With an average of 193,000 travelers moving through Dubai airport every day, many find themselves there on long layovers. While the airport is modern, sleek, and comfortable, you might want to take advantage and move out into the city.

This suggested itinerary is great for anyone who wants to experience a small slice of the UAE while on a budget, especially students!


How long of a layover is “worth it” to leave the airport?

6 hours. Leave at least an hour on each end for transit to and from the airport, whatever activities you want to do in the city, going through passport control and getting your tourist visa stamp on the way out, and getting through security on the way back in! Also, time to store your bags and pick them up if you choose.

This guy did a layover in 4 hours…but I would not recommend it.

If you have a large carry-on, you probably want to leave it at “left luggage” and just carry a smaller backpack or purse. Left luggage facilities are located in Terminals 1 and 3 – follow the signs or ask an airport employee! A standard bag costs AED 20-25 for 12 hours – more info and options here.

Don’t forget the technicalities! US passport holders do not need a visa, but most travelers do. Click here for the most complete and up to date visa rules.

Image: VenturesOnSite

How do I get from the airport to the city?

Dubai International Airport (DXB) is located a convenient 3 miles from the city center.

The best way to get to the city center from the airport is the metro, which takes about 15-20 minutes. You can buy a ticket in the station. If you arrive on a Friday morning, you will need an alternative as the metro does not run until 1 pm.

For more info on the Dubai metro, click here.

Dubai Mall

What activity options do I have?

  • From the airport, the metro can directly connect you to Dubai Mall. Dozens of moving walkways whisk tourists, expats, and locals alike towards the largest mall in the world. You could honestly spend your entire layover here, oohing and ahing over the 1,200+ shops and restaurants. The size of the food court(s) alone will take your breath away.
  • Dubai Mall is located in an area called Downtown Dubai, which is also host to the Burj Khalifa – the tallest structure in the world. Rumor has it that on clear days, tides permitting, you can see the shores of Iran from the top of the tower. Outside the Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai also contains the world’s largest choreographed fountain system – the Dubai Fountain. There are dancing fountain shows daily, free of charge!
  • Not to be outdone, another enormous shopping complex, The Mall of the Emirates, offers equally as dazzling stores and food choices, and is home to Ski Dubai – an indoor ski resort boasting the world’s first indoor black diamond run.
  • Al Diyafa Road offers a selection of affordable food, and is a great place to experience the variety and diversity of Dubai with cuisines ranging from Arabic fast food (try the cheesy bread at Al Mallah!) to pizza to Thai to Lebanese.
  • For just one dirham, catch a ride on an abra – a traditional painted wooden boat – across Dubai Creek to get to the souks. Outside of peak tourist season you might be the only tourist on the boat along with local workers.
  • The souks (or souqs) represent the foundation of Dubai’s history as a major trade city. Across the Dubai Creek, in the Deira part of the city, you will find a bustling network of streets and alleys, lined with small shops. This is a great place to buy spices, tea, or traditional Emirati clothing! The Gold Souq is particularly dazzling, with more than 300 shops – they even sell gold plated baby pacifiers! Don’t miss the gold wedding lingerie-jewelry; when there are not many customers, most shopkeepers are happy to chat and tell you stories of all the most interesting characters frequenting Dubai’s Gold Souq.
  • For more affordable shopping, check out Karama Market. Here you will find maze like aisles of stalls selling everything from knock off sneakers to fresh caught fish. Don’t forget to haggle for the real bottom line price!
  • The Dubai Museum is a clear choice for culture lovers. It is housed in the 18th century Al Fahidi Fort, guided tours are included, and admission costs only AED 3 for adults.
  • The Bastakiya Quarter is a lovely neighborhood for a leisurely stroll if you are looking for an older, more traditional Dubai from the days before the economic and infrastructure boom of the past two decades. While Dubai is not a particularly walkable city, here is a pretty good walking tour that includes Bastakiya!
  • Another option particularly attractive in good weather is taking a bus tour. There are several options that allow you to purchase an all-day ticket and get on and off the bus at your leisure. Doing one loop around the city’s main attractions is a great way to get your bearings and scope out places you might want to visit.

But what if I am on a layover at night?

Dubai has a vibrant nightlife, but it doesn’t come cheap. As alcohol is strictly regulated, most bars and clubs are located in hotels. If you decide to venture out for a party, check out these resources.

If you favor a more modest or budget-friendly evening, there are a handful of affordable bars, but they change frequently. Locals know best, so look at chat rooms or forums before your trip! Tuesday is usually ladies’ night, so look out for drink specials!

If you are looking to stay in the airport, you can catch some shut eye in a “Snooze Cube,” located at gate C22 (rates start at 75 AED per hour for a single cube, two-hour minimum stay as of August 2015).

More resources can be found here and here

General tips for Dubai

  • Drugs and alcohol: just say no. Possession of absolutely any illegal substance comes with heavy jail time. Alcohol is permitted in hotels and private clubs, but not in public!
  • If you’re not sure what to wear, don’t stress. Remember that Dubai is an exceedingly multinational city, and many people wear traditional national clothing from Indian saris to Malaysian kebayas, to Saudi thobes and ghutras. That being said, there is more east than west, and it is generally quite conservative. In the high heat of the summer, a flowy maxi dress or lightweight khakis should do the trick, but even in August, many people wear jeans. I would not recommend short shorts (or any length shorts on men), or low cut tops, but you probably will not be denied service in most places regardless of your attire.
  • Be prepared for the heat! Make sure to check the weather before you step off the plane.
  • Remember the UAE is a Muslim country, any many people in Dubai observe the 5-times daily calls to prayer. Be respectful if people are praying in public – do not walk directly in front of them. You will probably hear the beautiful azan (prayer call) at least once on your trip!

Authored by: Samantha Guthrie – STA Travel Student Ambassador

Samantha Guthrie is an STA Travel Student Ambassador and grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. After returning to the United States in middle school, the homogeneity and ethnocentrism of small town suburbia fueled her love of travel and exploration, searching for challenges to her own perspectives and way of life. She earned her B.A. in Russian and Eastern European Studies from the University of Virginia, and is currently a class of 2017 MPP candidate there. As a Boren Scholarship recipient, she spent most of 2014 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Samantha has held internships at the Parliament of Georgia, the Georgian National Tourism  Adminstration, and the US Embassy, Tbilisi. Next on her travel list: The Netherlands, Cuba, road trip through the Balkans! Follow along over on her blog: http://loveatfirstlayover.blogspot.com/ 

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