When I looked at a map of the Middle East and was brainstorming trips to take for our Saudi National Day break, I saw that Dubai wasn’t too far away. I didn’t know if this was a possibility though without spending thousands of dollars. When I first thought about Dubai, my initial thoughts were of a lavish city of luxury. Dubai is essentially the highlights of different cities around the world, only “bigger and better”. For example, it has the worlds tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) next to the worlds largest mall where it has the worlds largest fountain show. The mall itself has tons of unexpected attractions like an aquarium/underwater zoo, a waterfall, ice rink, star show, ect. But to my pleasant surprise, you can definitely visit Dubai without breaking the bank.
First off, Dubai isn’t my typical destination. I prefer seeing nature, diving, hiking, and untouched scenery. So Dubai couldn’t be farther from this…but I found it to be an amazingly fun and unexpected spot to go with friends to sightsee and make awesome memories. I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend a ton of time there, but as a stop through on the way to Europe or Australia/Asia I would recommend it. You can see quite a lot in 3-4 days.
I visited with my two friends from KAUST, none of us had visited Dubai so we spent some initial time on google doing research on what there is to do. We agreed to stay in a hostel, to keep our spending low. We found that there are very few hostels in Dubai, and tons of 5 star hotels. We choose to stay in Backpacker 16 hostel and had a very positive experience. I need to lookup the cost but I am pretty sure I paid $35 total for three nights, so about $12/night). The hostel is in an apartment and they own many rooms that they built hostel dorms into with bunk beds. Each bed has a curtain for privacy, a universal plug for charging, and a light. In addition, each morning had free breakfast (with lots of options) and it was only 10 minutes from the metro station. It was perfect!
The first thing to talk about is transportation in Dubai. Renting a car is always an option but of course in a city and in an unfamiliar country that can be stressful. Fortunately, the public transportation throughout the city is super good, and quite cheap. There is a metro (train) that runs along the city. There are also buses and trams to bring you closer to your destination. You can buy a pass for 22 AED ($6) for unlimited stops for a day.
Unfortunately, the metro only goes to terminals 1 and 3 at the airport, and we were at terminal 2 so we had to go with a taxi. Taxis aren’t too bad, but keep in mind that within 1 KM there’s an extra 25 AED “airport charge” so try to walk out of the airport to grab a taxi or go with uber if you face this issue.
Our first day we checked into the hotel, and then headed to the metro for our first day of sightseeing. We decided to go to the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa. In the mall we grabbed food, and then went to the fountain show that plays every half hour starting at 5:00 PM. If you’ve ever seen the fountain show in Vegas, it’s similar to that. Each time is a little different with new music, the crowds get big so try to get there a few minutes early. There’s a terrace in the Apple Store that has awesome viewing from above, that’s where we watched from. Also this is a free show to attend, so definitely don’t miss it. In the background you can see the world’s tallest building which is cool! If you wanted to go up to the 124th floor for a unique view of the city, you can pay $30. We personally opted against this because there was plenty of other things to do. My favorite part of the mall was the aquarium. There are tons of different sharks and rays in this massive tank in the middle of the mall. This is the aquarium, and you can pay to walk through a tunnel in the tank, but again the view from outside is still really good.
We took the metro back to our hostel where we got ready to go out. Now the next topic: drinking. I usually am not big on drinking, but clubbing and partying are definitely a huge thing in Dubai. Initially I was worried that this would be a huge expense and googled some typical prices and found it can get pricey. Fortunately, Dubai is huge on “Ladies Night” which offers free drinks/food to women on a certain night of the week. Some offer unlimited drinks, some offer 3-4, some have shisha. We decided to head to the Taj Hotel to drink at the Billionaire’s Mansion. It is hilarious that I am talking about Dubai on a budget, and recommending Billionares Mansion, but I am serious, Friday’s have free drinks for girls, what’s not to love about that?? They gave us fake $100 bills to use as vouchers at the bar, and I was blown away by how fancy and delicious the drinks were. Four gin and tonics later I was ready to hit the dance floor with my friends. Oh they also had delish guacamole and chips so check that out if you’re in Dubai, I believe it’s from 8-2 AM.
The next day we woke up, headed to free breakfast, and discussed what we wanted to do for the day. We decided on a beach day in the morning and then a desert safari in the afternoon. Fortunately, a super nice man at the hostel offered to drive us to his favorite beach, so that was super easy and we didn’t even have to navigate public transportation! We went to JBR beach, which was beautiful. The sun is super strong so make sure you bring sunscreen! I even found tons of shells which was surprising. Not quite sure if they’re naturally there or if the sands were built with dredged sand from somewhere else. Oh also in Dubai some beaches have free public access whereas some you pay the resort to go, or spend money in their bar/restaurant. I liked this beach because there was a changing area and toilets right at the entrance. Also, a highlight was when a man and his two camels passed us. Just the sight of massive skyscrapers, a beautiful white sand beach, and camels was quite memorable.
The beach drained our energy (mixed with being slightly hungover) so we decided to find a spot for lunch. Eunje (from South Korea) really wanted to go to Shake Shack (an American chain…I don’t think I’ve been previously) but we found one within five minutes of the beach, they even had veggie burgers for me and george!
After this we headed back to the hostel for a little nap before the desert safari. This safari I feel is a must do if you’re visiting Dubai. It was super fun! A bunch of different companies bring their guests to one central area where all of the activities are set up, and is where the dinner and show are. That being said, each company charges a different amount, so I recommend doing some research and getting that cheapest. Our hostel has a connection with Happy Adventures (pretty sure that’s the name) and it is pretty cheap. You could pay 100 AED and meet the driver at this random location on the side of the road, otherwise with transportation pickup it’s 150 AED ($40 USD) so we went with pickup to make life a little easier. This was our “big spending” of the trip, and included a lot. We did some off-roading before arriving at the show. This was so much fun to speed through the sand dunes and drive like crazy. I was a little nervous our car was going to roll upside down but no worries we are all safe and sound. The offroading lasted about 20 minutes and then it was time to check out the activities. The cost included a buffet dinner, as well as unlimited water. There was also free camel rides (I opted out of this just cause I felt bad for the camels and the line was long), free henna, sandboarding, shisha, Arabic dress up, and the show. Sand boarding was actually really fun, it’s just like a snowboard but instead of snow you’re going down a sand dune (that probably didn’t need an explanation, sorry about that). Definitely got a work out running to the top of the dunes and sliding down. The sunset in the desert was beautiful, I think it was my first time in a legit desert with sand dunes (besides the Oman camping fiasco). It was a beautiful sight!
After sunset and pictures we headed back to where the activities were and got henna. I got a little flower design on my hand. Then we smoked shisha until they announced dinner was starting. Sorry forgot to mention it was us KAUST girls and another girl from the hostel, Hannah from France, joined us as well. We enjoyed getting to hear her story. She works for a few years and then travels for a few years, my dream!
The dinner and show was also super worth it. They started us off with a plate of “starters” which was all vegetarian which is lovely! After we sat down the first performance began which was an Arabic man spinning doing a skirt dance. I need to lookup the official name of the dance, but it was very entertaining. After his dance, we had a huge buffet dinner. There were sooo many vegetarian options I was so excited. I’ve found it to be pretty easy to eat vegetarian or vegan in the Middle East because Indian food is super popular, which has a ton of veggie options. Anyways, at dinner I had hummus, chickpeas, rice, roasted veggies, Salad, etc. Noms! The rest of the show included belly dancing and fire dancing! It was awesome.
The next day we decided to check out Old Dubai. We got the unlimited pass (22 AED/ $6), and took the metro all the way to the souk. The souk is essentially a market selling different specialty items. We started at the “textile souk” for instance, where we walked around and saw the beautiful fabrics and bright colors. There is also a spice, gold, knife, silver and old Dubai souk. We shopped around for about an hour, most souks sold touristy items so I got some new pants (with camels on them!) and some jewelry. The souk was (obviously) free to walk around, but it was a bit overwhelming with the salesman calling us to look at their goods. After the textile souk we took a boat across the river to the gold and perfume souk. The boat was 1 AED ($0.27) each way.
After the souk we jumped on the metro and headed back to the Mall of Dubai. This mall is massive (obviously) so we couldn’t see the whole thing earlier. There’s an Olympic sized ice rink, a 3-d gummy printer at the candy store, underwater zoo and aquarium, you can drive fancy cars and have a VIP cinema experience. We decided just to stroll around, do a little shopping, and have some frozen yogurt. Then we headed back to the hostel for a shower and nap before we headed out for another girl’s night out. At around 8 we hopped on the metro and headed to Media City (only one stop away) this is where another Ladies Night was (woo free drinks) this one was called “Dek on 8” which was a beautiful bar next to a pool with the Dubai skyscrapers all around us. It was a fun night filled with laughs and good times!
The next morning we enjoyed our last free breakfast and George and I headed to the top floor of the building to lay out in the sun next to the chilled pool. It was a relaxing end to our trip. We hopped on the Metro at around 10 AM with a one-way ticket (6 AED/ $1.60) to the airport. We headed through Customs (pretty easy). Also, I didn’t mention this earlier but an awesome perk of Dubai is that the visiting visa was free (for up to 30 days) this is awesome! Oman visa was a little over $50, which was more than our entire stay at the hostel here in Dubai! SO yay for free visas! In the airport George and I had a massive vegetarian Indian meal for 25 AED ($6.75) and it came with rice, lentil soul, Indian bread, beans, and chickpeas. It was so much good food! The flight was about 3 hours, I slept the whole time. When we arrived in Jeddah our bags came out pretty quick and then our taxi driver came about 5 minutes later and we were headed home to Kaust.
I don’t have any trips scheduled until December, but I definitely plan on doing some diving and exploring. I have friends here with cars so I am hoping to do a few Saudi road trips while I am here. I think exploring Saudi is extremely cool because the average person can’t come to the country, so having the ability to travel around is very unique. Also- in exciting news, women here will be able to drive soon! Saudi was the last country to ban women from driving, but things are changing fast. This is a huge deal. I hope it will start while I am here so I can witness this historic event (and maybe even get my own Saudi license). It is so cool to talk to my roommate and Saudi friends and see how excited they are about the prospect of being able to drive. It is amazing!