I wasn’t planning to visit Dubai.
But after I accidentally cancelled my flight back to Lisbon from Cape Town, the cheapest replacement flight took me via the UAE, and it would cost no extra to give myself 24 hours in the city.
How could I turn down an offer like that?
So, with less than a day’s notice, I was suddenly heading to Dubai and I had no idea what to do there.
Somehow, I managed to pull off one of my most successful layovers to date and ended up cramming a huge amount into my time there. I got to check out the desert on a whirlwind tour, wander around the souks of Old Dubai, and look at things I couldn’t afford downtown.
Here’s how to rock a 24-hour layover in Dubai.
First Up: Hit the Sand
The Arabian Peninsula is all about the sand, and being a devotee of all things desert, I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my time in Dubai unless I found a way to explore it.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person with this obsession, so finding a tour wasn’t a problem — there were hundreds of them to choose from!
So many to choose from, but only one that worked for me. I knew I didn’t want to spend my entire day in the desert, and that discounted anything that didn’t leave in the morning, as the afternoon tours often lasted well into the evening, if not overnight. And there was exactly one tour I could find online that didn’t leave at 7 a.m., which was when my flight would be landing. I opted for a 3-hour tour leaving at 9.30 that had amazing reviews, didn’t screw over solo travellers with an infuriating single person supplement, and would allow me to get a taste of the desert without taking up my entire day.
I couldn’t believe it when I arrived and it was raining for like, the one day a year that it does in Dubai.
As always, though, the desert was more than worth it.
I joined a group of four middle-aged Americans who had just arrived in Dubai from India and enthusiastically bombarded me with tales of their travel stories, insisting that I get to India as soon as possible.
We had just three hours to see as much of the desert as possible, so from the moment we arrived, we were out on the sand and rushing from one activity to the next.
After dodging the touts who were insistent we all purchase a Berber scarf, a couple of the people on my tour jumped on ATVs to race around the damp sand. It was around $20 extra to do this, so most people opted out, including me. I’ve done my fair share of quad bike racing on my travels, so was content to sit and watch instead.
I heard a hissing sound and turned my attention away from the desert and towards our driver. He was in the process of releasing the air from the tyres of our 4×4 in preparation for a morning of dune bashing.
Which, to my surprise and horror, is just as violent as it sounds. If you don’t suffer from motion sickness, you’ll have the time of your life. If you do, pop a triple dose of dramamine in advance because damn, your stomach will feel this ride.
It was like being on a rollercoaster; it’s the only way I can describe it. Up and down and around and around, and then catch some air and smash into a second dune, before spinning around in circles, twisting and turning, and is it time to get off yet?
Despite the churning in my stomach, never once did I feel in danger on the dunes. Our driver was badass as hell and had spent his entire life dune bashing his way across the desert, so knew exactly what he was doing. On the drive out, he’d shown us a video of him driving a car on its right side, riding on two wheels. Half-way through the video, he climbed out the car window to get in the backseat while a friend of his did the opposite and took control of the wheel.
Just as I was beginning to reach for my bag in a nauseated panic, we came to a stop and I breathed a sigh of relief. And then I smiled. Deserts always fill me with joy, so I immediately skipped out onto the sand and sat down to take in the view.
The driver pulled out a couple of sand boards for anyone who wanted to try their hand at it, and one of the older women promptly wiped out half-way down. I swear I thought she’d broken her neck as she spun wildly out of control.
I could have spent all afternoon watching other 4x4s chucking passengers over the sand dunes, but this was an overview experience, so we had just twenty minutes to enjoy the views.
After a slightly less hair-raising drive back to base, camel riding was the only activity left on our desert agenda. Everyone in my group opted out of it, as it was more of a photo opportunity than an experience, and I’ll confess I wasn’t bummed when we decided to head back to our hotels early. I’ve ridden a camel before in the Sahara Desert and know they’re uncomfortable to sit on for any amount of time.
And that concluded my morning in the desert!
If you do have a limited amount of time in Dubai, my tour felt like the perfect way to get a small taster for what the desert’s like without sucking up too much of your valuable travel time. In total, I spent three hours out on the sand, and for just $47 (which included transport, a drink, dune bashing, sand boarding, and a camel ride; the ATV costs extra) it was exactly what I was looking for.
Time to Explore the Souks
Back in my room, I grabbed a quick nap, slept off my remaining motion sickness, then hit the souks of Old Dubai to explore the less glitzy side of the city.
My hotel was located a block away from the markets and mosques, which made it super easy for getting around this part of town.
Prior to this trip, the only souks I’ve seen have been in Marrakech and Muscat, and in comparison to those, my experience in Dubai was so easy! In Dubai, you have specific souks for each item, be it gold, perfume, spices, or textiles, and so these well-organised markets were anything but confusing.
The harassment was non-existent in Dubai, too. Unlike in Morocco, where men were leaping out at me every few seconds, the touts in Dubai weren’t even shouting. And I have to say Dubai felt like one of the safest cities I’ve ever visited. I walked around with my expensive camera slung over my shoulder and never felt in danger of being robbed. As a solo woman, I wasn’t ever approached by any dudes and felt entirely safe when walking alone at night.
While all of this made for a far more enjoyable shopping experience, I have to admit it also made for a less interesting travel experience. It was all so easy and organised that I found myself longing for a little more chaos to spice things up a little.
Speaking of spice, the spice souk was easily my favourite one in Dubai, which isn’t a huge surprise. After breaking free of my picky eater shackles several years ago, I can’t imagine a world without spices and loved inhaling their scents and planning which meals I’d throw them into. Cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, saffron, cloves… any spice you can think of was piled up high and ready to buy.
Another highlight was the perfume souk, which was full of Arabian perfumes, incense, and an overwhelming amount of frankincense. But one souk that won’t be on my future hit list? The gold one, which just looked like a row of tacky jewellery shops. That’s most likely because I never wear gold jewellery and after shelling out a surprise $400 on my flight to bring me here, I couldn’t justify any purchases anyway.
Head to Burj Khalifa for Sunset
If you want the best views of Dubai, you need to treat yourself to a ride up the tallest building in the world. And I say treat yourself because tickets are anything but inexpensive. I paid 205 AED (55 USD) to check out the 125th floor, which reviewers said was the best value option. You can pay even more to take yourself higher (500 AED/135 USD!), but I’m of the belief that once you’re that high up, it doesn’t make that much difference to the views whether you’re on the 125th or 148th level. People who had been to both generally agreed with me.
As for what time of day to visit? I booked for 4:30 p.m., which was 90 minutes before sunset. A long-held dream of mine is to snap photos of the elusive Dubai fog at sunrise, but my morning arrival and departure made this impossible, so I made do with sunset instead. There was no fog, but you also don’t have to wake up at 3 a.m., so, y’know, better.
I’m aware this sounds ridiculous, but you need to give yourself so much time to find the entrance to At the Top, because Dubai Mall is an infuriating maze and you will get lost.
Friends of mine recently tried to make their way to the top, but ended up missing their time slot because they couldn’t find the entrance. It almost happened to me, too.
Here’s what happens: you’ll wander inside the mall, you’ll spot a sign saying Burj Khalifa At the Top pointing in one direction. You’ll walk in that direction and not see another sign until you reach a dead end. Rinse and repeat; rinse and repeat; rinse and repeat. And then you’re just like: Oh god, I think I’ve paid $55 to run around a shopping mall.
I arrived at Dubai Mall thirty minutes before my boarding time and ended up checking in ten minutes late, having spent a full 40 minutes sprinting around a shiny shopping centre.
But! The views over Dubai are more than worth making the effort to flail around a mall in search of the entrance.
Confession time! Back when I was 18, I visited New York City for the first time and made one of my first stops the Top of the Rock. I got to the viewing platform, promptly had a panic attack, and had to be escorted down by security two minutes later.
And while that was over a decade ago, and has never happened again, every time I brave heading up to the top of a tall building, a part of me starts to panic I might lose my mind when I get there.
To my great relief, I didn’t feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable at the top of Burj Khalifa, and was too fascinated by the toy town-looking skyscrapers to think about anything else. Even with the haze and clouds, I could see the majority of the Dubai from where I stood. My highlight? Getting to see the World Islands in the distance!
Hanging out at the top of the Burj Khalifa was one of the least vertigo-inducing places I’ve ever been, and I think a large part of that is simply being so high up. Think about it: nobody feels afraid of heights when they look out of a plane window (or do they?), and being at the top of Burj Khalifa felt a bit like that. You were so high that you couldn’t get a real sense of perspective of the surrounding buildings’ heights and it almost didn’t feel real.
The overarching theme of my day in Dubai was grey skies, so after an hour spent gazing out at the view, I skipped out on what would mostly likely be a boring sunset and ran along to the next attraction on my list.
Checking Out the World’s Largest Choreographed Fountain
Burj Khalifa is one of the coolest activities in Dubai, so I was thrilled to learn that something even better was literally right beside it. The Dubai water show is the world’s largest choreographed fountain, and it runs every half an hour beyond 6 p.m.
Arabian music sounds out across the water, bright lights illuminate the fountains, and water sprays as high as 500 feet up into the air. Some people say to catch the show from the Burj Khalifa viewpoint, but I knew I wanted to see it from the ground level in order to gain that height perspective, and I’m happy I did.
The only downside? It was over so quickly! I was just getting into the show and about to reach for my camera when it ended. And that was it. Ten minutes and done.
While I didn’t manage to score any photos of the water show, it was the perfect way to end my time in Dubai — with what was probably the best water show I’ve ever seen!
I went back to my hotel soon afterwards as, not only had I arrived on an overnight flight, but I was leaving on an early morning one that would have me waking up at 4 a.m.
And that was Dubai!
My First Impressions of Dubai
Dubai had never appealed to me for many reasons — immigrants forced into slavery, laws that punish women for being raped, laws that could result in the death penalty if you’re LGBT — so I knew I’d most likely never make a real effort to go. I’m not one for boycotting countries for questionable ethics, because I believe that once you start down that path, you’ll find there are basically no countries you can visit, including, most likely, your home country. But I try to be as ethical a traveller as possible, ensuring my money goes to locals and local small businesses rather than large hotel chains and restaurants.
So did I like Dubai? It wasn’t anywhere near my favourite place I’ve ever visited, but it wasn’t my least favourite either. I’m not much of a fan of glitzy, modern, shiny cities these days, so the ridiculous levels of opulence and consumerism made me uncomfortable more than anything else. That’s why I opted to stay in Old Dubai, which, aside from being more affordable, felt more like my cup of tea. It showed me a side of Dubai away from the skyscrapers and glamour, and had me longing to delve deeper into this part of the city.
It’s worth mentioning that I came up against some of the worst weather Dubai gets (although from the locals’ perspectives, the rain is something to be thankful for, so I can’t complain about it), and it was frustrating to not be able to get great photos of the places I visited. The desert sands were wet and dark, the sky was permanently grey, and I know everything would have looked prettier had I had a bright blue backdrop.
Altogether, I think I did my layover justice. I stayed in a lovely hotel in Old Dubai that was a minute away from the souks and full of lovely and welcoming staff. For $90 a night, it felt like a bargain for Dubai (seriously, hotels are expensive here! And hostels are usually rated about 3/10 on Booking!) and I’d 100% stay there again if a future layover brought me to the city once more.
Because that’s the only reason I think I’d have to for visiting Dubai in the future. It’s not a place I’d go out of my way to check out, but if a layover could give me a short stop in the city, I’d take the opportunity to head straight to the spice souk.