Dubai: the stopover city guide

Got a flight connection in Dubai? Whether you've a day or just a few hours to spare, squeeze the most out of your stopover with this insider's guide

4 mins

Vital statistics

Name of airport: Dubai International Airport (DXB)
Key routes: This is a major stopover destination for most routes between Europe, Asia and Australasia.
Distance from city: 6km
Transport to the city: Pick up a taxi from the airport rank and you can go anywhere in Dubai within an hour. Note that meters for standard cabs start at AED25 in the airport; you'll pay more for luxury taxis and people carriers. Meter fares are reasonable. Give the Metro a miss if you're tight on time: the stops are awkwardly-placed and trains are slow.
Transport in the city: Taxis are abundant, but don't expect drivers to have much change. Tipping is not compulsory, but greatly appreciated. You can easily hail taxis on the road.

Camels on JBR beach, near Dubai Marina (Shutterstock)
Camels on JBR beach (Shutterstock)

Population: 2.106 million
Language: English, Arabic
Time: GMT+4
International dialling code: +971
Visas: Free 30-day visit visa on arrival for UK passport holders
Climate: From October to March, days are sunny and temperatures are warm – perfect for sight seeing. From April onwards, temperatures rocket to 50°C+ and humidity reaches 50-60% – and sandstorms are prevalent.

Dubai Marina at dusk (Shutterstock)
Dubai Marina at dusk (Shutterstock)

Orientation: Surrounded by desert and the Arabian Gulf, the city of Dubai really is in the middle of 'nowhere'. Of the seven states that comprise the UAE, it's the most lively – although not the richest (Abu Dhabi holds that title).
Safety: Crime is very low, and tourist scams are rare. Take care in the quieter, shabbier streets of Bur Dubai, Deira, and Karama – especially after dark. Dress modestly (especially in the malls), but the dress code is much more relaxed than in other Arab countries.
Money: UAE Dirham (AED), AED6.19 to the UK£
You'll find free city maps in the airport, hotels, and at tourist offices in all the main attractions.

A few hours to spare

Just a couple of hours between flights? Head to one of DXB's many luxury airport lounges for some pampering: you'll find them in all three terminals, and all can be booked in 3-5 hour slots. Entrance fees will get you fed, watered, rested and hooked up to WiFi; some lounges also boast leisure facilities and quiet zones. Zen Gardens in Terminal 1 is (usually) a serene highlight.

Dubai Airport, Terminal 3 (Shutterstock)
Dubai Airport, Terminal 3 (Shutterstock)

Out with the masses in the main concourse, Dubai Duty Free is a busy, fraught environment – the crowds in each of the shops are testament to Dubai's status as an international hot spot.

Skip the big brands and sample authentic oud incense in Terminal 3's main concourse: the small stall is sandwiched between the perfume shop and money exchange counter.

4 hours in Dubai 

(7 hours between flights)

For a snippet of Dubai's ostentatious charm, take a taxi to Downtown (25 minutes, AED50) – one of the flashiest parts of the city. In this residential and commercial area you'll find Burj Khalifa – at 828m high, it's the tallest building in the world. The uppermost floors are reserved for private residences and offices, but you can get two-thirds of the way to the top for views that stretch out over the desert and Arabian Gulf.

Taking in the view from Burj Dubai (Shutterstock)
Taking in the view from Burj Dubai (Shutterstock)

You will need to book a slot on the At The Top viewing platform (buy tickets online in advance and pay AED125 instead of AED400 on the door), or reserve a table at Atmosphere, the bar two floors below (level 122). Visiting on a Wednesday? You're in luck: ladies get two glasses of bubbly for free. If you can only squeeze one attraction into your Dubai stopover, make it this one.

Other Downtown highlights include Dubai Mall, the world's biggest shopping mall (complete with an aquarium and ice rink), and the Dubai Fountains which spurt out whopping water jets in sync with pop songs by the likes of Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli every half an hour. Yes, really.

8 hours in Dubai 

(11 hours between flights)

Bur Dubai (20 minutes, AED40 in a cab) doesn't have the glitz of the city's other areas, but it does showcase just how international Dubai is. Most visitors come for the souks (loaded with Indian, Iranian and Pakistani goods), and to soak up the area's atmosphere.

This is the oldest part of the city, but don't expect history of European proportions: the most ancient buildings only date back to the 1960s, although the area's heyday pre-dates that. Long before oil was discovered in the UAE, Bur Dubai was a key trading port that welcomed business from South Asia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. The wooden boats that line Dubai Creek make the same journeys today, albeit loaded with dishwashers and kitchen goods.

Crossing Dubai Creek in an abra (Shutterstock)
Crossing Dubai Creek in an abra (Shutterstock)

Get a taxi to Al Seef roundabout, and take a stroll northwards along the Creek, dipping into the souks along the way. After 15 minutes, you'll come to Deira Old Souk Abra Station, where you can pick up an abra (small passenger boat) that'll whip you across the Creek for a mere AED1 (it's a 10-minute ride).

With the wind in your hair and a whiff of spices and muddy water on the air, you'll blow the jet lag cobwebs away. On the other side, you can haggle for spices and gold jewellery in the souks, duck into Indian and Pakistani eateries for chapattis and dhal – and pick up a taxi back to the airport easily.

12 hours in Dubai 

(15 hours between flights)

With any luck, you'll have an evening in Dubai – a chance to see the city really come to life. If you've spent a few hours in Downtown, you'll find dining options galore around here: for views of the fountains and Burj Khalifa, try Thiptara at The Palace, Downtown Dubai; it's not cheap, but very, very Dubai. A great spot to soak it all up.

Dubai Marina (Shutterstock)
Dubai Marina (Shutterstock)

For an equally impressive view, a cab ride to Dubai Marina (40 minutes, AED100) will put you in the heart of the city's main residential area. Crane your neck at the high-rise apartment blocks and peer into the luxury yachts that bob through the waterway: for many Dubai residents, this is their everyday view. There are Lebanese restaurants along the south of the marina, with authentic dishes and extensive shisha menus (mains from AED50).

24 hours in Dubai 

(27 hours between flights)

With a whole 24 hours to spare, you can divide your day between the old and new parts of the city. It's a lot of leg-work, but worth it to see how much Dubai has changed over the past few decades. You can travel from old Bur Dubai to glitzy Downtown and Dubai Marina in 20-40 minutes, by taxi; keep your guidebook handy to spot high-rise highlights on the journey along Sheikh Zayed Road (a 16-lane motorway).

Carpets for sale in a Dubai souk (Shutterstock)
Carpets for sale in a Dubai souk (Shutterstock)

On a 24-hour stopover, you'll be able to squeeze in a tour, too: most companies are geared towards stopover tourists, so arrival/departure times are punctual. Dubai's international appeal is best experienced through its food, and Frying Pan Adventures' evening tours will transport you to little-known authentic restaurants on a 'foodie marathon'. Its Arabian Pilgrimage, a favourite with city expats, visits Iranian, Palestinian, Turkish and Yemeni eateries (to name but a few!), and head guide Arva is a font of food knowledge. 

The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts tours of the city's older areas, including arty district Al Bastakiya, Dubai Creek, and Jumeirah Mosque (the only mosque open to non-Muslims); from AED50.

Al Bastakiya (Shutterstock)
Al Bastakiya (Shutterstock)

For a glimpse of the desert, you'll find 4x4 tours aplenty advertised in hotels. Each are much the same, with morning or evening 'dune bashing' (a rollercoaster sand-driving experience) and lunch/dinner. Book an evening experience for lower temperatures and Arabian barbecues out in the desert. Expect to pay AED300 for half a day. Platinum Heritage offers a more romantic (but pricey) option, with vintage Land Rover tours and authentic Emirati cuisine from AED495.

Main image: Burj Khalifa (Shutterstock)

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