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.