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Journal #11 - United Arab Emirates

Side photo of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with white and gold columns and domes
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Columns and Pools by Mr. Wanderer

Marhaba from the United Arab Emirates!

The UAE is the beginning stop on phase one of our middle eastern itinerary. Coming into this trip, we had heard a multitude of amazing things about traveling to and being a tourist in the UAE, and we were not disappointed. So much of the cities felt state-of-the-art and glistened like a shiny new toy. We have been visiting some nations with lower GDPs, so to see one that was so opulent with their wealth was a stark change. Seeing how the future is moving away from nonrenewable fuels, the UAE is working to shift their industry away from oil and towards tourism, and it is working. They have curated a very pleasant experience for the visitors of their nation, one that few countries have the money to spontaneously generate.

Khaleeji / Gulf States Gastronomy (Emirati, Qatari, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Omani)
Kaleeji gastronomy, also known as Gulf cuisine, is a blend of traditional Arab, Indian, and Persian culinary influences that have evolved over centuries in the Gulf region. The cuisine is characterized by the use of aromatic spices, fresh herbs, and bold flavors, often combined with tender meats, se…

We were blown away by the impeccable food safety and cleanliness everywhere. At our first restaurant, the entire staff was wearing gloves. Every time we passed a kitchen, the inside was spotless. While this is not a necessity for us while traveling, it was reassuring to our stomachs to be able to order anything. Even the street vendors had clean stations. Food hygiene was not the only aspect to impress us. The flavor profile was also a delight. We adored so much of what we ate and will probably be gushing about it for months to come.

Shiny glass skyscrapers in blue and green tones
Dubai Skyline by Mrs. Wanderer

After the food, I must talk about the architecture. As I mentioned, so much of the city is new (a shocking amount of it was built in the last 10-20 years) because the nation has shifted its priorities toward tourism. In doing so, they have emphasized the construction of buildings that are unique to them. The most obvious one to start with is the Burj Khalifa - notorious for being both the world’s tallest building and the sight of a particularly daring Mission Impossible scene. We had the pleasure of taking the (just 60-second) elevator ride up and enjoying the panoramic view. If you are traveling to Dubai, we highly recommend starting here. It gave us such a good sense of the greater city and was a treat. We made sure to try and video call our families from the top so they could share in the view with us.

The world's tallest building with some trees at the base
Burj Khalifa by Mr. Wanderer

Directly below the Burj Khalifa is a complex you could devote a whole day to visiting. Located within the same block are the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, and the Dubai Fountain. The scope alone of the Dubai mall is impressive. The thing that surprised us most was the inclusion of beautiful artwork inside. Sculptures and a waterfall decorate the walls and centerpieces. But not just that, the individual restaurants have each dolled up their facades making each one grander than the next.

The aquarium below was more oriented towards children, but the aquarium tunnel was such a treat to stroll through that it made the whole experience worth it. The opportunity to stand under a multi-story tank filled with rays, sharks, and more species of fish than I can probably name was breathtaking. We got to walk side by side as hammerheads glided through their day, and it was beautiful. I have a stupid giddy grin on my face in every single one of the pictures.

Shark swimming within the Dubai Aquarium, tinted blue from the water
Dubai Aquarium by Mrs. Wanderer

And then there was the fountain. The Dubai Fountain’s reputation precedes it. We spread out our time in the complex such that we got to experience the fountain show multiple times from several different vantage points. The first was from the top of the Burj Khalifa. We were on the observation deck as the sun set and got to look down over the fountain and watch the first show begin. While the lights were not as potent, the water streams took on an entirely different shape from above. The second show we caught was during dinner. The restaurant we ate at had a balcony overlooking the fountain. This means that we dined at the upper limit of where the water sprayed, and as the door to the outside opened, we caught snippets of the song accompanied by flashes of the blasts. Our favorite moment was when the door swung open right as Whitney Houston’s “…and Iiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeiiiii” (from her “I Will Always Love You”) broke out with a corresponding jet of water. Having seen two shows from above, we timed it so that we were on the ground for the next one. Standing water-side against the railing, we watched our third show the way it was designed to be consumed and loved every second of it. The figures created by the water jets and their timing with the music (a different song for every show) were a delight.

Fountain heads arranged in a circle spraying water vertically in succession
Dubai Fountain by Mrs. Wanderer

The other key sight we visited in Dubai was the artificial island known as The Palm. The Palm is in the shape of the frond of a palm tree, with different branches peeling out from the center. At the furthest point, there is a beautiful walkway along the water with its crown jewel: Atlantis. The hotel opened shortly after our visit, but the view from the water alone was impressive. The giant coral structure feels like a watery vacation hotel should. There was so much of Dubai that did that. Each building/structure/complex had extra attention paid to the details that let them embody the function and aesthetic of the location without straying too far away from the Arabian roots. This was a cool balance to witness and one that could only have been accomplished with a lot (lot lot) of money.

From Dubai, we progressed to Abu Dhabi. The two sister cities are about an hour apart from one another. They are both filled with reflective glass buildings and wide roads. We were continually impressed with the beauty. The other thing that shocked us, and is truly indicative of the wealth in this nation, was the model of cars driving around. Every single ride-share we took was a Lexus ES. I am unsure what happened to the Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys, but we did not see any. It made us feel like we were living in luxury just to be driven around in such a style.

Marble columns and flooring at the mosque inlaid with semiprecious gemstone flowers
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Florals by Mrs. Wanderer

The most beautiful sight we saw in Abu Dhabi was hands down, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This giant white mosque was stunning. Its construction was flawless, and the variations in the use of semi-precious stones were fascinating. The floors had massive flowers inlaid (some that would stretch longer than me if I was to lay beside them) and the columns had tiny intricate florals embedded. Then, to add to the effect, in some of the rooms, the florals were three-dimensional and raised out of the walls. It is easy to see the appreciation for a higher power shown in the effort and beauty that were put into this mosque. For anyone of any faith background, this is a worthwhile stop to see.

Now, we had been forewarned before stepping foot in the Arabian Peninsula that the dress codes for women were stricter. And as we progress through the next several countries, we expect it to increase in intensity; however, due to the high amount of tourism in Dubai and Abu Dhabi specifically, in these two cities in the UAE, you will find people dressed with every varying level of modesty. From western girls in influencer-chic to complete burkas. So if you plan on leaving the cities, be conscious to dress more modestly; however, in the city, it seemed that restrictions were pretty relaxed, barring any visits to a mosque. There, for obvious reasons, you are required to be covered hair to toe if you are female and men need to be in long pants with their shoulders covered. Be sure to look up the dress requirements for yourself before venturing here.

Overhead view of the old Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi
Presidential Palace by Mr. Wanderer

There was so much we saw and more still that we did not have time to get to. Even sites like the presidential palace (old and new), we drove past them and got a bird's eye view from our hotel, but did not get the chance to visit on the ground. We knew going in that the UAE had some amazing features for tourists but underestimated just how densely packed with fun this city is. We definitely want to spend more time here and will be back one day. Mr. Wanderer is completely smitten so it is now on the must-return-to list, for sure.

But for now, our bags are packed and we are moving on to our next stop. This country in 2022 it was the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup. Any guesses about where we are headed next?

Glass skyscrapers including one with a whole in the middle
UAE Skyline by Mr. Wanderer