This ultra-modern and populous city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is known for its opulence, which makes it an atypical choice as a backpacker’s destination. Dubai’s larger-than-life reputation is exemplified in the tallest towers, lavish resorts, and extravagant lifestyle. Proof that this oil-rich city does not shy away from ambitious projects are several architectural marvels, including Palm Jumeirah, Burj Khalifa, the Infinity Tower, and the largest indoor snow theme park in the world – Ski Dubai.
This metropolis seems to relish making the impossible possible with its deep wells of funding. For instance, while a desert would not be top-of-mind for a flower delivery business, the plant and flower market in the Emirates is in fact a multi-million dollar industry. The presence of Dubai Miracle Garden is a testament to Dubai’s sense of irony and massive clout, managing to erect the world’s largest flower garden oasis, featuring over a hundred million flowers, in a desert. As the name implies, it’s a feat which is nothing short of a miracle.
As such, the conspicuously consumerist culture of this urban escape may turn off the unassuming backpacker on a strict budget, but beneath the ostentatious façade, traces of Dubai’s heritage and humble beginnings endure. You just have to know where to look.
CULTURAL SIGHTSEEING ON A BUDGET
Exploring Dubai need not be budget-busting. The Dubai Creek is an excellent way to experience the old shipping culture of this city. The sight of traditional dhows transporting goods all across the channel harks back to Dubai’s beginning as a trading port for vessels coming from across Asia and Africa. You can even traverse the creek via an abra or water taxi between Deira and Bur Dubai for less than a dollar.
Another cultural sight worth checking out is the Bastakia Quarter. Wealthy Persian merchants settled in this area in the 19th century due to favourable trading conditions. This picturesque neighbourhood features narrow, labyrinthine alleys, wind towers, and modern art galleries. Stay close to walking tour groups organised by Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to get a more in-depth understanding of the quarter’s history and heritage.
Possibly the most pleasurable way to sample a city’s culture is through food. Fortunately, Arabic food is fairly cheap. Shawarma, a kind of Middle Eastern taco, is practically a staple food all across UAE. Afghan Kebab House, located behind Naif Mosque, gives you an authentic taste of Emirati cuisine with its selection of tender and juicy chicken, lamb, and beef wrapped in naan bread. They also serve fresh salad for variety. Fair warning, though, expect to wait a while as you take your queue with groups of hungry Emiratis looking for their fill of meaty goodness.
EXPLORE THE DESERT AND THE BEACH
Your trip to Dubai wouldn’t be complete if you don’t make a quick trip the desert. The popular way is via Desert Safari complete with a 4×4 ride and camping out under the starts. However, if you’re strapped for cash, you can DIY your way to a Desert Safari or, if you’re lucky, your Couchsurfing or Airbnb host may be generous enough to grant you a desert experience sans the expensive fee.
From sand dunes to the seashores, hit the Al Mamzar public beach to cool off.
Though sightings of women swimming in burqas is normal, the usual swimming garb is allowed. This stretch of beach offers fun activities, such as kitesurfing and wakeboarding, but you can also choose to chill with a book. From here, you can catch a great view of the bright Dubai skyline, including the famed 7-star Burj Al-Arab.
A FEW ETIQUETTE REMINDERS
While Dubai is one of the less strict among the Muslim states, an awareness of local customs and decorum are essential to avoid unnecessary trouble.
While budget stalls and stores allow the casual shorts and sandals get-up, most establishments implement a strict dress codes. To be safe, pack a pair of pants, collared shirts, and shoes, especially if you plan on visiting more upscale places. There are also behavioural restrictions in place. For instance, it is advisable not to touch an Emirati woman. A handshake is only acceptable if she extends her hand first. Meanwhile, kissing in public would likely land you in jail, so tread lightly when initiating contact in public.