Your Dubai experience starts as soon as you step out of the airport doors – as there is no definitive city centre, you’ll be greeted by urban glitz and dizzying skyscrapers, sprawling malls and luxurious hotels within seconds of the glorious Arabian heat enveloping your body.
If you’re going to spend a few hours in an airport, you could do a lot worse than Dubai International. It boasts the world’s largest duty free shopping area, and has won 250 awards to date, proving its excellence in retail. Terminal 3 is also home to three Timeless Spas, where passengers waiting to board can relax and rejuvenate with healing treatments inspired by cultural traditions from around the world.
If you’ve got eight hours to kill, you’ll have just the right amount of time to go out and enjoy a whirlwind tour of Dubai before needing to be back for check-in. If your stopover is during the night, and you’re not tired between your flight to Dubai and your connection, head to Dubai Mall for 7.30 and join the Big Bus Tour’s Night Tour. The tour takes just under three hours, has a qualified guide to talk you through the city’s fascinating history and will show you Dubai spectacularly illuminated all in the cool shade of the night sky. The tours also run throughout the day, when you can enjoy a ‘hop-on hop-off’ ticket which includes entrance to all major attractions throughout the city.
Once you’ve got your bearings, give in to temptation and go shopping. The Mall of the Emirates has the reputation of being the King of shopping malls – and for good reason too. It’s not just about shopping here (although, there are so many boutiques, specialist shoe stores, makeup markets and exclusive designer shops you’d wonder why), but the whole experience. Take to the slopes – yes, that huge indoor ski slope in the UAE you’ve heard so much about is in here – go to the theatre, share a sumptuous chocolate torte in the impossibly stylish Emporio Armani Caffe or enjoy a stroll across the perfectly polished marble floors.
If you don’t blow your budget on delicious desserts or fabulous footwear, the souks of Dubai will send you straight into magpie-mode. Deira’s Gold Souk is the ultimate destination for any jewellery lover, whilst the Old Souk will cause mouths to water and noses to tingle with a heavy mix of raw spices and traditional food. If you’re looking for presents then head to the perfume or textile souk, where you can buy classic eastern scents that linger for hours or tailor-made dresses and silk scarves.
To start your twelve hours of roaming in Dubai, head to the Dubai museum where you will be taken through the history of the city – from when settlers made a living pearl diving, to its status as cosmopolitan hub of the Middle East. Once you’ve had your fill of structured historic education, take to the streets of the Bastakia quarter where you can wander through a maze of wind towers and galleries, traditional buildings and al-fresco cafes.
Next, head to a beach to enjoy Dubai’s scorching sunshine and a dip in the sea – there are plenty of public beaches that are ideal for the budget-conscious traveller, as well as many five-star hotels offering up their private shoreline (and use of their facilities) for a small fee.
Once you’ve washed the salt off your skin, head to the world renowned Burj Al Arab and its simulated submarine ride to grab a bite of the city’s best seafood in the Al Mahara restaurant. If you fancy something a little more casual, head to the Century Village just outside the airport for cheap and chic wining and dining.
With a full 24 hours at your disposal, it would be mad not to experience Dubai in all its extravagance. Before all the shopping and the sunbathing and the eating and the drinking, bring in the day with a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the desert. You’ll have the perfect view of undulating red sand dunes, sparkling oases and desert camels and gazelles roaming in their natural environment.
If seeing the natural beauty of the desert from vertigo-inducing heights isn’t quite your thing, there are plenty of desert safaris leaving Dubai daily. You can pick and choose what you want to take part in – from breakfast in the sands, to dune bashing and dinner with traditional Arabic tea, coffee, henna and shisha.
At the end of your day in Dubai, and before heading back to the airport and moving on to your next destination, head to 360 Degrees for a cocktail on the rooftop bar, a stone’s throw from the Burj Al Arab and just out to sea. Here you can take in the city’s lavish atmosphere from a distance and wind down from the day’s activities.