Visiting Dubai? Top tips on what to do before you travel
Planning a trip to Dubai? We’ve welcomed scores of visitors to stay since we moved to the U.A.E. in 2000 and here’s the checklist I send them. Some knowledge we’ve gained through living here could be so handy for new travelers to Dubai. Whether your trip is for business or pleasure, here’s my guide to making your visit stress-free and enjoyable with these insider tips of things to do BEFORE you leave home.
Beat the immigration queues
Improvements are being made, but visitors to Dubai can face a long wait before passport control. For a small fee you can be whisked through and have a personal escort. There are three levels of service – if you book bronze make sure you look for your name on the screen and make yourself known. With silver and gold a meet and greet person will seek you out with your name on a board. Well worth doing especially at peak travel times such as Christmas – book Marhaba online here (also available in Bahrain).
Book your Burj Khalifa visit
Want to go up the tallest building in the world? It’s a great view from the observation deck and the whole attraction is well-planned and packed full of background info. Make sure you book At the Top ahead of time. Fast track tickets on the day are in limited quantities and more than double the price. Even pre-booked slots sell out fast. Book the Burj Khalifa observation deck now on this link.
Sign up for a Frying Pan Adventure
This truly is the best way to see a completely different side of Dubai plus you get to eat your way round nooks and crannies of the city while learning about different cultures. The tours are so popular they need advance booking to secure a slot. Arva and Farida are good friends but I can vouch for the tours as I have done at least eight to date. Browse and book your Frying Pan Adventure here. If you have missed out, order their little pocket guide to the Spice Souk – highly recommended..
Book a mosque tour or cultural meal
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is housed in a beautiful old building in the Fahidi District which is worth a visit alone. Their cultural meals (I love the breakfast) are relaxed, entertaining and will give you a better understanding about the Emirati people whose country you are visiting. Tour a mosque and see another side of Islam to the one on the news or just wander through a fascinating and beautiful area with a guide. Calendar and booking details here.
As a visitor you will not be able to buy alcohol in Dubai outside hotels and licensed restaurants as the liquor stores are for residents only. You can order duty-free fine wine and premium spirits starting at 100 AED from Le Clos in advance of your journey. A staff member will text you when you land and hand over your purchases packaged in attractive bags, just before passport control. If you are staying with people (who drink), duty-free wine is always welcome as there is a 30% tax in store; your limit is up to 4 litres (i.e. 5 bottles of wine). You can also buy wine and spirits in the duty-free shop after passport control before baggage reclaim. Order ahead on the Le Clos website (you may need to email but online purchase will be live soon).
Check your medication
Codeine based medicines and some opiates, which might be legal in your country, are banned. Check online and get a doctor’s note to verify that they are prescribed if in any doubt. Unwitting travelers have been jailed. There is a list of medication banned in the UAE on this website.
Check your pockets
Famous DJ Grooverider is not alone in going to prison for having a miniscule amount of hashish in his pocket. Even traces of drugs on your shoes or clothing can get you into trouble. “It’s for personal use,” will not wash here and there is zero tolerance for possession. Poppy seeds are classified as a drug by the way. For more info plus interesting comments section read here.
Find out if it’s a full moon
Tours to camps in the desert are common but one that only happens once a lunar month is Dubai Desert drumming. With all the usual trimmings such as Arabic food and camel rides, the unique attraction is playing African drums in the middle of the desert under a full moon. It’s fun, quite a communal bonding experience (get to know the people on the next cushion to you), great with or without children and good value. You have to find your own way to the camp by taxi or hire car but I’m sure the organisers would be able to advise the best way. Full Moon Desert Drumming details here.
Check what’s going on
Dubai’s social calendar is packed full of events. International artists and bands (here and in nearby Abu Dhabi) are a regular feature and going to a concert in the UAE is (in most cases) a very stress-free and enjoyable experience. Since 2000 we’ve seen scores, ranging from Sting and Robbie to Kasabian, The Stranglers, Black Sabbath and many, many more. Other major events include Dubai World Cup (racing), Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Dubai Desert Classic (golf), Dubai Food Festival, Dubai Rugby 7s and Art Dubai. Dubai Calendar lists all the major events and you can download an event guide. Time Out Dubai is a great resource for information and one of the main ticket sellers too.
Get a deal on eating
There are hundreds and hundreds of restaurants in Dubai ranging from the highest luxury to the cheapest street eat and everything in between. Licensed restaurants are only in hotels and clubs so the bill can mount up. All you can eat buffets are very popular in the city and with a mind-boggling array of dishes from sushi, to oysters to live cooking stations. Brunch is a Dubai institution with ‘free-flowing’ all in deals for most. Time Out and Zomato have listings. If you are visiting for a week or more it could be worth downloading the Entertainer app which gives ‘2 for 1’ deals on a whole range of restaurants. There’s a fine dining version or more general one (which includes offers on activities such as Wild Wadi water park).
Actually this is one thing to leave until you get here. Rates at money exchanges are very competitive and the head cashier often has some leeway so ask for ‘your best rate’ if you are converting a reasonable amount. Al Ansari is a major chain but there are branches in most shopping malls and throughout the city.
Make travel easy
Public transport in the city is pretty good and taxis are reasonably priced. Buses, the metro and water ferries require the purchase of a Nol card which you can top up with cash (available at Metro stations and some bus stations). Taxis can be ordered on 04 2080808 or hailed from the street but at peak times the RTA Smart Taxi app is useful as it picks up your location. Other geo-located apps are Uber and Careem. Download SmartTaxi, Uber or Careem before you leave.
Plan a tasty trip with insider tips
While the big websites have a lot of information, get an insider’s view from people who live here to plan your stay. Dubai in 48 hours by The Hedonista is excellent plus browse the site for restaurant reviews and travel within the Emirates (such as the heritage safari in old jeeps). Foodiva is the best, most comprehensive, source of unbiased restaurant reviews (mainly high-end) and you can even book a ‘Dine around Dubai‘ 5 star dining tour. Like a Tourist in my own city by Ishita Unblogged is crammed full of things to see and do. Geordie Armani specialises in honest reviews of mid to lower priced family restaurants, and Do in Dubai does what it says on the tin. Dive into hole-in-the-wall eateries and street food via I Live in a Frying Pan. Finally Lime and Tonic has a range of ‘curated experiences’ which are often outside the norm which you can book online.
Other things to consider
Find out if you need a visa from your country; arrange travel and medical insurance; google car hire companies; check data roaming packages; buy sunscreen, mozzie spray and a hat; bring a universal adapter (the UAE has 3 pin sockets like the UK). More info: UAE travel Advice of Gov.uk ; Your first time in Dubai ; Dubai – What to pack.
So all set for your trip? What are your tips for things to do before you travel to Dubai?
Disclosure: My Dine around the Palm trip with Foodiva was courtesy of The Entertainer. All opinions my own (I was not obliged to write about it or the app).