Finally Traveling Again! Our First Time in Dubai – EXPO2020, The Tallest Building In The World, And Big City Fun

If you’ve been here a while, you know that in the time we were living in Hawaii, we didn’t really travel much. Hawaii itself is far from a lot of places which makes travel to and from expensive, our cost of living expenses were much higher, and most importantly, we spent half of our time there in the midst of The Pandemic. So when we signed our contracts to back abroad and move to Saudi Arabia, we were undoubtedly excited about the prospect of traveling again.

If you’ve never been in this blog before, welcome! We’re glad you’re here.

COVID hasn’t really gone away, and there are still a lot of restrictions in many places (more on that in a future post), but we felt confident enough that with the right precautions and being vaccinated we could travel safely.

Still, we decided to stay relatively close for our first break of the year and chose Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for our first travel destination this stint abroad.

While most people refer to the better known Emirates individually – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – the United Arab Emirates are a confederation of seven emirates. They’re all kind of like city-states and have slight differences in some of their rules, but Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the better known, wealthier, and more Western-friendly of the seven. Dubai is still growing, as they are still developing in some of the artificial islands on the coast. And of course, you only have to go on a short drive in the city to know that it’s still growing because there are cranes everywhere.

Getting there

For us, being in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, getting to Dubai is relatively easy: an hour and a half (ish) plane ride, or we could drive (some of our colleagues did that). It’s about 7 hours to Dubai and 8 to Abu Dhabi. I don’t know if we will ever do it (we do have a car) but it’s nice to have the option of going to other countries by land. We flew Emirates/FlyDubai, and have flown them a few more times after, so it’s slowly becoming a favorite airline.

Well, unless every flight from Dammam ends up arriving in Terminal 2.

Terminal 2 at DXB (Dubai International Airport) is the forgotten, less-shiny sibling. It can be rather chaotic and slow. It seems to be the terminal where most of the South Asia flights come from, which bring with them a large number of the people that come to the Gulf to work construction and such. I did catch my first glimpse of an Iranian passport there (I love to peek at people’s passports at airports and guess the nationality). So if you arrive there, be prepared to elbow your way through crowds and maybe regret getting in the wrong line.

Where to Stay

We decided to stay in the “downtown” area since our trip was mostly going to be sightseeing, eating some good food, and seeing what’s available/possible in Dubai vs. Saudi. Kind of a look-see/first impressions. So we stayed relatively close to the Burj Khalifa (possibly the main attraction in Dubai, and well, it’s the tallest building in the world so….) and the Dubai Mall for the sake of ease. We then discovered there was a Metro line very close that crosses the city north to south. We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton by the Dubai Mall (I can’t quite remember the name but we are Marriott members so we try to stay in their hotels when we can). Very nice gym with a great view (which we only used twice but in our defense we did walk a lot haha), a sports bar where you can watch games and have a few drinks (alcohol is only served at hotels and not all restaurants in Dubai), a spa that we didn’t try, and a restaurant on the bottom flor. Very attentive staff and relatively modern rooms. Everything feels relatively new in Dubai. We also stayed here because there was a testing clinic within walking distance, and we needed PCR tests to return to Saudi Arabia. That was a super easy process. Basically get the test done and pick up results the following day. We did make appointments in advance but it wasn’t difficult, really.

In future visits, we’ll probably pick different parts of the city to stay on, depending on what we want to do. Other areas of Dubai we’d like to stay on include Jumeirah and The Palm (although the latter is…fancy).


Let’s talk about the Metro for a minute. Dubai is not a walkable city. Things are deceptively far and not quite connected to each other. So to move around, we recommend the Metro or Uber/Careem (the Middle Eastern Uber; depending on the city, Uber will redirect you to Careem). The Metro won’t take you absolutely everywhere but it’s a good option.

We have largely subscribed to the Non-Plan Plan in traveling and just decide on a few “must” things to see and do. After that, we kind of let the city and the days (and our stamina) dictate what happens. I’d say the Burj Khalifa was our must for the trip. And a brunch.

First brunch – Japanese themed!

Brunches are kind of a sport in Dubai – there are brunches on Fridays and Saturdays, but the more popular ones are the Friday ones. When I asked a friend who used to live in Dubai why she thought that happened, she explained that most people go to the Friday brunch in order to “have Saturday to recover”. That makes sense when you have free flow food and drinks for a set price. Friday brunches book far in advance, which we were not prepared for, so we did a Saturday one that was Japanese-themed at the Four Seasons at Jumeirah. NOT CHEAP. But very worth it! Good quality fish and seafood is worth paying for in our experience. Dubai brunches are an opportunity to dress up, go out, and pretend to be fancy. And well, we love to do that. The hotel grounds are gorgeous and right by the water, so wandering the grounds before and after was also fun. Not for very long, because turns out that Dubai at the end of October is still pretty warm. This was our Day 1 activity pretty much.

The next day we decided to do something that I didn’t think we would ever do, but decided to do because you’re probably doing this once in your life: Going to a World Expo.

Our experience at Expo2020…not much to say!

Back in the day, World Expos were a big deal. World Expos gave us, among other things, the Eiffel Tower (1889), the Space Needle (1962) and the Montreal Expos baseball team – RIP (1967). Back then, the World Fair or World Expo was a showcase of technology and innovation. Now…well I’m not really sure what I was expecting. But we were in Dubai, and the Expo 2020 is on until March, so we figured that could be an activity.

First off, it would seem like an Expo isn’t a few booths and exhibits. It’s entire buildings. There are countries that have entire multiple-story buildings as their pavilions: among them, Saudi Arabia and Russia, and of course, the US. It was a hot day, and we didn’t really have specific pavilions we wanted to visit, except our two countries: the US, and the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican pavilion would have been more fun if items exhibited, like the coffee, would have been for sale. Sigh. The US pavilion felt a little like a commercial you’d watch for the 4th of July or the video you watch when you’re becoming a citizen. But it was cool, and it had some interesting items like a SpaceX rocket. The Russia pavilion was…confusing, the Mexico pavilion was very visually stimulating, and from the ones we visited, Slovakia was probably the most interesting. They had a hydrogen powered car in their exhibit that looked super promising. It was kind of like being in a gigantic International Fair kind of exhibit, but it also felt a little like countries puffing up their feathers in a contest of who has the flashiest pavilion. We don’t regret going, but one day was enough for us.

Now let’s talk about the tallest building in the world…

Burj Khalifa may be reason enough to go to Dubai

We left Shanghai before the construction of Shanghai Tower was completed (for a while, the second tallest building in the world), so we didn’t get to go to that one. These tall buildings are, in many ways, modern marvels and landmarks in their own right. We could not miss the chance to go to the Burj Khalifa, and while we know already that we will be back in Dubai, we decided to go on our first visit. And after going, we already know we would go again.

There is, of course, dedicated space to the history and planning of the building, and the vision for where it fits in the grand scheme of the city of Dubai. And no matter what you do, if you’re around the Burj Khalifa, you can’t help but look up. Cam did point out that the building kind of looks like the pictures of The Dark Tower in Stephen King’s series of the same name. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

On the outside, it looks like a very tall disco ball, which is awesome because it reflects light really well, and it looks equally spectacular in day and night. I took pictures from every possible angle and at every possible time of the day. We went during daytime this time around. Next time, we want to go at night. The views are different.

We were not clear on whether we had to buy tickets in advance. It seemed like a lot of people get tickets as part of packaged tours, or through agencies, which we don’t usually do. So we made the line hoping for the best, and chose to do the second-highest level; At the Top, Burj Khalifa Sky, which took us to the observation decks in floors 124 and 125 (one is outdoors and one is indoors) and finished in floor 148 in an indoor terrace.

Let’s go over each of these observation decks:

Floors 124 & 125: Probably the most popular of the observation decks. You can move in between the two through a stairwell, and catch views of the different sides of Dubai. Arguably, some sides are more interesting to see than others – Dubai continues to be a city in construction – which is one of the reasons why we want to return up there at night…and maybe at sunrise. But you do get to see pretty far out, which is cool. Lot of competition for selfie space though! Come prepared.

Floor 148: This requires a specific ticket but it’s VERY WORTH IT! There are fewer people at this level, so you can really enjoy the views and slowly take it in. It’s a lounge, so you can pick a couch or a chair to sit in…and have a coffee or tea with pastries. Definitely a nice way to end the visit.

Old Dubai and the art district

We also spent some time going to the souks (street markets) in Old Dubai and the art district. The latter was a bit of a last minute decision and not much was open when we were there, but we’d return. I think we’ve moved past the stage of buying everything we see (China kind of beats the crazy buying out of you!) but we did buy some Arabic calligraphy keepsakes.

Other highlights: Lounges

One thing that Dubai does exceptionally well is the lounge experience. A well-appointed place with comfortable seating, fun music that allows for conversation (and people watching!), some form of food if needed (but not a requirement), and good drinks. We found two in Dubai that we thoroughly enjoyed and would return to: Cabana at the Address Hotel (you can access from the Dubai Mall, although it’s not the most straightforward walk), and Siddhartha at the Grosvenor House in Jumeirah.

Other experiences: The Dubai Mall and around

After living in Shanghai, you think you know malls. I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of describing the Dubai Mall. It’s…massive. It does have every store you could possibly want, plus restaurants, and movie theaters (we did return to a movie theater – and almost didn’t find the entrance! – for the first time in almost two years to see No Time To Die; funny since the release of that movie had been pushed back multiple times because of the pandemic), and who knows what else. We met with colleagues from our school one day (they were in Abu Dhabi and came to Dubai for the day) for a drink and the fountain show at the Dubai Mall, which is very similar in style to what you see at the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.

Final thoughts

We loved Dubai. Even if it was warmer than we thought it would be in late October. It’s probably where we will go when we want to get out of Saudi and don’t want to fuss over making overly complicated plans.

Should you go? Yes.

Fortunately there are more travels to share! More Europe coming up!

Published by Team McGregor

Living and teaching in the Middle East - previously in China, South Korea, and Hawaii (US). This is our blog dedicated to our travels and life living well as some other fun stuff!

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