Visiting Dubai on a budget? Known as a destination beloved by the rich and famous, Dubai still has some half-hidden gems that can be enjoyed on a budget. Even a backpacker’s shoe-string budget! When you travel to the United Arab Emirates, you can befriend a Sheik and wait to be invited to one of their lavish parties (where I hear there are wild animals and hot people galore!) or explore this Emirate with an independent spirit, making the most of your bucks.
Here are 10 cool things you can do in and around Dubai without leaving your pockets as dry as the desert:
1. Enjoy a free beach by a 7 star hotel
So your budget doesn’t allow you to stay at the famous Burj Al Arab, the world’s only 7 star hotel? Don’t worry! That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a great day out at the beach with the iconic building as background. The Burj Beach is free (unlike some other beaches in Dubai) and attracts a great variety of visitors. Some of them are just staring at sun-bathing bikini bodies, yes, but truth is that this is a great spot to swim in the gentle waters of the Gulf and also people-watch. Go on a Friday afternoon if you’d like to see a lot of local families hanging out.
2. Feast on exotic foods from all over the globe
There are plenty of five star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants in this city, yet, my most memorable food experiences in Dubai have taken place is small eateries. Dubai is home to people from all over the world, and this translates into a great diversity of food available. Indian, Chinese, Thai, Ethiopian, Filipino, Arabic, Greek, American, Italian, Mexican, French, Indonesian, Persian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Korean, Kenyan, Cuban, Palestinian – whatever you feel like eating, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find it in Dubai. Or better yet: try something new! If you don’t know where to start, just head to 2nd of December Street (formerly known as Al Diyafah) and let your sense of smell guide you.
3. Feel like you belong
No, I’m not talking about dressing up in a burka for the ladies or traditional dish dash for the gents and clicking your photos away like a poser! Go to Old Dubai and cross the creek in a traditional wooden boat, an abra, for as little as $0.27 (1 UAE Dirham). You’ll get to appreciate the city’s skyline, the contrast between traditional and modern, and do so with the real working class heroes of the city, mostly from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines. These guys always have stories to tell, so be friendly and chat with them.
4. Forget about skyscrapers. traditional Dubai is where it’s at!
You’re probably familiar with the city’s famous skyline, the huge constructions built in record time and that “futuristic” vibe Dubai loves to promote. But when you head to Old Dubai (Deira and Bur Dubai) you’ll find that there’s way more to this place than constructions: there are people, there is tradition, there are stories to be shared. Walking around Al Bastakiya Quarter is free and it’s as traditionally Arabic as it’s going to get around here.
Visiting a market (souk in Arabic) is an incredible (and free!) way to have a real insight on the local population’s lives. Head to the Gold Souk to understand the local passion for jewellery, the Spice Souk to reassure you how this country is almost as Indian as it is Arabic, or the Fish Market in the early morning to appreciate the hustle & bustle of a regular city by the water – also, they sell sharks, and you don’t see that every day in your local supermarket, do you?
6. Gaze at the world’s tallest building
The famous Burj Khalifa is 830m tall and although it does cost a little over $100 to visit impromptu up to the 123th floor, you’d pay around 1/3 of the price if you book your visit online in advance. Still, if that is a little too much for your pocket, there’s a great alternative: do it for free! Go to Dubai Mall and, from their outside area by the water, enjoy the Burj Khalifa in all its glory. The best time to visit is at sunset, when you’ll see the lights of the building come on and a fountain and music show take place. You might want to grab a drink in the many cafes and restaurants around, but that’s the only thing you’d really need to pay for in here.
7. Step in a man-made island
If man-made wonders are what you’re into, do not miss the Palm Jumeirah. There are several man-made islands around the Emirates but this one’s by far the most easily accessible right now. You can either drive or walk around but taking the monorail that goes to the extreme of the island (that is, the top of the palm tree) is probably your best bet at appreciating that you’re surrounded by water, as the elevation would grant some views that at ground level you won’t have access too.
8. Wander the malls
Even if you don’t care for shopping, the malls of Dubai are not to be missed. Independently of what you could buy in them, just the structures, architecture and people-watching opportunities are a real attraction. At Mall of the Emirates you’ll find a huge indoor sky slope (remember we’re in the middle of the desert) and at Dubai Mall an extremely large aquarium with sharks and manta rays can be seen for free as you roam around the shops. My favourite mall is Ibn Battuta, which is divided into themed sections decorated to make you feel like you’re either in China, Southern Spain, India, Persia, Egypt or Tunisia. They call it “the world’s largest themed shopping mall” and the 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (who was a way more hard core backpacker than you and me combined could ever be!) is the inspiration.
9. BBQ at the beach (but leave the pork chops at home)
If you visit Dubai during the winter, when the weather is mild and pleasant, doing a BBQ by the beach can be lots of fun! Public beaches such as Jumeirah Beach are equipped with BBQ facilities and access costs only 5 Dirhams ($1.35). Beware that some of the days the beach parks are reserved for women and children only, so don’t forget to check in advance or you’ll be stranded by the gate. Also: do not bring pork meat to BBQ… this is a Muslim country and although you’ll find mighty sausages for sale in some supermarkets, the local population will not appreciate if you cook those outdoors right next to them.
10. Ride the desert dunes
When visiting Dubai you should always escape the city for at least one day and be reminded that, no matter how much developing and landscaping has happened around here, this is still a desert. So drive towards the desert, where you can walk up and down endless sand-dunes, spot camels, enjoy a beautiful sunset and, if you’re into adventure (or feel like “splurging” a little by the end of it all), ride a dune buggy or quad bike in the tallest sand dune in the UAE, “The Big Red”. Traveling to Dubai might not be cheap, but once you’re there there’s surely plenty to keep you entertained, even on a budget! ENJOY!
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Do you have any tips for enjoying Dubai on a budget? Share them with us in the comments…
Zara is a Portuguese girl who quit her job in Dubai 2 years ago to travel around the world with her now husband Ashray, from India. They’re the team behind Backpack ME, a travel site that aims to share tips and ideas with people all over the place, inspiring them to go travel, no matter where they come from! A&Z are East meets West and Backpack ME is all about a multicultural perspective on travel. Say HI on Twitter @piggybackrideAZ