Discovering Dubai: Beneath The Perfect Utopia

Villas on the fronds of Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, UAE

When we started planning our trip to Dubai, everyone raved about how great it was. They all mentioned the extensive shopping malls, beautiful beachfront resorts and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Alas, designer shops don't go well with budget travel and since we can get sunburned on a cloudy day in Scotland, beaches were off the list too. Pinning all our hopes on the Burj Khalifa, we were worried we might get bored. We soon discovered however there are many things about Dubai that nobody told us.

Burj Khalifa at Night in Dubai, UAE

Burj Khalifa

Downtown Dubai

The glistening spire of the world's tallest building stands out against the other beautiful skyscrapers that define the skyline of Dubai. From the viewing platform on the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, we had unparalleled views across the city and out into the desert beyond. Dubai is a long, narrow city hemmed in by the Persian Gulf on one side and a vast expanse of desert on the other. Seeing the extent of the city was quite spectacular, though being so high up is rather disconcerting if you are not a fan of heights.

Next door to the Burj Khalifa, we were surprised to discover the Dubai Mall still had plenty to do even though we weren't shopping. A massive aquarium, a complete dinosaur skeleton (diplodocus) and an elaborate fountain display were just a few of the attractions that kept us entertained in this massive complex.

Although every inch of Downtown Dubai looks like a pristine futuristic metropolis we noticed that the engineering is not quite as perfect as it seems. After a short burst of heavy rain, large puddles started appearing on the floors of the mall followed swiftly by teams of mop wielding cleaners with wet floor signs. Some roads also flooded and we saw cars mounting the pavement to avoid the deeper puddles. We later heard there were over 500 road accidents as a result of this short downpour.

Taxi driving on pavement to avoid flood in Dubai, UAE

Avoiding the Flood

Jumeirah Coast

The Palm Jumeirah is one of several ambitious land reclamation projects that have been conceived in Dubai. Instead of reclaiming the usual square of land, the designers based their plan on a palm tree. Several narrow fronds extend from a central trunk, which is rooted to the mainland. Put simply, The Palm looks like something a teenager would dream up in an attempt to maximise the amount of waterfront property in a game of SimCity.

Taking a walk along the Palm, we felt rather out of place in this perfectly manufactured utopia. The gated entrance to each frond was guarded by a security team ensuring only residents had access to these private estates. The trunk was a mixture of high end hotels and luxury apartments surrounding a carefully manicured park complete with a rubberised running path. We half expected to be arrested by a team of security robots in a hovering car for being some sort of anomaly that wasn't permitted in this perfect world.

Palm Jumeirah land reclamation project in Dubai, UAE

Palm Jumeirah

Two other palm projects were planned in Dubai though these have never been completed. Even more ambitious than the palms, 'The World' is an archipelago of 300 artificial islands arranged to look like a map of the world. These new islands were earmarked for luxury resorts and private island retreats. Although more than half of the islands have been sold, only a few have been developed.

Deira, the Old Commercial Centre of Dubai

Crossing the creek, we found that Deira is surprisingly different from the ultra modern downtown area. This district feels like it has evolved naturally over the years rather than being manufactured in a single generation. Our first stop was the gold souk, a collection of modern jewellery shops with hawkers outside offering a variety of knock off handbags and watches. The nearby spice souk in contrast was a more traditional affair. The narrow alleyways were packed with tiny shops overflowing with sacks of fragrant saffron, cinnamon sticks and dried citrus fruit. Throughout this area, a gauntlet of merchants employed traditional Arabic sales strategies, hoping to pester passersby into making a purchase.

Sacks of spices at Deira Spice Souk in Dubai, UAE

Deira's Spice Souk

The rapid and ambitious developments that make Dubai so unique must have required great vision and imagination. It's particularly impressive that this has been achieved in such an inhospitable desert environment. Sadly the financial crisis of 2008 derailed several large projects, including the 'Palm' and the 'World'. A decade later, with cranes and construction sites all over the city, Dubai is still growing at an amazing rate. Despite the shiny glass and steel that characterises the newer parts of the city, some areas of Dubai still reflect the colourful Arabic culture that shaped this history of this desert city.

Brightly lit I love Dubai sign at night

Dubai Travel Tips

The metro and tram network is a fast and economical way to get across the city. The network is quite limited however so it may be better to take a taxi in some cases.  It's also worth noting that both the metro and the tram start operating later on Friday mornings than on other days.

The metro system ticket machines only give a maximum of 20 Dirham in change. Make sure you have small change to hand.

Official taxis in Dubai are metered so there is no need to haggle over the price. You can check the rates online.

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