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Dubai

20 x tips for your first time in Dubai

*Trip in paid partnership with Visit Dubai

My first time in Dubai was eye-opening and I realised I like the city more than I expected. A couple of years ago my work took me to Dubai first in to the middle of the desert where I spent a couple of nights, followed by a luxurious city stay for another few nights. This time we focused on exploring Dubai through roads a little less travelled.

Dubai is known for its glory and glamour that impress many travellers, but at the same time some wonder if there is anything authentic in this city? Any real culture? Something other than endless luxury?

Well, I’m happy to report back Dubai has soul.

On my recent trip to Dubai we focused on ‘another side of Dubai’ trying to find paths less travelled and experiences that would feel more traditional and cultural.

Before I share my best tips on a different side to Dubai, I would like to share some tips that are good to know for your first time in Dubai!

So now, enjoy some tips for your first time in Dubai!

Well, I’m happy to report back Dubai has soul.

Veera bianca
first time in dubai

Tips for your first time in Dubai:


1. Distances within the city are long

How big Dubai truly is took me by surprise already on my first visit. Distances between sights and neighbourhoods are really something you need to take into account when planning your day. Dubai is a car city and especially in the afternoons the traffic can be a bit of a pain. Some of the most popular areas to stay in Dubai are Jumeirah, Downtown, The Palm, Dubai Marina and Al Seef. The drive between The Palm and Al Seef are well over 30 minutes.

2. Dubai is a muslim country and you should dress accordingly

Even if Dubai is a tourist destination and surely the most modern of the Emirates, it’s still advised to dress modestly. I would advice covering your knees and shoulders and avoiding clothing that is too tight. Surely with the increase of tourism and westerners living in Dubai, you will see lots of people wearing short skirts and tops all around the city – but why not be the kind of traveller to show a little more respect.

On the beaches you can of course wear a normal bathing suit – but perhaps don’t go topless.

3. Romance is best left in the hotel room

Something especially tourists in Dubai for the first time don’t know is that they may actually break the law by staying in the same room with their unmarried partners. But with the growth of tourism, most hotels will allow this but if you want to be 100% sure it’s best to stick with the international hotels.

Another thing to note is that while holding hands in public is okay, kissing and other forms of affection should be left behind closed doors in Dubai.

4. Cabs in Dubai are reliable & affordable

The metro in Dubai continues to develop, but so far you will likely still need a car in this city. Lucky cabs in Dubai are affordable and reliable. The official taxi company in Dubai is RTA and their cabs are usually beige with a red or pink roof. The cabs with pink roof are meant for women and families and will always have a woman driver.

All cabs in Dubai work on meter.

Aside of RTA, Über and a local app Careem work great and I recommend using them while exploring Dubai.

When you jump into a taxi from the airport, make sure to only take it from the official taxi stand.

While cabs are mostly very safe in Dubai, I cannot say the same about the traffic. Roads are in great condition mostly, but speed causes accidents.

cab are reliable in dubai
cabs in dubai

5. The metro in Dubai is cheap and somewhat convinient

The metro in Dubai is good especially on rush hours. Unfortunately the metro doesn’t yet cover all of the city that well, so using it often comes with a bit of walking. But depending where you are staying, it’s best to check if the metro will be the best option for your route as you will save time and money.

The metro in Dubai is cheap and safe. There are two lines and a third one is supposed to open in 2020. The tickets can be purchased at the station.

6. The best time to travel to Dubai is not summer

Due to its geographical location, Dubai is not an ideal summer destination as temperatures can rise way over 40 degrees celsius. The best time to travel to Dubai is between November and March, so it’s the perfect winter getaway. It’s almost always sunny in Dubai.

7. Book your tickets to Burj Khalifa in advance

The world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa is surely the most popular attractions in all of Dubai. Many want to visit the upstairs of the high-rise once in a lifetime and the queues are loooong. I recommend purchasing your ticket in advance. To avoid the busiest hours, try to get here as early in the morning as possible.

Get your ticket to Burj Khalifa here.

You can also get a fast track ticket to Burj Khalifa here and skip the lines.

burj khalifa

8. Ramadan in Dubai?

Can you travel to Dubai during Ramadan? Well, there are two very differing answers to this question. In general many advice not to travel to Dubai during Ramadan, but as the destination lives on tourism lots of restaurants and shops are open as normal. Actually if you are lucky, travelling to Dubai during Ramadan might even be a little bit cheaper and less crowded. The next Ramadan in Dubai is 23.4.-23.5. 2020.

9. Learn about the culture over lunch at Sheikh Mohammed Centre of Cultural Understanding

On your first time in Dubai, I recommend starting with a meal at Sheikh Mohammed Centre of Cultural Understanding for a little cultural understanding of the Emirates.

You will get to enjoy a very traditional breakfast or lunch and even try to wear the traditional clothes and to learn a lot about the everyday life in Dubai and the other Emirates.

They hosts were also really open for questions, so if there is something you are wondering – this is the place for it.

Book your lunch in advance here.

sheikh mohammed centre of cultural understanding

10. Alcohol is not available everywhere

Alcohol is not available all over the United Arab Emirates. As mentioned many times on this post, Dubai is a tourist destination and thus especially international restaurants and hotels will serve wine and beer. If you are in need of a proper cocktail, I recommend heading up to some fancy rooftop bar of an international hotel.

The Souq Waqif area is completely free of alcohol.

11. Frying Pan Tours is a food tour you MUST DO

Frying Pan Tours arranges food tours for small groups away from the tourism in a very local multicultural neighbourhood, far from the glamour and luxury of Dubai.

You will enjoy little treats in several Middle Eastern restaurants from Emirati food to Iraqi cuisine while learning even more about the culture and local ways of living from an international perspective.

Our guide was a lovely Indian lady who had moved to Dubai with her family many years ago to run their businesses.

Frying Pan Tours keeps the restaurants they visit a secret, so the only way to enjoy the amazing meals we got to enjoy is to hop on their tour. I can honestly say I had some of the best bites in my whole life and learned the most about a very honest middle-class life in Dubai.

This should be a must-do for your first time in Dubai.

Book your Frying Pan Tours food tour here.

frying pan tours dubai

12. Take a day (and night) to enjoy the desert

I’m a desert kind of a girl and could spend days on end just in the sand with nothing else around me. The desert in Dubai impressed me already on my first trip couple of years ago. I arrived to Dubai in the middle of the night and by morning I woke up to amazing sunlight in the middle of the desert amongst the wildlife.

You can go to the desert during the day or in the evening to enjoy the sunset. Book your tour here:

13. Enjoy the charm of old Dubai in the souqs

The north part of Dubai is home to the spice souq, gold souq and a traditional old souq. We stayed in the neighbourhood of Al Seef that is just a stone’s throw from the old souq of Dubai.

From the old souq you can hop on an abra wooden boat taxi to cross the creek to the other side for the gold and spice souq.

Souqs are perfect for souvenir shopping, but get ready to haggle!

dubai old souq

14. Dubai offers brunch dreams in 5 star hotels

Brunch is a serious business in the modern parts of Dubai both amongst the locals and tourists. Many luxury hotels offer amazing brunch buffets on the weekends.

Read more tips for brunches in Dubai from Time Out here.

Mind you, weekend brunch in Dubai is on Fridays!

15. Old wooden boat taxi Abra is a great way to enjoy the sunset on Dubai Creek

Abra is a traditional wooden boat taxi that you can use to cross Dubai creek to the other side. The price for one trip on Abra is only 1 dirham and should be paid in cash as you hop onboard.

I recommend enjoying a ride on abra during sunset to enjoy the best views. There are surely lots of dinner sunset cruises on the creek, but this offers a much more authentic experience.

Normally the abra fits around 20 people, but you can also book it privately for 30-60 minutes for 60-120 dirhams!

dubai abra
first time in dubai tips

16. Make a day trip to Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is only 120km from Dubai and has become a popular day trip destination. Abu Dhabi is especially known for its gorgeous Sheikh Zayed mosque that’s sure high on my bucket list.

I highly recommend doing either a half day trip just to see the mosque at sunset or a full day trip to see what else is Abu Dhabi about.

Book a half day trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi here.

Book a full day tour from Dubai to Abu Dhabi here.

17. Take a day to explore the mountains of Hatta

Hatta is a mountain area near to border of Oman and still a destination not that well known by the international tourist. Hatta is a 1,5-2 hour drive from Dubai depending on the traffic.

The mountain area offers routes for hiking, mountain biking and canoeing. There is also a little adventure park for the kids in the family.

For those wanting to stay longer in Hatta, there is a really cool camping area with unique camper vans to enjoy some time in the wild nature.

dubai hatta

19. A tourist tax is added to the price of your hotel stay

Even if you pay your accommodation online, don’t be surprised if a tourist tax is added to the price of your stay as you check-in or out. This is a common practise all over the United Arab Emirates.

But not to worry, the tourist tax is rarely no more than 10-20 dirhams per night.

20. Alserkal Avenue is the new hip area of Dubai

Alserkal Avenue is a warehouse area near Al Quoz and its growing into an artsy hip area of the city with cool cafes, art exhibitions and cultural events in the evenings.

During the day the area seemed almost empty, but perhaps it’s like most of Dubai and comes to life in the evenings.

I especially recommend dropping by Cinema Akil to see their cool movie theater that only shows Arabic movies. But there is also a cool cafe called Project Chaiwala in the lobby where you’ll get to enjoy some Indian street snacks and a cup of deliciously authentic chai.

Also don’t forget to drop by Mirzam chocolate factory for some good coffee and cakes!

alserkal avenue dubai

Have you been to Dubai before?

About Author

Veera Bianca is a passionate storyteller and hospitality expert with an urge to roam the globe. She spends her time on the road searching for meaningful experiences, reviewing accommodation and airlines – trying to inspire you to leave your comfort zone and getting to know new cultures.

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