A mural by French artist Seth Globepainter in the district of Satwa on 2nd Of December Street. (Photo: Grethe Kemp)
If you don’t have a Rihanna-sized budget, travelling to Dubai can be a financially strenuous undertaking. The hotels are five-star and the restaurants lavish, and what’s the fun of a shopping mall if you can’t afford anything inside?
A recent invite from Emirates took me on a whirlwind three-day tour in an attempt to prove the opposite – that Dubai is culturally rich enough to be done on a budget. My take-away? It can, depending on your idea of a budget. If you’re willing to limit your trip to three days and take full advantage of their city sightseeing buses, you can enjoy a pretty awesome experience for less than R12 000. But you’re going to have to follow my advice. So without further ado...
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WHERE TO STAY
Zabeel House Mini
This brand-spanking-new three-star hotel is situated in Al Seef in old Dubai.
The city is roughly split into the old and new parts – with many of its most famous sites, like the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), situated in the newer area. Despite this, old Dubai is a bustling, vibrant place, with original architecture and plenty of culture. Al Seef sits alongside Dubai’s much-loved creek, and is close to the Al Fahidi cultural historical neighbourhood, with easy public transport links to downtown Dubai, parks and beaches.
The hotel itself sports a modern art aesthetic and plenty of Instagram-friendly details, most notably the adorable analogue phones on the wooden swing bed stand and Smeg fridges in the rooms. As part of their opening special, you can get a room for about R950 per night sharing if you book before 14 June.
Contrary to what many people will tell you, it’s not as difficult to get alcohol in Dubai as you might think. I’ve found that as long as you stay within the hotel or restaurant’s premises you can get booze just about any time of the day. Zabeel House has its own cocktail bar and a cool courtyard to drink in so you’re not in view of the street.
The hotel also has a restaurant that serves an amazingly unconventional breakfast – think chia seed smoothies, quinoa salad, smoked salmon and haddock, freshly baked bread, cheeses and sundried tomatoes. For the more traditional guest, you can order omelettes and pancakes. Just don’t expect bacon or sausages – Dubai is a Muslim country.
According to Edelman South Africa, who do Dubai’s public relations in South Africa, there are other hotels to try that are even cheaper.
“Set right in the heart of Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi district, just steps away from some of the city’s best attractions, from Dubai Museum to the Creek and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (not to mention within walking distance of a metro station), the Orient Guest House is a tranquil and affordable hideaway. This little boutique-style guest house has 10 rooms decorated in traditional Arabian style, and the entire house feels like a home from a bygone age – complete with a majlis area and courtyard for weary travellers to relax in. Nearby, the XVA Hotel offers a similar feel with a more artistic slant – it’s connected to a gallery. If you’re looking to stay in the busier parts of the city, the Rove Hotels are an excellent option that offers contemporary surrounds at affordable prices in key areas across Dubai.”
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WHAT TO EAT
Samosa chaat at Rauf Sweets
Ah, the most pleasant question of all. Eating is the highlight of any travel experience, and Dubai is known for having virtually every type of cuisine on the planet. Only 10% of those living in Dubai are locals, with the rest being expats from all over the world. For that reason you can get everything from the most authentic Indian, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian and Vietnamese to all the Popeyes, KFC, McDonalds and Krispy Kreme you could ever want.
During my trip, I was taken on a walking food tour by Arabian Adventures in Al Satwa, something I highly recommend.
Along the route, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall spot called Rauf Sweets on Satwa Road for some samosa chaat. Samosa chaat is a popular dish consisting of crispy fried samosa covered with spicy chickpeas, curd, red onions and tomato. Rauf Sweets is where many of the Indian migrant workers eat, and despite being the cheapest at only R12.50, this chaat was the best thing I ate during my trip.
Another eatery you simply have to try is Ravi Restaurant on Satwa Al Satwa Road. It’s become somewhat of a hot spot thanks to plenty of TripAdvisor reviews, and for good reason. Think sumptuous Indian and Pakistani dishes such as tikka chicken and mutton jalfraizi, served with naan and rice. The prices are considered pretty good for Dubai, with a bowl of mutton curry going for about R82.
Finally, if you have dosh to spend, treat yourself to a trip to Dubai’s famous man-made island, the Palm Jumeirah. Located on the 11th Floor of Aloft Palm Jumeirah, Luchador a Mexican eatery with a magnificent sea view and flavourful tacos, burritos and real deal tequila. But the reason to go is to have their Cajeta Brulee for dessert. It’s a wonderfully unconventional but sumptuous offering of banana, corn candy, and corn ice-cream and it looks like a crème brûlée. It’s going to set you back about R120, but if you’ve saved by eating chaat you can splash out.
WHAT TO DO
Take the bus
You can blow the bank in Dubai with ease, but there are many activities you can do for cheap, or even for free. The best way to get in the most sites is to book a three-day pass on the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off bus.
For R1 219 you’ll get driven around in an air-conditioned, wi-fi equipped bus that stops at more than 40 spots. What’s cool is that you can get off wherever you want, and get picked up again by a later bus.
The trip is inclusive of a 60-minute Arabian Dhow cruise at Dubai Creek, an entrance ticket to the Dubai Museum, a Dubai Mall Aquarium entrance ticket, a 60-minute Palm Jumeirah Cruise and a Dubai night tour, so you can see the spectacular city lights.
Go to the mall
If a bus tour is not your thing, you can get around the city using their Careem service or Uber. Uber to the Dubai Mall and check out their aquarium. It’s a site to behold, with a massive shark, stingray and colourful fish serenely soaring by in front of your eyes.
Then make your way to The Dubai Fountain. It offers one of the best views of the Burj Khalifa and during the evening you can gather around and watch the completely free, world-famous, unique, choreographed water and light shows.
See the flamingos
Dubai is extremely bustling, the traffic can be exhausting, and the abundance of manmade architecture can feel a little cold. For this reason, some respite in the form of a visit to the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is a good idea. Entrance is free, and you’ll get to view the flamingoes that call the wetlands there their homes. These pink beauties migrate to Dubai, and the peak season to see them is October. It’s quite an experience seeing flamingoes in front of you with the towering Burj Khalifa in the background.
Go to the beach
With their soft silky sand and placid waters, Dubai’s beaches are beautiful. This is a far cry from Cape Town, where it’s too cold to swim, and Durban, where you’re bound to get knocked over by a wave at some point. Here the water is lukewarm and there’s hardly an ebb to stir you. The City Sightseeing Bus stops at Kite Beach, (where, as the name implies, people love to fly kites) as well as Nasimi and JBR Beach, and this is a great opportunity to get off and enjoy the sea.
See the souks
Dubai is famous for its gold, perfume and spice souks, and if you’re looking to pick up bargains this is also the best place to shop. The City Sightseeing Bus makes a stop at the Old Souk in Deira, which is a great stop to check out what a traditional market used to look like. Hold your dirhams close and browse the spices, dates, sweets, nuts, souvenirs and traditional artefacts on offer. You’ll also want to see the Gold Souk just because it’s so spectacular. Here, more than 300 retailers display more than 25 tonnes of gold. It’s the largest gold market in the world. Even if you’re not buying, just seeing the displays is worth it. A shop at the souk’s entrance has a display of the biggest ring in the world. Called the Star of Taiba, it’s estimated to cost more than R38 million.
Walk the frame
If you’ve been clever and have money to spare, definitely visit the Dubai Frame. It will cost you about R140 to Uber from Zabeel House, and entry is about R170. This 150m-tall golden monument looks exactly like a picture frame, and the drawcard is walking across the 100m2 bridge at the top.
This bridge has a glass panel in the middle, and walking over it gives you a frightening, awe-inspiring view of the city below. The Dubai Frame is the perfect example of the city’s unbridled showmanship. It serves no purpose but as a monument to Dubai’s glory and UAE president and Dubai Emirate Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s glory.
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In its foyer is an interactive museum that shows Dubai’s past – with projections, mist effects, smells and motion illustrating how this small fishing and pearl diving village in the desert progressed. After you’ve been across the glass bridge, your tour ends with a 3-D projection showing Al Maktoum’s vision for the future Dubai. This is Star Trek type of stuff – with hovering cars, health care that’s eradicated illness, urban farming and space travel.
It comes complete with inspiring quotes from the Emirate himself. After it’s over, you’ll find yourself blinking as the sun strikes off the golden building and fountains crescendo in front of the entrance. There’s even music blasting to evoke and inspire. It all has the intended effect – to dispel any remaining doubt that Dubai is the most developed place you’ve ever been to. And if that’s your kind of thing, you’ll happily succumb.
- Kemp was hosted by Emirates
HOW TO GET THERE?
Emirates is offering a special on flights from Joburg to Dubai until this Thursday. From R6 999 you can travel economy to Dubai, and the offer includes a 30-day visa fee of R1 132 and a generous 3-piece baggage allowance. This offer is valid for sale until 7 June 2018 and for travel until 10 December 2018. To book a holiday similar to the one outlined in this article, phone Emirates Holidays at 0861 040 503 or email email@example.com
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AND FOR WOMEN?
As a woman visitor to Dubai, you’ll be expected to dress modestly. So what does that mean? Our tour guide told us to wear clothes that cover up to our shoulders and knees. I found jeans and a shirt were fine for most of our tours. However, if you’re visiting a mosque you should wear more formal clothing and a headscarf.
There are many expats in Dubai, and they tend to conform less to modest dress codes. In the malls and streets, Westerners dress very much like we do in South Africa. The Emiratis, however, dress traditionally.
Emirati men wear an ankle-length white shirt called a kandura and a white head covering called a ghutra tied with a black cord called an agal. The Emirati women wear an abaya, a black over-garment covering most parts of the body. The United Arab Emirates is a patriarchal nation, and Human Rights Watch has observed that its civil and criminal courts apply elements of sharia law in a way that discriminates against women. Nevertheless, many women travel to Dubai alone and it is seen to be a relatively safe destination.