Happy Holidays! Oh wait, they’re over. Sorry team, I missed the boat on the holiday blog posts. My Catholic mother would argue that January 6th IS the Feast of the Epiphany so today is just as much Christmas as was the 25th of December. If this means I can still eat cookies and be merry, I’ll take it. Just as long as it doesn’t require a trip to church.
You know where you can’t really go to Church? Dubai. I was once there over Easter and thought maybe I’d celebrate…only to find out there are almost no churches. The government allows for freedom of religion so long as it does not interfere with the national religion of Islam. For the Middle East, this seems pretty progressive and I’m down with it. But there are very few religious buildings that are not Mosques. So Christians and Jews (and Scientologists…and Hindus….) worship in privately owned buildings and keep it relatively subdued. This all seemed a little difficult to figure, so I threw out a Hail Mary to the sky and continued about my business.
I’ve been pretty critical of Dubai on the ole’ blog, and thought it might be time to admit that I may have been a bit quick to judge. Or I may have been looking at it from the wrong angle. I’ve been to Dubai only for work, and every trip has the possibility of being 3 weeks long. That’s three weeks in a hotel. Three weeks away from my friends. Three weeks out of India. Three weeks without a kitchen (or with a hotel suite kitchen). No wonder I hated it.
I recently spent two weeks in Dubai, again for work, but with the promise from my company that it would be the last trip for some time. A dear friend from college and Himalayan-Travel-buddy was there too, and that reunion made the trip all the better (Hi Leo! ).
In those two weeks I got a little sentimental about all the good times I have eked out of my work trips. I maintain many of my criticisms about it being a fake, plastic place. I turned down an offer to work there full time. I will never move there and do not intend to return for pleasure. However, I have had some good times there. A friend is visiting soon, and while compiling a list of places for her to go, I thought I might try my hand at a (non exhaustive) list of Dubai sites and experiences that I consider worthwhile.
1) Drinks at Atmosphere, Burj Khalifa Yes, every drink tastes better when you are a kilometer in the air. At the world’s tallest bar, you can see the entire cityscape at night, and have a damn good cocktail. Atmosphere is busy and you need a reservation, so get on that as soon as you arrive in town. Minimum order for men is 200 AED and no minimum for women. (Bonanza! ) Get a Strawberry Balsamic Martini and thank me later.
2) Bars: Alcohol is only allowed in restaurants operating under a hotel license, so the bar scene is different then most people in big cities are used to. You’re not likely to go bar hopping in Dubai…more likely you’ll have to choose a place or two to spend the evening and then stay there (or leave with a clear idea of your next destination). Some that I have visited and enjoyed are:
360 : This place is way out down a boardwalk and has a 360 degree view of the ocean (hence the name)
Belgian Bar (I’m partial to the one at Festival Village, though there are a few)
Atmosphere (mentioned above)
Karma Café (More a restaurant than a bar, but the sister establishment to Buddha Bar)
Bars to skip include Barasti, where all the expats seem to go and I just cant see the draw.
3) Sites: There isn’t much historical about Dubai, so you have to get on board with what is new and notable.
Everyone gets pretty amped about Dubai Mall, and it is something to see. This cathedral of capitalism is pretty intense, and houses an aquarium and a gold souk. Outside in a center plaza is the Dubai Fountain, with a water show every 30 minutes. Go for lunch, go to see big-spending locals in action. But be prepared that it is really just a damn mall. Mall of the Emirates has indoor skiing as well, but I can’t comment on that because I find it very unsettling and have never gone.
If you have more than just a day, make the 1.5 hour drive to the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi. Just don’t go on a day when it is closed to tourists, like during Ramadan. Even when you can’t get in (like me) it is impressive from the outside
As long as you’re in Abu Dhabi, stop by Emirates Palace, actually a hotel, and check out the gold vending machine. Literally. A vending machine of gold.
A great place to go walking and people watching is down by Dubai Marina. There are plenty of restaurants and big yachts to lust after. Great views of the ever-changing skyline too.
Sites to consider skipping: Dubai Heritage Village
I went here with high hopes that I might get to see part of Dubai that is not brand-spanking new. There were some interesting signboards to read and a few little huts to peak into, but overall it is really just an out-of-the-way tourist attraction that houses very little that seems authentic. Most of it has been rebuilt, and now there are air conditioners inside. If you want to know about Emirati culture and history, better to read about it in a book. I can sum it up for you here in three pictures.
1) The Sheikhs and rulers now hold important meetings at embassies and consulates. They used to hold these meetings over tea:
2) Families and tribes used to live together in compounds. Basically, they still do if you consider that the government has reserved large swaths of land for “Nationals housing”
3) The doorways of these buildings are really small.
Go if you want. It was interesting-ish. But I had unlimited time in Dubai so consider that as part of your decision.
To quote the wisdom of Parks & Recreation’s Tom Haverford, TREAT YOSELF. There are a zillion amazing restaurants in Dubai and Arab food is delicious. The presence of so many nationalities also means that anything you are craving, you will find. No wonder I had to run a zillion hotel-treadmill miles to keep my suits fitting…..I spent like, all my money on food guys.
Here are a few favorites
Aryaa’s : This is an Indian restaurant. It is not fancy. It is so delicious. It is stupidly cheap. It is clean and it is convenient. It served its purpose when I was missing India. Have I sold you on it yet? If not, picture yourself devouring a dosa topped in ALL. THESE. CHUTNEYS.‘
There are two locations and I like the one in Bur Dubai, if you happen to be there. But let’s face it, there’s no reason to be in boring Bur Dubai.
Zooma: Housed in DIFC, this Asian-fusion restaurant and bar made me rethink my ban on “fusion.” It’s pricey and there is a serious need for reservations. But the Miso Black Cod will actually change your life.
Iftar: If you are in Dubai during Ramadan, go to one of the sumptuous Iftar feasts around the city. They aren’t just for the devout. I recommend the one at The One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel. It lives up to its fancy name.
Zaroob: Located on Sheikh Zayed Rd, this all-night joint is a personal favorite. They call their fare “Levant Street food” and it will tempt you to move to the middle east forever. A popular place for late-night eats, this restaurant is one of the few places I’ve ever seen actual locals actually hanging out. Order the Hummus with meat (to die for), Garlic Chicken Wrapped Manoush, Arabic Shwarma, and Koshari. Order all those things. Take some home for tomorrow if you have to. Order all those things. http://www.zaroob.com/ (so good it deserved a link.)
Al Maaya: If you’re in Abu Dhabi, there is an amazing Armenian-Arabic restaurant in the Sheraton Corniche called Al Maaya. The Cherry-topped Kabobs are killer, and the ambiance is delightful.
Hakkasan: Amazing dim sums and even better cocktails, this is a reliable (if expensive) standby. And there is ample seating, so you can always get a reservation.
All in all, I do think that one can have a reasonably good time in Dubai if they have a few days, deep pockets, and a hunger for hummus. Like I said, I wouldn’t go back at this point, but I’m burned out. Emirates airlines uses Dubai as it’s hub and it makes for a great weekend stopover on your way to the other side of the world. Just try to at least be mindful of the huge disparities in wealth and status as you eat your $100 meal.