For years, Dubai was a city you transited through to get to your final destination. It’s obviously the hub for Emirates Airlines and if you ever flew on Emirates, you knew you’d be stopping in Dubai. Thus, most people probably never made it outside the airport and have never seen the city itself. Depending on your interests, you may feel like Dubai is only worth seeing from the airport. But if you do have a chance to enjoy an extended layover, it might be nice to step out of the airport and see what this city has to offer. Here is my 3 day solo traveler’s guide to the city as well as some tips to get around.
- Day 1 – Arrival and exploration
- Day 2 – Souks, Burj, and Dubai Mall
- Day 3 – Mall of Emirates and departure
Day 1 – Arrive in Dubai
Depending on your arrival time, you’ll either have a ton of time to explore or no time at all. I’ve transited through Dubai where the terminals feel like a zoo of passengers and other times, it feels like we’re the only flight in the world. A lot of flights arrive late and depart early in the morning to avoid the heat and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an airport so busy with people at 3 am.
If you’re arrive during those odd hours, unfortunately your only method of getting to the city is going to be a taxi. You could wait for the metro to start up in the morning but you’ll more than likely want to take a taxi or uber. The same goes for coming back to the airport as well. If your departure is at 3am, the metro won’t be working either so you’ll have to take a taxi.
Getting from the airport to the city isn’t difficult but it isn’t close. Via taxi, it’ll probably take about 30 mins without any traffic but obviously longer with traffic. After you get past immigration, you’ll enter the massive arrivals hall. As you walk past the rows of baggage carousels, you’ll exit and the taxi line is right in front of you. Oddly, the great thing I noticed about the airport is that there wasn’t the usual group of people asking if you need a taxi to your destination. I don’t know if this is regulated by the government but it was really nice to come out of the airport and not be harassed by people offering to give you a ride.
When choosing a place to stay, I’d like to say that you should try to stay near a metro station. Although that’s true to some extent, Dubai’s metro map isn’t set up like most cities. Although the stops are located at major points of interest (for the most part), the metro stations are huge. Well it isn’t so much the station as it is the distance to get to/from the station to/from the attraction or mall. Basically, the metro stop may say “Dubai Mall” as the stop but it’ll take another 15-20 mins of walking from the metro stop to the mall. The good thing is you’ll be walking indoors where the AC is working but it doesn’t make the distance any shorter.
That said, if you don’t want to be spending all your time walking around, it might be better to just take a taxi or an Uber straight to your destination. Obviously it’ll be cheaper to take the metro but it’s certainly going to be much faster for a taxi…and faster by a lot. It’ll also save your legs from all the walking.
I would note here that the dress code in Dubai was very relaxed and didn’t follow the strict dress code of many Muslim countries. I would still be mindful of wearing bright colors, revealing clothing, or anything inappropriate (meaning if you think it might be inappropriate, don’t wear it). But overall, it’s a very modern city when it comes to dress. You’ll still see women wearing burkas and the clothing in the stores may not be as loud as what you might find in the US. The one thing is to obviously wear appropriate clothing if going to a mosque.
I stayed at the Grosvenor House in the Jumeirah Beach and Dubai Marina area. I thought the hotel was well located and a great place to stay considering it was right next to an outdoor mall area that had a lot of great eateries, coffee shops, and the beach. There’s also a convenience store right across the street (although it’s a busy street to run across) where you can buy snacks and other things.
If you’re looking for a great breakfast or the perfect light lunch, try Bouchon Bakery. It’s owned by the renowned Thomas Keller and if you have any sort of love for artisanal bread or dessert, this is a great place to go.
Otherwise, on your first day, I’d recommend walking around and really figuring out the area you’re staying. The one frustrating thing about Dubai is that there is constantly construction as well as an odd placement of crosswalks so getting from one side of the road to another isn’t always as straightforward as you’d like.
Day 2 – Souks in Old Dubai, Burj, and Dubia Mall
No reason to start early since nothing will really be open so make your way down to the souks in Old Dubai. There, you’ll see all types of shops but the main tourist draw is the gold souks. You can’t miss it because you’ll see all the tourists there taking pictures through the windows. I will mention that you’ll also be approached by numerous people who want to sell you something, almost to the point of annoyance. But, if you want to see some pretty interesting gold jewelry or if you’re in the market to buy some, this is the place for you.
While you’re here, try and take a dhow or a water taxi across the river. You can take them from almost any point along the river and if you do cross, you can stop at the Al Fahidi Historical District. It’s a recreation of how Dubai looked before it became modernized and there isn’t much to do but it’s a nice place to stop and grab a cool drink or a snack before you head back across the river. You could also just walk over to eh Al Fahidi metro station to your next destination.
Next, head over to the Burj and the Dubai Mall. Since they’re right next to each other, you can knock those out at the same time. The Burj is the iconic building in Dubai and is the tallest building in the world. There is an observation deck at the Burj so if you’d like to go up to the top, you can do that as well. One word of caution. Make sure it’s a fairly clear day in Dubai and not a day with a lot of dust in the air or you won’t be able to see anything. Actually, it’ll probably look like smog if you do.
While you’re there, try to time your arrival or departure with the fountain show. It’s designed by the same company that designed the fountains in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas but to a much larger scale. The show runs daily but only at night. A great place to watch the show is the Todd English Food Hall in the mall. They have a great outdoor seating area and you’ll get an unobstructed view of the fountains. If you don’t want to sit down for a meal, head over to the Apple store. The store also has an outdoor viewing patio and it’s large enough to fit a number of people (although I imagine it gets pretty crowded once the show is about to start).
Once you’re done seeing the fountains, take a stroll inside the Dubai Mall. Yes it’s a mall with a ton of high end shops so if you’re looking to really work out your credit cards, this is pretty much the place to be. The mall has basically everything you’d want including an aquarium, movie theater, and even a haunted house (to name a few). You could spend days there if you wanted just shopping. And yes, the mall is massive so I’d recommend having some sort of idea of where you want to go or you could be stuck just wandering around for hours.
Next up, head over to the Mall of Emirates. This is where you’ll find the indoor skiing area in Dubai. The mall itself seemed to have lower end shops (not the super high end shops like you’d find at the Dubai Mall) but still has plenty of places to spend money. But you’ll more than likely go for the indoor skiing hill.
The indoor skiing is actually pretty expensive. When I was there, they sold tickets based on the number of lift rides. So the cheapest plan would allow you one lift ride (basically one time down the hill) and that was it. I believe they now offer something much more reasonable and have passes based on time which makes much more sense. However, it’s still a pretty expensive thing to do. But then again, how often can you say you went skiing indoors? I think it’s worth it to see the hill but if you aren’t going to ski, there isn’t much of a point to go to the mall in my view. The stores at the Dubai Mall are better and there are more free attractions around the Dubai Mall than the Mall of Emirates.
For dinner, you’ll pretty much have your pick since every chef in the world has some type of restaurant in Dubai. Every celebrity chef known has some type of establishment from Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Vineet Bhatia, to Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, Dubai has no shortage of Michelin quality restaurants to choose. Everyone you look, you’ll basically be able to choose from a number of world class restaurants. Side note to this. If you’re looking for Emirati food, it’s going to be tough. I remember asking around and everyone had the same answer as to why there are basically no Emirati restaurants. First is that there is such a large immigrant population that local cuisine has taken a life of its own. Secondly, locals eat their local food at home so when they go out, they don’t want to have what the same type of food they can have at home that’s probably much better.
I ate at Indego at the Grosvenor House, operated by chef Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef awarded a Michelin star. The food was fantastic and I actually thought it was very reasonably priced. The service was amazing and the food was delicious. The restaurant was also fairly busy but it didn’t seem like a reservation would be impossible either. I would certainly recommend it.
Day 3 – On to your next adventure
Like I said before, if your flight is departing in the morning bank of departures, you’ll be in good company. Basically every taxi in the city will be lining up to take passengers to the airport since they know that’s basically the only way to get there.
If you’re flying Emirates First Class, you’ll definitely want to get there a little early since the first class lounge it its own separate floor. It has an a la carte restaurant, buffet, snack stations throughout, showers, and even a smoking lounge where you can enjoy a cigar before your flight. What’s also nice about the lounge is that you’ll be able to board directly from the lounge onto the flight and they won’t call you to the gate until the very last possible moment so you’ll be able to enjoy the lounge until the very last possible second.
Even if you’re not flying a premium cabin, there is still plenty to do. If you have Priority Pass (see my post on airline lounges HERE), there are numerous lounges to relax in before your flight. There is also a massive duty free store as well as gardens, a swimming pool, and business centers if you want to get some work done.
Dubai has come a long way. Although I wouldn’t call it a hub of tourist activities, it’s certainly found a niche in the expensive and outrageous. It’s easy to see why so many on social media are fascinated by this city. However, if you aren’t into shopping, I find the city really lacks a lot of activities to do. For me, I don’t get much joy in shopping at stores that are here in San Diego or lounging on a beach when I can do that here as well. But I understand the appeal and it’s certainly worth stopping by for a few days if you have a chance. I wouldn’t spend a week there and you could argue one full day is really enough. However, it is a great place to pamper yourself if only for a few days.