Dubai has a global reputation for luxury and opulence that attractors visitors from around the globe. This massive city sprawls up out of the desert to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Dubai is one of the seven emirates that makes up the United Arab Emirates and is the largest and most populous city in the UAE. It is home to the tallest building in the world and the world’s first seven-star resort.
Dubai was a connecting point for our travels as SWISSGEAR Travel Ambassadors, but we thought it was worthy of its own destination. Matt and I decided to spend a couple days exploring the UAE, which was easy to do as a connecting point with Emirates Air. Emirates offers a direct 14-hour flight from Seattle, which flies north over the top of the world, nearly passing over the North Pole. We had a whole row to ourselves both on our way to Dubai from Seattle and on our return flight home, so we were able to sleep well, especially with our SWISSGEAR Memory Foam Pillows.
Thankfully, Emirates allows two checked bags and one carryon bag per person, so luggage sets and carry on luggage are allowed. Matt brought along the SWISSGEAR 6283 Expandable Spinner Luggage in blue in 28” and 21” and I packed the SWISSGEAR 7788 Hardside Spinner in black in 28” and 20” as well as our 6393 Scansmart Backpack and the all-new 2700 Series ScanSmart LED Backpack. The 2700 series backpack has a built-in LED light, so it made it easy to locate what I needed from inside our laptop backpack during the long redeye plane ride without having to turn on my overhead light and disturbing Matt or anyone else around us who was sleeping. We stored our laptops in our SWISSGEAR 2310 Paddled Laptop Sleeves, which kept our laptops protected and were easy to grab when we wanted to get work done on our layovers. We considered bringing matching small women & men duffle bags with wheels along for the trip but our laptop backpacks came with extra compartments to store valuables, and was also more convenient.
World’s Tallest Building
The one can’t miss activity in Dubai is visiting the world’s tallest building, that stands at 163 floors tall. The viewing platform on the 148th floor is the highest viewing deck in the world and the highest point visitors can reach in the tower. In order to reach the highest viewpoint, we had to splurge on the VIP experience. We decided to book the first time slot of the day at 9 a.m., to avoid crowds. We arrived early and waited in the VIP lounge where we drank tea and then were taken on a short informative tour after passing through security.
We took the elevator up to the VIP lounge on floor 148, which travels quickly at 10 meters per second, and were greeted with trays of juice and snacks, from mini macarons to pastries. We sat at two comfy chairs and a table up against the windows with our refreshments. As we looked out at the expansive view in front of and below us, it was hard to grasp just how high up we were. The buildings below us looked small from above, so it was crazy to think they were normal size skyscrapers! The Burj Khalifa offers free WiFi so we were thankful to have our 2700 Series Backpack with us with the built-in USB to keep our phones charged while sharing stories from the top of the Burj!
After polishing off our snacks, we made wandered around the windowed perimeter of the 148th floor. On one side the desert continued endlessly and on the other side, the sea met the horizon. The city stretched along the coast on both sides. On our way around the perimeter, we found the open-air viewing deck. The deck had glass walls and there were open spaces you could reach your arms out of (and camera if you were careful!).
We found the VIP experience to be worth the extra cost, otherwise, you can only visit the viewing decks on floors 125 & 124 with a general admission ticket. We visited the other viewing decks on the way back down and found the view to be similar, although the floors are much larger and they, in turn, are filled with many more people. There was also a long time to get back to the ground floor from that level, but luckily with our VIP passes, we were able to save time and bypass the line.
The Burj Khalifa puts on water and light shows daily every half hour from 6-11 p.m. We made sure to return another evening to view the 6 p.m. show so we could catch it during sunset. We arrived 30 minutes before the show started and already found the area in front of it crowded! Unfortunately, clouds had rolled in so weren’t able to see any sunset hues but the fountain show was still entertaining.
The Dubai Mall
At the base of the tallest building in the world is the largest mall in the world (although that title is occasionally be contested by other mega malls). The Dubai Mall appears endless with shops and restaurants galore from all around the world. Stores range from all price points, from luxury designer brands like Dior and Chanel to more affordable international brands like H&M. Not only does The Dubai Mall have your typical mall fare, but it also boasts an aquarium, ice rink, and waterfall fountain. The waterfall spans all four stories of the mall and is adorned with sculptures of human divers. We reached the fountain just as a call to prayer rang out through the mall, which made viewing it even more surreal.
We enjoyed strolling around out of the desert heat in the air conditioning and window shopping. As we walked around the mall, I happily accepted ice cream and frozen yogurt samples from a couple different storefronts as we passed by. Once I saw a sign for Shake Shack (a New York-based burger and shake joint) I immediately had a craving for it. I ate at Shake Shack once in New York several years ago and loved it, and Matt had never eaten there before. We found Shake Shack with a view of the waterfall in the mall and we ordered original burgers, their signature cheese fries, and a black & white shake!
After browsing around the mall, we took a Careem (similar to Uber) to La Mer, a trendy coastal neighborhood in Dubai. La Mer boasts several restaurants and shops along the beach, with a trendy new industrial feel mixed with colorful cute beach huts. Bright and fun street art covers the outdoor walls, with messages like “Positive Vibes Only” and “Stay Cool.” There is also a movie theatre and waterpark right at the waterfront. From the beach, you are granted a view of Dubai’s skyline and you can really grasp just how tall the Burj Khalifa is. The Burj towers over the rest of the city’s skyscrapers, making them look minuscule in comparison.
The juxtaposition of the modesty of Muslim culture with modern western beachgoer attire is evident here. Bathing suits are heavily present on the beach but signs on the boardwalk clearly display that swimwear is restricted to the sand and sea, and you must wear appropriate cover-ups on the boardwalk and beyond. We strolled the boardwalk from end to end, browsing the shops and street art while people watching.
If you’re looking to watch a sunset in Dubai, look no further than Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach is home to world’s first seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. The Burj Al Arab is famous for its iconic sail shape. The man-made Palm Islands (shaped like a palm tree, which is visible from the sky) are off in the distance and on one of the islands sits the famous Atlantis hotel. We arrived at Sunset Beach just as the sun was starting to set. The sun burned a bright pink as it sank into the horizon in between the sail of the Burj Al Arab and the Atlantis.
Eat like a local – Ravi Restaurant
To get a taste of local cuisine, we ventured to Ravi Restaurant, which was in a more residential area than the city center and coastal neighborhoods we had visited earlier. We had seen rave reviews about the restaurant online, one reviewer mentioning he ate there six times in five days while visiting Dubai, so we were curious if it would live up to the hype. When we hopped out of our Careem, we saw two restaurants side by side with a huge neon green “Ravi Restaurant” sign displayed overhead. Both restaurants were packed full of people outside and inside and we were welcomed into the restaurant closest to us by a waiter who showed us to the only visibly open table. It is a no-frills restaurant with plastic tablecloths and Styrofoam cups.
The menu was extensive and we were a little overwhelmed by what to order, especially since we didn’t know what many of the dishes were. We ended up selecting lentil soup, salad, four rotis (flatbread), a mixed grill platter, and chicken biryani (a mixed rice dish with chicken). We were impressed by our waiter’s ability to remember our order without writing anything down while rushing around a full restaurant. Our dishes came out quickly and we found out we ordered much more than we needed. The food was absolutely delicious also very cheap, especially compared to the prices of everything else we had seen in Dubai.
We loved our meal so much, the following night we ended up eating at Ravi Restaurant again, but this time we tried out a different location. This location was just as crowded with the same great service and delicious food. We were just as satisfied by Ravi the second time around. We learned that the restaurant was actually Pakistani food after looking up the origin of the green flags with a crescent moon and star around the restaurant. We would’ve eaten there a third time if given the opportunity!
Wander through the souks
We ended our night in Old Dubai visiting the Spice Souk & Gold Souk. We didn’t have the intention of buying spices or gold, we just wanted to visit the traditional market. The shopkeepers in the Spice Souk stood outside their open-air shops trying different tactics to entice us to buy their goods, from spices to pashminas to shoes. Their tactics ranged from shouting out deals to asking or guessing where we were from (“Italy?”), to different forms of flattery (a few shopkeepers called me Shakira, which I thought they were referring to the singer, but apparently is a local term for a pretty woman).
As the only tourists walking through the Souk at that time, the amount of attention we received felt like we were celebrities passing through paparazzi and screaming fans. We felt slightly preyed upon, not in a dangerous way, but this deterred us from actually stopping at any shops to browse. We have been in other markets around the world where the shopkeepers have acted similarly and understand their persistent sales methods are a cultural tactic, it is just not one that we always feel comfortable with. If we had something specific in mind, we were looking to purchase we would have enjoyed bartering with the shopkeepers (a skill we’ve improved throughout our world travels).
We continued onto the Gold Souk and felt much more comfortable window shopping there as we were relatively left alone to gaze at the impressive displays of gold and jewelry. All of the shops in the Gold Souk were enclosed and air-conditioned. Every now and then an owner would come out of their shop to try to tempt us in, telling us it was free to look, but we politely declined. If we had made any purchases, I would have easily had room for them in my SWISSGEAR 2703 Laptop Bag, which was carrying my camera and a water bottle to stay hydrated. In both souks, men would regularly come up to us and ask if we wanted to buy Rolexes or designer bags. We continually refused offers to buy the designer knock-offs.
Abu Dhabi – Capital of UAE
Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, is only a short hour and a half drive from Dubai, and we figured it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to visit while we were so close. We rented a car in Dubai to drive across the desert to spend the day in Abu Dhabi.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Our main draw to Abu Dhabi was visiting Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the country. I had seen the impressive white-marble domes of the mosque in many photos before and I wanted to see this stunning piece of architecture and monumental site in person. The mosque is impressive in size, as it is large enough to accommodate over 40,000 worshippers.
After parking, we headed into a security building, which had a separate entrance for males and females, but I was surprised to find that the doors led into the same room. Matt and I each got in our respective gender security lines and went through what felt like airport security. As a woman visiting the mosque, I was required to be fully covered in loose-fitting attire from my head to my wrists all the way down to my ankles. Matt had to have his shoulders and legs covered (no shorts and tank tops, but short sleeve shirts are allowed). We both dressed accordingly, I wore a long skirt with a t-shirt and cardigan with a scarf wrapped over my head and Matt wore jeans with a polo shirt. If we did not meet the dress code, we would have had to borrow an abaya in the security building, which is a loose full-length dress with a hood, that they offered in either black or light brown.
The Grand Mosque is free to visit and after passing through security we headed back outside onto the grounds of the mosque. We climbed a short flight of stairs and were greeted by a big golf cart. The driver told us to get in so we obliged, not exactly sure where he was taking us but we found out shortly after he was saving us the walk to the main entrance. We stepped into the mosque and had to remove our shoes to cubbies. I admired the cool white marble floors with beautiful flower mosaics under my bare feet.
After our drive from Dubai, we both had to use the restroom. The male and female bathrooms are at opposite sides of the mosque, so we went our separate ways. Since you have to remove your shoes at the mosque entrance, I was instructed to grab a pair of “slippers” (slip-on sandals) before taking the escalator down to the women’s bathroom. Stepping off the escalator, it looked like I had arrived in a spa. There were three rooms through arched entrances, the two to either side of me had no photo signs and held what looked like a giant fountain in the middle of the room surrounded by sinks and seats that appeared to be for washing your hands and feet. The perimeter of the room was also surrounded by intricate seats and sinks.
I passed through the center arch where other women were coming in and out and found myself in the bathroom. Like the rest of the mosque, the bathroom was luxurious with white marble and soft lighting, so I was surprised when I stepped into one of the many stalls to find nothing more than a hole in the ground with spots for my feet to crouch. I checked a few others, wondering if they just forgot to put the toilet in that one, but learned it was definitely intentional. No wonder slippers were required! I had encountered this type of bathroom before in my travels, but never somewhere that seemed so upscale.
I reunited with Matt back at the entrance and we stepped out into the courtyard of the mosque. You aren’t able to walk directly into the middle of the courtyard but there is an area roped off for the purpose of viewing and taking photos. While Matt was taking a picture of me, we quickly learned from a guard that “posing” of any kind was not allowed (I was holding my skirt but being careful not to reveal any skin). When we set up our tripod to take a photo of us together, the guard came over again when Matt put his arm around my shoulders for a photo and told us we weren’t able to show any displays of affection in the mosque.
We continued on around to explore the mosque and were relieved to get inside, where cool air conditioning escaped from the doors. The day was quickly heating up, especially under the layers we had worn to wear in the mosque. We were blown away by the beauty of the chandeliers inside. They were unique to any other chandelier we had seen before, shining with brilliant red, green, and yellow Swarovski crystals.
Wahat Al Karama War Memorial
While visiting the Grand Mosque, we noticed a large empty park-like area across the highway. I mentioned it would have a great view of the mosque and on our way out we decided to make a little detour to see if we could reach it. We passed a round-a-bout that in one turn stood the grand entrance to the Ritz Carlton hotel and continuing onward we found ourselves surrounded by government and military buildings where we knew we had no place being. We turned around back towards the “park” and pulled over behind it, where I jumped out and asked a guard if we could take photos of the mosque from this area. He seemed a little hesitant and then told us we could, so we tried to park there but he told us about a parking lot further ahead.
After parking in the official lot, we headed up to the auditorium-like structure and asked another guard if we could take photos of the mosque from here. Once we had the OK, Matt started setting up the tripod and we waited for gaps in traffic to get a clear shot. Shortly after we started shooting, I noticed another guard was walking urgently over to Matt.
I shouted at Matt to hurry and get the shot, as this guy looked like he meant business. I couldn’t hear what he said to Matt, but apparently, he told him “confiscate.” Matt asked why and told him no, as he was just taking photos of the mosque. The guard told him no videos and Matt assured him we were only taking photos and started showing him our pictures. The guard asked what the photos were for, commercial use? We told him no, for personal use (we weren’t taking any product photos there) and after more assurance from Matt he walked away and let us continue. The heat was extreme and we didn’t want to overstay our welcome so after we got a good shot we headed out.
We headed into a building to look for a restroom, which turned out to be a museum honoring Emirates military and were directed to another building for the bathroom. I was relieved this one had real toilets! We found out we were at Wahat Al Karama, which literally translates to “oasis of dignity” and is a war memorial to the nation’s soldiers and others who have sacrificed their lives for the country.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Another big draw to Abu Dhabi for us was visiting the new Louvre. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an art and civilization museum that opened in November of 2017. One might be familiar with the famous museum of the same name in Paris, which is home to the Mona Lisa among many other famous works of art. The museum in Abu Dhabi marks an unparalleled cultural collaboration between the UAE and France.
The building itself is absolutely gorgeous, with stunning modern architecture. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over water to reach the museum, which is covered by a web patterned dome that filters sunlight through in unique shapes.
The main collection has pieces from all over the world, spanning thousands of years of history. It also aims to bridge art and history from Eastern and Western worlds. We were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, which is apparently constantly growing and evolving. There is also rotating exhibit space that was hosting the exhibit “Japanese Connections: The Birth of Modern Decor” during our visit.