Dubai might be known as the City of Gold, but that doesn't mean it has to cost the earth to explore the city. Dubai has a number of fascinating free things to do, including edgy art galleries, museums in the historic Al Fahidi district and relaxing on the city's beautiful beaches.
Here are the best things to do in Dubai for free.
Admire contemporary art at Alserkal Avenue
Contemporary art from the Middle East and beyond has found a home at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai thanks to the vision of Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal. The local developer and arts patron has turned a sprawling warehouse complex in dusty Al Quoz into a buzzing gallery and cultural campus. Many of the galleries at Alserkal Avenue are free to visit, and you'll also find restaurants, cafes, fashion and homeware stores, a vintage car showroom and even a fitness studio.
Have fun in the sun at Kite Beach
Dubai has more than 25 miles (40km) of golden sand coastline, but much of it has been land-grabbed by five-star hotels that charge an expensive daily rate for access. Kite Beach in Umm Suqeim is a free sandy beach that has lifeguards and is popular with families. It boasts a boardwalk with a handful of cool cafes, along with changing facilities, sunbed and beach umbrella rental, watersports and the XDubai Skatepark.
Be awed by the fine art at Majlis Gallery
Majlis Gallery, Dubai's oldest fine art gallery, was founded in 1989 by British expat Alison Collins and presents mainly paintings and sculpture by international artists inspired by the region, as well as high-quality pottery, glass and other crafts. It's located in an old wind-tower house on the edge of Al Fahidi Historic District. The central courtyard surrounds a magnificent henna tree.
Keep up-to-date with all the hippest artists at XVA Gallery
Tucked into the Al Fahidi Historic District, the free-entry XVA Gallery has a knack for ferreting out top-notch up-and-comers from around the Middle East and India. Works often express the artists' cultural identities and challenge viewers' preconceptions. XVA also participates in prestigious art fairs such as Art Basel and Art London and holds regular art courses.
Learn about the importance of coffee at the Coffee Museum
The cute, privately run Coffee Museum in a historic Emirati home offers an aromatic bean-based journey around the world and back in time. Learn about the importance of coffee in different cultures, examine a rotating roster of old grinders, pots, roasters and related implements, and sample freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee prepared by costumed staff. Upstairs is a reading room, a children's corner and a stylish cafe.
Celebrate animation at Cartoon Art Gallery
The bi-level Cartoon Art Gallery is the first in the Middle East dedicated to cartoon and animation art from across the entire spectrum of media, from paint to video and print. Exhibitions might feature artwork and posters illustrating the world of Tintin or present animated cartoons by such famous names as Japanese artist Hayao Miyazaki. It's steps away from Alserkal Avenue.
Discover ancient money at the Coin Museum
The Coin Museum is a highly specialized museum that will appeal to anyone with an interest in rare and historic coins. Located near the Diwan Mosque in the Al Fahidi Historic District, this small eight-room museum presents nearly 500 rare coins from throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, Turkey and Morocco. The oldest were minted during the Arab-Sasanian era in the 7th century.
Sit back and relax while watching movies under the stars
Every Sunday night during the cooler months, clued-in cinephiles invade the rooftop of the Pyramids Building, next to the Wafi Mall, for Movies Under the Stars. Drop into a giant beanbag and enjoy a free classic flick; it's a great deal for film buffs.
9. Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili
In 1923, this beautifully restored home tucked into the narrow lanes on the edge of the Spice Souq became the home of Saudi-born Mubarak Bin Al Oqaili (1875–1954), one of the most important classical Arabic poets. At the free Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili, a bilingual exhibit charts milestones in his life and work and also displays original manuscripts and personal belongings such as his desk, a gun and a pen. With its richly carved teak doors, beamed ceilings, serene ambience and festive majlis (reception room), the private residence alone is worth a visit and makes for a nice respite from the bustling markets.
Be amazed by the Dubai Fountain
The dancing Dubai Fountain is spectacularly set in the middle of a giant lake against the backdrop of the glittering Burj Khalifa. Water undulates as gracefully as a belly dancer, arcs like a dolphin and surges as high as 460ft (140m), all synced to stirring classical, Arabic and world music soundtracks played on speakers.
Go bird watching at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary
Incongruously framed by highways, the surprising Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary on Dubai Creek is an important stopover for migratory waterbirds on the east Africa–west Asian flyway. Gracious pink flamingos steal the show in winter, but avid birdwatchers can spot more than 170 species in this pastiche of salt flats, mudflats, mangroves and lagoons.
The sanctuary is free to visit, and three accessible hides (platforms) house fantastically sharp binoculars. There are common sightings of broadbilled sandpipers and Pacific golden plovers. In winter, great spotted eagles and other raptors may be patrolling the skies.
Marvel at the engineering at Dubai Canal and Sheikh Zayed Bridge Waterfall
Inaugurated in 2016, the Dubai Canal is a feat of engineering that connects the mouth of Dubai Creek with the Gulf in a horseshoe shape. A promenade conducive to jogging and walking parallels both banks, and a highlight of a walk here is the illuminated and motion-operated waterfall that cascades down both sides of Sheikh Zayed Bridge from 7pm to 10pm, stopping only for passing vessels.
While office and hotel high-rises are being built at a frantic pace in Business Bay (including the hip Dubai Design District), the waterfront on the final stretch will be lined with residences, boutique hotels, cafes, marinas and other public spaces. A floating restaurant and yacht club are also planned, as well as other state-of-the-art waterborne buildings.
Contemplate the history of policing at Dubai Police Museum
You can't miss the Dubai Police Museum, mostly thanks to the plethora of super-car police vehicles parked outside. Part of Dubai Police Academy, this small and somewhat curious free museum is full of historical info on Dubai’s police force and has interesting pictures, cannons and vintage pieces of equipment.
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This article was originally published on March 23, 2021