Instagram



Booking.com

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.

Are you looking for what to do in Dubai in a day? Read on!

This article was updated on August 9, 2020.

Darkening sky behind a row of tall skyscrapers, with advertising on the sides of a few, and lots of lit windows. At the bottom of the picture, a wide road full of traffic parallel to the row of skyscrapers.
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.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means if you click on them and purchase tickets, I will get a small commission. This will not affect the price.

Dubai 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. Even if you only spend one day in Dubai, please stay respectful of local norms.

Diversity

Yet Dubai is 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.

I’ve heard reports of some pretty appalling working and living conditions for manual laborers though. The pace of building is high, and goes on day and night, even through the heat of summer.

Text: Things to see and do in Dubai
Images: above, a view of an atrium at  Mall of the Emirates. Below, on the left, a photo of a channel-billed toucan on a branch and on the right a view down a street in old dubai: sand-colored buildings and, in the back, a square wind tower.
Pinnable image

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. I like it more every time.

If you only have only 1 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, in no particular order:

1. Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa is what I’d venture to guess most people who have only one day for Dubai choose first. The world’s tallest building will not be able to claim the title for long, once Dubai Creek Tower is completed, scheduled for 2020, but likely later.

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. Here is my article about the Burj Khalifa.

The burj khalifa is shaped like a tall bundle of flattened cylinders, some of which end at a lower level than others, so that the tip is a single point. In this photo it's shown at an angle in order to fit it into the picutre, and the top is not really visible.
looking up at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

A good combination for some of your Dubai day would be the Burj Khalifa and the attractions in the Dubai Mall (listed below), followed by, in the evening, the fountain show outside the mall (see below).

2. 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.

Read my article about the Dubai Frame here, or click here to buy tickets.

Tops of a few palm trees along the bottom of the picture. Behind, a large picture frame, gold colored. Gray sky visible through it and around it.
The Dubai Frame, in this picture, looks like it’s just behind the palm trees, and only two or three stories high, but it’s much bigger than it looks!

3. 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.

The traditional buildings host a range 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.

Left and right, sand-colored mud walls, with a few small square windows in flat sides and a few wooden beams protruding here and there. In the center, at the end of the narrow street, is a wind tower. It is a vertical square tower, perhaps 3 or 4 stories tall. Wood beams protrude here and there and the top level looks like it has tall rectangular windows (there are open to the air, chanelling the wind down into the house.)
a wind tower on a narrow street in Old Dubai

While Old Dubai and its galleries and museums are among my top recommendations for things to do in Dubai in one day, I would not suggest it in the heat of summer. It’s just too hot!

4. 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. Don’t like shopping? This mall has an aquarium, a virtual reality park, an ice rink, a cinema, and a flight simulator. You could stay entertained for the whole day in Dubai Mall.

The Mall of the Emirates is worth a visit just to see 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.

The marble floor with scattered people is visible below. Straight ahead and a bit above camera level are a series of bridges and escalators connecting them. The roof above is a half-cylinder and entirely glass panes with a metal framework.
Half of the main atrium of the Mall of the Emirates

The Gold Souk is fun to walk through. Since I wasn’t actually in the market for any gold, though, I didn’t stay long. The gold is priced by weight, and dealers charge on top of that for the workmanship. It’s okay to bargain!

I haven’t visited the Al Fahidi Souk, but it looks like it’s a more traditional souk that locals use 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.

5. 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.

In the background, a full-size A380 airplane on the ground, covered in green short plants. It points away from the camera. Along its side is a row of ostriches; their bodies are covered in colorful flowers. In the foreground, a huge hat with a wide brim. It is pink with a red ribbon around it, and a circle of flowers around the edge of the brim and on the top.
Though displays may change, a beribboned hat, an Emirates A-380, and a flock of ostriches were among the sights the year I visited the Dubai Miracle Garden

6. 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 admission into the building, the epitome of the over-the-top esthetic.

Nearby is a housing development, with two-story buildings, quite large and detached, but close together. Behind that, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel is in the shape of an ocean wave, with horizontal floors of glass windows. It's perhaps 20 or more stories high at its peak. Behind that the Burj A-Arab is even taller, in the shape of a yacht's sail.
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,” a very apt description. 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. The minimum spend in the ground-floor lounge is 250 AED (€58 or $68) while the minimum spend for the Skyview bar at the top is 370 per person (€85 or $101). At Gold on 27, the minimum spend is 200 AED (€46 or $55). You’ll need to book ahead; any of them gives you access to the lobby and shops.

To see some of the dining and/or drinking options inside the Burj Al-Arab, look at this page from GetYourGuide.

7. Light Shows

If you happen to be at the Dubai Mall as it gets dark, stay for 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.

Dark sky, with lots of vertical water spouts shooting up in front of it in a row, all lit in white.
Dubai fountain show

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.

If you need accommodations in Dubai, use this booking.com link to book your hotel room.

8. Amusement Parks

Dubai, in its inimitable over-the-top style, has enough amusement and theme parks to last you for weeks. It could be tough to choose if you only have one day in Dubai. I haven’t been to any of these, 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.

9. Aquariums (Aquaria?)

The Lost Chambers Aquarium is at the Atlantis Hotel at The Palm, the famous palm-shaped built island. It’s like the rest of Dubai, a bit over-the-top, in this case with a lost city of Atlantis theme. You can even go snorkeling, walking or diving in the largest tank. Read my review of it here.

The entrance says "The Lost Chambers Aquarium" above the door. Visible in the entrance is a large floor to ceiling tank lit in blue with lots of silver fish swimming in a school.
The entrance to the Lost Chambers Aquarium

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. The aquarium is “immersive” in that visitors walk through underwater tunnels.

Green Planet is not exactly an aquarium, but it does fit the nature-in-an-unnatural-setting vibe. It’s an indoor tropical rainforest built around a huge artificial tree. This, like an aquarium, would be a great outing with kids, if you prefer entertaining and educational rather than just entertaining. Read my article about it here.

The toucan almost faces the camera, sitting on a branch. It's back is pitch black, it's chest is yellow with a bit of white around the edge. Around its eye the white becomes blue and the eye is black. It's beak is blue near the eyes, but the rest of the very large, curved beak is black.
a channel-billed toucan at Green Planet Dubai

10. Other activities

If you’re looking for what to do in Dubai for a day, as opposed to what to see, 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.

I have taken the Yellow Boat ride and enjoyed it tremendously. Leaving from the Marina, the speedboat trip is great fun and affords some great views from the water. I wrote about my experience here.

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.

A view down the metro tracks. The tracks run down a street, but above street level, lined with skyscrapers on both sides. A train of several cars in nearby on one set of tracks and another is farther away, approaching on the nearer tracks.
Dubai Metro trains are driverless.

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, flag down a pink taxi, or ask your hotel to call one for you: 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 of what to see in Dubai in one day? Please comment below!

Text: Things to see and do in Dubai United Arab Emirates (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). 
Images: above, the view of old Dubai and the wind tower. Below, both the photo of the toucan and the one of the Dubai frame.
Pinnable image

34 Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.