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How To Spend a 12-Hour Stopover in Dubai Without Breaking the Bank

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Updated: 8th March 2020

With only 12 hours in Dubai on my stopover, I wanted to 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 was keen to see as much as possible. From the old souks and more traditional side to the futuristic bright lights and modern architecture, I wanted to see it all on my Dubai stopover.

Feeling perfectly rested after an overnight flight with Emirates, I had plenty of energy to run from place to place on my own steam. Still, if you would prefer to let someone else take care of the arrangements for you, you can either book individual activity tickets or a stopover tour through a local operator.

Booking 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.

Dubai Stopover

Overall, I found the city wasn’t as expensive as I had imagined on my Dubai stopover. I felt my 12-hour layover, which gave me about 8 hours outside the airport (clearing the airport was a breeze), was enough to see the highlights of the city. 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 offer a free overnight stopover with a hotel included, 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, using public transport. Keep in mind, depending on your flight times, you’ll want to check in advance when the lights show. The transport time came in around four hours to get between everything I crammed in. If you don’t want to rush, skip a couple of things. A standard one-day red ticket for the transport network is 20 AED and can be purchased from the machines at the airport.

Stop One: Gold and Spice Souqs

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 near each other, you can easily combine the Gold and Spice Souqs of Dubai. Here, you can get a flavour of lively markets trading. These markets are somewhat more glitzy and tame compared to souqs in the likes of Morocco and Oman, although they still came with a degree of solid salesperson-pitch as you walked past the stalls.

Colourful happenings occur on all sides while heavy carts glide past you. In the spice souq, all the colours that season the delicious local flavours can be found, as well as 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. I’ve been told later in the day, especially leading to evening, it gets much busier. Som depending on the vibe you want, you could decide to visit the souq’s later on in your Dubai stopover. 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 they 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 – at least, they were when I visited. The old sandstone houses are mainly uninhabited now and have been converted into shops, museums and other cultural spaces, including hotels if you want 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 history 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 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 isn’t just a glowing city of riches as it’s often portrayed. If there were one part of the city I wish a guide had accompanied me, it would have been here.

Dubai Stopover Market with light streaming in

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, hop 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. Snap some photos from the outside. And be aware, even though it’s an expensive place to stay, entrance to the area is free. Though it’s not possible to enter on foot, you would need to take a taxi or buy a monorail ticket. I skipped it to save 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 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 guest-only, so the only way to get in if you aren’t staying there is to make a restaurant reservation.

Dubai Stopover Guide

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 it here as a point to rejoin the metro and head over to the Dubai Mall.

The Dubai Mall is another expansive 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. Just be aware, eating here 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 walkway, 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. 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, enjoy some food, watch the performance, and soak 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. I could have likely pushed it to have another 30-45 minutes in the city, but I guess it’s always better to be a bit more cautious.

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, one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

3 replies
  1. Blanca says:

    This is a really complete itinerary! Love that your day starts discovering the historical part fo the city. I really enjoyed the quietness of Al Fahidi beautiful streets. It’s a great way to appreciate the contrasts in this eccentric city.

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