Our Dubai Stopover Guide shows you how to experience your Dubai layover like a local – and we give you a little language lesson at the same time to make your one day in Dubai even more enriching and more fun. Our guide assumes your time is tight and you don’t want to waste a second but you also don’t want to hop on a red bus and be a tourist.
Welcome to the first of a series of Layover Like a Local™ stopover guides with language lessons and loads of local tips from Dubai insiders. We lived in Dubai for five years and wrote the first Lonely Planet guide to Dubai and know the city like the back of our hands. These are the things that we loved to do during the years we were expats in Dubai.
Up next on Grantourismo in this new series are Layover like a Local™ stopover guides to Ho Chi Minh City, Melbourne, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Doha, and more. Next year: the launch of our Layover Like a Local™ website. Watch this space!
Dubai Stopover Guide to a Layover like a Local
Dubai, one of the safest destinations in the Middle East, has been a popular stopover for Australians and New Zealanders heading to Europe since we moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) way back in 1998.
Unfortunately most visitors on a layover in Dubai, the most dazzling of the UAE’s seven emirates (city-states), see little more than their hotel pool and a mall. Our Dubai stopover guide is aimed at helping you to soak up more than the sun and get beneath the skin of the place in a very short time.
Because beyond the luxury hotel resorts, glitzy shopping malls and glamorous bars are lively local beaches, bustling souks (markets), gritty backstreets, great street food, and a laidback Emirati culture that’s rich in culture and traditions.
Our Dubai stopover guide will give you a taste of that Dubai – the Dubai that locals experience, the Dubai that we loved during our eight years living in the UAE discovering its secrets as some of the first resident guidebook authors and travel writers on the country.
Our Dubai stopover guide is intended to help you meet locals, Emiratis and expats, because as we’ve said since we started this site seven years ago, for us local travel is about the people you meet as much as the places you visit. There’s nothing like engaging with locals to make a trip, even a short Dubai stopover, all the more enriching.
Emiratis may make up only ten percent of Dubai’s truly multicultural population, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to meet them. Getting off-the-beaten track is key along with having a few Arabic phrases handy to break the ice and get some conversations started.
While Arabic is the official language of the UAE, of which Dubai is one emirate and also the name of that emirate’s capital, you’re just as likely to hear Hindi, Urdu or English on the streets. However, using a little Arabic will make your stay a lot more fun, which is why we’ve provided the most essential Arabic phrases you’ll need throughout our Dubai stopover guide.
Dubai Stopover Guide – How to Spend Your Dubai Layover Like a Local (And Learn a Little of the Language)
Our Dubai stopover guide assumes you’ve checked into your hotel the night before and you will get up bright and early to make the most of your short Dubai layover. But obviously adjust the times to suit your schedule and mix things up as you like.
As you’re only on a short Dubai stopover, we recommend staying at a hotel close to Dubai airport or with easy access to the airport, especially if you have to return in peak hour traffic. Our pick of Dubai hotels for a stopover is the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel, which is close to Dubai airport, has stunning Dubai Creek views and is well placed for this itinerary.
7:00am – Sabaah al kheir! (Good morning!)
An early morning swim in the crystal clear azure waters of the Arabian Gulf Sea is an invigorating way to start the day, so after breakfast grab a taxi and make a beeline to Um Suqeim beach. Don’t expect the water to be cold – temperatures range from a very pleasant 25 degrees to a soup-like 34 degrees in summer.
Early morning sees the city’s beaches abuzz with locals and expats making the most of the brilliant weather in Dubai. Families take the kids for an energising dip before school and work, while surfers and kite-surfers make the most of the waves and wind on different sections of the beachfront.
Beach settings don’t get more postcard-perfect than at the public beach of Um Suqeim, adjacent to the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Spread your towel out on the pristine creamy sands to take in the striking dhow sail-shaped architecture of Dubai’s iconic seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel.
And while the surf isn’t exactly Pipeline, having the Burj as a backdrop makes for an awesome surfing happy snap. Dry off then either grab cab or jump on a bus for the drive along Jumeirah Beach Road to Bur Dubai’s Al Ghubaiba bus station and the nearby abra dock.
Also see our guide to the best beaches in Dubai.
8:00am – Marhaba! (Welcome!)
There’s no better welcome to Dubai than a breezy ride in an abra – an open-sided, wooden, public water taxi – across chaotic Dubai Creek. Abras crisscross the Creek 24 hours a day, jostling for space with traditional wooden dhow trading boats, renovated dhow cruise boats blaring with bellydancing music, sleek white yachts, and hungry seagulls.
People have been visiting Dubai Creek since 8000 BC when nomads spent their winters here fishing and their summers cooling off at inland oases. The Persians arrived in 224 AD, however, it wasn’t until the 7th century that the tiny Creek settlement of palm frond huts started to expand with the arrival of the Umayyads and their Arabic language and Islam.
You can hire your own abra from any of the abra stations along the Creek to get a closer look at Dubai’s traditional Persian-influenced architecture in the grand residences that line the Shindagha and Bur Dubai waterfront. Or you can join the locals and expats on an action-packed 1-dirham ride across the bustling Creek to Deira. An absolute bargain.
9:00am – Salaam alaykum (Peace be upon you, or, hello!)
Once you alight from your abra in Deira, take a stroll along the lively dhow docks, where stevedores from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India offload and upload everything from the kitchen sink (we kid you not) to enormous flat screen TVs and small cars.
Dubai has always been a busy port, although its strategic location between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean wasn’t fully appreciated until the 16th century onwards when the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and finally British, all grappled for control of its lucrative trade routes.
However, it wasn’t until 1833 when the Maktoum branch of the Bani Yas tribe moved to the Creek from Liwa Oasis that Dubai started to develop into the thriving trading port it is today, and with the discovery of oil in 1966 that Dubai really boomed.
While Dubai’s modern ports may now be some of the biggest in the world, the small dhow docks serving Iran and the Gulf countries are the most fascinating. Stop for a chat with the sailors and you’re likely to score an invitation on board for tea. Just don’t ask too many questions about the cargo, it makes people nervous.
See this guide for more on how to experience the real Dubai and a walking tour of Old Dubai.
10:00am – Wa-alaykum as-salaam (And peace be upon you, or, hello to you, too!)
From the dhow wharves, walk across busy Baniyas Road to the aromatic Deira spice souk. While some of the stalls have succumbed to the lure of the tourist dollar and now sell as many tacky trinkets as they do variety of spices, a saunter through the reconstructed old souk with its sacks overflowing with frankincense, spices, herbs, nuts and pulses, is still a pleasantly pungent assault on the senses.
But the backstreets are where it’s really at. Get off the main souk lanes and get lost in the labyrinthine network of skinny alleys lined with gaudy textile shops, stalls crammed with cheap clothes and shoes, and cluttered general stores selling everything from henna hair shampoo and sheesha pipes to plastic coffee pots and wooden canes.
Get a $5 hair cut from a retro barber shop with mirror-tiled walls, get a suit made at one of the tiny tailor shops, or simply join the local souk workers for a glass of milky chai (tea) perched on a plastic stool on the pavement of a backstreet coffee shop.
11:30am – Kayf halak? (How are you?)
If you’re not too lost, soon you’ll arrive at Dubai’s dazzling gold souk, the windows of its stores glittering with displays of ornate gem-encrusted gold jewellery. The gold here is some of the best in the world so make a little investment. Adjoining it, the aromatic perfume souk (little more than a handful of shops specialising in scents) has fantastic bespoke fragrances and ornate perfume bottles to hold your new love potion.
Make your way back to the abra station and zip across the Creek to Bur Dubai for a wander through the textile souk that runs parallel to the waterfront. Here, several stalls sell kitsch Arabian souvenirs, from sparkly curly-toed Aladdin slippers to pastel coloured plastic mosque alarm clocks that blare the call-to-prayer.
Can’t get enough kooky keepsakes? Take a taxi to ‘Karama Souk’, now officially known as Karama Shopping Complex, after a spruce up in recent years. This sprawling, once-grungy souk-like shopping centre has stores selling everything from cheap shoes and handbags to cluttered shops brimming with the Arabian weird and wonderful, from Emirati Russian wooden Matryoshka dolls to Saddam Hussein cigarette lighters that send mild shocks up your arm when you light them!
Have your lunch here. Cheap casual cafés and restaurants in Karama specialise in everything from Pinoy food from the Philippines (try Cucina in Al Attar Centre) to spicy Pakistani curries (the most popular is the ubiquitous Karachi Darbar).
Don’t forget to bargain when you’re in the souks. It’s a favourite local pastime. See our haggling tips in our Dubai shopping guide.
3:00pm – Al-Hamdu lillah, shukran (Very well, thank you)
Hop in a cab and head to the Dubai Falcon and Heritage Sports Centre at Nad Al Sheba where the Emirati falcon owners, with their majestic Peregrines perched on their arms, shop for leather hoods, hi-tech transmitters and other state-of-the-art accessories for their beloved birds of prey.
Emiratis are proud of their falcons – many are worth more than the latest 4WDs that the birds are chauffeured around in. Falconry plays a significant role in local culture, and the breeding and training of falcons is very much alive with the traditions of training the birds passed on from generation to generation.
Visit the small museum before wandering around to browse the shops and chat to the falcon lovers. Express an interest and you’re likely to be invited out to the desert of Dubai for an afternoon of falconry.
While the apricot coloured desert sand dunes, the chance to spot some camels, and the sight and sound of the swift moving falcon speeding through the air and swooping down on its prey is something special, it’s not for those who shy away from watching wildlife documentaries.
If you fall in love with the desert as we did, make a note to return in the future to experience these dreamy desert escapes.
4:00pm – Shoo fee ma fee (What’s up/what’s happening?)
Snorkelling, diving, wake-boarding, snowboarding – Dubai has it all for those eager for some activity. For a more local experience get some exercise with a wander through the backstreets of working-class Satwa, where you can swing a bat, shoot some hoops or throw some balls with the friendly expat workers blowing off some steam.
In the early evening most days and on Friday afternoons (Dubai’s big day off), you’ll find basketball games on the courts on Al Dhiyafah Rd near Satwa roundabout, and volleyball and cricket matches taking place on Satwa’s empty sandy lots, just one block back from the glitzy hotel and shopping strip of Sheikh Zayed Road.
Too shy to join in? Then enjoy being a spectator for a while before taking a wander around this laidback neighbourhood of simple tailor shops, hole-in-the-wall Afghan bakeries, and low-rise villas with colourfully painted gates decorated with palm trees, coffee pots, falcons, and Emirati flags.
Satwa may not be as affluent as some of Dubai’s suburbs – take a peek through a gate and you might see chickens roaming in shabby courtyards and dingy rooms cramped with camp beds – but it has a real sense of community you won’t find elsewhere in the city.
6:30pm – Mumtaz! (Excellent!)
You should be famished by now. Well, don’t worry because Satwa is home to some of Dubai’s cheapest eats and delicious street food. The cosmopolitan Arabian capital may be renowned for its swanky restaurants run by celebrity chefs, but it’s street food is fantastic.
Nothing beats a tender garlicky chicken or tangy lamb shawarma from neon-lit Al Mallah’s curbside stand on Al Dhiyafah Road, a spicy curry from Pakistani eatery such as Ravi’s in the backstreet off Satwa Road (opt for a pavement table for the best people-watching), or spicy samosas from any number of Indian cafeterias on Satwa Rd.
With ravenous expats and locals regularly making a beeline here for a hearty meal after a long day, the food is generally fresh and always filling – even for vegetarians. Whatever you eat, follow it up with a fresh mango juice. Mumtaz!
Click through for our guide to where to eat and what to eat in Dubai. While you can graze on your own, if you do a Dubai street food tour you’ll learn about the context and history, and how dishes are cooked and eaten. We recommend this Dubai street food tour which can be booked through our tour partner Viator.
8:00pm – Shukran jazeelan! (Thank you very much!)
Indians make up the largest percentage of Dubai’s expats, so while you’ll find wonderful Arabic and Lebanese patisseries all over the city, you’re more likely to see Indian sweet shops on the local street corner.
So skip the baklava for dessert and instead try some tasty Indian sweets, such as besan laddu (ghee, almond and pistachio balls) or jelabi (semolina, saffron, cardoman and rose water pastries) from one of the many shops on Satwa Road.
9:00pm – Ma’as-salaamah – goodbye
Dubai does have a rich heritage. It’s just not in the form of pyramids or Roman-era ruins. Spend your last hours in the city taking in some local culture along Dubai Creek.
Determined to keep their heritage alive, Emiratis head to the Heritage and Diving Villages on the Shindagha waterfront to practice their local traditions in the evenings, especially during the cooler winter months and Ramadan.
Expect anything from the traditional Liwa dance (pictured above, on the lawn near Jumeirah Emirates Towers), a mesmeric African-style dance with drums and pipe flute, to reenactments of Bedouin weddings and rifle-throwing competitions.
Finish the evening smoking a heady strawberry sheesha with the locals at an atmospheric waterfront spot on Dubai Creek, where the lazy flow of the water belies the frenetic pace of what has been one of the world’s fastest growing cities.
Dubai Stopover Guide – Essentials
Dubai Stopover Guide – How to Get to Dubai
Emirates Airlines operates daily flights to Dubai from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth, while Etihad Airways operates flights from Sydney, Perth and Brisbane to Abu Dhabi., just over an hour’s drive to Dubai.
Dubai Stopover Guide – Arriving in Dubai
The extravagant Dubai International Airport (DXB) is one of the world’s best and busiest, with frequent flights to/from almost every airport imaginable and Dubai Duty Free is one of the world’s best duty frees.
From outside Arrivals, you can take a metered government-operated Dubai Taxi. Do not follow any plain-clothes men who hiss “taxi” at you to unmarked cars; these are illegal taxis. Fares very dramatically depending on the time and route taken. Traffic is notoriously bad with gridlock common during peak hours. Try to arrive after 9pm and before 6am and arrange a late/early check-in.
Safer, faster, hassle-free, and better value is a pre-booked transfer directly to your hotel. It means someone will be waiting for you at Arrivals with your name on a sign and you’ll be whisked directly to your private vehicle and won’t have to wait in line in the sweltering heat for a taxi.
We recommend you book a Dubai airport transfer (from US$15 pp) with our transfer and tour partner Viator.
Dubai Stopover Guide – More Hotels to Stay at in Dubai
As you’re only on a Dubai layover, stay somewhere close to the airport or with easy access to the airport, especially if you have to return in peak hour traffic. Our top pick of airport hotels is the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel, but the Pullman Dubai Creek City Centre is also close to the airport.
If you want to be even closer because you’re only planning on a shower and heading straight out, the Holiday Inn Express, Millennium Dubai Airport Hotel, Roda Al Bustan Hotel or Crowne Plaza Dubai Deira will suit you just fine.
Dubai Stopover Guide – How to Get Around Dubai
On a tight stopover you’ll probably want to take taxis everywhere, however, if you have more time, the sleek Dubai metro service is a delight to use. When we lived in Dubai I loved catching the abras (public water taxis) that criss-cross Dubai Creek, between Bur Dubai and Deira. There are several routes, however, my favourite is from Al Seef Abra Station by Al Seef Road Park to Baniyas Abra Station near Dubai Municipality. From there, you can wander along the dhow wharves then cross the road at the Spice Souq to explore Deira’s souqs.
Disclaimer: Our Dubai stopover guide contains affiliate links to our accommodation, transfer and tour booking partners. If you book via our partners you won’t pay any more than if you booked directly, however, we earn a small commission, which supports this site.
This Layover Like a Local™ Dubai stopover guide is the first of a new series in an original format of stopover travel guides with language lessons. Website to be launched soon. Watch this space for an announcement.