- When: 29 December, 2020 – 3 January, 2021
- Where (accommodations): Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel
- Transportation: Emirates flight from Male, Maldives (or direct flight from Boston or New York City)
- Sights/attractions: Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque, Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai Frame, Dubai Garden Glow, Platinum Heritage Dubai, Dubai Miracle Garden, Burj Al Arab Hotel, Jumeirah Beach, Atlantis The Palm, Dubai Marina, Ski Dubai (Mall of the Emirates), Burj Khalifa, The Dubai Fountain, The Dubai Mall, Gold and Spice Souks, Dubai Creek, Perfume House, Al Shindagha Museum, Al Ibn Abi Talib Mosque, Grand Bur Dubai Masjid, Dubai Museum, Al Fahidi Fort , Al Fahidi Historical District, Al Farooq Mosque
- Food/drinks: Al Nafoora, Bice Mare Restaurant, Sushi Fusion, Arabian Tea House, La Cantine du Faubourg, Torno Subito
Technically we’ve been to Dubai twice. That is if you count the six hour layover, which we totally enjoyed at the airport spa and hotel on the way to Maldives. The real exploration of this bright and shiny city begins on the second part of our vacation- we’ll spend five nights in Dubai before returning to cold Boston. It’s not usual for us to spend this long in one city, but given how much there is to see and do, we wish we had even more time! In normal circumstances, we would have loved to visit Abu Dhabi as well, but COVID-19 restrictions were different for the neighboring emirate (mandatory quarantine for 14 days upon arrival). Instead, we got a good taste of Dubai on this first trip to United Arab Emirates.
Dubai’s entry requirements are very straight forward- negative COVID-19 PCR test, that is taken no longer than 72 hours prior to departure. It is recommended to also download the app, but we were never able to fully set it up with our contact information and nobody ever asked to show it during our stay. Test results had to be printed and were checked thoroughly before boarding the aircraft in both New York and Male airports. Other than that- Dubai seemed to live its life to the fullest- pretty much everything was open, malls had no shortage of people, but masks are mandatory and everyone was wearing them regardless if they were inside or outdoors.
With the boring info out of the way, let me tell you about all the fun that we had on this trip! Besides the sights, the food and the new experiences- the most enjoyable part was spending this time with my sister and brother in law, who made a last minute decision to join us on this adventure. We are so glad they did! Not being able to go to Europe and see the family for a whole year, this was the best Christmas gift and a wonderful start of the (hopefully much better) new year.
We chose Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel based on location and the reviews online, that you could see the New Year’s fireworks. Location indeed was ideal for what we had planned, but to see the fireworks we had to walk about 30 minutes (easy and pleasant walk). Dubai has built so many skyscrapers since these reviews, that there was no chance of viewing the firework show from our hotel room. We are still happy with our choice and would recommend this place for anyone visiting.
Beds were comfortable, rooms- spacious and the heated outdoor pool was a very nice bonus. When I say heated- the water was like a bath- it seemed colder to be outside in the sun than inside the pool!
Our stay came with a full breakfast. There was a buffet, as well as a la carte menu from the restaurant located right in the lobby. Strict COVID-19 measures were taken- the guests were not allowed to touch any buffet utensils and the staff was very quick in assisting – you just had to point/tell them what you’d like to be loaded on your plate. Once seated, you could also order meals from the full breakfast menu.
Lower level of the Emirates Towers also has several restaurants with different cuisines. We tried Al Nafoora (Lebanese) for lunch and for New Year’s dinner and had drinks at the famous French place with an extravagant decor- La Cantine du Faubourg. We’ve heard their brunch is amazing too.
When we booked the rooms, one of the amenities listed was a shuttle and a beach access to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel facilities located right in front of the famous Burj Al Arab. Apparently this is no longer the case and guests are required to buy a day pass (with a discount) to access the beach, but since it was part of our booking, the staff honored it and we enjoyed a few blissful afternoons in the sun.
SOMEWHERE, OVER THE DESERT…
Before I deep dive into what we saw in Dubai, I’d like to share my absolute favorite activity on this trip. It involves a lot of sand and a feeling like you are floating on a cloud. Can you guess? It was our first hot air balloon ride!
Being able to enjoy it together with the family, plus a Lithuanian pilot and a gorgeous sunrise over the desert- unbelievable experience that we all agreed we’d repeat in a heartbeat.
We booked this excursion through Platinum Heritage, which partners with Balloon Adventures Dubai. The day prior we got confirmation via WhatsApp on the pick up time from our hotel. It was EARLY. I am sure it depends on the season and the sunrise time, but for us it was pick up at 5.10 AM on the dot. Strict instructions were given to not be late, so we were up around four in the morning and ready to go! The driver picked us up in a private vehicle- we appreciated the fact that it’s not a shared van, considering the pandemic.
It took around 45 minutes to reach the place of the take off in the desert. Make sure to use a bathroom prior, unless you don’t mind taking care of business behind the sand dune 🙂 .
Once the pilot said his name- Donatas, we knew instantly that he’s from our home country. Fun fact- Lithuania has the largest number of hot air balloons per capita and our pilots are very well trained and experienced flyers. Not that we were worried, but still a reassuring fact before the first flight!
Each balloon had around 24 people- pretty full and cozy. There were partitions with plastic separating groups of six, so we were together with another couple from France. The ride was about 45 min long and was the smoothest gliding ever. We literally felt like we are floating above the desert and did not even feel like we are moving that far (upon landing we realized that we are forty minutes drive away from where we have started!). We saw the wild animals running around, a car stuck in the sand, the sun coming up- it was truly magical.
Landing was its own fun experience. We were strapped in, had to hold on, squat and when the basket reached the ground it tipped, so that we all were sort of laying on our backs. It was not scary at all, really just more fun than landing straight on the bottom. I am already looking forward for another hot air balloon ride opportunity, it was that incredible!
From the sky to the desert- fun morning continues. The same driver picked us up and gave us a ride through the dunes until a spot where we changed vehicles- we’ll roll to have breakfast at the bedouin camp in an open vintage Land Rover!
There was a full spread for breakfast- buffet style as well as freshly made hot meals. We also got a bathroom break- no more need to go behind the sand dune 🙂 .
Once we finished eating, there was some ‘free time’ which we spent taking more photos in the desert AND doing another first for my sister and brother-in-law- a short camel ride! Sean and I had a camel safari in India, so it was less of a novelty, but still exciting nonetheless.
We got dropped off at our hotel before 11 AM- it’s hard to believe we’ve done so much and the day is only starting. Early bird catches the worm or so they say 🙂 .
Activities and sights in Dubai are endless, but some require tickets/reservations in advance, so I recommend planning ahead. We have a method of sightseeing the cities and it worked well so far. Before the trip I usually do the research and figure out what we MUST see/do. Then select some places that ‘would be nice’ to see if we have the time. I show them to Sean and we both decide what is worth/not worth visiting. Then we mark the places on the Google Maps on Sean’s phone (he typically has data access without having to connect to wifi, so we use it to navigate the cities). Once all of the desired locations are “hearted” and we have a clear visual where they are, we then group them into separate day activities. If we know that we must go see a specific mosque, and we also have a museum, monument or landmark in the close proximity, we plan on visiting those on the same morning/afternoon. If there is a restaurant that we’d like to try, we add it to that group of sights and plan the day around it. That way we don’t need to rush from one end of the city to another and can spend more time exploring particular neighborhood.
Dubai is very spread out and not a walking city. It can easily take 30 minutes or more to go from one side to the next, and that does not even include traffic. We used either taxis or Uber during this trip. Since it was four of us, Uber was the best option as most taxis only agreed to take two people per car.
Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque
This beautiful mosque is located 10 minutes drive from Jumeirah Towers hotel and we decided to check it out on our first day of arrival. The inscriptions inside and the design of the building are inspired by the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It can accommodate over 2000 worshipers and is considered one of the UAE’s largest mosques. Make sure to look up the hours of operation for visitors before going, wear modest clothes and bring a head scarf (for women).
I had a skirt below my knees, but it was considered too short. Sean wore shorts and that was not acceptable either.
We were able to borrow the robes and were allowed to enter the place (make sure to leave your shoes outside). Surprisingly at 4pm on a Tuesday we were the only tourists there. By the way- other than in religious sites, Dubai is a very modern city and no special attire is needed for men or women. Shorts, skirts and short dresses are widely acceptable and bikinis are completely fine at the hotel pool or the beach.
Since it was pretty close ride, we decided to go see another beautiful mosque. We were not able to enter it, seems like you have to go on an organized tour unless you are a muslim, so we just walked around and admired it from outside.
The largest frame in the world is located in Zabeel Park. It stands 150.24 m (493 ft) tall and 95.53 meters wide. It can be seen from quite far, but to truly experience it I’d advise buying the tickets in advance and enjoying it from the inside out.
Quick elevator ride takes you to the top and the views of Dubai from there are breathtaking. Because the ticket is needed and the time is assigned, the amount of people inside is reduced. It still was a bit busy, but with everyone wearing the masks it felt pretty safe.
Dubai Garden Glow
We did not have this garden marked and had no idea it even existed. I think it was either my sister or her husband that saw the dinosaur statues while driving by and suggested to go see what it’s all about. By the time we left Dubai Frame it was dark, so when we reached Dubai Garden Glow there was no way to miss it. It literally GLOWS.
This place is also massive. We walked and walked and still probably have not seen all of it. I don’t know if it’s open during the day, but by far the best time to visit is after sunset.
There are a few entrances and the tickets are sold right there at the booth. This shiny garden was one unexpected and very pleasant surprise. Highly recommend!
Dubai Miracle Garden
Who knew we’ll see so many gardens on this trip 🙂 ! Slightly out of the main city attractions, about 30 minutes car ride from our hotel this garden is also a MUST see. Located in the district of Dubailand and is a world’s largest natural flower garden with over 50 million flowers arranged into exquisite sculptures.
Whether you are into gardening and flowers or not, this is a beautiful place to walk around.
Open from mid November to mid May every year this place holds two Guinness World Records for the largest vertical garden in 2013 and world’s largest floral sculpture forming the shape of an Airbus A380 in 2016.
If you went to Paris for the first time and did not see the Eiffel Tower, would it still be considered as visiting Paris 🙂 ? How about New York and the Statue of Liberty? Well, to me, visiting Dubai automatically associated with the tallest building in the world- Burj Khalifa! 829.8 meters tall, this skyscraper was built in 2009 and still does not have a match in the world. We saw it from several different angles, including the New Year’s fireworks, but for a full experience we pre-booked the tickets to visit it from the highest floor that we could access.
There are several ticket options with different price points. The highest is called At the Top, Burj Khalifa SKY. It allows to visit levels 148, 125 and 124. That is around $97 USD per person. There is an option At the Top, Burj Khalifa, that gets you to 125th and 124th floors and costs around $40 USD per person. Since we don’t plan on doing it again, we went with the highest option. The view for sure is amazing, but to be completely honest, I don’t know if 23 floors makes a huge difference when you are this high up.
What I do recommend (and that is what we did) is to time it up around sunset. That way you can see the view in the daylight, take in the sunset and see the city below lit up. Also, from 6pm there is a fountain show every 30 minutes, so even though it’s from far away, it’s still enjoyable to catch it from a different perspective.
The Dubai Mall and The Dubai Fountain
If you are in the downtown already (say you have tickets to visit Burj Khalifa), might as well get some shopping done (or just window shop, that’s what we did) in the largest shopping mall by land area in the world. From super high end designer stores to the regular retail like Zara, this The Dubai Mall has it all. We mostly were interested in seeing the 155 million years old fossil, the aquarium and the huge waterfall.
If you happen to finish shopping by 6pm, stay around and watch The Dubai Fountain show. I am not sure if the times change, but during our visit, three minute show took place every 30 minutes.
Each time a new song was playing and the fountain ‘danced’ slightly differently. Right before the fountain show, there is a laser show display on the Burj Khalifa building, so make sure to turn around and see both!
The best spot in my opinion is from the side of the Souk Al Bahar– the luxury market or one of the restaurants overlooking the lake. We got lucky to get a table at the Bice Mare restaurant and besides the amazing dinner were able to enjoy 3 laser/fountain shows right from our table!
Spending some time in the Downtown Dubai was really fun, though a lot busier than in the other parts of the city. The architecture, the futuristic skyscrapers and the clean surroundings were super impressive!
SNOW OR SAND- HOW ABOUT BOTH!
Ski Dubai (Mall of the Emirates)
Another huge mall for the shopping lovers, but we went with a different purpose. Sean had a dream to ski indoors, so we had to give it a try! Of course it’s not the mountains and not a freshly groomed powder, but the fact that we came in with shorts, were able to rent the full gear (jackets and pants included), ski/snowboard for a couple of hours and then go back to the beach was INSANE!
There are a lot of activities for the kids and adults. We only got the tickets to the Slope, but there is a whole other side of the park with tubing, zip line, penguins and much more. Easily could spend a day here if we had more time.
We had fun in the snow, but I’ll take the white sand beach over the white cold snow ANY day. Time to lose the warm layers and get some vitamin SEA.
Jumeirah Beach and Burj Al Arab
Since we had access to Jumeirah Beach Hotel by staying at Jumeirah Towers, we enjoyed the beach a couple of times throughout our trip in Dubai. It may not be the best beach (there is construction on the right side of the hotel), but having comfortable lounge chairs, being able to order lunch right on the beach and the view of Burj Al Arab was very convenient.
If we had more time in Dubai we’d definitely explore other beaches, but just the sunset here was quite spectacular!
Not too far from here there is a great restaurant – Sushi Fusion. Tucked away from the main road this place is local’s favorite and therefore might be some wait. It was worth it. We loved every single dish.
Atlantis, The Palm and Dubai Marina
We wanted to see the iconic Jumeirah Palm and did not realize how huge the area is. We totally underestimated the distance from the beach and walked for an hour and a half until my sandal broke, we all needed to use a restroom and per GPS we were still at the bottom ‘trunk” part of The Palm. Grateful to grab a taxi (who grossly overcharged us for an 8 min drive) we reached the extravagant Atlantis resort. Extremely posh and shiny (just like the rest of Dubai) it mostly wowed us with the giant aquarium. In order to see more of it you need to be a registered guest, so we only got a glimpse to a tiny part of this beautiful hotel.
There are numerous restaurants in The Palm area and we tried one of the famous chef Massimo Bottura’s first restaurant outside of Italy- Torno Subito. Definitely different twist to your typical Italian cuisine!
I cannot say that it was my favorite place, but it’s definitely very creative and the interior as well as the patio outside provides a nice atmosphere. Quite pricey, but that is Dubai.
About 20 minutes drive from The Palm we reached another fun Dubai district- Dubai Marina. Known for The Beach at JBR, Marina Walk and of course another mall this beautiful neighborhood left us wanting to come back for more. We only saw it during the night and it was hustling and bustling with waterfront cafes and restaurants, Beach Market and a view of ‘Ain Dubai’– the world’s tallest observation wheel!
Definitely a neighborhood to explore on our next visit!
We’ve seen more skyscrapers in Dubai than in any previous city. Now time to learn some history and visit the place where is all started. We spent a good part of the day exploring Deira and the Grand Souq– the old market divided into separate sections, took a boat across the channel and wandered along Dubai Creek to the charming Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. It was a lot less touristy and crowded than the Downtown area. Completely different feel, great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. Our friend Sohela that we met a few months back in French Polynesia also arrived to Dubai, so she joined us for the Old Town visit. One of the many things I love about traveling- you never know where you will make new friends and meet them again across the world!
Spices, gold and more!
Whether you are in the mood for some shopping or just walking around- Herbs Souq and Gold Souq are a fun place to visit. I ended up buying a very soft and warm scarf at the Textiles Souq, but after asking for some gold prices we were a bit shocked how expensive it was.
There were not many people, so the vendors tried to get our attention. Not too aggressive or annoying, but after some time of saying ‘No, thank you, I don’t need a high quality copy of Louis Vuitton bag’, we had enough and decided to continue with our self guided tour.
Deira to Bur Dubai
When you are ready to cross the channel, grab one of the traditional Abra boats and for 15 AED (4 USD) you have your own private sailing across Dubai Creek. If you want to pay only 1 AED (around 27 cents), then you can wait for a 15 people group. No thank you 🙂 .
Perfect break from all the walking and a nice breeze on the water. Fun quick ride across and we are in yet another old neighborhood.
Exploring Dubai Creek
Wandering around the quiet streets we came across a few museums that we did not plan to visit, but glad we did. Perfume House and Al Shindagha Museum both were super informative. You can access both with the same ticket and make sure to watch a video in the Dubai Creek House that is part of Al Shindagha Museum– it tells you a short and interactive version of history on how Dubai started.
It’s amazing to see how this city grew from a small village to an international metropolis that it is now.
Next on our agenda- Al Ibn Abi Talib Mosque and Grand Bur Dubai Masjid. Both were closed for tourists and possibly only allowing muslims to begin with. Still nice to see even from outside.
It was lunch time, so we walked past the Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort and went to take a break at the Arabian Tea House.
The place is big, but also popular. We had to wait for a table (as we preferred to be outside) and then some of the meals took a looong time to arrive. Despite the slow service, the food was great, I would definitely eat here again.
Al Fahidi Historical District
Last neighborhood on our history tour was checking out Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood.
Cute souvenir shops, a lot less persistent vendors, we loved this charming area and given the chance would spend more time here. Beautiful Al Farooq Mosque, but once again, entrance was not permitted…
NEW YEAR’S EVE
Having seen Dubai’s New Year’s celebrations on TV, we were VERY excited to experience it in person. As I mentioned earlier, we hoped to see the fireworks from our hotel, but as soon as we arrived, we saw that with a new development there is no chance we’ll see anything if we stay around Emirate Towers. We still booked our dinner at Al Nafoora- the Lebanese restaurant on site. It was actually a very good decision. Any restaurants close to Burj Khalifa jacked up their prices (some to around $700 USD per person!). We got dressed to impress and certainly were in a festive mood!
We were very happy to enjoy an excellent multi-course meal on the outside patio, listen to the live singer and even a belly dancer!
To be honest with COVID and the current situation we did not expect any entertainment, so were pleasantly surprised.
Around 9.30 pm my sister and I ditched the fancy heels for the comfy flats as all four of us decided that we MUST see the fireworks near Burj Khalifa. There were several streets blocked off, but we kept walking towards it and somehow were able to get all the way in front of the tallest building in the world. At one point security tried to say that it’s not allowed to go closer without a reservation, but we played dumb tourists and said we have our hotel ‘there’ . He let us pass and we were able to enjoy AMAZING firework show.
Surprisingly it was not as long as we imagined- all of seven minutes. Still very impressive, definitely grateful to have been able to view it with our own eyes! And most importantly to welcome 2021 together!
Five days in Dubai, but it seems like we had activities enough to fill double that! We’ve heard great things about this city before going, yet it had exceeded our expectations. There is so much to see and do, that to fully experience it we will definitely need to return. Usually we prefer less cities and more nature while traveling, but Dubai has both, so it’s very diverse. Whether it’s for a long layover or extended vacation, I would not hesitate recommending this glamorous city built in the middle of the desert! You won’t regret it!