Five Hours in Dubai: See the City in Comfort for Less than $5

Reading the discussion forums on Tripadvisor, five hours in transit in Dubai doesn’t seem like enough time to get out of the airport and see the city. It feels as if the only way you’re going to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is from an aeroplane window seat or on a pricy taxi tour.

What if I told that there’s a cheap way to see some of Dubai’s sights? And that it costs only 12 dirhams (S$4.50/US$3.27)? And that you won’t have to leave the comfort of air-conditioning when the temperature reaches 45 degrees Celcius outside? Trust me, I tried it myself this past August when I transited in the UAE on my way to Istanbul.

Got five hours in Dubai? Take the Dubai Metro

It was an early morning arrival at DXB for me. With my bag already checked through to my final destination, I had five hours in Dubai to kill. Some of that time was taken up by the walk through the O.G. of shiny Middle-Eastern airports to immigration, so make that four hours.

It was still dark outside when the Metro station at Terminal 3 opened, but it was still a balmy 32 degrees Celcius outside. Thankfully, entire stations, including the platforms, are air-conditioned. If you’re staying only a few hours, buy the red NOL card as I did. Buy a normal fare, then load two trips for two zones. For this Dubai Metro sightseeing tour, sit (or stand) by the left-side windows. For this leg, you won’t be blocked by any trains passing on the other side.

With that much (or little) time, you can catch a glimpse of downtown Dubai’s landmarks by taking the Dubai Metro from the airport. The red line takes passengers from Terminals 1 and 3 straight to the city and passes the Dubai Frame, the Emirates Towers, the Museum of the Future and Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. You won’t even need to leave the train, let alone the station, at all to see them because the tracks run overground where it matters.

The itinerary of a DIY Dubai Metro sightseeing tour

The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon as the blue in the sky began to lighten. There was a long stretch with no stops after BurJuman. As the train rounded the bend, the first sight on this Dubai Metro tour appeared: The Dubai Frame. Depending on which side of it you stand, it will frame either the old city or the shiny business district. While you won’t enjoy either view, remember that we’re on a cut-price whirlwind tour.

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Five hours in Dubai Frame
When you have five hours in Dubai and take a tour on the metro, the Dubai Frame is one of the places you will see

Then came the Emirates Towers, which include the Rose Rayhaan, at one point the world’s tallest hotel. If you pay the normal red NOL fares, you won’t see these landmarks head-on unless you are a woman and sit in the women’s cabin. No matter which direction you take, it’s at the end of the train that faces east. The alternative is to pay double and sit in the gold class end of the cabin, the one that is always pointing west. Otherwise, you will pass too close to these buildings to admire them in their full glory.

Emirates Towers and Museum of the Future in a budget tour of Dubai
Museum of the Future with Emirates Towers in the background.

After that comes a fleeting glimpse of the Burj Khalifa, first as it looms behind the other skyscrapers and dwarfs them, then as fleeting glimpses between those said skyscrapers. Taking pictures of it is difficult, even with the burst mode on. I had to tilt my camera upwards and so it captured the reflection of the metro cabin lights. There aren’t any attractions along the tracks after Business Bay, so you can turn around at this station.

Seeing Burj Khalifa from the Dubai metro at sunrise
Burj Khalifa at sunrise, as seen on a DIY tour of Dubai

For more details on what’s around the Dubai metro, click for this interactive map. You can download a simplified PDF route map here too.

The crowd on the Dubai Metro

The Metro is no tourist train but a working public transportation system, so you also will encounter the many migrants who form the UAE workforce. In the mornings, they pour in in earnest at the interchanges and head to the stations on the western part of the network.

The majority were not office rats in collared shirts of various shades of blue and off-white like in Singapore. Instead, I saw South Asians and Africans dressed in jeans and safety boots. Among the mix were Filipinos in various coffee and restaurant chain uniforms. The crowd seemed to fit every sort of trope about migrant workers that already existed.

Some things to note

  • You will need to take your bags with you. The cost of storage for five hours in Dubai airport is not worth it unless you need to claim your bags and check them in for your new flight.
  • Didn’t get a good look at something? You can alight at a station, go to the other platform and take the train in the opposite direction without passing through the ticket gantries, and you can do it multiple times.
  • I’m not aware if there is a set time that a single trip must be completed within. If you want to be safe, buy two trips. When you want to turn around and return to the airport, exit and re-enter the station. Trains arrive every five to eight minutes, so you won’t have to wait long.
  • There are glass doors at the end of the station platforms. You can’t go through them but if the glass is clean, you can get a good view of some sights, such as the Museum of the Future and the Emirates towers.
  • Some stations further from the city require you to use the magnetic stripe on your credit card. If yours isn’t activated for overseas use, you can to pay at the information counter at these stations. However, you can use the chip at the airport terminal stations.
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In case you didn’t know what to do on a short layover in Dubai, now you do. No need to fear if you have one coming up.

Visiting Burj Al Arab, Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa?

If you have much more time, you can visit the Burj Khalifa itself and take the lift to the observatory. Book ahead to avoid the wait to buy tickets. If you time your visit well, you can also watch the light-and-water show at Dubai Fountain. These take place between 6 and 11 in the evening every 30 minutes and last 5 minutes. If the weather is bearable, you may even want to look for places outside to take photographs of the tower. For all these options, you will obviously need to pass through the Metro ticket gantry and have bought at least two trips. Budget at least three extra hours.

If you also want to see the Burj Al Arab (maybe you’re a Mission: Impossible fan), alas, you’ll also need to leave the Metro. This involves buying three-zone fares before you set off, alighting at Mall of the Emirates and catching a taxi for the 15-minute ride. You can’t get in without staying the night or reserving a table for afternoon tea, so the best place to see it is from Sunset Beach. All the cabbies know where that is, and if you ask them to wait for you while you make a brief photo stop, the round trip should not cost more than 35 AED.

TL;DR

For a quick budget DIY sightseeing tour of Dubai, buy two red NOL metro tickets and ride the Dubai Metro from the airport to Business Bay and back.