The name Dubai conjures up different images for everyone. One of the world’s richest cities, it is a modern showcase of architectural advancement. At the same time, history envelopes the region. It is this mix of old and new Dubai that makes the city so fascinating to explore. Trying to see Dubai in a day means making some choices.
We actually visited for four days and still barely touched on all there is to see. However, Dubai is a frequent airline layover or cruise port city, both offering the challenge of Dubai in a day.
Whether you have just a few hours or a week, our best recommendation is to find a balance between old and new Dubai. Seeing only one won’t really give a feel for the culture of the city.
Old and new Dubai in a day highlights
- Al Fahidi (Bastakia)
- Traditional souks
- Camel racing
- Burj Khalifa
- Dubai fountain
- Dubai Mall
- Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates
- Dinner in the Sky
- Aquaventure Waterpark
- Dive Deep Dubai
Old Dubai in a day
A traditionalist at heart, I am starting this page with old Dubai.
Bastakia (Al Fahidi quarter)
Bastakia, now called the Al Fahidi quarter, is a historical neighbourhood that provided us with an insight into traditional life and customs. We opted for a guide to gain a better cultural understanding.
The narrow streets built in the late 19th century represent upscale life prior to the oil money and the formation of the emirates in 1971. These were homes of wealthy Persian pearl and textile merchants.
- Narrow streets give shade and create wind tunnels.
- Common building materials include stone, palm wood, gypsum, and teak.
- Our guide helped us to understand customs like the two doors. Women can use the larger one, but men enter through the inset door, their heads facing down out of respect for women who might not be properly attired in their home.
The souks are the traditional markets, and while there are some scattered in the city, the most famous are in Deira.
Following tradition, Jeff did most of the haggling on the items we purchased. In addition to the Grand Souk, we explored:
- Spice Souk
Colourful and aromatic, this was my favourite of the souks. Despite having it all, it was saffron that caught our eyes. There are souvenirs, clothing, and plenty of places to eat in addition to spices.
- Gold Souk
If you are planning to purchase gold from Dubai, you will find it here at the world’s largest gold bazaar.
- Fish Market
Definitely more of a local’s spot, but we still had to stop and take a look (and a smell).
Tour Old Town Dubai
With the option of a shared or private tour, this 3-hour adventure will take you on a walking tour of Bastakiya. You will visit the coin museum, stop in front of a mosque, and head to the souks.
After a bit of shopping, cruise along the Dubai Creek on a traditional abra boat, finishing off the tour at the Spice Souk, Gold Souk, and a few street vendors. This top-rated tour has very impressive ratings and reviews. Reserve your ‘Old Town, Dubai Creek, Souks, and Street Food Tour’ here.
Modern Dubai in a day
The modern side of Dubai is one extravagance followed by the next. We saw the world’s tallest building, largest shopping centre, and deepest pool. Dubai is breaking new records all the time.
Getting up to the observation deck on the world’s tallest building was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Dubai. The 160-story building stands tall, visible from much of the city.
All tickets are timed, and we opted for 6pm to watch the sunset from the top. Unfortunately, the desert haze resulted in photos that are not as vivid as I had hoped.
If you want this time of day, be sure to book your visit to the top of the Burj Khalifa in advance.
- Reserve your level 124 and 125 entry tickets here
- If you are also planning to visit the aquarium, reserve your combo level 124 and 125 entry tickets plus aquarium here
- Or, go even higher up and book your levels 124, 125 and 148 ticket here.
Pro Tip: The public train’s “Burj Khalifa” stop is about a 10-minute walk from the tower. It is very hot in Dubai and very dark at night. There is an option to purchase a shuttle bus ticket when you get your train ticket. If you don’t take that, grab a taxi at the station. We didn’t and by the time we realised it was way too hot to walk, there were no taxis around. As a result, we arrived at the mall quite sweaty.
Dancing Dubai Fountain
The world’s tallest fountain comes alive several times each day. The choreographed dancing water shoots over 22,000 gallons up as high as 152 metres (500 ft).
Located just outside the Dubai Mall, you can see it when you look down from the top of the Burj Khalifa. Best of all, this is free.
We could practically live at the Dubai Mall, as the world’s largest mall has it all. There is an overall déjà vu from this well lit, noisy, crowded American style super mall.
Some of the mall highlights include:
- Entrance to the Burj Khalifa observation deck
- With a total internal floor area of 5.9 million sq ft, there are over 1,200 retail shops
- More than 200 restaurants or food stalls (including a Chicago’s Pizzaria Uno)
- Dubai Aquarium: The photo is shot from the mall, but inside the aquarium is an underwater zoo and tunnels offering 270º views. Reserve your tickets here.
- Olympic ice rink (both our girls gave ice skating a go)
- Candylicious: This may not be on most people’s list, but the world’s largest candy store (at the time we visited) sure caught our girl’s attention.
- An indoor amusement park
- A giant waterfall
The mall rules are prominently posted in several spots, yet the first one was quite often ignored. The rules include: Please wear respectful clothing (for example, shoulders and knees should be covered); practice safe riding on escalators, and the following are not allowed in the mall: kissing or overt displays of affections, smoking, consumption of alcohol, pets, or dangerous activities (for example, sports games, rollerblading or skateboarding).
Ski Dubai and the Mall of the Emirates
Despite not being shoppers, we found ourselves in a second huge mall, The Mall of the Emirates, as this is home to Ski Dubai.
The thing about travelling with teens who are competitive snow athletes is that even with limited time, hitting the slopes at the world’s largest indoor ski slope (at the time) was a must-do. With four chairlifts, the place was huge and complete with the world’s first indoor black run.
However, at their level, they got bored quickly despite 22,500 square meters of the indoor ski area, that is until they discovered the tube slides, jumps, toboggan run, and live penguins (King Penguins and a colony of Gentoo).
You can hire just about everything you need for your time out in the -4ºC snow area, except for gloves. Therefore, we had to purchase those.Book in advance and choose from 2-hours or all-day
If Dubai in a day isn’t the goal … more things to do
- Dinner in the Sky
Ever since I first saw a photo of Dinner in the Sky Dubai, I have wanted to do this. Basically, you are strapped in your seat around a slowly rotating table that is elevated by a crane to 165 feet in the air. Your chef is with you, preparing the meal. Next time I am in Dubai, I am booking this one well in advance, so I don’t miss out! Reserve your dinner in the sky now.
- Aquaventure Waterpark
The world’s largest waterpark has over 30 water slides and attractions, including a few record holders: the largest kids-only waterpark in the Middle East, the emirates’ longest lazy river, a slide through a fish tunnel, and a few record-breaking waterslides. And if all this isn’t enough, there are opportunities for close interactions with stingrays, dolphins, and sea lions. Reserve your entry ticket, or reserve an entry ticket that also includes the Lost Chamber Aquarium.
- Dive Deep Dubai
This is just too bizarre not to mention here. At 60 metres, it’s the world’s deepest pool. There is a sunken city for certified divers to explore. Non-divers can snorkel at the surface.
- Camel Racing
Too traditional to leave off the list, camel racing dates back to the 7th century. Note that camels usually race early, sometimes starting by 7am, and commentary is usually in Arabic.
- Ain Dubai
The world’s largest observation wheel reaches heights of 250 metres in the air providing impressive views.
Opulent options for where stay in Dubai – or at minimum, to visit
Any city built from this much money is going to feature some impressive accommodation options. Dubai is no exception. Here are our top two picks:
- Burj Al Arab
Redefining Dubai’s skyline, the Burj Al-Arab is the world’s tallest hotel as well as being one of the most expensive. Built on an artificial island in front of Jumeirah beach, it resembles a billowing sail on a dhow. If staying here isn’t an option, consider afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor, lunch at the Scape restaurant, or dinner at the ‘underwater’ Al-Mahara Restaurant. Reserve your stay at the Burj Al Arab.
- Atlantis, The Palm
Another architectural masterpiece, Atlantis, The Palm, is located on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah Island. Enjoying 5-star luxury, guests get complimentary access to Aquaventure water park and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. This family-friendly luxurious option has clubs for kids and teens, as well as a private sandy beach. Book your stay at Atlantis, The Palm.
Tips on seeing Dubai in a day
- Be very clear with your taxi driver as to where you want to go. Don’t say “metro station”. Instead, say “closest metro station.” We learned this one the hard way.
- When shopping in the souks or anywhere outside the malls, remember all prices are negotiable. This includes the price of taxis, tours, and river rides.
- If you have an extra day, take a road trip to Abu Dhabi.
- Be sure to visit both old and new Dubai.
Save for later
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social media and save it for later on Pinterest.
Have you attempted to see Dubai in a day? Did you find old or new Dubai more fascinating?
More of our adventures in the Middle East …
Photos on this page are either shot by our team and watermarked as such, in the public domain, or some stock photos were supplied by DepositPhotos.