On my recent visit to Dubai, I had all sorts of expectations. It was my first trip to the Emirates, and I was extremely excited. I’ll say I was imagining a bit of a culture shock and I must also admit that I was thinking we would have to cover up at all times, and in general make an effort to feel safe. Almost every idea I had of the city and of the Emirates were wrong, and I am happy to say I now have another favourite destination up my sleeve!
I wanted to make a little list of all the things about Dubai that blew me away, and hopefully it’ll keep you from having the same (silly) expectations as me before visiting.
Things that surprised me when visiting Dubai
I thought visiting Dubai would be a bit like visiting Eastern Europe – no sign of the commercial West. Boy, was I wrong! They had more American stores, cafes and restaurants than we do in Norway! Right next to our hotel was both Starbucks and a Wendy’s, for a start. They even had Nando’s, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit. At Dubai Mall I was expecting to see some brands I recognized, instead I recognized pretty much all of them.
The amount of construction
There was so much to do and see in Dubai, yet it seemed to be only half-finished! Everyone we spoke to said that the city had changed so much in only 10 years, and that in 10 more it wouldn’t look the same again. Dubai seemed to be ever-growing, and I had no idea it was all happening so fast! It was incredibly fascinating, and I can only imagine what it looked like 1, 5 and 10 years ago.
The openness to tourists
Not gonna lie, I didn’t think we would be as welcomed as we were. I figured people would view us as snooty foreigners, arrived from the West to stare and make fun of Arab culture, and thus do nothing but stare back and give us the cold shoulder. Instead, we were treated with such openness, and learned so much from the people we met! Everyone seemed eager to share and explain their culture, from taxi drivers to the man sitting behind us on the plane from Istanbul.
A shoutout to our extremely helpful Desert Safari Guide, who answered so many of our (dumb) questions! You can read all about our dune bashing desert safari experience in this post!
Obviously I wasn’t surprised at the Souks themselves, but what startled me was the vibe around them. I had imagined something straight out of Aladdin (sorry, not sorry), and instead we were met with a scene taken from Taxi 3. It was messy, sweaty and insanely confusing. We were shouted at from all different directions, and all vendors seemed to have waited for the next tourist to come down the narrow street. Prices, names of spices, and Hollywood nicknames were thrown our way, all to get us to stop and look at what they were selling. Not that anyone was selling anything different from the others.
I’m not saying I had a negative experience visiting the Souks, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as commercialised as it was. I guess I was waiting for some sweet Middle-Eastern man to come buy his spices for dinner that evening, but instead, all I saw were tourists..
The amount of non-locals
All the people we spoke to in Dubai told us the same thing; “No one here is from here.” According to one driver, only 1 of 10 people in Dubai is actually from the Emirates, and we were gobsmacked. Some gave us numbers on the amount of immigrants recently settled in Dubai, but the next person we spoke to gave us another, so I won’t put them here. Either way, the numbers were large – and we quickly learned that Dubai is the place to go if you need a change from your roots. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t meet one person who was born and raised in Dubai during our trip, to be honest – that’s how few locals there were.
(All though I believe everyone we met considered themselves a local, no matter what their country of origin was.)
So there you have it, the things that surprised me most about visiting Dubai. I am so in awe with that city, I can’t wait to go back one day. I learned so much in such a short time, and it radically altered so many of the ideas I had of the local culture, custom and religion.
Have you visited Dubai? If so, what surprised you? And if not, would you have any expectations?
Want FREE Travel Resources?
I've put together all my favourite travel planning resources to help you make the most of your next trip!