What to Do in Dubai If You Don't Have Much Time

View of the Dubai Marina at dusk Photo by Ashraf Jandali

Dubai, it often seems, is not so much a conventional city as a fascinating urban experiment in which almost anything can happen—and frequently does. This is the place where some of the world’s most spectacular developments are taking shape, but it is also a city whose heart still beats to the traditional rhythms of the Arabian bazaar, lending the place a unique character. We’ve put together a plan for hitting the city’s highlights in one, two, or three days. For a deeper dive, check out our handy guidebook, Frommer’s Dubai and Abu Dhabi Day by Day.

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Gold Souk in Dubai Photo by Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock.com

At the heart of the vibrant trading district of Deira, the Gold Souk is a perfect introduction to a city that prides itself on all things brash and ostentatious. The souk—a long, wooden roofed arcade of small shops full of gold jewelry—offers everything from suave European designs to fabulously ornate traditional Arabian pieces, plus the elegant Emirati-style gold bangles featured prominently in many storefronts. Prices are cheap, too.

 
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Spices on sale in Dubai's Spice Souk Photo by Elroy Serrao

Hidden away just south of the Gold Souk is the city’s atmospheric Spice Souk, with a cluster of tiny shops squeezed into the narrowest of alleyways, their presence signaled by the photogenic sacks of herbs and spices piled up outside. You’ll probably smell the souk before you actually see it. The shops here are run by Iranian traders—an engaging and friendly bunch, who are always happy to explain the sometimes mysterious substances on offer, ranging from everyday cooking spices to prized Omani frankincense and rose-petal tea.

 
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Unloading an old dhow at the Dhow Wharfage in Dubai Photo by Iryna Rasko / Shutterstock.com

Exit the south side of the Spice Souk, and you’ll find yourself at the edge of the Creek (Al Khor in Arabic), the broad sea inlet that provides the city center with refreshing sea breezes and many of its most memorable views. The Creek was the reason for Dubai’s existence in the first place and still serves as an important shipping conduit, busy with boats day and night.

The stretch of waterfront south of the Spice Souk, known as the Dhow Wharfage, is where you’ll get the strongest sense of the city’s traditional maritime trading roots. Dozens of fine old wooden dhows can generally be seen here, moored in front of the glass-fronted high-rises that line this side of the Creek—one of the city’s most incongruous yet photogenic sights. Many boats are almost museum pieces but still see regular service plying the Arabian Gulf to neighboring emirates and over to Iran, Pakistan, and India. The adjacent waterfront promenade serves as an impromptu loading and unloading area, with a bewilderingly eclectic array of cargo—enormous waterside piles of anything from washing machines to contraband cigarettes stacked in great cardboard-box towers. 

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Abra ride on Dubai Creek Photo by Courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Despite all its high-tech modern attractions, Dubai’s most unforgettable (and inexpensive) ride is still the 5-minute trip across the Creek by abra, the old-fashioned wooden passenger ferries that zip to and fro between the districts of Deira and Bur Dubai—the most fun you can have in the city for just one dirham (around US 25¢). Catch a boat at the Deira Old Souk Abra Station in front of the Spice Souk and ride with an interesting cross-section of Dubaian society, from Emiratis in flowing white dishdashas to expatriate Pakistani day laborers and camera-toting tourists. From midstream, there are wonderful views to either side of central Dubai’s eclectic skyline of high-rises, minarets, and wind towers, underlaid by the rough, coral-walled outline of old souks and wooden dhows.

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Ancient textile market Bur Dubai Textile Souk Photo by TasfotoNL / Shutterstock.com

Jump off your abra, and you’ll find yourself at the north end of the Textile Souk (also known as the Bur Dubai Old Souk). This is easily the best-looking traditional bazaar in the city, an attractively restored old-fashioned structure with a wooden roof (keeping things pleasantly cool during the heat of the day) and rough-walled old shops made from coral and gypsum stone, topped with the occasional wind tower. 

Despite the Arabian architecture, the souk has a pronounced subcontinental flavor. Most of the shops are owned by Indians whose ancestors settled in Bur Dubai in the 19th century and who continue to dominate the commercial life of the area, selling reams of flowery cloth along with assorted low-grade souvenirs, pashminas, and inexpensive clothes.

At the far (eastern) end of the souk, a narrow alleyway leads into fascinating Hindi Lane. Beyond, you’ll find the imposing Grand Mosque, with its towering minaret dominating the skyline of old Bur Dubai. Immediately next door is the Diwan, the original seat of Dubai’s government, although you can’t get any closer than the impressively high railings that enclose it on all sides. 

 
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Al Fahidi Fort (1787), home to the Dubai Museum, is the city's oldest building. Photo by Luciano Mortula

Immediately in front of the Grand Mosque stands the city’s oldest building, the quaint Al Fahidi Fort. Looking more like a top-sided sandcastle than a military stronghold, the fort was built around 1800 to protect the landward side of the fledgling town from attack. It subsequently served as an ammunition store and then the town jail before being converted into the Dubai Museum in 1971.

The fort’s picturesque courtyard houses a few old-time boats and a traditional barasti (palm-thatch) hut. Most of the museum displays are housed in an absorbing series of underground galleries, offering a comprehensive insight into virtually every aspect of Emirati culture, customs, and commerce, complete with short films, sound effects, spooky life-size mannequins, and excellent displays. 

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The old merchant quarter of Bastakiya in Dubai Photo by David Steele

Tucked away behind the Diwan and Grand Mosque, the tiny Bastakiya quarter (or Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, as it’s now officially known) is the most perfectly preserved traditional area in Dubai. The area was first settled in the 1920s by Iranian traders from Bastakiya, in Iran; their high, windowless stone houses were clustered around a disorienting labyrinth of alleyways built deliberately narrow to provide shade during even the hottest parts of the day. They also introduced the distinctive wind towers that stand atop every house in the district and were subsequently adopted as an integral element of local architecture throughout the old city.

Like most of old Dubai, Bastakiya fell into dereliction during the 1970s and 1980s and only narrowly escaped demolition before being extensively restored. The whole quarter still has a slightly deserted and museum-like atmosphere, although growing numbers of guesthouses, cafes, art galleries, and museums are slowly breathing life back into this fascinating area. 

 
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View of modern skyscrapers from Dubai's Metro Photo by Laborant / Shutterstock.com

Walk up to the Al Fahidi metro station on the Green Line and ride the metro to the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station on the Red Line (change at BurJuman). The most memorable stretch of Dubai’s state-of-the-art metro system, this 20-minute elevated railway ride offers spectacular views of the massed skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road—an utterly surreal contrast to the traditional souks and wind-towered houses of the old city.

En route, you’ll pass the soaring Emirates Towers and other postmodern landmarks, such as the quirky, Big Ben–inspired Al Yaqoub Tower and the wai-shaped Dusit Thani hotel.

 
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Aquarium in Dubai Mall Photo by S-F / Shutterstock.com

Alight at Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station and follow the air-conditioned walkway into the Dubai Mall, the centerpiece of the stunning Downtown Dubai development.

The largest mall on the planet, the vast Dubai Mall is stuffed with more designer outlets and other retail opportunities than you could visit in a month of Sundays. The mall is also home to the Dubai Aquarium (pictured), an Olympic-size ice rink, assorted kids’ attractions, and the Dubai Dino, a beautifully preserved 150-million-year-old skeleton of a Diplodocus longus, discovered in 2008 in Wyoming.

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Dubai downtown and Burj Khalifa Photo by SurangaSL / Shutterstock.com

Exit the back of the Dubai Mall, and you’ll emerge onto the promenade around Burj Khalifa Lake, ringed by modern Dubai’s most jaw-dropping landmarks. Just over the lake on your left is the Arabian-style Souk al Bahar, while to your right rises the incomparable Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Few visitors miss the chance to visit the Burj’s At the Top observation deck. Ride the world’s fastest lift up to the 124th floor (456m/1,496 ft.) to enjoy peerless views, with the whole of downtown Dubai and beyond spread out below. Almost microscopic figures can be seen walking the pavements beneath; even the huge skyscrapers of Sheik Zayed Road seem reduced to puny insignificance. To get even closer to the top, sign up for the (seriously pricey) “Burj Khalifa Sky Experience,” which takes you to a second observation deck on the 148th floor (555m/1,821 ft.)—although, apart from the one-upmanship of saying you’ve been to the very summit of the world’s tallest building, it doesn’t really justify the extra expense. 

 
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View of Dubai Fountain from At the Top of the Burj Khalifa Photo by Guilhem Vellut

Set within Burj Khalifa Lake, the show-stopping Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest: 275m (902 ft.) long, illuminated with 6,600 lights, studded with water jets shooting more than 140m (459 ft.) into the air (as high as a 46-story building). The fountain performs every evening, with jets, swirls, and watery flourishes dancing in time to Arabian, Hindi, and Western pop hits. Enjoy it for free from the lakeside promenade.

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Yachts in Dubai Marina Photo by Philip Lange

Perhaps modern Dubai’s most remarkable conjuring trick, the Dubai Marina area was largely untouched desert a decade ago. That’s almost impossible to believe nowadays as you stand amid its forest of high-rises, shiny shops, swanky restaurants, and moored million-dollar boats.

The centerpiece of the development, the Marina itself, was created out of an artificial sea inlet. Attractive pedestrian pathways enclose the marina and connect with The Walk, an appealing beachfront promenade, passing assorted architectural landmarks en route.

There’s plenty to do here. Fashionistas can explore the tony designer boutiques of the Marina Mall, while sun lovers can head to the beach, with its spacious white sands and a range of watersports. Take to the water on one of many old-style dhows that putter around the marina, or head out to sea aboard the Dubai Ferry.

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Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai Photo by Rus S / Shutterstock.com

There’s a definite touch of Hollywood about the enormous Madinat Jumeirah leisure complex, one of modern Dubai’s most spectacular landmarks. From a distance, the whole thing looks like a gigantic and slightly outlandish film set, framed by palm trees and topped by hundreds of wind towers, like the ultimate desert mirage. The Madinat is designed as a miniature, self-contained Arabian city, complete with two top-notch hotels (Mina A’Salam and Al Qasr) and its own bazaar, the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. It may be a little bit cheesy, but it’s all done with such panache and at such lavish expense that it’s hard not to be at least slightly impressed.

At the far end of the souk, a long string of eating and drinking establishments lines the waterfront. From here, walkways and miniature bridges weave confusingly through the complex, offering superb views and plenty of opportunities for getting interestingly lost. (Head to the entrance of the Al Qasr hotel for a great view across the innumerable wind towers.) The Madinat is also the best place for views over to the Burj al Arab, its sail-shaped outline surreally framed by the Madinat’s traditional Arabian-style buildings.

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The Burj al Arab in Dubai Photo by Courtesy of Dubai Tourism

The sail-shaped Burj al Arab was the landmark that first really put Dubai on the global map, and it remains Dubai’s most memorable, most beautiful, and most all-around astonishing building—best seen from the Madinat Jumeirah, or from Umm Suqeim public beach just to the north. If you want to see the spectacular interior, you’ll have to buy a drink or a meal. Most visitors opt for the sumptuous afternoon teas served either in the Sahn Eddar lounge or the Skyview Bar—one of the city’s most memorably hedonistic experiences.

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Atlantis Hotel in Dubai Photo by Zhukov Oleg / Shutterstock.com

After taking a monorail ride across the Palm Jumeirah—the world’s largest artificial island—get off at the 2,000-room Atlantis resort, modeled after a sister property in the Bahamas. The gargantuan Atlantis looks like a set from an outlandish fantasy film, with two towering wings centered on a vaguely Islamic-looking arch, all painted a uniform shade of frozen-shrimp pink (“like the tomb of Liberace,” as the U.K.’s Sun newspaper described it). It’s one of the few places in Dubai that actually lives up to the city’s popular image as the Land That Taste Forgot—although you’ve got to be at least slightly impressed by its sheer size and uninhibited bling.

It’s worth going inside the hotel to gape at the madly overcooked decor, complete with gold-plated pillars and vast Lost Chambers underwater “ruins.” The resort offers several attractions, including the state-of-the-art Aquaventure water park and the chance to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Bay.

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The Lost Chambers at Atlantis resort in Dubai Photo by Photobac / Shutterstock.com

Archeologists will be delighted to learn that the legendary city of Atlantis (last seen, according to Plato, sometime around 10,000 B.C. in the western Mediterranean) has finally been rediscovered—in the waters beneath Dubai. This, at least, is what the guides at the Lost Chambers would have you believe. (Some of them even seem to believe it themselves.) Dubai’s hokiest attraction, the Chambers consists of a maze of underwater passageways and chambers in the bowels of the resort, with glass-walled viewing tunnels leading through a series of submerged “ruins.” The real attraction is the stunning array of 65,000-odd marine creatures living quietly amid the pseudo-Atlantean relics. Note, however, that you can save yourself the admission fee and admire the lagoon’s marine life for free from a viewing area in the hotel lobby.

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Jeeps on safari in Pink Rock Desert near Dubai Photo by islavicek / Shutterstock.com

Most visitors to Dubai fit in a trip to the desert at some point in their stay. All sorts of packages are available, but by far the most popular option is a combined afternoon and evening excursion. Be forewarned: The desert around Dubai is far from unspoiled, and the tourist crowds and flotillas of four-wheel-drives make the desert a surprisingly busy—and noisy—place. It’s all good, harmless, fun, however. Most tours include the same mix of activities: You start off with around 45 minutes’ energetic dune-bashing—being driven at high speed across the dunes, with exhilarating swoops up and down steep ridges of sand—with perhaps some sand-skiing or sand-boarding added on. Then you’re driven to a desert camp, where you (and a couple hundred other tourists) can experience various traditional Arabian activities, including smoking shisha, getting henna-painted, dressing up in local costumes, or riding a camel. After this comes a buffet supper, followed by music and the inevitable belly dancer. 

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Frommer's Dubai and Abu Dhabi Day by Day Photo by

We’ve only scratched the surface of all that you can see and do in Dubai. For a more in-depth look, pick up a copy of Frommer’s Dubai and Abu Dhabi Day by Day, our handy guide to experiencing the best of everything the city has to offer in the smartest, most time-efficient way. The book features 11 self-guided tours, 26 maps (including a tear-resistant foldout one), tons of full-color photos, and useful listings for hotels, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife for any budget. In short, it’s got everything you need to have an unforgettable trip.

 
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