Dubai Marina, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

What to do on a stopover in Dubai

Changing planes in Dubai? From epic shopping to art gallery-hopping, here’s how to make every moment count

If you have… three hours

With the flight attendant’s arrival announcement still ringing in your ears, scoot through Immigration to historic Dubai Creek, hopping from cab to quayside for a stirring trip into the past. Have a nostril-tingling snoop around musky Deira Wharf and its serpentine Spice Souk, before gawping at the more-than-bling Gold Souk – the jewellery and diamond-ring emporiums assault the senses as much as the wallet.

Gliding on an abra river taxi is the classic way to arrive in Bur Dubai on the opposite bank, passing overloaded junks on their way to the Persian Gulf. Haggle for a third off curly-toed slippers or a pashmina fresh off the boat from India at the Textile Souk, then explore the oak porticoes of Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Dubai’s turn-of-the-century core.

Before it gets late, zip back to the airport from Al Ghubaiba Station on the efficient Metro.

Madinat Jumeirah and the Burj al Arab Hotel in DubaiGetty Images

If you have… eight hours

The desert air outside Arrivals hugs you as you whizz in a taxi along Sheikh Zayed Road, past the spectacle of cloud-puncturing buildings and luxury hotels. Your destination, 20 minutes from the airport, is the world’s tallest tower – the  Burj Khalifa. Instead of taking the standard lift option to the 125th floor, you’re going to strut in like a VIP for the heart-in-mouth ‘At the Top, Burj Khalifa Sky’, the 148th-floor observation deck. It’s a splurge, but worth it; as well as the extra floors, you get the royal queue-jumping experience (essential for short stays) and such treats as pressed juices and plump dates to boot.

From above, on the spine-tingling terrace, plan your next move with a high-powered telescope. Peer down at the Dubai Mall, home to a giant aquarium and the largest parade of designer labels this side of Shanghai. Locals spend all weekend here, but you can see its greatest hits in a couple of hours.

Once you’ve maxed-out on couture, hail a cab for the five-minute ride to the futuristic archway of the Dubai International Finance Centre, or DIFC, home to some of the city’s finest restaurants – toss a coin between La Petite Maison, a Paris-on-Sea for power-lunchers, and the Chinese tapas at Emirates Towers’ Hakkasan.

Finally, no visit to Dubai is complete without eyeballing the Burj Al-Arab, the zeitgeist-shifting ‘seven-star’ hotel that cemented Dubai’s we-can-do-anything reputation. Its sci-fi atrium is stunning – but you’ll need a reservation for the cafe or restaurant to be allowed inside.

If you have… 24 hours

Your stopover starts with a free morning swim under holiday-blue skies at Jumeirah Beach – a dip in the gentle waves lapping those soft-sieved sands is the ultimate energiser after a flight. You’ve not come here to burn lobster-pink, though, so retreat next to the Lime Tree Cafe across the street. If the in-flight brekkie didn’t do it for you, the za’atar-roasted pumpkin on sourdough certainly will.

You’re now well placed for a peek at the ivory-towered Jumeirah Mosque next door. Dubai may be shaping the future, but you shouldn’t overlook its time-honoured traditions: join a 75-minute tour, hosted by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, to learn about life beyond the veil. Non-Muslims need not be intimidated, as the Emiratis are eager to share it with you – just be modest in your dress (long-sleeve tops, covered legs) and take a few moments to absorb it all.

Jumeirah mosque dubaiGetty Images

Long before Abu Dhabi opened its £3 billion Louvre museum, Dubai was the go-to place for Gulf art. You can see it at its most visceral a 20-minute cab ride away at Alserkal Avenue, a sprawling compound home to more than 20 galleries and workshops. Have a quick mooch around chief-draw, the Third Line, which first lit the torch for Gulf, Iraqi and Palestinian artists when it opened in 2005. Expect photos, prints and paintings from the region’s Warhols-in-waiting.

You could stay here all day, but a far better idea is to head for that preposterous stretch of land you’ve heard everyone talking about: the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made, frond-shaped archipelago of beaches and super-luxe hotels. You could take the Dubai Metro, but time is ticking, so hail another cab. Past the double whammy of mega-yacht parties and lavish villas, you’ll be struck by an only-in-Dubai ripple of excitement.

In the pantheon of Dubai’s world-building achievements, nothing’s more ambitious than Atlantis and its floating-on-air design. The wise move is to sidestep the dolphin and sea lion meet-and-greets and head straight to the hotel’s extravagant waterpark, Aquaventure. It’s quite some spectacle: locals insist on catwalk-style fashion while hurtling down wildly addictive rides that slide you through chutes – and a shark tank.

Before it’s over too fast, dine at Atlantis (courtesy of Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu or Gordon Ramsay at Bread Street Kitchen). So ingrained is celebrity-endorsed dining in the UAE, a final blow-out meal here is your duty – delicious, too.

Essential knowledge

The majority of connecting flights land at Dubai International Airport, with a number of fast, no-hassle transport options into the city. Outside rush hour (7am-10am, 4pm-7pm), taxis are the most time-efficient. Otherwise, the airport is served by the super-navigable Red Line on the Dubai Metro at two stops: Terminals 1 and 3. Before travelling, buy a Nol ticket or reusable top-up card, available at all stations. To ditch your baggage, both Terminals 1 and 3 offer 24/7 short-term storage.

All you need to leave the airport is your passport and onward boarding pass, even if your luggage has been checked through. Bear in mind that you do so at your own risk – on particularly short stopovers Immigration officials do have the right to refuse you entry.

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