With five-star hotels dominating the skyline and shopping driving the headlines, Dubai is a playground for the rich and famous. However, a sprinkling of local knowledge opens up plenty of inexpensive experiences for travelers on a budget.
Want free drinks, almost-free boat rides and stellar views right across town? Here are the best budget-friendly things to do in Dubai.
Editor's note: During COVID-19, please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government health advice. Events may be subject to change.
1. Zabeel Park
You could be forgiven for thinking that Dubai is all skyscrapers and six-lane highways, but just past the World Trade Centre roundabout is Zabeel Park, one of the city's largest green spaces. The landscaped park is home to barbecue areas and picnic tables, along with a bike track, a boating lake and a mini-train for kids. Zabeel Park costs Dhs5 ($1.40) to enter, and it's also home to the Ripe Market, held every Friday and Saturday from 9am to 7pm.
2. Careem bike share
In 2020, Dubai’s public transport authority unveiled a brand new fleet of nearly 800 pay-as-you-go bicycles, and it costs just Dhs20 ($5.45) for an unlimited number of 45-minute rides all day. Take in some of the city’s best views from the saddle, from the neon lights of Dubai Marina at night to the neck-aching sight of the Burj Khalifa.
Dubai now has 265 miles (425km) of cycling tracks across the city, with plans to expand to almost 400 miles (650km) of cycle paths by 2023. Ultimately, 3500 bicycles will be on the streets that can be docked at 350 solar-powered stations across the city as construction is completed over the next five years.
13 best free things to do in Dubai
3. Dubai Fountain Floating Boardwalk
The dancing Dubai Fountain is spectacularly set in the middle of a giant lake against the backdrop of the glittering Burj Khalifa. Floating platforms added in 2017 will get you as close as 30 feet (9m) from the fountains, which can shoot water up to 460 feet (140m). Because of its popularity, it’s not always easy to snag a good spot to watch a Dubai Fountain performance, so the boardwalk will give a perfect front-row view for just Dhs20 ($5.45).
4. Spice Souq
Dubai Mall might be the biggest shopping center in the world, but it’s pretty pricey. Instead, head to Dubai Creek to shop in the traditional souqs (markets). Buy gold, frankincense or spices such as saffron and cinnamon on the Deira side, while over on the Bur Dubai bank, you can snap up pashminas and Arabian-style slippers. Remember to haggle hard for a bargain.
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5. Abra ride
It lasts less than five minutes, but the most authentic and cheapest way to get across Dubai Creek is by riding an abra, a traditional wooden boat kitted out with a motor and a single bench seat in the middle. Once the abra is full, it whirrs across to the opposite side of the Creek, and you’ll pay the driver just Dhs1 (30 cents) en route.
6. Happy hour and ladies' nights
One way to stretch your drinking budget in Dubai, where alcohol duty is 50%, is by hitting up the happy hours offered by a wide roster of bars, from dives to five-star lounges, on specific days of the week. Discounts range from half-off drinks to two-for-one deals or double measures on selected beverages. Most start early in the evening, usually around 5pm or 6pm, and run for two or three hours.
Many bars and pubs go to extraordinary lengths to lure women with free cocktails, bubbly and nibbles. Some ladies' nights run all night; others only during certain hours. The most popular ladies' nights are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with fewer deals on other nights and hardly any on the weekends.
7. Dubai Metro
Forget taxis and plump for the Dubai Metro instead. Dubai’s two-line driverless trains offer some of the cheapest public transport trips in the world. Buy a Nol card and top it up, from Dhs3 (80 cents) for a short hop to Dhs7.50 ($2) for a longer trip. The metro opens at 5.30am (10am on Fridays) and runs until midnight (1am on Thursdays and Fridays). You can even go VIP and travel Gold Class, which has free Wi-Fi.
8. Jumeirah Mosque
Jumeirah Mosque is Dubai's largest mosque. Daily tours (except Fridays) take place at 10am for Dhs20 ($5.45), run by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The tours last 75 minutes, and visitors are encouraged to ask any questions they might have about Islam and Emirati culture. Modest dress (ie covering knees and shoulders) is required inside the mosque.
9. Dubai Creek House and Perfume Museum
Step back in time to retrace history at the Dubai Creek House, part of the Al Shindagha Museum restoration project. The Birth of a Nation exhibit takes visitors on a journey through the emirate's trading history in a hands-on installation, and artifacts from the history of the United Arab Emirates are also on display. With your Dhs15 ($4) entry ticket, you’ll get access to the nearby Perfume House, the former home of a Dubai sheikha. The old building has been restored, and interactive exhibits detail all things scent, smells and fragrance.
10. Dubai Museum
Life in Dubai was wildly different 50 years ago. The city has grown from a small pearl-diving and trading community based around the Creek to what you see today in just four decades. Discover what Dubai was like for the Bedouin and Emiratis at the Dubai Museum in the Al Fahidi Fort, which charges the princely sum of Dhs3 (80 cents) for admission. Dubai Museum won’t win any awards for modernity, but it’s an interesting portrayal of a way of life that’s changed beyond recognition.
11. Crossroads of Civilizations Museum
The private Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in the Shindagha Historic District provides a fascinating glimpse of Dubai's historic role as a trading link between East and West. On display are hundreds of artifacts from the Ubaids, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and other civilizations that passed through the region. Highlights include a 7500-year-old bull-shaped vase and a 16th-century Kaaba curtain, as well as a first edition of the 1590 book that first mentions "Dubai." Other galleries display swords, daggers and other historical weaponry used across the region. Entry costs Dhs30 (about $8).
12. Saruq Al Hadid Archaeology Museum
Only discovered in 2002, Saruq Al Hadid sits deep in the desert sands of the southern reaches of Dubai emirate and is believed to have been an iron-age metal factory in operation between 1300 and 800 BC. Excavations have thus far yielded mostly swords, axe heads, daggers and other weapons, some of which are on display in the modern Saruq Al Hadid Archaeology Museum. Entry costs Dhs20 ($5.45).
13. Women's Museum
Try on a burka, find out about Ousha Bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi (the most celebrated female poet in the UAE) and learn about the achievements of local women in the fields of science, trade, education, politics and literature at the region's first museum to train the spotlight on women. Conceived and financed by Emirati psychiatry professor Rafia Ghubash, the Women's Museum occupies three floors of a building called Bait Al Banat (House of the Girls), reportedly because it was the home of three unmarried sisters in the 1950s. Admission will set you back just Dhs20 ($5.45).
14. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
Recently restored as part of the Shindagha Historic District development, the grand Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House was the residence of Sheikh Saeed, the grandfather of current Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, from 1912 until his death in 1958. Today, the architectural marvel houses an excellent collection of pre–oil boom photographs of Dubai taken in the souqs, on Dubai Creek and at traditional celebrations. There are also some insightful private images of the ruling Al Maktoum clan. Other rooms feature coins, stamps and documents dating back as far as 1791. Admission costs Dhs3 (80 cents).
The original building dates back to 1896 and was enlarged and modernised several times. Sheikh Mohammed was born here in 1949 and spent the first ten years of his life romping around the three inner courtyards flanked by 30 rooms behind richly-ornamented teak doors and lorded over by four wind towers. Head upstairs to the majlis (reception room) to enjoy nice views of Dubai Creek.
15. Dubai Marina Water Bus
For a scenic spin around the Dubai Marina, hop aboard the Water Bus, which shuttles between the Marina Walk, Marina Terrace, Marina Mall and Marina Promenade every 15 to 20 minutes. It's particularly glorious at sunset or after dark, as boats float past the show-stopping parade of shimmering towers. Nol Cards are valid, or a one-day pass costs Dhs25 ($6.80).
16. Majlis Ghorfat Um Al Sheef
Majlis Ghorfat Um Al Sheef, a rare vestige of pre-oil times, was built in 1955 as the summer retreat of Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the father of current ruler Sheikh Mohammed. The traditional two-story gypsum-and-coral structure sports a palm-frond roof, a wind tower and window shutters carved from East African timber. The rug-lined majlis (reception room) is decorated with rifles, daggers, coffee pots, radios and clocks and offers a glimpse into royal leisure living. The palm garden features a traditional falaj irrigation system. Admission costs Dhs3 (80 cents).
This article was originally published in May 2014 and was last updated in March 2021.
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