I first visited Dubai a couple of years ago for a small business trip, and I also passed through Abu Dhabi airport on my way to Seychelles, and both of these experiences left me wanting more, so when I recently had a chance to visit both of these cities, I jumped at it! My visit was in March, so it was also a chance to experience much warmer weather than back home. UAE is a very popular destination during autumn-winter-spring seasons, as it provides a chance to really warm up enjoying some beach life, as well as immerse yourself in diverse and rich cultural experiences.
Numerous airlines fly to UAE, as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are hubs for some of the most well known airlines in the world. I used the local airline airBaltic to fly directly from Riga to Abu Dhabi, it is a 6 hour flight for me, usually this route is served by the new Airbus A220-200 airplanes (formerly known as CS300)
I stayed in two hotels in Abu Dhabi using miles, and in one hotel in Dubai:
Abu Dhabi: Marriott Hotel Downtown (I can recommend it)
Abu Dhabi: Radisson BLU Hotel & Resort Abu Dhabi Corniche (to be honest, I was not a fan and I would not stay again)
Dubai: V Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton (one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed at)
Easiest way to move around: Uber (use referral code alinaa1865ui and get 5 euro discount for your first ride!)
Don’t miss: La Perle by Dragone, acrobats, light & music show that will leave you speechless!
The Best Restaurants in Dubai
Zeta – various cuisines
Abd El Wahab – Lebanese
Wafi Gourmet at Dubai Mall – Lebanese
ZouZou in La Mer- Turkish & Lebanese
Cairo Gourmet – Egyptian
HUQQA – various, shisha & a view to Dubai Fountains
First Impressions about Abu Dhabi
Landing in Abu Dhabi, as far as I can see, there ir bright blue water and yellowish grey ground. Unfortunately, “as far as I can see” isn’t too far, as today the weather forecast says “widespread dust”, Upon landing, I see exactly how widespread it is – all the cars and buildings are dusty, and soon, also my sunglasses, my black purse and even my phone which I pull out just for a little bit for making a few snapshots. Despite the dusty weather, it is very hot, as this dust does not block the sun out at all. While the weather forecast says that there is a chance of rain, the dusty windshield of my Uber soon is covered in small drops of rain. “It only rains three days a year here” last time my colleagues told me. Well, it rain twice a week back then and this time it rains nearly every day. I later learn that the rain is induced by shooting salt flares in suitable clouds to increase the chance of rain by as much as 30%, which for a desert nation with 100 mm rainfall a year is a lot. Irrespective of rain, feeling sand grains between my toes in early spring is a massive pleasure to me!
It is an early Saturday morning and not too many people are out and about just yet. Some are running, others walking their dogs, but mostly the streets are deserted. When I arrive at my hotel, I am not too hopeful for early check in, but I get lucky – the front desk manager apologizes profusely for only being able to give me a room with two beds and not one king size but, but after sitting up straight for 6 hours I would have settled for a room with no bed at all!
I later read that it is customary to offer dates and coffee to visitors at the hotels in UAE. I get none of that (but I do see the silver plates and pots later when I know to look for them), but I am not too sad about it. The room is bigger than my entire apartment and bathroom alone is worth a separate mention! My only unpleasant surprise is when I open the blinds and discover that the glass is the color of mud. That widespread dust? Well, it surely is everywhere!
The Island of Art in the Desert – Louvre Abu Dhabi
My first stop is the Louvre. No, not the one in Paris (though I did visit it a while back as well!), but the new one, in Abu Dhabi, the largest museum on the Arabian peninsula! It was opened in 2017, and it is the meeting point of art from the East and the West. Some pricey meeting it is! Just using the name “Louvre” cost over 500 million euros, and 750 million more was spent on the art exchange program.
Walking on the pathway to the Louvre, I can’t make myself go in just yet, as I am mesmerized by everything around me. The lawn looks so much like rubber that I have to touch it (and it is actually real). Sparrows and a larger bird are walking it in without a care in the world. A golf cart whizzes by, purposefully driving through the small puddle made by the grass sprinklers. A bridge disappears in the distance, covered by dust particles, and I feel like I am standing under a giant hair dryer (minus the dust in my eyes – my usual hair dryer definitely does not do that!). I finally decide to head in. I have purchased tickets in advance, as I have heard about the enormous lines here. No lines to be seen anywhere, but I am happy that I have downloaded an audio guide app in advance. Renting audio guide costs money here, and using my own I have the advantage of carrying one less thing and actually using my personal headphones.
Before heading in I have also read a few articles about the most famous pieces in the exhibit, as while it is much smaller than Louvre in Paris, there is still plenty to see, and trying to see all in one day would be too much anyway. This is a place one must come back to again and again to fully explore it! Just to sit on the bench and observe sculptures, brooches, paintings and other people. Someone is using a selfie stick to make a portrait with “some dead guy”. Another one is making classic Instagram shots, back to the camera. Someone else is listening to the guide and yet another person is just pushing through everyone to get closer. Still, in comparison to Louvre in Paris, much less pushing is happening here, it is practically deserted here and I feel like I have my own private tour. So I see the little figurines dating to 6500 BC, the astrolabs from the 18th century, Mari Cha lion, one of the most important examples of Islamic art in the Mediterranean region, and Ai Weiwei fountain of light.
But, as fascinating as the works inside are, nothing beats the outdoor part of the museum under the roof. The enormous roof, inspired by the rays of sun pushing through the palm leaves, is like a mosaic, like a labyrinth of dried moss, under which a metallic tree grows. The roof is being reflected in the water, which also almost enters the museum space. I am standing underneath and just soaking in the sights, the feeling, the atmosphere of this place. As I go proceed to the furthest end of the square, I reach a cafe.
“Would you like to sit inside or outside?”
“I have to warn you – there is sand!”
I don’t mind the sand, and I yearn for breathing in the hot air, even if that means breathing in some dust as well. It really is hot, as the butter in the foil plate melts nearly instantly. A small bird keeps me company, picking up bread crumbs from the nearby table (and some American girls just wrinkle their noses at it and say ewwww). My phone and sunglasses on the table are covered in a small film of dust shortly. But I am enjoying every second of this, and for perfect day all I am missing is just some tea. Soon I get my tea and I melt like that butter – it is my favorite brand of jasmine green.
After the lunch I start to feel tired, as the red eye flight is starting to catch up on me, so instead of walking on the beach I decide to head back to the hotel. It seems that every self proclaimed posh hotel in town has a rooftop bar and a pool, so I decide to check out the one at my hotel. Practically deserted, just a waiter who keeps me company (and asks me twice if I am from Dubai), and a couple lounging by the pool. I drink my Bitter Lemon (the moist tin covered in sand instantly),until the dust and wind start to be too much and I have to be on my way soon anyway.
The Most Beautiful Mosque – Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Before heading to the The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, I have done my research, so I know that there are free tours every couple of hours. It is an English speaking tour to areas normally off limits to the tourists. I am not surprised to later read that The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is considered to be the second most beautiful and popular places among tourists in the world according to TripAdvisor, the first being Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The best time for a visit is shortly before it gets dark, as then you can appreciate it during the light and at dusk. My tour starts at 17:00, so I leave the hotel well in advance. Good thing I did that! It takes me a while to pass through a labyrinth of tunnels, then get my abaya (provided free of charge, and, surprisingly fitting me well, the giantess of the North, and reaching literally to the floor).
The tour starts sharply on time, we get some headphones and the guide speaks through a microphone so all of us can hear her. Now I see how people get those beautiful imagines with columns and no people in them – during these tours! Everywhere else it is crazy crowded, but not here.
She tells us about the marble that was initially used in building this place, but eventually all taken down and used for floor mosaic. How the darker parts of the mosaic get extremely hot during the summer and you can’t even touch them during Ramadan. She also explains the various types of calligraphy seen here. Also, it turns out that the famous carpet we walk barefoot on in the main room, used to be several tons heavier, to mark the direction to Medina, the upper part had to be shaved. And then she goes on to explain the various names of Allah on the main wall. We freely walk inside while other visitors are gathering behind a small opening at the main door. It seems unreal such a tour is free of charge!
Soon it gets dark. There is no massive color explosion at the sunset because of the dust, and the sky just becomes a little bit pinkish yellow before it turns blue. I walk with the crowd, looking for the prettiest views. The main square is off limits to tourists, and it is so shiny that it looks as if it as filled with water. From time to time a child escapes the iron hold of their parents palm and runs off to the main square, as fast as they can. But those are just children, and guards don’t mind them at all. I soon realize that the most beautiful view was at the beginning, and I slowly start moving in the opposite direction, watching carefully for the guards. A step there, a picture here, and soon I am back at the start. The evening prayer begins and the air is full of deep sound. The mosque becomes even more illuminated than before, the yellow arches and the bright domes. The lightning of domes is adjusted according to the phase of the Moon, as the Islamic calendar is based on the Moon. It seems almost strange, to see the crescent everywhere. Even ambulances, so customary to have a cross, have a crescent here.
Before going to sleep, I meet up a few Latvians for dinner, it seems there are quite a few of us here these days. We have spent some time discussing the planning of the trip and now we can compare notes on what we have liked, and what not so much. As from the next day, my plan is to meet my colleagues and friends who are expats here of various origins – Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and others, who will show me Dubai, as they see it.
Moving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai & All That Food
I step inside a perfectly air conditioned car and soon we are on the highway, going 140 km/h. It’s about 1.5 h til Dubai. On my way there I see American-looking food trucks, a very fake green lawn on a crossroad (and actually made of plastic from the look of it), and a strange establishment that looks like Burning Man meeting a dystopian novel. I am curious to see how the city has changed since my last visit three years ago. More skyscrapers, even bigger scale, is all I see from the first glimpse.
As I enter my hotel room for the first time, I am squeaking with joy and I feel like sending a message to myself in the past, to one of those long evenings studying: “keep trying, study harder, it will pay off, there will be opportunities of a lifetime!” I want to tell myself. If you have a little money, you can surely pamper yourself royally here, and the magnitude of things is just surreal. I am yet to see another city where opening my Uber app I see a chopper as an option (with a note “city tour only”), but still.
Soon me and my colleagues are in the heart of the city, at a place that was a burnt wall three years ago, the hotel Address that received worldwide coverage after a fire at the New Year’s. Now nothing reminds about that unfortunate night. The lobby is full of roses and orchids, the dresses on display are worthy of fairy-tale princesses and it seems to me that it would not be the most outrageous idea to start including hotels in the best sightseeing destinations of the city. A violinist is playing Despacito in the background, when I see the fountains go on and Burj Khalifa lights blinking in the rhythm, most people at the restaurant not even noticing it. One does get accustomed to the pretty quickly. And the tasty, as everything I try, is absolutely mouth watering, both here, in the Zeta restaurant and elsewhere.
I used to say that Italian food was my favorite, but now I have to make a confession that I have fully succumbed to Lebanese cuisine. Humus, moutabel, everything so tasty and so good! And there is so much food that it almost seems too much. Last time I ate Lebanese food at the Abd El Wahab this time we eat at Wafi Gourmet at Dubai Mall
Then we try the mixture of Turkish and Lebanese at the ZouZou in La Mer and finally authentic Egyptian food at Cairo Gourmet where I eat cheese and watermelon all in the same salad and it is tasty, and I laugh at the “don’t tell her what’s inside those sausages, as she won’t eat it!” well nothing too strange, natural made from intestines, this is the same all around the world!
After trying out the Turkish-Lebanese at the recently built La Mer area, we walk at the beach and I am thinking about the conversation my friend had with the waiter. Something I can’t ever imagine happening in the cold and reserved Northern Europe.The waiter had a tattoo of a question mark, and K asked – did you find the answer? To which the waiter starts describing his quest for finding his father and getting to answers to the questions he had.
The sea is so calm that I can’t hear it. It has been very windy though, and the light lanterns are nearly jumping in the wind and I miss my sunglasses with all that dust. To be honest, I could have been anywhere. This place has that feeling of little but of LA, some of that Key West charm, but with the Middle Eastern flare, and only because abayas and kanduras are something every second one is wearing here. “They look at us in jeans and see we are expats”, K says. I wonder which is worse, being an expat or a tourist?
Seeing the Best of Dubai
Without the midnight beaches, of course I see also Dubai Mall, the famous shopping central of the world. The time has not stood still here either, a whole new wing has been built here. We head to my most favorite book store in the world, Kinokuniya, which I could literally live in, squeeze some mangoes at the supermarket (5 types available, no less!), visit the Japanese store that surprised me the first time around (but not anymore), and of course, visit the Dubai Mall aquarium as well (where I hear some Latvian again). Then we stay at a cafe HUQQA where some smoke shisha and I really enjoyed some nice food and drinks. The menu here is worth a separate mention – it is an ipad where some of the dishes even include videos on how they will be served!
Everything is bigger, bolder and more golden in Dubai. Even the tea. I am pleasantly surprised by the level of service here, not just fake smiles as sometimes one hears about the USA, but also none of the “what do you want” I see back home. We speak to the tea store manager from South Korea, K says hello to his friends at the Nike store and plays piano at the music instrument shop. Here, it is normal. And then, the trip to the perfume store Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, the real deal, as I have been told! I am shown all the special perfumes, including oud. If I smell it at a pop slash regular consumer store, it is almost pleasant, but what I get a sniff at here (different variations, some are like a whiskey – 40 years old), I really don’t understand how someone in their right mind would want to smell like that.
But I also find perfumes I like – jasmine and grape are fantastic, and later on it turns out that taif rose vanilla musk is absolutely amazing. And my wrist smells like it even after a drop of perfume (it is not the spray type of thing that I am used to!), and even after shower, I still feel it. I later laugh when I read a description at one of the Amazon sellers “If you are unfamiliar with the higher end of the perfumery market or Middle Eastern products in general, you are advised to refrain from purchasing.” I totally get it! But now that I have found what I liked, there is certainly no way to go back!
La Perle Show Review
When I hear of La Perle from a friend first, I am not convinced. But she is persistent, and it turns out, I actually do get to see it almost by accident. I am glad I do, as it is one of the most amazing show experiences that I have ever seen! You want acrobats? Well here they are, falling down into an actual pool (!) of water that is steaming, boiling, overflowing and shining, and they will make the jump from what seems to be like the 9th story building height. Motorcycle shows? Well let’s just put them inside a giant ball, and let’s take five of them, and maybe just suspend the ball in the air and at one point make the bottom disconnect and the whole contraption make you feel like you are going to faint? The only thing that makes me sad after watching this show is that I am not sure I am ever going to be this amazed again.
Last Night – Qasr Al Watan and Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi
It is time to get back to Abu Dhabi, as my flight is on the next morning. Another hour and a half in the desert, my fancy Tesla pulling up at the hotel and me experiencing a total movie star moment, getting out of the car, my Rimowa suitcases being carried away somewhere by the driver and the portier in a suit and my high heels making that characteristic noise on the pavement as the heads turn (I do have my vain moments!).
Soon I have checked in and I head to Qasr Al Watan, the latest sightseeing object in Abu Dhabi. The new president’s palace. No presidents live here, it is a state building for accepting guests. This time my timing is off, and I miss the proper entrance by a two (!) minutes (my Uber getting lost on the way and driving me in circles does not help either). So I am only allowed in the gardens. As I walk an observe the beautiful, nearly deserted building, I hear Latvian again. This time it makes me blush and I want to disappear to the other side of the garden, as I am ashamed to be in the same place and from the same country as these two. Yelling obscenities at each other thinking no one understands you, is no way to travel.
I stay at the palace til sunset, the beautiful sky such a contract to the illuminated building. Soon the light show begins, and again I feel small and remember where I am from, as we don’t yet have anything of this grand scale.
Finally, before I go to sleep, I head to the Emirates Palace, a five star hotel that really is an sightseeing attraction here! I observe the golden walls and royal decors before settling in for some evening tea and a snack at the cafe.
This time around, a few days in UAE have not been enough. It is pouring on the last morning, and as I am to enter the airplane, I nearly burst out crying. I feel like a piece of me has stayed here. And it doesn’t matter where do the food trucks or lanterns are inspired by, all I remember is how a place has made me feel. This one, as if I had found my people. I must come back!