There are no two ways about it: Dubai is a thoroughly weird place. It’s a sort of Arabian Center Parcs for the super-rich, a giant pleasure zone in constant competition with the rest of the world to do the implausible. Tallest building in the world? Obviously. An aquarium in a shopping centre? Why not? ATMs that dispense gold bars? Well, of course.

Dubai doesn’t feel real, especially to a Londoner. For a start, the metro works seamlessly, and it has air conditioning. But the journey from the airport into the centre shows a city under constant construction – it feels as though you’re in a life-sized lego set, or an episode of the Jetsons.

The world’s tallest building

Dubai is one of a number of cities that’s perfect if you have a long layover. Here’s how you do it.


If you’re travelling through Dubai Airport and have 6 hours or more, then that’s plenty of time to get out and see the Burj Khalifa. If you have more than that you can probably fit in a second activity, if you choose carefully.

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  • Book your Burj tickets in advance – tickets are both limited and more expensive on the day, plus the concept of queuing is sketchy at best, so if you’re British you’ll have a breakdown before you’ve even made it into the lift.
  • If you’re from the EEA, US, Australia, Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman plus a few others you don’t need to get any kind of visa. You just get stamped in by the very sombre-looking chap on the immigration desk. Nationals from many other countries will need a visa but can get it on arrival. The immigration queue at Dubai Airport is pretty slick so you won’t have to work in much time to get to the other side – it took us ten minutes.
  • By far the easiest and cheapest way to get into the centre is the Dubai Metro. It’s brilliant. The machines have an English option and take cards. If you’re going to the Burj or Dubai Mall, take the red line in the direction of UAE Exchange – it takes around 30 minutes
  • You’ll come out at what claims to be the Dubai Mall, but the mall itself is about a further fifteen minutes’ walk through a shiny, futuristic walkway that feels somewhat other-worldly. Do have a look at the mall if you have time – it has the sort of things every mall needs, like a giant waterfall and an ice rink. The Souk area in particular is lovely. We also had breakfast out on a terrace overlooking the impressive fountains (or rather, they would have been impressive if they had been on. But we to the general idea.)
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What British malls are lacking: a giant indoor waterfall
  • When you get to the Burj, don’t be wedded to the time on your ticket, because nobody else is. We arrived half an hour before our allocated time and were immediately directed to the queue, which was really more of a free-for-all of people of all nationalities, inexplicably taking pictures of themselves with selfie sticks standing in a line in what was basically a shopping centre basement. It took 40 minutes for us to get in the lift, so plan your time well if you’re on a short layover!
  • The lift journey of 124 floors in 60 seconds was probably the most impressive part of the trip, but the views are also pretty good, though it’s very hazy so we could only just make out the Burj Al Arab, even though it isn’t really that far away. What was most eye-opening was probably the sheer amount of construction work – Dubai will probably look good when it’s finished, presumably in around 2060.
  • A little tip – there is a fairly well-hidden staircase up to the 125th floor from which you get admittedly the same view as from the 124th, but which at least allows you to say you went that bit higher. It also has its own lift, so you can get down without queuing.
  • If you have more time and want to tick off something else, Deira is on the same line and near the airport (the Spice Souk is worth a look) and you can take a cruise down the Creek – again, it’s only a short taxi ride back to the airport from there.

For the love of layovers

For many travellers the layover is an inconvenience, a hassle, a waste of time – hours spent roaming miles of duty free shops, or whiling away the time drinking generic lager in overpriced, characterless bars, discombobulated by the change in time zone and complete lack of awareness of what time it is, because an airport is the one place where drinking a beer at 7am is completely socially acceptable.

For me, a layover is an opportunity to snatch a quick taste of another place, to tick off another country on an ever-growing list (I am nothing if not competitive.) Given the choice between a short layover and a longer one I’ll always, where possible, pick the longer one, provided it’s over 7 hours, as this gives you time to see something of an alien city. Many airports have become attuned to this, and indeed seen it as a lucrative opportunity. Incheon and Doha airports both offer tours if varying lengths to suit different tastes – shopping tours and cultural tours of varying lengths to introduce you to a new city.  Asiana and Korean Air give passengers with a long layover overnight a complimentary hotel stay, with a choice of hotels in Seoul city centre – a flight to the UK from Australia means you can have a night on the town, Gangnam Style, then if you’re up early enough, a wander round the Gyeongbokgung Palace before heading back for your 14.15 connection to Heathrow. Icelandair have gone a step further – you can stay up to 3 days in Iceland without paying extra for your onward journey, which is plenty of time to see the famous sites around Keflavik and Reykjavik.

So, after a work trip to Australia, passing up on the chance to visit Kuala Lumpur would’ve seemed churlish. With 9 hours to play with I was craving a decent mango lassi and a look around the famous old railway station, designed by the father of an elderly neighbour of my parents early in the last century.

The centre of KL is reached by a smooth, speedy and (you won’t appreciate quite how important this is until you’ve been to this region) air-conditioned train that runs regularly to and from the airport for just a few pounds. It deposits you at KL Sentral, which doesn’t feel very sentral at all from a tourist’s point of view. It takes some fairly cunning negotiation of the transit system to get to where you want to go after this. For the Petronas Towers it’s another few stops on the Putra line to KLCC, for us it was just one stop north.

I would have liked to see the Petronas Towers, but didn’t have time to do everything. Instead, after photographing some suitably ornate colonial buildings, wandering down a hot street and being turned back by two particularly stern-looking guards because there was a protest happening ahead (they made up for this by asking if I wanted my photograph taken with them, and I didn’t dare refuse) I went to Putrajaya, a suburb but really the administrative capital for the whole country, where I had dinner with a friend by the river, watched a particularly impressive monsoon shower, and ate spicy rice that gained my friend’s approval: “even though you’re English you don’t mind trying very spicy food!” (I smiled heroically and tried not to think of the 14-hour flight ahead.)

My consolation prize for the road being closed