Trip to Dubai: First Time in the Middle East

In 2012, we were excited about our trip to Dubai: for both of us, it was the first stamp on our passports and our first time in a Middle Eastern country. I was determined to deep dive as much as I could in a new culture, fascinated by new customs.

But I remember Dubai as a materialistic city, ideal for the rich and famous, like one big shopping mall. Dhanish remembers Dubai as architecture heaven. Most of what Dubai sells as tourist attractions don’t appeal to me at all, but that was my mistake number one: not looking closer and maybe finding something that did fit me.

The famous hotel Atlantis in Dubai
The famous hotel Atlantis in Dubai

A Mild Culture Shock

As I was leaving the airplane, the humid and heavy desert heat hit first, so thick that for a couple of seconds I thought I would never catch my breath. It was early August and not the best time to travel to Dubai — to enjoy more pleasant weather people advise you to travel between the first week of December and the end of February.

The second thing that hit me as I was reaching the airport was, of course, the language, the people, and their clothing. But that was pretty much the end of it.

The traffic was orderly, the city was efficiently planned, it hardly felt crowded, and of course, we had the chance to ride in the world’s largest driverless metro. We had never experienced such order and method in a city before.

View from the top of the Burj Khalifa
View from the top of the Burj Khalifa

I failed to plan according to the Ramadan calendar, which means we arrived in Dubai right in the middle of it. Eating and drinking outside was prohibited, and that meant restaurants were closed all day. The major international fast food chains were open, and we could buy our food to go and eat at our hotel room, which is not exactly the cultural experience I had hoped for.

I believe the proximity is part of its enchantment. After we came back, a lot of people asked, “but what exactly is there to see in Dubai?” In everybody’s mind, there’s a clear idea of everything made of gold (someone mentioned gold faucets…), oil richness, shopping, outrageous seven-star hotels… So the question was a quite natural one. So, what exactly is there to see in Dubai?

What We Saw

If you are a big fan of shopping, Dubai is ideal and you may want to catch the famous Dubai Shopping Festival in the first week of January, which has insane discounts and everything is duty-free. Not to mention the sumptuous and huge shopping malls, with all the high-end stores and famous brands. You can actually buy gold from vending machines and that was a whole new dimension of splurging for us — not exactly our cup of tea.

The first place we explored was the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, in the city center — apart from admiring the architecture and engineering feats from these modern buildings, and some shopping on the side, there is not much more to see. Except for the 360 degrees view of Dubai from the top of the Burj Khalifa.

Burj Khalifa is a must-see for Dubai first timers
Burj Khalifa is a must-see for Dubai first timers

But we were determined to find a place that could tell us more about the local culture, so we visited the Dubai museum (in the Al-Fahidi Fort) and heritage village near the creek and… we were disappointed. Yes, there are a few things to see, but we had the impression there would be some preserved artifacts (I confess I hadn’t done much research about Dubai so that probably didn’t help to manage my expectations). It was mostly just human-made models to explain the history. No wow factor besides what we could read in a book. We now know about The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a non-profit organization established to increase awareness and understanding of the various cultures that live in Dubai, so definitely a mandatory stop on a next trip.

Entrance to the Dubai museum
The Dubai museum is not exactly what I expected

To be honest, I believe there’s more to Dubai than this and the shopping sprees. I know it’s all very high-end and expensive, and maybe the perfect destination for tourists who want to visit the Middle East without getting too much outside their comfort zone. It’s easy to reach, it’s somewhat affordable, it’s safe, it’s on the “other side” of the world without compromising much on your habits (we hardly saw tourists respecting the Ramadan and the dress code. This is a behavior I disagree with, but I don’t remember seeing any local authorities addressing these tourists either.). We know this: we want to look at a different Dubai the next time we visit, and we want to see if that exists.

Heritage Village in Dubai
Heritage Village in Dubai

Have you been on a trip to Dubai? What shouldn’t we miss the next time we visit?



  1. 1

    “Do buy” my wife called it. Lost count of how many times I’ve been through the airport, but never seen the city. Yes, Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Lisbon. And pretty much anywhere else. So much more convenient for we Aussies than transitting in Heathrow.

    From the air, yes, it does look planned. But I live in a planned city – Canberra – and Europe’s narrow streets and laneways winding here and there look exotic and confusing.

    Not much of a one for shopping. I guess I’d wander around with my camera, hoping for a clear shot of something. Always seems to be hazey and dull when I peer out my jet window.

    • 2

      We just felt it lacked personality. Everything seemed very fabricated. Maybe I’d need to go a second turn to explore more but not during the summer, that’s for sure.

  2. 3

    I can understand your disappointment. If you didn’t know what it would be like going in, you’d be in for a shock. Maybe you would have liked Abu Dhabi better. It’s less commercial and glitzy. I think if you’re going to visit Dubai that you have to go in with a clear understanding of what you’re getting. it’s not for everyone.

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