t really say that I enjoyed it, the camel burger pattie tasted like coarse beef, a little dry and chewy from gristles and sinews. Just give it a go and at least you can say you have tried it.
(On another note – you actually can find camel meat in Australia. I had my first camel schnitzel in Darwin)
Another place you can try camel products is at The Majlis inside Dubai Mall. This cafe sits in the middle of The Souk, offers beverages, pastries, cakes and also Al Nassma camel milk chocolate, all made by using the finest camel milk from Camelicious Camel Farm.
7. Eat like a local
If you want to try Emirati cuisine, then Al Fanar is the place to go. It is one of the first few restaurants in Dubai that serves authentic local Emirati cuisine in a modern dining setting. There are outdoor cushion seating for those who like to soak in the middle east sun, or escape the heat and settling in the much cooler dining room filled with ornate decor.
Emirati cuisine is a blend of many Middle Eastern cuisines with the influence of Asians. One-pot stews and large sharing plates are how Emirati food is served usually. A few dishes must try is Biryani Laham mutton, Saloona Deyay ma Khudhar chicken stew and Harees, a Middle Eastern dish made from cracked wheat boiled with meat that resembled porridge like the American-style grits.
The population of Dubai has reached over 2 million with only 10-15% was made up of Arab UAE nationals, and approximately 71% was Asian, chiefly Indian (51%) and Pakistani (16%). Hence, no surprise that some of the best Indian cuisine can be found here in Dubai. A quick http://www.atablefortwo.com.au search will give you a long list of Indian restaurants and eateries, with most of them around Bur Dubai.
Manvaar Restaurant serves up North-Indian Rajasthani fare that will turn a meat eater to love vegetarian. Rajasthani cuisine can be quite heavy and rich so best to go in big group and share. The must try is Daal-Bati-Churma which is a meal on its own. Or like us, get a big BBQ meat platter of chicken tikka, tandoor and kebab assortments to share and serve them with Desi Gatta Curry and Vegetable Pulao, plus lots of roti and paratha.
The restaurant is located in Al Karama, where you will also find other popular Indian/Pakistani restaurants like Simran’s Aappa Kadai for South Indian fare and Sind Punjab Restaurant that offers some of the best cheap Pakistani meals around. Best way to get there is by taxi.
Near the Dubai Museum is the Indian quarter, here you will find some authentic Indian street food. Go to Puranmal Vegetarian Restaurant for some delicious panipuri, made to order. You can choose to dine in the restaurant, but most locals will just queue up by the takeaway window to take home some panipuri and vada, or like us eat them on the spot. It was quite an experience to have “window service”, we were standing right by the takeaway window and being served one panipuri at a time.
First round was panipuri filled with spicy and sour water (or sauce) of tamarind, coriander and green chilli. You put the whole thing in the mouth without spilling, and let the spicy sauce gushes out of the crispy shell as it starts to crumble inside your mouth. Then we were served with the drier version which the panipuri was filled with tamarind chutney and crispy sev noodles. We also shared a couple morsels of Vada, a deep fried ball of mashed potato mixed with mustard seeds, chillies, ginger and curry leaves, served with fresh mint sauce on the side.
If you still have stomach space, cross the road (Al Fahidi St) to Textile Souk for more deep fried. Here at Textile Souk, (also known as the old souk) is a vibrant and rowdy touristy spot. Touts will try to get you into their shops, and you probably will walk out with silk pashminas and fabrics before you know it. Here is also the home to the impressive mosaic Iranian mosque and also the one and only Hindu Temple in Dubai.
If you are looking for food, then head to the end of the souk where you will find a couple of tiny shops selling Indian street food snacks. Just point whatever you want and he will pack everything into a plastic bag. There are samosas and vadas aplenty, but try the mirch pakora, is like Spanish padron, except the green chillies were battered and deep fried.
6. Take an abra ride
I seriously think a trip to Dubai is not complete without a boat ride on one of the abra water taxis. Just like in India, many locals are still using this form of transport to cross Dubai Creek. For only 1 Dirham (about $0.30), you will be able to join the others on a rickety wooden abra from the Old Souk to cross over the other side where the spice market is.
5. Souk-ing in the hustle and bustle
Once you have crossed the Dubai Creek (more like a river), then prepare yourself for some hard bargaining action. Here you will find the Spice Souk and the Gold Souk. The Spice Souk comprises several narrow lanes with tiny shops selling nothing but herbs and spices. The touting is feisty and competitive which can be a little bit overwhelming, just politely say no and usually they will leave you alone.
As much as you would like to bring some of the spices home, it is very unlikely they will get through the Australian customs. However, I had no trouble bringing some of the finest Iranian saffron back to the country. It’s time to put your haggling skill to the test, we managed to bring home 15 grams of mid-range quality Iranian saffron for AED100 (AU$30).
There is only one word to describe the Gold Souk – “BLING!”
Before you even ask, they are all real gold here at the souk. The authority is extremely strict on the gold trading here at the souk, vendors and traders will face hefty fines and loss of license if get caught selling fake gold and imitations. However, that doesn’t stop a few lurkers around the souk trying to sell you fake Rolex watchers and lure you to the back lane where they keep their stocks away from the watchful eyes.
4. Something smells fishy here…
If there is only one must-do in Dubai that doesn’t cost you a Dirham, then this is it – visit the Dubai Fish Market. It’s only a stone throw across a major freeway from the Gold Souk, the fish market is less touristy and offers a great insight into a more real Dubai. This fish market is the largest in Dubai (another smaller one in Karama), a fully-functioning market where locals and chefs will be here early in the morning to source the fresh daily catch.
This place is massive, you can find almost any kind of fish and shellfish you can imagine. Chatty and friendly fishmongers will happily pose for photos and also try to tempt you to buy some seafood. I seriously would if I have a kitchen to cook them in because the seafood here is cheap, I was offered a whole lobster for only 50 Dirham (about AU$15.00).
And the best part, you don’t even have to clean the fish if you happen to buy some fish at the market; there is a filleting station adjacent to the main market where they will clean, gut, fillet and have the fish ready for you at a minimal fee.
I kid you not, these prawns were twice the size of an iPhone!
The fish market is actually more like your typical wet market, you’ll also find the butchery behind two corridors through the PVC curtain door flaps. You will notice all vendors are wearing colour coded uniforms, where blue uniform is for the seafood section and red is for the meat.
The butchery is just as fascinating as the fish market, you can order any cuts of meat and butchers will break down the whole carcass for you. Talk about head to tail eating philosophy, you can pretty much find almost every part of an animal is for sale here. It’s a sight not for the squeamish one.
Out of the fish market to the open space at the back where you will find Al Hamiya Fruit and Vegetable Market. Colourful fruit and vegetables are stacked high made an impressive cascading display at each stall, stall keepers in green uniforms will tempt you by offering free fruit tasting until you give in and buy some from them. I was actually surprised to see so many Asian greens were available here in Dubai.
We were in happy place when we found the date stalls right at the back of the market. Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East and here you get to try an array of dates where each has its own characteristic in terms of colour, shape, size, flavour and texture. There are over 2,000 varieties of dates around the world; so many dates, so little time…
We found the Safawi dates was the most interesting variety we’ve tried, soft yet chewy texture, not too sweet but with a hint of caramel flavour. The safawi dates are not the most expensive variety, at AED30 (AU$9) per kilo. The most expensive one at AED250 (AU$73.20) per kilo is the Ajwa dates; these highly sorted black soft dates are much smaller, were Prophet Muhammad’s favourite dates. In Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, he said “He who eats seven Ajwa dates every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them.” Give them a try if you find them in the market, but beware of imitations.
3. Take part in an extreme sport – brunching
Brunching in Dubai can easily be another sport event in the next Olympic games. On every Friday (the first day of the Arabic weekend), major hotels will throw their doors open and welcome visitors for “champagne brunch”; and I’m not talking about the lazy mid-morning 11am-ish leisure breakfast/lunch at a cafe. Brunch in Dubai is an extreme sport, an exercise in excess with bottomless buffets and free-flowing alcohols, even elastic waist pants won’t save your over-indulged gluttony soul.
All high end restaurants in Dubai are doing brunch differently, and here at Prime 68 steakhouse at JW Marriott Marquis sets the bar high, it is considered one of the best in Dubai “brunch scene”. The a-la-carte styled brunch here will set you back AED595 (AU$174) including free-flowing French champagne. Instead of buffet tables, food is being served at the table one after another at a good pace without rushing. We’ve been informed that whenever we need to take a breather, we just have to say stop and they will tell the kitchen to slow down until we are ready to devour again.
And here is just a small taste of all the dishes we’ve had during the brunch.
What can be more fancy than choosing your own steak knife for the main meat courses? A little bit of theatrical at the table never go astray, a whole hunk of US prime rib was being carved at our table (pic above).
The cheese trolley and petit fours will definitely put anyone into food coma. Trust me, you will never want to see or talk about food ever again after finishing the brunch. Hmm.. maybe not, as I am about to show you more awesome eateries in Dubai!
2. The Frying Pan adventure
There was only one condition before Arva Ahmed taking us on an odyssey around the area where she grew up in Dubai – Do not eat for the whole day and come with an empty stomach. And she really meant it, because she will take you on a gastronomic journey that no one will leave with an empty stomach.
By growing up in Deira, the oldest district in Dubai, Arva knows this area like the back of her hand. Here you will get a real sense of what Dubai used to be, compacted neighbourhoods with diverse expatriate community that makes up Dubai. Arva’s passion of food has led her to start up Frying Pan Adventures three years ago, which she runs regular food tours, sharing some of the best eats that Old Dubai has to offer.
The Middle Eastern Tour is a 5-hour walking food tour, priced at AED350 (AU$125). The tour is a feast for the eye, mouth and the mind; Arva will constantly feed you with food, history and random facts. Each tour will run differently depending on the group’s preferences what they want to try and how much they can consume; but usually she will make about 7 to 8 stops along the food trail. It wasn’t a wishy-washy food tour, we seriously delved deeply into a wide range of Middle Eastern cuisines including Jordanian, Egyptian, Yemen, Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Iraqi, Bedouin and Iranian.
Without giving away too much and spoil the fun for you, here’s a series of pitstops and some of the food we tried during the food tour:
L to R: Masgouf carp grilled at the fire pit (Iraqi cuisine); something we all familiar with, Shawarma, best Middle Eastern street snack food
Mandi (Bedouin cuisine) platter came with two types of rice and served with tandoor chicken and slow cooked lamb stew.
Arva showed us how to eat rice by using hand. The trick is, make your fingers shaped like the duck’s beak, then use the back of the thumb and push the rice into mouth. Easy!
The man who gave the best massage – to a sangak, a traditional Persian bread cooked by using stones.
Sangak means little stones, as the flat bread was cooked on a bed of stones inside a wood fire oven. The small stones will sometimes stick on the bread during baking. They will brush the stones off before the bread is hung up to cool.
Barberries are commonly used in Iranian cuisine.
The tour won’t be complete without sampling a few Middle Eastern pastries, sweets and desserts. Baklava, Ma’amoul Maadh (semolina and date paste cake), Bukaj (Baklava shaped like a cloth knapsack), Karabij (pistachio cookies with the soapwart cream), I heart you all. But my favourite was the oh-so crispy Bourma (pic above).
1. Ride into the sunset
It only takes an hour to get out of the city for some thrilling dune-bashing in 4WD in the middle of the desert is definitely a must-do Dubai experience. We chose the half-day Sundowner safari tour, organised by Arabian Adventures which is also part of Emirates Group. We were super impressed with their professionalism and service, and the tour was jam-packed full of action.
The tour started with a quick yet informative falcon show.
Then the real action began, a convoy of 4WD’s driving bashing through the sand dunes in precision. Our safari tour guide was well-trained behind the wheels, expertly manoeuvred the beast around the desert like a roller coaster joyride.
The whole convoy eventually stopped at a vantage point where finally everyone able to jump out of the cars to catch the final moment of that spectacular sunset over the horizon.
A herd of Arabia Oryx in the desert.
Our safari tour continued at the Al Sahara campsite where visitors were invited for photo op with owl and falcon, or a leisure camel ride. But most importantly, we concluded our tour with a scrumptious Arabic buffet dinner under the Bedouin-style camp, all were inclusive in the tour package.
Visitors were settling in the Bedouin-style camp before dinner time.
The Pom found sitting cross legs challenging.
Naan bread freshly made and cooked in tandoor.
The buffet line offers a great Middle Eastern selection of grilled meats, biryani, salads and delectable sweets. All drivers were efficiently turning into waitstaffs serving food to guests.
There were also free henna hand painting and aromatic shisha available at the camp site. But it was the highly energetic belly dancing performance that captured everyone’s heart to conclude a memorable journey.
Priced at only AED360 (about AU$105.60), the safari tour worth every penny.