When I first booked my ticket to Bali that included an 18-hour layover in Dubai I’ll be the first to admit I was a little uneasy. I have done my fair share of traveling, but I had never been to a Middle Eastern country. Not only that, but it was only in the last year that I became accustomed to solo traveling which previously wasn’t for me.
I was put at ease immediately on the flight itself. I was flying Emirates, which I had heard great things about, but the quality of the aircraft still took me by surprise. It was aesthetically amazing along with tasty food, superior customer service, and a wonderful blend of cultures on board. The mood lighting that changed depending on the time of day was also incredibly soothing on the 12-hour flight from New York.
Upon landing all of my anxiety was washed away and I couldn’t wait to explore with the little time I had. Getting through customs and to ground transportation was incredibly easy – it took much less than an hour and a half which many blogs I had read claimed. I may have gotten lucky, but with an airport as big as Dubai’s I found it very simple. It was then 2pm when I jumped into a cab towards my hotel.
I had 18 hours until my next flight would depart to my final destination and fully intended on making the most of it. I stared out of the window of the cab fascinated by the city which was nothing like I had seen before. The mix of people walking on the streets and the blend of local stores with Western stores was an incredibly curious juxtaposition.
I had chosen to stay in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood which was located on the western side of the Dubai Creek. After making my way through a maze of alleys in the 120-degree heat (which according to Yahoo! Weather! felt like 147) I found my hotel, XVA. Later I discovered I was merely at a side door, but it worked in my favor given I fancied the simple sheer white curtain billowing in the wind between the beige alley walls that made the entrance.
The welcoming entry leads me to an entirely open concept hotel full with lush courtyards and cultural motifs. After checking in, I was escorted to my room which is one of 13 uniquely designed rooms that are individually themed based on local inspiration. To my delight, the door even opened up to the courtyard I had seen when first walking in.
I quickly got myself together to make the most of my minimal time – although I probably would’ve loved to stay in the charming hotel for longer. I took a quick peek at the art gallery within the hotel before making my way to the rooftop. Here I was taken aback by the architecture of Old Dubai and it made me entirely forget how terribly hot it was outside – especially in a long skirt and a top that covered my shoulders and elbows.
*Note: video of the whole experience can be found below*
I can’t say enough about how lovely this hotel was – and I’m convinced it’s a hidden gem (literally) in this part of town. Reluctantly I left the hotel and chose to get lost in the alleys for a while. I walked into a few of the shops to poke around at the knickknacks and pashmina scarves; I learned quickly that everyone will try to sell you something.
I passed a few unique museums and a mosque before making my way towards the Dubai Creek in hopes of going to the Gold Souk across the way. I walked for about 20 minutes through a market, got bamboozled into buying a scarf (but bartered at least), and finally made my way to the water’s edge. You could see and feel the bustle on the other side of the creek and it was a sight to see, especially with the abras waiting to ferry you to the souk side.
It was in this brief moment a bit of my anxiety returned as I turned to see about 10 men gawking at me (again, I was fully covered), and I realized I had not seen another woman since I left my hotel. I had really been looking forward to seeing the souk, but my uneasiness forced me to find a cab and head towards downtown instead. It’s something I later regretted not giving a go, but convinced it was something I’d come back for with company.
I got dropped off at the iconic Dubai Mall – which is 13 million square feet. The entire atmosphere was different in this part of town. There was no longer a need to be covered up by the looks of the other customers (including tons of women) and there were people from all over the world based on their accents and unique outfits.
I got lost for a couple of hours wandering through the mall and gazing at all the attractions from the aquarium to the waterfall, to the ice rink that had snow falling on the patrons, and peering around ‘The Souk’ which was the traditional part of the mall. I was lost for so long I had forgotten that I hadn’t eaten since the plane.
It took me quite a while to find somewhere to eat that wasn’t from another part of the world. I really wanted to try Arabic cuisine so I settled on Times of Arabia. The décor was very traditional and I loved the dance show they provided. I couldn’t get enough of the Moroccan tea and the Mhalayah Shamiah dessert. My main meal was Arayes Kofta, which frankly reminded me of a quesadilla.
Once I was full, and since it was already past 6pm, I decided to leave the bliss of the air conditioning and head back outdoors. I exited straight towards the Dubai Fountain and walked around its edge to admire the fountain and to people watch the other tourists. I was just in time to catch the next fountain show.
This is the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set that includes 6,600 lights and 25 color projectors. The water shoots up to 500 feet in the air and it cost over $200 million USD to build. All of that aside, it was exceptionally breathtaking to watch. The music coupled with the water’s composition was a truly magnificent pairing.
Even though I was completely melting at this point, I decided to stay for the world’s largest LED-light show on the Burj Khalifa. By now the sun was starting to set which only added to the grandeur of the show that was already incredibly captivating.
I then made my way back to the mall to cool down on my way to the Burj Khalifa. I had purchased my ticket online in advance through Expedia (I highly recommend this to cut lines and cut costs). The elevator is the world’s third-fastest and made its way from 0 to 124 in one minute going 22mph – although it didn’t feel jarring at all.
Upon exiting you’re immediately introduced to the view on the 125th floor at 456 meters above the ground. Here you get a 360 view of the magical city. It’s hard to imagine staring at this skyline knowing that the city used to be just a desert and has so quickly been turned into a booming metropolis (with 90% of the population being expats).
“Now, finding a Dubai hotel with fewer than five stars is harder than it was to find Dubai on a map 30 years ago,” as said by National Geographic.
The scale of such a skyline made me make a point to research the history further. Until then, I admired the view from the observation deck on the 124th floor and enjoyed the incredible fountain show from a bird’s eye view this time around.
If I had had more time, and if daylight hadn’t dwindled, I would’ve then made my way to the Burj Al Arab – the iconic sail-shaped hotel set on an island which is the third tallest hotel in the world. From there I also would’ve loved to see the Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah, and Palm Islands. I would’ve also wanted to take a peek at the indoor skiing at the Mall of the Emirates, and would’ve enjoyed a leisurely lunch back in the courtyard of my hotel which served Middle Eastern vegetarian food.
Alas, it was 9pm at this time (and given I hadn’t slept since I left New York over 24 hours ago) so I half-heartedly made my way back to the hotel. On the cab ride home, I wished the layover would’ve had more daylight hours, but I was incredibly grateful for the hours I had had. In my time, I was able to explore old as well as new and be transported between two very different cultures all within the same city.
I fell asleep that night knowing I’d be back to see what I had missed, leaving any previous anxiety I had to the wind against the edge of that white curtain and welcomed my next adventure at sunrise.
The Skinny on What to See:
- Burj Khalifa
- Burk Al Arab
- Dubai Creek
- Variety of Souks
- The Dubai Mall
- Dubai Marina
- Palm Jumeirah
- Palm Islands
- Mall of the Emirates
- The Dubai Fountain
- Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Also published on The Huffington Post