Bedouin on a Camel in the Desert Near Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

United Arab Emirates and a Tale of Two Cities

Where can you find the world’s tallest building, man-made islands, the world’s only 6-star hotel, the fastest rollercoaster in the world, and so much more… all built in the middle of the desert? The United Arab Emirates of course! The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a fascinating destination full of modern buildings and architectural wonders, museums, modern transit systems, traditional abras (water taxis), exquisite shopping malls, and original souks (markets) – all blended together with the warm Emirati culture. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two biggest cities in the country, each with their own highlights and must sees.


Burj Khalifa at Night, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at night

As a Torontonian, I take a lot of pride in our skyline and CN Tower especially.  When I first visited Dubai, where the now tallest building in the world resides (Burj Khalifa), I couldn’t imagine how it could be topped. Driving from the airport to my hotel, it is the first thing I saw and it looked absolutely magnificent. If you decide to visit Burj Khalifa, on your Dubai vacation, I highly recommend booking your tickets ahead of time. The best time to go is at sunset, when the 360° views of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Desert are simply breathtaking.

I am not a big shopper, especially when I travel, and would rather be exploring the local sites than spending time in a shopping mall. That said, Mall of the Emirates is definitely worth a visit. Anything and everything that you could want in terms of brands or designer labels is accessible within steps. Even more impressive is the underwater zoo and aquarium. A tunnel has been built so that you are surrounded by over 33,000 ocean creatures!

Wait a minute… how is this all possible in what seems like the middle of nowhere? I took the time to visit the Dubai Museum to understand the history and get some perspective. Not even 50 years ago did all of the above (and more) exist in the United Arab Emirates. At one time, pearl fishing was the biggest source of income for many of the locals. Life was very basic and the tallest buildings were barely noticeable. The Museum is located along the Dubai Creek in the Al Fahidi Fort, and the surrounding area is the original Dubai. After my visit to the museum I enjoyed the local souks. Smells of fish, fruits, meats, and spices mixed in with local Arabic coffee, plus the hustle and bustle is quite the experience! It’s a good reminder of how many people still live in the UAE today.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Burj Al Arab in Dubai

Abu Dhabi

Not even a two hour road transfer south is Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital.  The first thing that caught my eye, and also happened to be my first stop, was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. 22,000 square metres in size, you will need half a day to explore the grounds. I spent most of my time with my camera out, looking up at the stunning details of this holy site. Stepping into the mosque, I found myself walking on the world’s largest carpet, which took about 2 years to weave. Looking up, I saw seven stunning gold, glass, and Swarovski chandeliers hanging from a few of the 82 domes in the mosque. Keep in mind that you must be covered when visiting the mosque, if you are unprepared, there are traditional abayas that you can wear to enter.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

I spent the afternoon at the Emirates Palace, sipping on a Palace Cappucino – a superior blend of coffee and camel milk, sprinkled with 24-carat gold flakes. This delicious treat cost me much more than anything at Starbucks! Strolling around the ornate lobby and catching a glimpse of where the Rolling Stones (as well as Gulf country leaders, royalty, other celebrities) were staying when I was visiting, it was definitely a way to get a taste of how the glamorous locals and visitors enjoy their time in the city.

Emirates Palace and Beach, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Emirates Palace and beach

Desert Safari

A highlight of my trip to the United Arab Emirates has to be my time in the desert. I was collected from my hotel by a 4×4 vehicle and driven to the outskirts of the city. As we drove I saw less lights, heard less sound, and within 45 minutes was in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Stunning, unspoilt desert and dunes were seen for miles ahead, and as we continued our drive, and I noticed that we were coming up on a dune. Our car tipped forward, the engine raved, and I was dune bashing! Up and down the dunes, quick turns at fast speed, the adrenaline junky in me was having the best time. As we slowed down I saw a familiar scene in the desert – camels. There was one waiting for me to take me to my campsite – I felt very authentic at this point! Upon arrival, I was welcomed by a fresh Bedouin-style BBQ dinner. Fresh grilled meats, fish, veggies, dips, pitas, salads… I mean, this was the royal treatment. The rest of the evening was spent stargazing – not a cloud in the sky – enjoying a cold beer and taking a breather.

Desert Dune Safari, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Our 4×4 jeeps for the Desert Dune Safari

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become one of the hottest travel destinations and shows no sign of slowing down. With international flights arriving and departing multiple times a day, and the endless amounts of things to do, it really is a no-brainer. Forget the misconception that the UAE is an overly conservative Middle Eastern country, covered in diamonds and gold and unaffordable. The UAE is home to millions of ex-pats and people of many cultures. Visitors can enjoy a trip to the United Arab Emirates as a stopover or vacation in itself. A fantastic destination for honeymooners or a family getaway, it has something to offer for everyone’s interests and budget.

Suggested Itineraries:
3-Day Dubai Stopover
3-Day Abu Dhabi Stopover

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Laura Vagners
Laura Vagners

Destination Specialist, Africa and Middle East - From dune bashing in the Al Khatim Desert to skydiving over Lake Ontario, Laura finds adventure wherever she goes. In the past year Laura has travelled to the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Spain, Italy, and Croatia. As her interest in Africa and the Middle East grows, Laura's bucket list just keeps getting longer!

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