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Dubai is Twice As Nice: Backpacking the World’s Richest City

I did not have high expectations for Dubai. I’m not sure why: perhaps because people had told me it was just a big fake city in the desert. A bigger, better Las Vegas. Plastic fantastic. Taller and bigger than anything else. It’s all those things. And it’s amazing in a twisted concrete and steel sort of way.

Here are some statistics to put things in perspective.

The Dubai Mall attracts 96 million visitors per year.

That’s more visitors than Times Square. That’s more visitors than all of Los Angeles. It’s the world’s biggest mall. Very few things, especially man-made, have ever induced awe in me. The Dubai Mall induced vertigo, especially as I rode free-floating escalators, looking at little worlds of Hermès, Dior, Chanel, and Gucci flagship stores hundreds of feet below me. They even built a freeway to feed visitors into it. A three-decker, six-lane freeway.

There is a corner of the mall, bigger than most other entire malls, where you can get a coffee from a Starbucks, a Costa, a Gloria Jean’s, a Caribou, and half a dozen coffee shops before you pop over to Patek Philippe to buy a $100,000 watch. Then go see the Sega-based indoor theme park, the Dubai Aquarium, the world’s largest musical fountain, a 3000-seat movie theater, professional ice rink, then book tickets for the Burj Khalifa.

The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest skyscraper, at nearly a kilometer tall.

The top is literally twice the height of the top floor of the One World Trade Center, which is the tallest building in our hemisphere. It’s hard to even take a picture of. The top gets lost in the atmosphere.

The infrastructure and wealth of Dubai is astounding.

You can go just about anywhere in the city via one long main road (Sheikh Zayed Road) which is a 12-lane superhighway bordered by feeder roads. And if you’d rather not drive, there’s a fully air conditioned, fully automated, driverless metro system with cooled walkways to every major attraction.

My Time In Dubai

Unfortunately, most of my time in Dubai was spent with memories of Morocco (I got food poisoning on my last night there, and the effects lasted for several days). But I was surprised at how approachable tourism in Dubai was. For feeling pretty sick for most of the time, the fact that everything was air-conditioned was a lifesaver (nothing in Morocco was air-conditioned… nothing). And when I went to the pharmacy to get some nausea medicine, it cost me a grand total of $1.97.

Dubai is affordable, but artificial.

That was my first introduction to how affordable Dubai actually is. Nothing is more expensive for the traveler than anything in the United States would be, and many things are definitely cheaper. An all-day metro/transport pass, which works for the entire city (bus, tram, metro, everything) is $10. And chances are you only need one or two zones, so that means you can get by with a $4 pass. Meals are decent: of course, you could splurge and eat at $300 meal at a five-star restaurant, but you can also eat at a regular run-of-the-mill place for $8.

But, that doesn’t mean Dubai is without downsides. Dubai has no local culture. I’m sure many in the city would disagree, but the reality is that it’s a very cosmopolitan city, full of the most successful people in the entire world along with their Mercedes G-wagens, Rolls-Royce Wraiths, Porsche Panameras, and million-dollar apartments overlooking the world’s tallest building. It’s spotless. Air-conditioned. Artificial. But a hub of progress and development nonetheless.

You will rarely (if ever) meet an actual local.

The vast majority of the local population works in the service industry, migrating from nearby countries like Pakistan in search of higher wages. And with literally hundreds of millions of foreign visitors per year, the sheer numbers of visitors swamps everything else. You’ll see more Russian oligarchs in Bentley Bs toting around Barbie doll wives (or mistresses, I’ve been told) or Saudi neighbors in town to purchase the 95th floor of some new skyscraper than locals.

So don’t look at a trip to Dubai as being a trip to the Middle East. It’d be like going to Vegas and saying you saw the American West.

That said, I have a few suggestions if you’re going to spend a couple of days in Dubai for a layover.

  • There are really no ultra-budget hosteling options for backpackers in Dubai. Even the few that exist don’t have dorms for under $20 to $30. So it might be best to splurge on a hotel. There are many around the central downtown area, near the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall complex. The rates are surprisingly affordable.
  • Everything is off Sheikh Zayed Road
  • If you’re having a hard time deciding between the two, skip the Mall of the Emirates and go to the Dubai Mall. I find it unbelievable that in a long-term, complex-travel sort of blog I’m actually suggesting readers to go to a mall, but that place gave me vertigo.

My Dubai Trip In Summary

I only spent two days in Dubai. It was probably enough because I don’t roll in the same social circles as the Russian oligarchy and Saudi oil billionaires, and once you’ve seen a big plastic city, well, you’ve seen them all.

It’s worth the stopover, however. Well worth it.

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