With traveling more at the forefront of our minds in 2021 after a disappointing lack of passport stamps in 2020, it was time to choose our top student destination of the year. Our top student destination needs to be a place that’s a must-see for students, with incredible food and nightlife, a rich cultural experience, plenty of ways to stay active and get a dose of adventure, and offer some experiences that you can’t find anywhere else. It also needs to be safe for student travelers and (relatively) easy to plan a trip and travel to. 

So, without further ado, we’re announcing our Top Student Destination of 2021 as Dubai! Dubai is the most populated city in the United Arab Emirates (geography recap: located south of Turkey and just east of Africa on the Persian Gulf). While it’s probably not at the top of your bucket list (yet), it’s got plenty of reasons for being our pick for top student destination for 2021. 

Why Dubai?

best destinations for students
Modern city 

Dubai is sometimes called the “Las Vegas of the Middle East” because it’s home to no shortage of opulence and luxury, from sky-high skyscrapers to enormous malls, luxury hotels, shopping and dining and incredible entertainment. For all of Dubai’s historical culture, there’s plenty of modern luxuries to be had as well! A walk around downtown Dubai is the perfect way to gawk at the stunning skyscrapers and luxurious city. Go during the day or head out at night when everything’s lit up.

Don’t miss a trip to the Dubai Mall, too. This massive mall is 12 million square feet (aka 50 soccer fields) and has four stories of shopping and dining. Plus, there’s ski slopes, an ice skating rink, a movie theater, aquarium and more. Then visit the observation deck at the top of the Burj Khalifa for views of the city. For some real luxury, have dinner or afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab—by far the fanciest hotel in Dubai (and quite possibly the world). 

Plenty of adventure 
top student destinations

Dubai is FULL of adventure! For travelers who like to keep things active and adventurous during your trip, Dubai is the perfect destination. Although there’s no shortage of adventures in Dubai, some of our favorites include scuba diving in Dubai’s turquoise waters (there’s options available for even complete beginners, too!), sand boarding on Dubai’s sand dunes or dune bashing (off-roading over sand dunes). You can even go skiing—yes, year-round!—indoors at the snowy slopes in the Dubai Mall. If the thought of slopes inside a mall doesn’t sound very adventurous, you’ll think again once you see the ski jump ramps and the black diamond slopes available. 

Cultural immersion 
top student destination

Seeing the world is fun, but what’s better than experiencing the world through the people, food, culture and local routines in the places you travel? Dubai is a great destination to immerse yourself in the local culture. You can experience something totally different from what you’re used to at home. 

One of the best ways to explore any new culture is through the food, and Dubai is no exception. From luxury restaurants to delicious street food, there’s plenty of ways to dive into the local food culture. Visiting a spice souk (or another souk, open-air markets with a variety of items) is another way to immerse yourself in Dubai’s local culture. Be ready to get the hang of haggling for local foods and souvenirs!

Of course, there’s bigger ways to explore Dubai’s culture too. Whether that’s through a visit to The Grand Mosque, a stroll through the Al Fahidi Historic District or a trip to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, there’s lots of ways to dive into the culture. 

Is Dubai safe? 

Dubai is a very safe city, generally much safer than you probably expect! Dubai has a very low crime rate and is ranked high on the Safe City’s Index—right up next to Milan, Rome, Barcelona and Paris. Crime is very rare, even after dark. In fact, 96% of people in Dubai said they felt safe walking around the city after dark. From extremely low crime rates to safer roads and traffic conditions and more, Dubai ranks higher in personal security than any US city. 

Although Dubai has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the rest of the world, their cases and incidents have been lower than other urban areas. The UAE had strict lockdowns at the beginning, containing the virus more so than other countries. They’ve since reopened (carefully) for travelers. Dubai’s travel reopening guidelines aim to make sure travelers are COVID-free before arrival and during their stay. All travelers must submit a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken no more than 96 hours before departure and provide an official, printed certificate of test results. Upon arrival, temperature checks, masks and social distancing are the norm. Hotels are operating at limited capacity, restaurants are requiring reservations to accommodate distancing and—thanks to Dubai’s warm weather—much of Dubai can be explored outdoors. 

How do I get there? 

Getting to Dubai is pretty easy! Despite the long flight, you’ll find nonstop flights from US cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. If you want (or need) a connecting flight, there’s plenty of options for that as well. Dubai has two international airports. However, Dubai International Airport (DXB) is the primary one that most international flights from the US land in. It’s located only 3 miles from the city center, making it super quick and easy to get into the heart of Dubai. 

US citizens and passport holders don’t need to arrange for a visa in advance in most cases. For US passport holders, you can get a tourism visa on arrival in Dubai that’s valid for 30 days. (This can be extended to 60 days if needed). Just make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months beyond your trip dates. 

Why Dubai in 2021? 

Our top student destination needs to not only be incredible anytime, but that’s incredible this year specifically. And Dubai is certainly planning to live up to that! 

This year, Dubai will be home to the World Expo. The Expo showcases arts, culture, performances, food and more from over 190 different countries. At the Expo, you’ll be able to explore pavilions built by different countries that let you immerse yourself in different cultures and architectures, while also exploring and learning about sustainability, opportunity and mobility initiatives around the world. The World Expo brings together people from all over the world so you can experience a huge variety of cultures, foods and ideas all in one place! 

Ready for a trip to Dubai? Check out our cheap flights to Dubai and guide to visiting the city so you can jumpstart your planning.