After several weeks of battling through early mornings and late nights to see the sights across Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Jordan, Jessy and I were more than happy to explore the United Arab Emirates at a significantly slower pace.
In total, we’d be spending around a week in Dubai, hopping across several luxury hotels and revelling in the spectacular wealth and excess on display here in one of the world’s most prominent global cities.
We only explored the city during the three days we spent at the JW Marriott Marquis in the city centre; after that, we moved to the W Dubai The Palm and then Al Maha Desert Resort in the outskirts of town, where we were content to fully immerse ourselves in our luxurious surroundings without leaving the premises at all.
We’ll talk about those experiences in their own separate installments; for now, I’ll quickly bring you along for a recap of the couple of days we spent casually exploring Dubai city proper.
Burj Khalifa, The World’s Tallest Building
The first and foremost item on the agenda for our time in Dubai was, of course, visiting the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa, the scarcely believable 828-meter structure towering in the Dubai skyline head-and-shoulders above everything else since it opened in 2010.
The Burj Khalifa occupies a plot of land adjacent to the Dubai Mall, one of the city’s most popular shopping centres and a complimentary shuttle bus ride away from the JW Marriott Marquis where we stayed.
The complex is also accessible via an enclosed walkway the Dubai Mall metro station, which is definitely an important consideration during the summer months when even a few minutes spent in the sizzling outdoor heat could drain you of all your energy.
At first glance, the mind struggles to make sense of this 163-storey needle-like structure protruding from the ground, combining modern engineering prowess with an exterior spiral minaret pattern inspired by Islamic architecture. Other buildings around the world simply don’t come anywhere near it, and you’d be forgiven for briefly drawing comparisons between the Burj Khalifa and one of those alien-built intergalactic structures you might see in a Marvel Comics movie.
As you can imagine, the world’s tallest building can command quite a hefty premium from those who consider themselves worthy of taking in the view from its highest floors.
The cheapest tickets for “At the Top”, the tourist experience at the Burj Khalifa, goes for 149 AED ($53) per person and will bring you to Floors 124 and 125, which is still an incredible 38 storeys from the very top.
The next ticket that’s available is the Burj Khalifa SKY experience, which takes you up to Floors 124, 125, and 148 for 378 AED ($134) per person during non-prime hours (i.e., after sunset) and 533 AED ($190) per person during prime hours (i.e., before sunset).
That’s a significant chunk of change to spend on going up a skyscraper, but I figured there was no sense in coming to the world’s tallest building if I didn’t get at least somewhat close to its highest point, so I eventually shelled out the money for the Burj Khalifa SKY ticket with a 5pm ascent – that way, we could spend a few hours up there and see the view both during the daylight and after sunset.
There’s even a third and final VIP ticket, known as “The Lounge, Burj Khalifa”, which brings you up to the 152nd to 154th floors of the building and retails for an obscene 608 AED ($217) per person. Alas, I couldn’t quite justify that level of expense just to go up an additional six storeys.
Note that even The Lounge wouldn’t quite get you to the upper storeys beyond Floor 154, since Floors 155–160 are reserved for communication and broadcast purposes, while Floors 161–163, where the pin-shaped structure of the building converges to its very cusp, house the equipment that serves the building’s mechanical needs.
We arrived at the Burj Khalifa’s “At the Top” concierge in Dubai Mall at 5pm, and were whisked into a waiting room along with all the other guests.
After about 15 minutes, our tour guide began to lead us through a short hallway, which contained several fancy information displays of the Burj Khalifa, regaling us with the details behind this marvellous feat of human engineering.
Just before entering the elevator, we even stopped underneath a skylight that allowed us to look up at the tower from the very base – it looked positively harmless from this angle!
And then it was time to step in the elevators and, at a dazzling speed of 10 meters per second, make the journey up to Floor 124.
There’s about enough time for you to feel your ears popping and swallow once or twice, before the elevator doors open and usher you out into the central viewing hall…
…and towards the incredible views from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever been on the 124th floor of a building before (let alone the 148th), and it’s safe to say that the outside world took on a whole new perspective.
City blocks turned into a handful of dominoes, the Dubai Mall’s gigantic fountain display underneath us looked like a streak of highlighter ink on a piece of paper, and the buildings of the Dubai Marina off in the distance were nothing more than a speck of dust.
To be honest, I could’ve stood there and watched the city in action for hours on end – the metro trains shuttling back and forth, the endless traffic flowing along Sheikh Zayed Road – as if playing God with my mortal creations on Earth.
But there was still more to come, in the form of using our decidedly expensive Burj Khalifa SKY tickets to unlock a separate elevator ride up to Floor 148 and its unbelievable outdoor viewing deck.
Even though the deck is fully fenced-off on all sides, I still felt an slight element of danger in simply being exposed to the outdoor elements at such a high altitude. One thing’s for sure: this is certainly no place for anyone with a fear of heights.
The view from the 148th floor was even more ridiculous. The buildings that had once resembled dominoes now looked more like brittle pieces of chalk, as though I could easily reach out and crush them under my finger, while the distinctive Burj Al Arab was a children’s toy in the distance against the backdrop of the Arabian Sea.
Say what you want about the oil-fuelled lavishness and decadence that often defines Dubai, but the combination of unchecked ambition with near-limitless wealth has at least given us a few novel experiences like this that you won’t find anywhere else in this world.
Now, Jessy and I had seen quite a few memorable sunsets on this trip so far – along the stunning landscapes of Cappadocia and Wadi Rum to name a few – but the sunset from 800 metres above Dubai was a special one in its own right.
Supposedly, the building’s height is so impressive that a person could watch the sun vanish behind the horizon from ground level, then take the elevator up to the very top and watch it all over again. We didn’t put that theory to the test, but instead simply drank in the view as the sun slowly set over the famous World Islands off the western shore of Dubai, casting the cityscape beneath our eyes in a warm bluish-pinkish glow.
We hung out on the 124th floor for another half an hour or so to look at the night views, enjoy some complimentary post-sunset Ramadan drinks (which were included in our ticket), and watch the nightly Dubai Mall fountain light show from up high, before heading back into the elevators for the long descent back to ground level.
Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates
The next day, we headed to south on the Dubai Metro to indulge in another one of the city’s over-the-top manmade creations, albeit one with sadly not quite as much elevation as the Burj Khalifa: Ski Dubai, the indoor skiing facility at the Mall of the Emirates.
Indoor ski slopes aren’t all that uncommon across the world – the largest one opened a few years ago in Harbin, China, and I had passed up the opportunity to visit it at the time – but there was simply something so curious about going skiing in the middle of the desert that I just had to try it out for myself.
A two-hour slope pass at Ski Dubai costs 210 AED ($75) per person, and includes gear rental for both skiers and snowboarders; Jessy’s not quite as enthusiastic about winter sports as I am, so she chose to skip the skiing and look at the penguins instead (yes, they have penguins!)
After buying my ticket and kitting up, I took the escalator up a level, stepped through the temperature-controlled alas doors, and found myself in a veritable winter wonderland.
I immediately hit the chairlift to get to the very top. The facility’s ceiling was above me as I took the chairlift up, and it was quite jarring to realize that blazing 42˚C heat lay on the other side.
Alas, there’s not much to say about the runs themselves – you can only build an indoor ski slope to a certain height, and so each of the runs would make for 10–20 seconds of adrenaline at best.
There are ordinarily two runs that you can take from top to bottom, but one of the upper sections was closed for instruction (hey, why wouldn’t the wealthy Emirati families put their kids in snowsports?), so the two separate runs on the lower stretch of the “mountain” were the only form of variety I could enjoy.
I zipped down each one of them about a dozen times, before finishing up and returning my gear. I then reunited with Jessy – apparently, the penguins had looked rather sad in their captivity, and simply waddled around for a few minutes aimlessly before the show was over.
We spent the rest of the day doing some shopping at the Mall of the Emirates. Dubai’s malls, by the way, are very much worthy rivals of their East Asian counterparts in terms of the sheer splendour and grandiosity, and the many Ramadan-themed spectacles and displays across all of Dubai’s shopping venues were almost an attraction in themselves.
Dubai Gold Souk, Deira
Finally, we took some time to escape Dubai’s many indoor luxuries, however briefly, to check out the Old Dubai Gold Souk in the Deira district, a short walk away from Al Ras metro station.
The Gold Souk is housed in a series of open-air pedestrian streets under a covered awning, with dozens of merchants peddling their gold jewellery products to locals and tourists alike. We weren’t really in the market for anything, so mostly just looked around out of interest and took in the awesome sight of an entire street lined with gold.
It speaks volumes that even one of Dubai’s grungier tourist attractions is glistening with gold as far as they eye can see. We enjoyed our visit to the Old Gold Souk, although the early summer heat made it difficult to tolerate being outside for too long, so after grabbing some food at a local eatery, we eventually hopped back on the metro in favour of some more casual shopping in a nice air-conditioned environment.
Dubai is known for taking opulence and extravagance to another level compared to its fellow global cities, and I did have lots of fun spending a few days here to experience it for myself, and in particular by checking off a few major bucket list items, like the one-of-a-kind views from the world’s tallest building and going skiing in the middle of the desert.
Of course, I can’t exactly say that it would make for a particularly interesting destination to visit once you go beyond the superficial glitz and glam, but it was a welcome way to finish off a Middle East trip that already had plenty of those more fulfilling elements to begin with. And indeed, with the W, Al Maha, and Emirates First Class still to come, the luxury factor at the tail end of this trip was only just getting started.