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One Day in Dubai: Things to do!

Dubai is a land of superlatives: biggest, tallest, first. I would also add: oddest.

Dubai is often compared to Las Vegas, and I agree: its sheer brashness and artificiality are very like Las Vegas. Like Vegas, it’s a big, shiny city plunked down in a desert. And although there aren’t any casinos – at least not legal ones – it’s a place people go to let loose and have a good time.

An evening view of Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. You can see the narrow tower of the Burj Khalifa in the distance between the buildings. A Day in Dubai.

An evening view of Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. You can see the narrow tower of the Burj Khalifa in the distance between the buildings.

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The place is completely over-the-top: you can ski indoors in the summer, stroll around a flower garden in the desert, shop for luxury items in amazingly ornate malls, or take in the view from the world’s tallest building. You can also relax by a pool in your swimsuit, indulge yourself in top-quality haute cuisine, and dance and drink late into the night. You never have to worry about your things getting stolen. The camera you left at the pool will still be there when you go back for it.

At the same time, it’s a deeply conservative country. You will be stared at disapprovingly or even arrested if you show too much skin on the street. You could be arrested for swearing. Drug use could get you jailed for a very long time.

Diversity

Yet it’s also an incredibly diverse city. Actual Emiratis constitute only about 10 percent of the population, and dozens of nationalities are represented among the expatriate population. You’ll meet a lot of Indians and Pakistanis in particular, but also Kenyans and Congolese and Nepalese and Filipinos. When I’m there I ask everyone where they’re from, and I’m astounded at the range of origins.

At least to an outsider like me, it seems that all of these nationalities and cultures get along and work together peacefully. I get the impression that it’s all about economic opportunity in Dubai, and politics is unimportant. Dubai is not a democracy, and these expatriates have no say in how things are run. They are in Dubai on the strength of their work visas, which is why the crime rate is so low: no one wants to get deported.

Highlights of Dubai

Every visit to Dubai – I’ve been there four or five times, I think – it’s been for work; I lead workshops from time to time for teachers. I’m not sure I ever would have visited Dubai on my own, but each time I go, I explore a bit more of this strange and ever-changing city.

If you only have a day in Dubai, it can be tough to choose which things to see. To help you choose, here are some of the highlights of Dubai that I’ve enjoyed.

Burj Khalifa

The world’s tallest building will not be able to make that claim for long, once The Tower at Dubai Creek is completed. Nevertheless, its outdoor viewing decks on the 125th and 148th floors are pretty spectacular. They also give a clear perspective of that “plunked down in the desert” phenomenon that I mentioned above.

looking up at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

looking up at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

The Dubai Frame

“Only” 150 meters tall, the Dubai Frame is the thrifty way to get a view of the Dubai skyline. It’s also a very unusual building in its own right.

The Dubai Frame, in this picture, looks like it's just behind the palm trees, and only two or three stories high!

The Dubai Frame, in this picture, looks like it’s just behind the palm trees, and only two or three stories high!

Old Dubai

If you miss any sense of history among the shiny skyscrapers, take a stroll around Old Dubai, much of which is apparently reconstructed rather than original, but never mind. It’s on a smaller scale and simply picturesque.

It’s also inhabited these days by a host of museums and small galleries, so you could easily spend the whole day. Make sure to check out the Dubai Museum, housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, dating from 1787. And the restored Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, now a museum, will give you an idea of how the wealthy lived in the old days of Dubai.

a wind tower on a narrow street in Old Dubai

a wind tower on a narrow street in Old Dubai

Shopping: Malls and souks

I am very much not a shopper, but you can certainly get your air-conditioned exercise exploring the malls. If you go to the Burj Khalifa you’ll need to enter through the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. If shopping isn’t your thing, this mall has an aquarium, a virtual reality park, an ice rink, a cinema, and a flight simulator to keep you entertained.

The Mall of the Emirates is worth a visit just to get a glimpse of Ski Dubai, the indoor ski slope. The sheer excess of maintaining a ski slope indoors in a place that reaches 50 degrees Celsius in the summer is astounding.

Half of the main atrium of the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai

Half of the main atrium of the Mall of the Emirates

The Gold Souk is fun to walk through, but since I wasn’t actually in the market for any gold, I didn’t stay long. I haven’t visited the Al Fahidi Souk, but it looks like it’s a more traditional souk, meant for locals rather than tourists. The Textile Souk is also one I haven’t visited, but it looks photogenic, even if you’re not in the market for cloth.

The Dubai Miracle Garden

a beribboned hat, an Emirates A-380, and a flock of ostriches at the Dubai Miracle Garden. One Day in Dubai

a beribboned hat, an Emirates A-380, and a flock of ostriches at the Dubai Miracle Garden

Open seasonally, presumably because it would be tough to keep the plantings alive in the heat of a Middle Eastern summer, the Dubai Miracle Garden is a strange and fascinating cross between botanical garden and kitsch showplace. Constructions covered in flowers range from houses and ostriches to a very large beribboned hat next to a full-sized Emirates Airlines A-380.

Burj Al-Arab

The most well-known building in Dubai is probably the Burj Al-Arab, a sailboat-shaped hotel on the beach. You can’t even enter its grounds without a reservation of some sort, and all of it is expensive.

Years ago, on my first visit to Dubai, I went for tea in the lobby with a colleague, and we enjoyed not just tea but also a chocolate fountain. While the tea was delicious, the service was excellent, and the chocolate was positively decadent, the real treat was just being allowed into the building, the epitome of the over-the-top esthetic.

The Burj Al Arab behind the equally upscale Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai.

The Burj Al-Arab behind the equally upscale Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai.

I once read a guidebook that described the lobby as “the inside of Jeannie’s bottle” and that description is very apt. We window-shopped the lobby gift shops, glittering with all sorts of items only the most ostentatiously wealthy would want: diamond-encrusted telephone cases, for example (wouldn’t that hurt your hand?), or golden statues of animals with gem eyes.

Be warned, though, this is expensive. Tea in the lobby currently costs 430 AED per person (€95 or $117). You could get away with spending less if you reserve for the Skyview bar at the top, with a minimum spend of 370 per person (€82 or $101).

Light Shows

If you happen to be at the Dubai Mall as it gets dark, make sure to see the Dubai Fountain show. It’s a pretty short program of fountains lit in white – apparently at holidays the show is more elaborate. I have to admit it didn’t impress me: I expected more color and variety. This might have just been because I was in Las Vegas so recently, where I saw a very similar show. In both cases, I suspect the main attraction is that it’s free. If you want to escape the crowds watching the fountain show, take a boat on the lake instead and watch it from there.

The Burj Khalifa, soaring just above the fountain show, is the site of a new light show. I didn’t get to see this one, but apparently it’s more colorful than the fountains, and involves light patterns up the whole façade of the building. And it’s also free.

Amusement Parks

Dubai, in its inimitable over-the-top style, has enough amusement and theme parks to last you for weeks. I haven’t been to any of them, so I’ll just list them here.

IMG Worlds of Adventure claims to be the world’s largest indoor theme park based on Marvel and Cartoon Network characters.

Dubai Parks and Resorts is a cluster of theme parks:

  • Motiongate is a theme park based on films from three film studios: Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks and Lionsgate.
  • Bollywood Parks is a film theme park based on, obviously, Bollywood.
  • Legoland is aimed at the younger set, and features Lego-themed rides. It also includes a water park, which seems a good idea to me given how hot it can get in Dubai.

Aquariums (Aquaria?)

The Lost Chambers Aquarium is at the Atlantis Hotel at The Palm, the famous palm-shaped built island. The aquarium is “immersive” in that visitors walk through underwater tunnels.

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo inside the Dubai Mall has a tunnel that’s 48 meters long, as well as a 10-million-liter tank. Here you can also snorkel or dive.

Other activities

Lots of companies offer activities as well: camel rides, sandboarding and/or dune-bashing in the desert, diving, dinner cruises, helicopter rides, indoor sky-diving. I haven’t done any of these – and the last two I never will! – so I can’t vouch for any of them.

You could also take a day trip out of the city. Many people go to Abu Dhabi to see the new Louvre and the Grand Mosque. Or you could go to Al Ayn, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the UAE.

Getting around in Dubai

If you are traveling within the city, I highly recommend the Dubai metro system. It’s smooth, efficient and frequent. The stations are remarkably clean, and I especially like that there are women-only sections on each train. To give you an idea of the time, you can travel from the airport’s terminal 3 to the Dubai Mall stop in 28 minutes.

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However, check on a map how far your destination is from the metro system: distances can be very big, and Dubai can be very hot. You’ll walk 10 or 15 minutes, for example, from the Dubai Mall station to reach the mall itself. Then it’s about twice that to get to the entrance to the Burj Khalifa inside the mall, assuming you don’t get lost on the way.

If where you want to go is not near a metro line, take a taxi. These are safe, clean, inexpensive and well-regulated. If you are female, call a pink taxi: these have female drivers.

If you are leaving the airport on a stopover, make sure to factor in plenty of time for security. It can take a long time, both going into the country and leaving.

Have you been to Dubai? Is there anything you think I should add to this list? Please comment below! And if you liked this article, please pin one of the images below!


I am a co-host of Travel Photo Thursday, along with Jan from Budget Travel TalkRuth from Tanama Tales and Nancie from Budget Travelers Sandbox. If you have a travel blog and want to join in, do the following:

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27 Comments

  • Sylvia from Outdoors Wonders

    March 25, 2018 at 4:37 am

    Oh Dubai has been going up on my bucket list since last year. The city of the future! I cannot wait to go! I’m totslly pinning this to use when i prepare my trip!

    Reply
  • shesatripblog

    March 25, 2018 at 5:21 am

    I’ve always told myself that if I went to Dubai I would sky dive, so I’ve been actively avoiding it; however, now I really want to go!!

    Reply
  • Summer

    March 25, 2018 at 9:52 pm

    Wow, great guide! I haven’t been to Dubai yet, but would love to visit with all of your knowledge you’ve provided us with. Will definitely save this for future reference 🙂

    Reply
  • carol colborn

    March 26, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    On an overnight layover we got to see the Burj Khalifa light show and the Dubai Fountain Show. We also got to see the highlights of the Dubai Mall and the Soul nearby. On the next layover I want to go up the Dubai Frame, the Burj Al-Arab and the Dubai Miracle Garden.

    Reply
  • Doreen Pendgracs

    March 27, 2018 at 12:25 am

    Hi Rachel. I was in Dubai in 2008 and have not been there since. But I would love to return. Mostly to check out the new artistic endeavours in Abu Dhabi. I had not previously heard a comparison of Dubai to las Vegas! I can see where that comes from, but quite frankly, see a HUGE difference! Las Vegas is SO liberal with regard to liquor and sex. Dubai is quite the opposite. Women have to cover up, and you need a liquor permit in order to drink alcohol in a public place.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 29, 2018 at 6:25 pm

      Yes, of course Dubai is much less liberal, but it’s the sheer over-the-top audacity of the place that seems similar to me. Although I also have to add that men were quite openly bringing prostitutes into the hotel I was staying in — and it was a very upscale place! And drinking is open and plentiful in restaurants and pubs in hotels. Anyway, I’d love to go see the new museum in Abu Dhabi as well. I won’t have time on my next visit, but maybe when I’m back next year.

      Reply
  • Marilyn Jones

    March 27, 2018 at 8:44 am

    I haven’t been to Dubai, but would like to travel there along with Abu Dhabi. I was the most surprised by Old Dubai…I guess I didn’t think about what-was-before… Excellent article and photos!!

    Reply
  • Michela of Rocky Travel Blog

    March 30, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    I always wanted to plan a stopover in Dubai, once I had 10 hours night layover but way too short to see something. Next time I’ll make sure I plan a two-day stopover in Dubai to visit the city properly. It looks like a city of strong contrasts. The old Dubai photos are very intriguing, but also the miracle garden sooo peculiar!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      March 30, 2018 at 2:11 pm

      Peculiar is a good word! A night stopover isn’t as useful, is it? At least you could leave the airport to go to a good restaurant to eat; there are some excellent ones, with Michelin-starred chefs, I’ve heard. And the fountain show and lights on the Burj Khalifa are at night. You could also just check the opening hours of a theme park to see if it fits in your stopover…

      Reply
  • debbra2015

    March 30, 2018 at 11:29 pm

    I’ve never had a desire to visit Dubai but did enjoy your overview of all there is to see and do there. I am more into natural wonders than artificial ones but think I would really enjoy visiting the Aquarium. Your photos are wonderful!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      April 1, 2018 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks for the kind words! I probably never would have gone there either, but now I’ve been 4 or 5 times, I’d guess, to lead workshops. For natural wonders, if you ever end up in Dubai, either book a trip into the desert, or else go to Al Ain, which I’ll write about soon. That’s a UNESCO-listed oasis town in the desert.

      Reply
  • Nancie

    April 16, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    I was in the airport once, and I remember it as big and white 🙂 I love tall buildings, even though I don’t particularly like heights (go figure). As long as I’m enclosed I’m okay. The Burj is on my want to do list. I’d also like to visit the souk. Markets also entice me when I’m traveling. Sorry I haven’t been around much. These migraines slow me down. Thanks for co-hosting. #TPThursday

    Reply

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