I don’t normally love cities like Dubai, which are all glitz and glamour with no real personality. But after slumming it in Sri Lanka, the incredible skyline peeking out above the clouds was exactly what I needed to get the taste of choking on spicy chicken bones and disappointment out of my mouth. Visiting Dubai on a stopover is really simple, because the public transportation system easily gets you around the city, and there’s just enough fun stuff to do in Dubai to cram in one long day of sightseeing.
Getting around Dubai
If you’re arriving from Terminal 1 or 3 in the Dubai airport, you will be well-connected by the metro system, which will put you at major points in the city, like the Burj Khalifa in 30-40 minutes. If you’re arriving into terminal 2, the poor people terminal servicing flydubai flights, you will either have to take a shuttle to one of the other terminals to catch the metro, or take an Uber into the city, which might save you a little bit of time.
To maximize your use of the public transportation system, I suggest you get a day pass, which is a contactless card that can be used on the metro, trams, and buses. You validate before and after entering the station each time or on board the bus. The pass is only around $5 for standard class and double that for gold class, which is nice if you want a less crowded train car and a nicer view from the front of the train into the city. Note that if you’re caught in a gold class section with only a standard transportation pass, you’ll be fined.
Another fabulous thing about using the public transportation in Dubai is that there are also cars reserved for women and children. As a solo female traveler who wants no creepy dudes anywhere near me at all times, I love everything about this. Men are very respectful of the demarcation on the train, particularly because they can be fined heavily for being in the wrong section. You don’t need a special pass to ride in this part of the train. Just bring your tits.
Things to do in Dubai
Visit the world’s tallest building
Standing a whopping 2,700 feet in the air, the Burj Khalifa dwarfs every other skyscraper in Dubai, and anywhere else in the world because it’s the tallest building on earth. So it’s no surprise that the entrance fee to the At the Top observation deck at the top is a whopping $40, and $60 during prime hours. A ticket up to the top gets you access to the world’s fastest double deck elevators and to the telescopes from the tallest building in the world.
If you want access to the SKY lounge in the Burj Khalifa, which is 23 floors higher than the At the Top deck, expect to shell out at least $100. Lines are along, so if your stopover is short and you really want to do this, you may want to prebook your tickets online and skip the line.
See the Dubai Fountain
Around the foot of the Burj Khalifa, you’ll be in the sprawling promenade that surrounds the Dubai Fountain. The Dubai Fountain is like the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas but newer and richer. If the Bellagio won the Powerball, it would build the Dubai Fountain out front. It spreads out over the 30-acre lake at the heart of downtown Dubai. The fountain performances are at 1 pm, 1:30 pm (1:30 pm and 2 pm on Fridays) and every half hour from 6 pm to 11 pm.
Check out the malls
The malls in Dubai are really just as insane as they’re billed. With elaborate fountains, skating rinks, aquariums, and movie theaters, they really put the EXTRA in extravagant. I didn’t think I could be impressed by anything as ubiquitous as a mall, but having visited the Mall of Emirates and the Dubai Mall, I stand corrected. At the Mall of Emirates, you can find yourself hitting the slopes at the indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai. It’s so unnecessary and so, so amazing. At the Dubai Mall, I kept following signs for “The Souk,” to see if I could find a more traditional market and instead I discovered gold-dipped archways and high-end jewelry boutiques.
The malls are a good place to have lunch or dinner, too. I ate in the classy Lebanese dining room of Al Hallab Restaurant, overlooking the Dubai fountain surrounded by men having business lunches, and I’ve never felt so powerful. It was the best food I had on my entire trip to Sri Lanka. As an expat, visiting Dubai is also the closest thing to being in the US. You can find your American favorites in the malls like the Cheesecake Factory, IHOP, Five Guys, Shake Shack, Johnny Rockets, California Pizza Kitchen, Joe’s Crab Shack even a Rainforest Cafe. Do you know how much I miss Krispy Kreme?
Visit Palm Jumeirah
One of the most over-the-top things about Dubai is the Palm Jumeirah, a palm-tree shaped island full of classy resorts and apartment buildings. You can easily visit by taking the monorail to Atlantis. The monorail station is near the marina and accessible by tram. The monorail itself requires a separate ticket from the Dubai transport pass, and it is cash only. The monorail takes you along the “trunk” of the palm to the end where the Atlantis resort and its beach is. At the end of the ride, you can visit Aquaventure Waterpark if you thought ahead and brought your bathing suit, or the underwater tunnels of the Lost Chambers Aquarium.
If you don’t have that much time during the stopover, there’s a better alternative to going to Palm Jumeirah. You could argue that a better view of the island is from above rather than within it, so you can hit up one of the bars or restaurants in one of the high rises in the area, like Observatory Bar at the Marriott Harbour Hotel. But honestly, you have to be on a plane to get the full effect. Get the window seat!
Walk or take a cruise along the marina
The Dubai Marina is the kind of place that you might see from the yacht in a rap video. The winding waterway is flanked on either side by shiny skyscrapers and palm trees that form the world’s largest man-made marina. Everything is bigger in Dubai. The Dubai Marina walk has 7 km of pedestrian walkway for you to enjoy at your leisure. Along the walk, there are hundreds of shops and restaurants, so you can stop and get refreshments.
Several companies offer sightseeing cruises from the marina that will take you past the city’s most iconic buildings like the Burj Al Arab and the Palm Jumeirah islands. Cruises can be on the no frills Yellow Boats, or on traditional wooden dhow. Typically these take around an hour and can be as little as $20. Dinner and show cruises are also available that include live music and a meal.
Refresh at the airport
The best part about a stopover in Dubai is that after sightseeing all day, you can take a shower for free at the airport in Terminal 3 at the B and C gates. The showers are fairly basic and you should pack a compact towel to make the best of them, but at least you don’t have to get on your connecting flight filthy. You can also hang out at one of the airport lounges or rent out your own personal sleep ‘n fly pod for sleeping and working.
This stopover is definitely an appetizer that makes you hungrier for more Dubai. The next time I see that skyline, I want a 5-star hotel room with a private beach waiting for me at the Palm. Sometimes you just have to drink champagne and take the most stunning helicopter tour of your life.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Dubai guides on GPSmyCity here.