Three nights in… Dubai

I have never understood the popularity of Dubai: a desert playground for the super-rich where I wasn’t sure which would be more oppressive, the heat or the laws. Fortunately my plan was for more of an extended transit than a thorough visit. Although I would technically stay for three nights, it would be inaccurate to say I had three days here – with much of my 52 hours spent at the hotel, the airport, or travelling between them.

Whilst I would like to report that what little time I had in Dubai was a pleasant surprise, not only did many of my concerns came to pass, I encountered various additional frustrations. To be fair, some were the result of my own under-preparation. Things got off to a bad start in the lengthy queue for immigration, where I discovered that the last metro would be in 20 minutes, at a minute to midnight; maddeningly, I reached the luggage hall at a minute past. I had been under the mistaken impression that trains ran until 1am, and having placed my faith in this, had arranged neither local currency nor a data connection. I was confronted with a taxi queue that I couldn’t see the end of, with no idea how outrageous the rates would be nor if I could pay by card.

Spotting a sign for Uber pickup, I made my way outside – to an assault on the senses. Despite being the middle of the night in October, the temperature was 30°C and felt a few more than that, the thick air dispelling any notion of a more tolerable dry heat. Dragging more luggage than usual, there seemed to be nowhere I wasn’t in someone’s way, which they made clear by barging past or ramming me with baggage trolleys. Drivers and officials were locked in a constant sonic battle of horns versus whistles, to no obvious effect. I couldn’t be sure where the Uber rank was, nor could I stray too far from the terminal lest I lose the faint wisps of its (thankfully free) Wifi.

There were no standard cars available, and on settling for comfort class, I spent twenty minutes being assured my driver was only a few minutes away. Then, still a couple of miles from the airport, he started the journey – obviously without me aboard! Amazingly, the app has no way to indicate that, so my only option was to cancel – and thus be charged for – the trip. A second booking did fortunately work out, but all told it took two hours from landing to hotel lobby – a mere 5km away. Once in the room, I dialled the a/c down from 25°C to 19, then hopped in the shower to cool off – only to find that the minimum water temperature was warm, verging on hot. Cursing my decision to ever come here, I filed a complaint with uber then tried to get some sleep, although I was too agitated to really succeed.


My next mistake was at my main sightseeing stop – the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Once again, I thought I had planned ahead, but hadn’t paid enough attention to detail, which turned out to be a costly mistake. From their website, I had determined that there were two different observation deck – confusingly, “At The Top” was the lower of the two. Spanning the 124th and 125th floors, it seemed sufficient to me: especially as “At The Top SKY” would triple the price, but only get me 23 storeys higher.

Unfortunately there is an even higher – in both altitude and price – lounge up at levels 152-154 which I had failed to spot. At the ticket desk, they offered a choice between that and the SKY package, rather than between the two observation decks – so although I asked for ‘the cheaper one’, I should have enquired further into “the cheapest one”… With peak-time pricing and a weak pound, my two hours in the tower cost £137: or roughly the same as my hotel bill for the first two nights!

Burj Khalifa L148 SKY Lounge.

Tickets are at least cumulative, so I was able to compare SKY with the standard offering, and admittedly it is much nicer: a far more peaceful experience elevated above crowds of selfie-seekers. But given the price difference I can’t in good conscience recommend it on most budgets. Conversely, if you can shrug off such a price tag, you might as well go all-in with the Lounge – which also features the world’s highest open air terrace. Stick to At The Top and you’ll still get to appreciate the scale of the engineering achievement: from half a kilometre up, the rest of Dubai’s skyscrapers look like toys, and my photographs feel more like videogame scenes.

Having thus inadvertently blown through several days of sightseeing budget, I decided to restrict myself to free attractions, no easy feat in Dubai’s hyper-commercial core. However, roaming the enormous mall I found everything from a multi-storey aquarium tank with sharks and rays, to an entire diplodocus skeleton… At night the Burj Khalifa became a canvas for light projections, and there are fountains which are choreographed to musical performances every half an hour. Unfortunately everyone had to scurry back in to the mall between shows, as sunset did nothing to make the heat more tolerable!


It is worth noting that Dubai caters well not just to English speakers, but English people specifically – I saw plenty of familiar UK high street stores in the mall. Whilst a comfort – I have to admit to grabbing lunch at Waitrose – I’m not sure it’s a plus point: why come all this way just to recreate the experience of home? There were a few glimpses of local life: my (sweltering) walk between hotel and metro stop took me past a mosque, shoes piled trustingly on the steps outside; the call to prayer could be heard from my room, which was equipped with The Meanings of the Qur’an and an arrow pointing to Mecca; an uber driver peppered every other sentence with Inshallah. No doubt there is more to Dubai than the centre, and indeed more to the UAE than Dubai. But from what I sampled, I am in no rush to explore further. With so much of the world being a better match for my interests – and temperature tolerance – I don’t see the need to soldier through less appealing destinations just to say I was there.

The great thing about travel, is choice.