Dubai has the reputation of being among the most luxurious and expensive destinations in the world. Fortunately, some of the best things in life are free (or almost free). Here's a handy primer on how you can stretch your budget.
Wandering around the labyrinthine souqs in Bur Dubai and Deira is a fun and eye-opening plunge into local culture and, unless you succumb to the persuasive vendors, it will cost you no more than shoe leather. Browse the textile, perfume, spice and gold souqs, and don't forget to snap some photos. If you're interested in making a purchase, start off the bargaining process by offering half the quoted price.
A stroll along Dubai Creek in Bur Dubai from the Al Ghubaiba metro station to the Al Fahidi Historic District is a scenic and photogenic plunge into local culture. Study the architecture of the restored traditional courtyard houses once inhabited by the local ruling family. Watch the wooden abras (traditional boats) criss-cross the Creek and brightly painted dhows (cargo boats) bound for Iran and Sudan. Grab a coffee in a waterfront cafe and check out the offerings at the souq. If you are feeling particularly energetic you can keep strolling to the more recent waterfront development of Al Seef (approximately 2km), which continues the traditional architecture theme.
Dubai has several free or low-cost museums where you can learn about the city's early days. The best of the bunch is the Dubai Museum, which charts the city's turbo-evolution from Bedouin outpost to megalopolis. East of here, the Al Fahidi Historic District harbours a handful of free museums that focus on coffee, coins and art.
Mosques in the UAE are generally closed to non-Muslims, which is why it's such a privilege to gain access to the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque on guided tours costing a mere Dhs20.
A top free sight is the choreographed dancing Dubai Fountain at Dubai Mall, with the lit-up drama of the Burj Khalifa as a soaring backdrop. Dubai Mall itself is filled with attractions, most famously the Dubai Aquarium (free peeks from the mall) and a giant dinosaur skeleton. You can also gawp at the indoor ski slopes of Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates. The iconic Burj Al Arab is best admired from Jumeirah Public Beach or Madinat Jumeirah, where the Islamic architecture and mock-souq are attractions in their own right.
Shift into exploring mode and head to Alserkal Avenue in industrial Al Quoz to keep tabs on what's happening in artists' studios around the Middle East. A growing number of cutting-edge galleries call the pimped-up warehouses of this arts and cultural campus their home, along with cultural venues, creative labs and a chocolate factory. It also costs nothing to check out the latest exhibit at the galleries of Gate Village at the Dubai International Finance Centre. Parts of City Walk have also transformed into a virtual outside gallery with a permanent open-air exhibition featuring the work of some of the world's best-loved urban artists.
Some of Dubai's beaches may have been gobbled up by luxe resorts and beach clubs, but there's still miles of coastline where you can take a dip for free, including Al Mamzar, Kite Beach, Jumeirah Public Beach and The Beach at JBR. The latter even offers free yoga several mornings a week. Of Dubai's parks, the nicest one is Zabeel Park, which has lush flora, a lake, covered picnic areas and the distinctive Frame. Bird-lovers can spot flamingos and other winged critters at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.
Off to the Races
Admission is free, and there is no betting, so the only dirhams you may have to spend are for the cab ride out to the Meydan Racecourse to watch some of the world's finest thoroughbreds and most famous jockeys sweat it out on the turf. The state-of-the art stadium is impressive in itself, and the vibe can be electric. For a quintessential Middle Eastern experience, consider attending a camel race at the Al Marmoum camel-racing track south of Dubai.
Dubai has more of an urban, arty edge these days, thanks to the Dubai Street Museum project. Look for large-scale murals celebrating the UAE's history and heritage adorning entire house walls along 2nd December St in Satwa or the funky creations of the Dubai Walls initiative at City Walk in Jumeirah. Artful graffiti also hides among the historic nooks of the Al Fahidi Historic District in Bur Dubai.
Need to Know
- Happy Hour & Ladies' Nights Offered by many bars throughout the week.
- Wi-fi Most cafes, restaurants, spas, bars and malls offer free wi-fi for their customers. Free public wi-fi requires a local number for registration.
- Transport The Dubai metro is fast, clean and inexpensive.
- Tap Water Local water is desalinated sea water and perfectly safe to drink.