Dubai is indescribable. The most progressive population centre in the United Arab Emirates is arguably the most dynamic capital in the Middle East. Some would say it’s the planet’s most exciting place to live and work right now. Dubai is a magnet for the ultra-rich, thick with tourists, popular with European expats, held up as a land of opportunity for the developing world’s less fortunate. No matter who you are or where you come from, Dubai is worth a visit.
Not everyone who sets foot in Dubai plans to stay for the long term, however. Dubai’s two airports handle tens of millions of passengers each year; the main international airport is a key hub for traffic routeing between Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Most of those who pass through those airports each year never venture into the city at all.
A long layover is a chance to set yourself apart from those who’d rather remain ensconced in the terminal. If your next journey takes you Dubai, you’ll thank yourself later for doing your utmost to make the most of it.
In this sample itinerary, we’ll assume you have 36 hours to spend in Dubai: from 0800h Thursday to 2000h Friday. Here’s what you should do and see while you’re here.
0800h: You’re Here.
You’re wheels down and it’s time to explore. Hop Dubai Metro’s Red Line (you’ll need to translate this page) for a £1 journey to the city centre. If you’re willing to spend about double the base fare, buy a gold pass with front-car (and front-view) privileges. Dubai Metro trams are driverless, so there’s nothing to impede your view of the futuristic desertscape unfolding before your eyes.
1000h: Hit Heritage Village.
Your first stop must be Heritage Village, part of the historic section of Old Dubai. Unlike holier Middle Eastern cities, Dubai doesn’t have an extensive old town, but there is an extensive warren of pre-automobile neighbourhoods and some remnants of a key 18th-century fortification. (More on that later.) Heritage Village is an excellent jumping-off point to explore this part of the city, which — to be clear — is not the main attraction for the vast majority of visitors.
1130h: Explore the Souks.
Dubai’s labyrinthine souks, or markets, are a bargainer’s dream. Everything here is up for negotiation, and even the initial offer prices beat those at the airport duty-free shop. Look for durable jewellry, such as necklaces and bracelets, or opt for Dubai-made luxury goods like posh soaps and perfumes. While you’re here, grab a bite to eat at one of the souks’ many street food vendors.
1400h: Circle Back to the Grand Mosque.
Don’t leave the old city without visiting the Grand Mosque, Dubai’s most impressive house of worship. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside the mosque itself, but all are welcome to admire the stunning early-20th-century construction and immaculately landscaped grounds. The photographs practically take themselves.
1500h: Visit Al Fahidi Fort.
Your last stop in the old city must be Al Fahidi Fort, an 18th-century fortification that protected Dubai from hostile navies, pirate flotillas, and other antagonists. The fort sits near the mouth of Dubai Creek, the largest of the city’s internal waterways, and its strategic value is immediately clear.
1700h: Take a Cruise on Dubai Creek.
Next, take a late-afternoon cruise on Dubai Creek. Dhows-for-hire line the lower creek — it’s simply a matter of flagging down a capable boat-man and negotiating an acceptable price. With stunning, near-panoramic views of Dubai’s skyline, Dubai Creek is arguably the best vantage point to take in the city. You’ll need at least two hours to see it properly.
1900h: Take in the Sights (and a Bite) at Mall of the Emirates.
Fresh from the creek, hop a taxi to the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai’s most impressive indoor shopping centre. Even if you’re not a snowsports enthusiast, make time to ogle the indoor ski slope, a bizarre sight in the midst of the desert. Next, spend an hour or two walking the corridors, past more than 500 luxury shops. If you’d like to linger, by all means do: Mall of the Emirates is open late – by U.K. mall standards, anyway.
2200h: Hit a Nightclub or Two.
Cap off your first day in Dubai with a late-night sojourn to any of Dubai’s countless nightspots. Mind the dress code – you’ll be expected to clean up after a long day in the hot sun.
1000h: Grab (and Savour) Brunch.
Dubai’s world-renowned brunches last for hours, book top-tier performers, and feature all-you-can-eat spreads with the finest seafood and champagne. Some cost upwards of £500 per head. If you’re willing to forgo live entertainment at brunchtime, you can have the food, drink, and leisure at far lower cost.
1300h: Experience Burj Khalifa.
On the off chance you’re able to move following your brunch, head over to Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest freestanding structure. The ride to the 144th-floor observation deck is well worth the wait. Just don’t forget your camera.
1700h: Head Back to the Airport — Straight to Terminal 3
It’s almost time to say goodbye to Dubai. Enter the Metro via the Burj Khalifa station, return to the airport, and make a beeline to Terminal 3. Why Terminal 3? Because it’s a duty-free wonderland. You’ll pay less for luxury here than anywhere in the U.K. – and you can pack whatever you find in your checked kit for the next leg of your journey.
Make the Most of Your Layover
Some travellers plan their entire vacations around a multi-day stopover in the crown jewel of the UAE. But most don’t have the luxury of a long layover in Dubai. If you’re flying in and out within the same 24-hour period, you’ll need to make the most of your layover. Feel free to modify this itinerary to include only those sights that you deem absolutely non-negotiable. Or lean on an expert for custom-tailored Dubai layover itineraries.
Whatever you do, do it well. After all, you’re in Dubai. It’s time to put your best foot forward.