Layover: Dubai originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Quest Magazine. It has been updated with more recent information by Haley Beham.
Just a day or two is all you need to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of this bustling metropolis. By Maya Vandenberg
Though Dubai is a relatively young city and has only blossomed to its present-day glory in the past 30 years or so, there is certainly no shortage of things to do and see.
When Burj Khalifa opened in 2010, it superseded the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab as the new icon of Dubai and claimed the title of the world’s tallest building, standing at an impressive and vertigo-inducing 2,717 feet high. It also boasts the world’s highest outdoor observation deck, so head straight to the 124th floor for an awe-inspiring view of the ever-expanding city. After, follow it up with a trip to the Mall of the emirates to experience a different kind of novelty—the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort. Ski Dubai’s snow park offers ski slopes, bobsled runs, and tobogganing hills, but once you’ve had enough of the cold, you can also peruse the 550-plus stores spread over a whopping 2.4 million square feet at this shopper’s paradise.
As the only mosque in Dubai open to non-Muslims, the landmark Jumeirah Mosque gives you a glimpse into the religious underpinnings of this modern Islamic society with organized tours held every day except Friday. Meet at the main entrance by 9:45 a.m., and don’t forget your camera as photography is surprisingly allowed, even within the mosque’s hallowed walls.
Dubai's culinary scene is as varied as its population, which means you can enjoy everything from traditional Arabic fare to innovative international cuisine.
The City of Gold plays host to an impressive roster of acclaimed global dining brands, including la Petite Maison, Zuma, Nobu, and Cipriani. On a short trip, a quick immersion into the range of authentic flavors on offer is entirely possible.
For a meal with a view, reserve a table at At.Mosphere, the fine-dining spot outfitted with Adam Tihany furnishings and wall-to-wall windows located on the 122nd floor of Burj Khalifa. Savor five- or seven-course tasting menus or à la carte options like Atlantic cod with olive and caper quinoa by executive chef Jitan Joshi, who cut his culinary teeth in the kitchens of Michelin-starred London eateries like Outlaw’s at the Capital and Benares.
Overlooking the amphitheater at Madinat Jumeirah, Al Makan offers a taste of classic Arabic flavors with a menu that ranges from hummus and labneh to kabab halabi (minced lamb with onion and Lebanese spices) and shish taouk (boiled broad beans with parsley, tomato, olive oil, and lemon). Afterward, enjoy traditional-flavored shisha in the outdoor seating area.
Even if you’re not staying at iconic Burj Al Arab, it’s definitely worth a visit, if only to peer up through the kaleidoscopic atrium. However, while you’re there drop by Sahn eddar (located in the base of the atrium) for afternoon or high tea— where you can sip champagne and nibble on dainty sandwiches and pastries to the tune of a live Arabic band.
Luxury accommodations abound in Dubai - and a new crop of openings offer both urban retreats and beachside havens.
The luxe 252-room Oberoi, Dubai occupies prime real estate, with direct views of Burj Khalifa. The contemporarily designed spaces feature specially commissioned artwork by renowned Indian artist Mrinmoy Barua, and the hotel’s Pan-Asian restaurant Umai boasts the UAE’s only licensed fugu chef plus a Kung Fu tea master. But the best part is that even if you land in Dubai at an odd hour, the Zen-like eight-room spa is open round the clock, so book yourself an Anti-Stress Recovery ritual to relieve any travel tension, even at 2 a.m.
Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa is set on the eastern crescent of manmade Palm Jumeirah Island and is the first hotel in Dubai with glass-floored overwater villas. Inspired by traditional Thai architecture, the 293 rooms and villas gaze over dazzling lagoons, tropical gardens and the serene Arabian Gulf, while five dining outlets serve everything from Mediterranean to Southeast Asian cuisine.
The Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, Dubai sits sandwiched between the Arabian Gulf and the city, offering stunning views of both the beach and glittering skyline. Its 256 rooms and suites are spacious and chic, while the service is unmatched.
Between One&Only’s The Palm (an intimate beach resort located on a secluded peninsula of Palm Jumeirah) and Royal Mirage (their Jumeirah Beach hotel built with Arabesque architecture), it’s hard to believe you could want for anything else. But One&Only didn’t stop there. They are adding to Dubai’s already iconic skyline with the One&Only One Za’abeel. The urban retreat is located in the heart of Dubai with rooms and suites capitalizing on the views across the city.
For a quieter base from which to explore Dubai, head to the Chedi Al Bait Sharjah. It’s about thirty minutes from Dubai, set in an artsy, more traditional emirate bursting with Islamic heritage. 53 rooms are spread across 19th-century houses decorated with intricately carved four-poster beds and low majlis-style seating. In 2020 it landed a spot on Travel + Leisure’s “It List” for one of the best new hotels in the world in Africa and the Middle East.
Dubai's towering skyscrapers can make you forget you're actually in the middle of the desert and that the city rose from humble Bedouin beginnings. However, its cultural offerings prove it's way more than just glitz and glam.
Find out what early desert life was like with a Platinum Heritage Desert excursion. You’ll drive through the tranquil Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in a vintage 1950s Land Rover (or a Mercedes G-wagon), enjoy a falcon demonstration and ride a camel before experiencing an authentic dinner at a secluded Bedouin camp.
The traditional markets, or souks as they are more commonly referred, are a must-see while in town. Hop in an abra, an old-style wooden boat, and cross Dubai Creek to land at the Gold Souk with over 300 retailers. Or instead, head to the spice and textile souks, awash in exotic scents and colors, to get a taste of the area’s lively trading scene.