Dubai: What to Know Before You Go

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Dubai: What to Know Before You Go
You’ve surely heard about Dubai’s rapid growth: its futuristic technology and architecture, city planning projects, and penchant for extravagant luxury. But reading an article here and there or knowing the impressive roster of shops at the Dubai Mall won’t help you with the practical information you need as a traveler—things like the currency, language, or how to get around. Before you touch down at Dubai International Airport—one of the world’s busiest—here’s what you need to know to make the most of your visit to this city of opulence and dreams.

All photos by author.
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    Dubai is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, a country toward the east of the Arabian Peninsula that is bordered by Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. The term “Dubai” refers both to the Emirate of Dubai and to its capital city (there are a few other habitations within the emirate). Note that the capital of the UAE is Abu Dhabi, not Dubai.
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    Dubai International Airport (DXB) opened in 1971, but the contemporary chapter of Dubai’s long history (often called the development of a “New Dubai”) first began with the opening of the Burj Al Arab hotel in 1999. Since then, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum—ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE since 2006—has embarked on a series of large-scale city planning projects, including the Palm, Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, and more. These have been pivotal in Dubai’s evolution as a premier luxury destination.
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    Most people traveling to Dubai are aware of its history as a city that, quite literally, came up from nothing. Just 50 years ago, Dubai was a desert backwater, and its now-iconic skyscrapers and booming tourism industry existed only in the imagination of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (the current emir’s father, who died in 1990). But those same visitors are often surprised to see how much of Dubai is still under construction: The skyline is dotted with cranes and roads change quicker than can be kept current on Google maps. Seeing a city in transition is part of the appeal of visiting Dubai right now—it’s a city that alters each time you visit.
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    World Expo
    All the construction and city planning projects point toward an end goal: the World Expo 2020. A socially acceptable bragging platform where countries show off their achievements to the rest of the world, the World Expo is Dubai’s culminating celebration—a time for the city to draw in a large number of tourists to see the end result of 20-some years of growth. Within this context, Dubai will remain in many ways a “city in progress” until the World Expo 2020—meaning travelers can often find deals on flights and hotels, as well as be able to see the world’s newest metropolis in a state of transition.
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    Although not all places in Dubai require a reservation, it’s always safest (and least stressful) to check online or call ahead—especially if your destination is a popular tourist draw. Certain attractions—such as the Burj Khalifa observation decks—require tickets and often sell out in advance, and others—such as the Burj Al Arab hotel—ask for a restaurant reservation confirmation before even allowing non-guests on the property.
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    There are two main areas of Dubai: the downtown city center and the beach area around The Palm Jumeirah. While staying downtown will put tourists closer to the airport, Burj Khalifa, and the Dubai Mall, those hoping to spend some extra time tanning (and sipping poolside cocktails) should consider staying at one of the magnificent beachfront resorts in this area of Jumeirah. Positioned about a 15-minute drive south of downtown, the area features a second set of skyscrapers strung out along the beach, The Palm islands, and Bluewaters Island, a forthcoming project that will include the world’s largest Ferris wheel.
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    The local currency in Dubai is the Arab Emirate dirham, or AED; one U.S. dollar is currently equivalent to 3.67 AED. Although Dubai is known as a luxury destination, it’s not just reserved for travelers in the top 1 percent—guests can spend only a few dollars on dinner from a local falafel shop (or more on a single cocktail at a fancy rooftop bar). There is no additional tax on bills and tipping is generally optional (though encouraged).
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    Skip the hassle of renting a car (and navigating unfamiliar and under-construction roads) and opt to traverse Dubai by taxi or metro. The metro is easy and inexpensive to use; the two lines run along numbered stops, stations are spotless and artfully designed, and tickets cost around 10–15 AED (US$2–$4) each way. But the metro is far from comprehensive and primarily covers the routes most relevant for business, commuting, and airport travel; inevitably, most visitors will need to take cabs at various points throughout a Dubai trip. Thankfully, the beige cars are easy to spot, flag down, and afford—you can get pretty much anywhere in the city for around 60–79 AED (US$15–$20).
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    Sure, your dollars may not get you far in Dubai—but your English will. Signs are displayed in both English and Arabic, and the city’s highly diverse expat population means dozens of other languages are regularly spoken in Dubai; many locals speak three or more!
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    Considering the tumultuous and often misguided relationship between the United States and the Middle East in general, many Americans are unsure how safe it is to visit Dubai. In reality, the city is safe, modern, and clean. And as for the question Westerners always fixate on: Dubai is comparatively liberal in terms of clothing. Women are encouraged to cover their knees and shoulders in public as a sign of respect, but are not legally required to do so as in more conservative countries. In terms of swimwear at the beach or pool, wear what you'd normally wear—just keep the thong bikini bottom at home.
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