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Updated: 8th March 2020
With just 12 hours in Dubai on my stopover, I was adamant I would cram as much into my layover as possible. Dubai had never been high on my list of places to visit, but as I was flying with Emirates and found myself in the city, I wanted to make the most of my time and see as much as possible. From the old souks and more traditional side of this Emirate to the bright lights and modern architecture, it is now world-famous for; you can easily see a lot during your Dubai stopover.
Feeling perfectly rested after an overnight flight in with Emirates, I had all the energy in the world to run around from place to place on my own steam. Still, if you would instead let someone else take care of the arrangements for you, then you can either book individual activity tickets or a tour through a local operator.
Booking things like the Burj Khalifa viewing floors in advance makes total sense, and that can be combined with full Dubai tours – in fact, I realised after my Dubai stopover that much of what I saw on my solo-planned day was included in a fairly priced tour. While these are typically hotel pick-ups, you can always reach out directly to see if they can arrange collection from the airport.
Needless to say, whether you go by public transport or book a tour for your Dubai stopover, the city is not as expensive as I had imagined it would be. I felt my 12-hour layover, which gave me about 8-hours outside the airport, was enough to see the highlights of the city and gave me enough of a fix I wouldn’t plan to go back. When I did my layover in Abu Dhabi, I only had time to see the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque – so the longer you can arrange your stopover, the more you will obviously see.
Keep an eye out on the Emirates website, as sometimes on certain routes they will offer a free overnight stopover including hotel, which is handy if you are breaking up a long flight between Europe and Australia.
Okay, so here is what I managed to explore on my 12 hours in Dubai stopover, entirely using public transport! Keep in mind, depending on the times of your flight you might want to adapt this so you will be at say the lights show for the correct time. I found Dubai airport fast to get in and out of, so I’d say I had around 8-hours out sightseeing, though perhaps could have pushed that a bit longer. The transport time came in around 4-hours to get between everything I crammed in, so again, you might want to cull this Dubai stopover itinerary for less rushing, and more to enjoy.
A standard one-day red ticket for the transport network is 20 AED (under £5/€5) and can be purchased from the machines at the airport.
Stop One: The gold and spice souq
Transport: Airport (Red Line) > Palm Deira (Green Line: 18 Mins) > Walk (15 Mins) to Gold souq > Walk (7 Mins) via Old souq to spice souq
Located close by to each other are both the gold and spice souqs of Dubai. Here you can get a flavour of buzzing markets trading in all that glitters in the Emirates. These markets are somewhat more glitzy and tame compared to souqs in the likes of Morocco and Oman that I had visited before, although they still came with a degree of solid salesperson-pitch as you walked past the stools.
Colourful happenings occur on all sides, while heavy carts slide past you and ladies in bright clothing peddle jewellery. In the spice souq, all the colours of the delicious flavours of dishes can be found, as well as the famous Medjool dates, which can be purchased in smaller quantities if you just want some snacks for the day.
During my morning visit, it was relatively calm, though I’ve been told later in the day, leading to evening, it gets much busier – so depending on the vibe you want, you may decide to visit the souq’s later on in your Dubai stopover, though I believe it closes for a while over lunch hours.
Stop Two: Abra (boat) from Deira Old Souq Station
Transport: Walk (2 mins) to Deira Old Souq Station > Take an Abra (20 mins) to Bar Dubai Station
Hopping on an Abra is a must in Dubai, and it costs hardly anything to take one of these local boats across the river.
The wooden boats are traditional to the Emirates, although aren’t as commonly used now. This has become a bit of a tourist attraction, for those wanting to see Dubai away from the glitz and glamour of sky-high hotels it’s now known for, but as they are mainly still used by locals to ferry between either side of the creek, it retains an authentic feeling and price.
Stop Three: Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
Transport: Walk (15 mins) to Al Fahidi
One of the parts of Dubai I was most excited to visit, and highly recommended by Lonely Planet, was the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood.
A far cry from the shopping malls and shimmering lights of the skyline, here you’ll find a relatively serene scene, with little traffic and quiet lanes without a soul, at least at the time of my visit. The old houses with their sandstone appearance are mainly uninhabited now and have been converted into market shops, museums and other cultural spaces, including hotels if you wanted to stay the night.
I’d suggest spending an hour walking around here if time allows on your Dubai stopover, so you can soak in some of the histories of the area. Most of the quarter is around 100-years old, so it’s not like visiting some of the other historic neighbourhoods in the region with hundreds and thousands of years of history, but it provides a nice contrast to modern Dubai – you can also find part of the old city wall here which dates back to the 1800s.
It’s a good reminder that Dubai this isn’t just a glowing city of riches as it’s often portrayed, and if there was one part of the town I wish I had been accompanied by a guide, it would have been here.
Stop Four: Burjaman to Dubai Marina
Transport: Walk (20 mins) to Burjaman Station > Dubai Marina (Red Line then Tram: 50 Mins)
After a stroll through the residential area, broken by shops, I hopped back on the metro bound for the more modern and well-represented side of modern Dubai. For most, this is likely the area you’ll concentrate on during your Dubai stopover, although I really think digging into the culture and heritage of the city is a must.
Straight away when coming into Dubai Marina the differences are stark, this is a much wealthier residential area, and here you’ll find the JBR beach where you can grab a fancy lunch in the sun or get your feet in the sand.
Close by is the Palm Jumeirah, the famous fanned out artificial archipelago, where you can snap some photos from the outside – even though it’s an expensive place to stay, entrance to the area is free, though it’s not possible to enter by foot so would need to take a taxi or buy a monorail ticket. I skipped it, to save on time, as personally, it wasn’t of immense interest. There are plenty of other malls and walks around the area.
Stop Five: Burj Al Arab and Beach (Palm Jumeirah)
Transport: Dubai Marina (No 8 Bus: 30 Mins) > Burj Al Arab (I suggest skipping Palm Jumeirah, but you could switch up your route to include this)
Instead of visiting Palm Jumeirah, I jumped a bus up to the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel which is known for its opulence, beauty and high-flying clientele.
On the beach looking out on the Burj Al Arab you can snap some photos of the famous hotel, grab a bite, and enjoy a bit of beach time. The hotel is connected to the mainland by a bridge to the artificial island, but it is a private hotel, so the only way to get in if you aren’t staying there is to make a restaurant reservation.
Stop Six: Mall of the Emirates to Dubai Mall
Transport: From Burj Al Arab (No 81 Bus 81: 7 Mins) to Mall of the Emirates Metro > Dubai Mall (Red Line: 15 Mins)
If shopping is on your agenda during your Dubai stopover, you are spoilt for options. Nearby to the Burj Al Arab is the Mall of the Emirates, a large shopping centre, although I just used here as a point to rejoin the metro and head over to the Dubai Mall.
The Dubai Mall is another huge shopping centre, with a whole range of shops and dining options, from budget chain restaurants inside to the more expensive dining options outside around the pools, which is where you’ll be paying a premium for the Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa.
Stop Seven: Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Fountain
Transport: Walking from the Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa Metro through the walk way, less than 5 Mins
Note: Check the current performance times of the Dubai Fountain here, to plan your visit to coincide.
Once you’ve dined and shopped, the sun should be starting to set, and this is where the famous Dubai Fountain wows the crowds with its illuminated water performance to music, set in the pools surrounding the Burj Khalifa, the towering hotel that is, in fact, the tallest building in the world.
You can get on little boats to float around the waters, or of course, visit the viewing floors of the Burj Khalifa, though I would recommend booking this in advance as I wasn’t able to get up. Either way, here is an excellent place to wrap up your Dubai stopover, enjoying some food, watching the performance, and soaking up the excitable crowded vibe of the place where so many other locals and tourists have congregated for the Dubai Fountain.
Stop Eight: To the Airport
Transport: Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa (Red Line) > Airport (30 Mins)
And that’s a wrap – time to head back to the airport. I got to the airport about two-hours before my next flight, and already with my boarding pass it was quick and easy to get through the airport security and customs.
Want more? Head to Abu Dhabi
I’ve only been to two of the Emirates, both on layovers, but unlike my Dubai stopover, I only had a short amount of time in Abu Dhabi where I spent it visiting the Grand Mosque – take a look at those photos and you’ll understand why it was my priority!