I will describe two situations of layover in Dubai – a short one and a long one.
Short layover in Dubai
For short, I consider layover with waiting time shorter than 4 hours. It does not really pay off to leave the airport, wait in the long queue for a stamp in your passport and then again on the way back. Ideally just relax, stretch, refresh, or take a look for souvenirs.
Dubai airport offers good wifi, tables with drawers, deck chairs in public areas, toilets and smoking rooms as well as plenty of restaurants and shops. It is good to find out from where you will fly and move closer to the departure of your flight. If, for example, you arrive with the Emirates and depart with another airline, you will have to go to another terminal, airline terminals and little about the airport I describe here.
Long layover in Dubai
To avoid writing two articles with the same topic I recommend you here and now to read about the airport, where I describe how to find accommodation, what beach to take trip to and where is the nearest shopping center, the article is available here.
Everything is about time. If you need to wait 8 to 10 hours, I would not think about a sea. I’d rather go looking for some place offering refreshment. Then go shopping for a while – buy a nice thing or two and go back to the airport and spend there 2 to 3 hours before your flight is ready.
However, if you were not in Dubai before and want to have some nice photos and see something quickly, I recommend the following:
Go to the subway, you will be on the red line and buy there a daily ticket – 20 AED.
Go to Dubai Marina, you will travel half of the Dubai via the subway this way, go through the marina, a beautiful place where you can see beautiful skyscrapers, a sea, the surroundings are beautiful and clean.
Then you can continue to Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall – here you will see the largest building in the world – Burj Khalifa, you will not get upstairs, you would need to book tickets in advance but you can visit the Dubai Mall, the largest shopping mall in the world, if you still have a lot of time, I recommend you to pay for the aquarium entrance. If you do not you will have to be happy with what you can see by the entrance to the shopping center (it is nice, though it is better to go in).
If you are still not out of time, you can continue to Deira City Center – it’s a shopping center a short distance from the airport (2-3 stations via the subway or 10 minutes of taxi ride). Alternatively, you can go to Union Square or Khalid Bin Al Waleed Station – the Green Line Transit Station. You can take the green subway to Al Ras Station and from there it is only a few minutes of walk to Gold Souk – a goldsmith’s shop.
Interesting are also the surrounding streets where there are lots of small Arabic shops and street refreshment stalls. You are still very close to the airport, so all you have to do is to take a taxi and in a few minutes you will be at your terminal or you can again travel via the subway, but this option consumes time needed to change lines. I would personally choose a taxi, plus from this part of the city, it will not be expensive.
If you really have a lot of time, you can get to the palm island – it’s quite close if you travel by taxi from Dubai Marina. Prioritize this point over Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall. Tell the driver the words “Palm Dubai – Hotel Atlantis”. There you will have the opportunity to take pictures of the Atlantis Hotel and you will get to the end of the Palm Island.
Then you can take another taxi to Burj al Arab (12 km / 10 miles). I’d personally recommend you to take a ride to Souk MADINAT JUMEIRAH, because this place offers a beautiful view of Burj al Arab. You can take many interesting images there, but also enjoy a nice cup of coffee on the terrace and take a walk through very nice (but more expensive) souk.
Everything is about the time (how many hours you have, whether you are in Dubai at night or day) and money. If you are e.g. 2 – 3 people and you were not in Dubai before and want to see it within a few hours, I would take a taxi, Dubai has a cheap taxi (2 AED / 1km) and
I would go for the biggest thing only – Dubai Marina, Burj Khalifa, short walk through Dubai Mall, then to the Palm Island, then to Burj al Arab here directly to Burj al Arab straight to the local beach or to Madinat Souk. The rest of your activities there I leave for your fantasy. Then go for the Gold Souk, it’s already relatively near the airport, then take a taxi back to the airport.
Let’s say you have 8 hours before your flight is ready. Then you can make the whole thing happen. Do not forget that to leave the airport and to get back in it takes time too. Waiting for the stamp can get time consuming. Also remember that you should be on the airport at least hours and half before your flight is ready.