I visited the top of the tallest building in the world, and it was a colossal waste of time

  • 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 2,717 feet tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest tower in the world. It has an observation deck on the 124th floor.
  • 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.
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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 2,717 feet tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa became the tallest tower in the world when it opened in 2010. It also holds Guinness World Records titles for the tallest human-made structure and the highest restaurant. It had the tallest observation deck until 2015.

Dubai’s strategy of building extravagant landmarks is paying off. The city is climbing in the ranks of the most visited cities – it’s now fourth and projected to see 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 – US News & World Report ranked it as the No. 5 attraction in Dubai.

When I visited the city for the first time in November in 2018, I knew I had to go. But after spending $US40 and a couple of lacklustre hours on 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 a ticket for a certain date and time. The price depends on the time. If you want to go around 5 p.m. (sunset), it could be as much as $US60. I decided to go around 7 p.m., costing me $US40.

The entrance to the Burj Khalifa is in the Dubai Mall, the second-biggest mall. If you bought your ticket online, you can pass to the ticket-holders line and skip the queue for the cashier. This is recommended. When I went 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, I got on the real queue. At 7 p.m. on a weekday, it was hardly busy, but it still 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 before sunset.

There’s a wall populated with photos tagged with Burj Khalifa on Instagram.

I thought I was almost through at this point. But no. After guards 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 you go through security, a photographer takes a photo of you in front of a green screen, on which I can only assume the Burj Khalifa is later superimposed. I can understand wanting a photo of yourself at the top of the tower, but who wants a green-screen portrait? What’s the point aside from skimming an extra $US30 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 surrounded by a touchscreen base. Placing your hand on the screen …

… triggers a futuristic animation.

Lest you forget who’s 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 over the past 100 or so years.

You ascend an escalator …

… to a large sign exclaiming that 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 screens show 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, the virtual-reality experience created 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 the elevator, which 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 Week

When you get out of the elevator, you enter a small circular hallway leading to the observatory outside. While the observatory is open-air, it doesn’t wrap around the entire tower, reaching only 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, as Dubai’s towers are concentrated in the downtown area. I found the narrow structure of the observatory strange, considering it was designed as a tourist attraction. In comparison, the observatory at One World Trade Centre in New York is wide and spacious.

There are still another 35 stories above you. If you want to go to the observation deck on the 148th floor, once the tallest in the world, you have to shell out between $US100 and $US140. From everything I read, the “VIP experience” is not worth the extra dough.

Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

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

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

… and a BASE-jumping virtual-reality experience. 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’s also a touchscreen you can use to look at the Dubai skyline.

There’s a live camera view populated 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 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 videos in this final room were the most interesting part of the experience. Each one explained a different aspect of the Burj’s engineering, 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 …

… as well as shopping bags, mugs, 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 had saved the $US40 and my time.

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