• The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is known for extravagant, newly built landmarks like the Burj Khalifa, the Palm Jumeirah, and the Dubai Mall.
  • Towering over the city at 830 metres tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest tower in the world. It has an observation deck at the 124th floor that allows tourists to see Dubai from the top of the tower.
  • While the Burj Khalifa is a marvel from below, heading to the top is an exhausting, overhyped, and, frankly, boring experience. The observatory is cramped, the way up to the top is excruciatingly long, and the view is nothing to write home about.


Three decades ago, Dubai was little more than desert.

But an oil boom in the United Arab Emirates produced unprecedented wealth for the small Gulf nation. Dubai's rulers, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his successor Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, put into effect a plan to turn the city into the world's top tourist destination. The building of outlandish landmarks - like the Burj Khalifa - was key to the plan.

Towering over the city at 830 metres tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa became the tallest tower in the world when it opened in 2010. It is also holds the Guinness World Records title for the tallest man-made structure, the highest restaurant, and the highest observation deck in the world.

Dubai's strategy of building extravagant landmarks is paying off. The city is climbing in the ranks of the most visited cities in the world - it's currently fourth, with a projected 16.7 million visitors this year, according to Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index. The Burj Khalifa has been a major part of that growth, ranking as the No. 5 attraction in the city, according to U.S. News & World Report.

When I visited the city for the first time in November, I knew I had to visit. But after spending the equivalent of R550 and a couple lacklustre hours at the observation deck, I was wishing I had skipped going inside and just enjoyed the view from below.

Here's what it was like.

To visit the Burj Khalifa, you have to buy tickets for a certain date and time. The price of the ticket depends on the time. If you want to go around 5PM (sunset), it could be as much as R800. I decided to go around 7PM, which cost me R550.


The entrance to the Burj Khalifa is in the Dubai Mall, the second biggest mall in the world. If you've bought your ticket online, you can pass to the ticket holders line and skip the queue for the cashier. This is recommended. When I came by earlier in the day, the queue was very long.


Shopping bags, backpacks, and food aren't allowed at the top. Thankfully, luggage storage is free.


It was a bit awkward, but I had to store my leftover Pizza Hut in the luggage room. You can't really expect me to let that gooey deep dish go to waste.


After dropping off the Hut, it was time to get on the real queue. At 7PM on a weekday, it was hardly busy. But still the line dragged on for nearly an hour. There's a fair amount of security to go through. I'm sure it's much longer on a weekend or during sunset.


There's a wall that populates with photos tagged with Burj Khalifa on Instagram.


I thought I was almost through at this point. But no, after they scan your ticket, it's time to go through a metal detector and an x-ray machine. Everyone was pushing to get to the front of the line. I don't understand this ... we're all going to the same place, friends.


After going through security, a photographer takes a photo of you in front of a green screen, which I can only assume they later superimpose with the Burj Khalifa. I can understand wanting a photo of yourself at the top of the tower, but who wants a green-screened portrait? What's the point aside from skimming an extra R400 from tourists?


The walk to get to the top of the tower is almost comically long. It starts here with a model of the Burj Khalifa.


The model is surrounding by a touchscreen base. When you place your hand on the touchscreen ...


... it triggers a futuristic animation.


Lest you forget whose boss in Dubai, there are portraits of and quotes by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.


Then there's a hallway lined with moving images of Dubai at various points in time over the last 100 or so years.


You ascend an escalator ...


... to a large sign exclaiming how the Burj is a testament to what Emiratis can accomplish.


Then there is a ... I guess you would call it a poem? It's written from the perspective of the Burj Khalifa itself. I've honestly never been in a place that took itself so seriously.


Then you are led to another hallway —seriously, it's never-ending — where there are various screens showing the Burj Khalifa at various stages of its construction.


I failed to get a picture of it, but once you pass through this hallway, you are put into another queue where you watch a series of short documentaries from the Burj Khalifa's in-house "news channel" about the building of the tower, how they created a virtual reality experience for it, and the filming of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol at the tower. The last one was the only one that was entertaining.


Then, and only then, are you mentally prepared for the stupendous experience of riding the elevator to the top of the Burj.


You are stuffed like sardines into a can and then the elevator shoots to the top. As you rise, an animation on the walls shows you soaring past other world monuments.


The elevator is wicked fast, rising to the 124th floor in a minute. That makes it the third-fastest elevator in the world.

Source: Construction Weekly


When you get out of the elevator, you enter a small circular hallway that leads to the observatory outside. While the observatory is open-air, it doesn't wrap around the entire tower, only reaching about halfway. The glass and bars make it difficult to take a decent photo.


I found squeezing into a space where I could enjoy the view difficult even when I visited at night. Because the observatory is cramped with few spaces along the glass, there's always someone waiting behind you. You can see the Dubai Mall below ...


... and plenty of skyscrapers. Most of Dubai's towers are concentrated in the downtown area. I found the narrow structure of the observatory strange considering it was purpose-built as a tourist attraction. In comparison, the observatory at One World Trade in New York is wide and spacious.


There's still another 35 stories of building above you. If you want to go to the 148th Floor, the actual tallest observatory in the world, you have to shell out between R1,300 and R1,900. From everything I read the "VIP experience" is not worth the extra dough.

Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Travel blogger Brian Cohen wrote a scathing review of the VIP experience in 2015»


Since the outdoor observatory only wraps around half of the building, the rest is taken up by a gift shop and exhibition area. There's green-screen photoshoot booth ...


... And a virtual reality experience to base-jump off the Burj. But there was a big crowd in front of both. I wasn't waiting an hour to do either.


One thing there wasn't a line for? The old press-a-penny machine.


There was also a touchscreen that you can use to look at the Dubai skyline.


There's a live camera view which populates with name tags over the most famous buildings. But it wasn't accurate, seemingly popping up in random places.


Probably the coolest part of the exhibition room is a touchscreen floor overlaid with an aerial view of the Burj Khalifa and the city of Dubai. It's surprisingly vertigo-inducing. It looks very real.


After milling about in the exhibition room, I was tired of having to dodge other tourists. I took the elevator down. When you get out, you are brought into this room with an architectural scale model of Dubai's downtown.


The video screens in this final room were the most interesting part of the experience. Each one explained a different aspect of the engineering that went into the Burj, like how it withstands wind.


Or how water is recycled to help cool the building.


The last stop, of course, is the gift shop.


There are books by Dubai's ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum ...


... shopping bags, mugs, and magnets.


And some replicas of the Burj ... in gold. We are in Dubai, after all.


So what did I think of the experience? I was wishing I stayed outside. While the Burj Khalifa is a marvel from below, heading to the top is an exhausting, overhyped, and, frankly, boring experience. The outdoor observatory is cramped, the way up to the top is excruciatingly long, and the view is nothing to write home about. I wish I saved the money and my time.

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