Visiting Dubai – What to expect (5 things that surprised me)

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.

What to expect when visiting DUbai

Things that surprised me when visiting Dubai

American chains

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!

The Souks

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.)

Visiting Dubai girl looking in desert


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?

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  • That’s really interesting to hear! I wouldn’t have guessed that you’d be seeing all of those American chains there either.

    • I’m glad you think so, Becky! πŸ™‚ And that definitely came as a big surprise!

  • Arzo Travels

    Totally agree with all your points (except the first one). Dubai is so awesome, I never expected to like Dubai that much and I cannot wait to visit again and see what new buildings have been finished!

    • I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did either, but now I can’t wait to go back! πŸ™‚ I’m glad you noticed the same things as me, except for the Western chains! I felt like I saw them everywhere, haha. But I guess I wasn’t expecting there to be that many πŸ™‚

  • Arzo Travels

    Yes, I saw all the Western chains and noticed them but for some reasons I expected Dubai to be like this so it did not come as a surprise πŸ™‚

    • Aha, I see! πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoyed the city as much as I did – and hopefully I’ll prepare someone else for some of these things, haha πŸ™‚

  • Love this post! My dad and stepmom moved to Dubai a couple years ago and I always go and visit them during the summer. I was definitely surprised by some of the same things the first time I went especially the construction work it seems like it never ends lol! Theres always something new every time I go.
    I recently wrote a post about Dubai actually if you want to go over to my blog and have a look!

    • I’m so happy you enjoyed the post, Courtney! πŸ™‚ And am so jealour of you getting to spend your summers there! I absolutely loved Dubai, and can’t wait to go back! Will head over and read your post now, thanks so much for commenting and sharing! πŸ™‚