Don't waste your layover at the airport.
For the last eight years, Dubai International has been the busiest airport in the world in terms of people transiting through. It makes sense, considering Dubai can be reached from more than 200 destinations (in 100+ countries) around the world. It’s safe to say if you’re a frequent flier, you’ll probably have a layover there at some point. And chances are, it may be a long one.
While the Dubai airport is nice (and the lounges, especially the Emirates ones, are genuinely stellar), you’d be remiss to spend your stopover there. There’s so much to see and do in the thriving metropolis, even if only for a few hours.
Read on for the best ways to make the most of your Dubai layover.
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Visit Dubai Mall
If your time in Dubai is limited, one easy option is a jaunt to the Dubai Mall. One of the largest shopping centers in the world, you could spend days here and still not do everything. If checking out the window displays and running up your credit card at luxury retailers isn’t your thing, the mall also holds the Dubai Aquarium, much of which you can see for free. Another option is catching a music and light show at the Dubai Fountains. The show itself is free, but it’s also possible to see the spectacle from the water on a boat in Burj Lake. If you’re traveling with children, consider the ice rink, the movie theater, the dinosaur museum, the Emirates A380 Experience, and the various gaming centers.
Get Atop the Burj Khalifa
Piercing the sky at 2,717 feet (with a total of 160 floors), Burj Khalifa is the tallest skyscraper globally. Spending some time atop it garners some serious bragging rights (though it’s worth noting that the observation deck most travelers visit is actually on floors 124 and 125)—it also can make you queasy if you’re not a big fan of heights).
The Burj Khalifa At the Top experience is wildly popular, so if you’re keen on visiting, be sure to book tickets well ahead of time (especially if you’re interested in visiting at sunset).
Go on a Desert Tour
Numerous companies offer the chance to spend time in the desert, with add-ons like cruising around in a dune-buggy, going for a camel ride or sandboarding, participating in a tea ceremony, and enjoying a traditional meal. We’re partial to a company called Platinum Heritage. The outfitter invites guests to see the sand with a professional conservation guide in a 1950s Land Rover before learning about Bedouin culture at a sunset falconry performance (one of the most honored traditional sports in the UAE), then dinner and music at a traditional camp.
Take a Dive
So many activities in Dubai are described with superlatives, and this is no exception. Deep Dive Dubai operates the world’s deepest pool—a staggering 196 feet deep. In it, those with deep diving certifications can explore an elaborate sunken city (snorkeling is also possible on the surface). The entire site doubles as a film studio, so you know the “set” is incredible.
Unwind at Raffles Palm
If you have an overnight layover, there is no shortage of incredible places to lay your head in Dubai. However, the new five-star beach palace that is Raffles The Palm is nothing short of extraordinary. Found on the largest man-made archipelago in the world (fittingly shaped like a palm tree), the 25-acre property is a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Each of the 389 guest accommodations has a balcony, from which guests have panoramic sea views. Beyond a decadent room, Raffles The Palm has a private 1,500-foot beach, an expansive swimming pool, a handful of dynamic dining options, and a luxurious spa. Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, purchasing a day pass to enjoy the pool and beach is possible.
Take a Lap in Aura Skypool, the Planet's Highest Infinity Pool
Found more than 650 feet up, the Aura Skypool on The Palm Tower is arguably one of the most unique swimming experiences in the world. From the edge of the pool, it’s possible to see sweeping views of the emirate.
See Jumeirah Mosque
While there are myriad mosques in Dubai, Jumeirah Mosque is the only one open to non-Muslims—it’s part of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre’s “Open Doors. Open Minds.” program. Built in 1979, the mosque was a gift to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the current Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. It’s stunningly crafted—made of pink sandstone and marble in the medieval Fatimid style. It’s worth noting that there is one day a week where visitors aren’t allowed: Friday. It’s reserved as a day for prayer. However, any other day visitors can drop in and join a tour.
Start Your Day at the Al Marmoom Camel Race Track
Camel racing in the UAE dates back to at least the 7th century, and to this day, it remains an important cultural activity. Between 7 and 9 a.m. every day, spectators fill the grandstand at Al Marmoom Camel Race Track to watch 60 camels hustle down the sandy track. If you come early enough, you can pet and take pictures with the competitors.
See the World at the Global Village
Combining the culture of 80 countries in one place, the Global Village in Dubai is a feast for the senses. Every day from late October to mid-April, the site offers a world tour through myriad performances, foodstuffs, shops, and, of course, rides. It’s, understandably, exceedingly popular with families.
Visit the Al Shindagha Museum
Ever wonder how Dubai came to be? This museum gives visitors an in-depth explainer of Dubai’s past and how it shaped the emirate’s present. The museum is divided into three pavilions: Governance and Society, Creativity and Well-Being, and Living off the Land and Sea.
Ski in the Middle of a Desert
If you find yourself needing a break from the sizzling desert heat, Ski Dubai, a mind-boggling indoor ski slope, made with real snow and found in a shopping mall, is kept at a brisk 25 degrees. The “resort” offers daily lift tickets for skiers and snowboarders and options for those who would rather go tubing or just look at the snow.
While tickets do include all gear (even snow pants and gloves), they are pretty expensive, especially considering there are only a handful of runs and a single freestyle area.
Take a Helicopter Ride
Dubai is known for being pretty over-the-top, so why not get over the top of it via a helicopter? Operators like Helicopter Tour Dubai offer private and shared flights wherein they give guests an aerial view of the Arabian Gulf coast, the Palm Jumeirah Island, Union Square, Sheikh Zayed Road, and the Mall of the Emirates, among other sites.