Experience the best of Dubai on a budget

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With endless shopping opportunities, fine dining restaurants and luxury accommodations; Dubai is one of the world’s most popular destinations for tourists ready to spend their money. It’s known as an artificial and ever expanding city with impressive buildings famous for holding quite a few world records.

Dubai is home to the world’s only seven-star hotel, Burj Al Arab, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa (which is holding 18 world records including the world’s highest located restaurant, observation deck and occupied floor), the world’s three tallest hotels, two of the world’s largest artificial islands, the world’s largest dancing fountain and some of the world’s biggest shopping malls. Inside one of the huge shopping malls – Mall of Emirates – you’ll find the world’s largest indoor skiing facility at Ski Dubai.

The emirate of Dubai is one of the seven emirates forming the United Arab Emirates and one of the most open emirates towards other cultures and foreign customs. Over 92 percent of Dubai’s population are expats and migrant workers, which means only around 8 percent of the inhabitants are Emiratis. The city of Dubai has been ranked one of the world’s fastest growing – most parts of the city have been built within the last 20 years and there is always new construction going on.

Me being used to budget backpacking in undeveloped countries, a visit to luxurious Dubai would never have been a consideration of mine if it wasn’t for a four-day long stopover on my way to Nepal. Looking back on my visit – it was for sure a different, unique and almost unreal experience. Most of the place is new, clean and spotless – in other words, hugely different to most countries that I normally visit.

But believe it or not, Dubai is a diverse city with more to see beyond the high shiny buildings and artificiality. And even if it’s more than easy to spend money in Dubai, there’s also surprisingly many activities and attractions to keep visitors with all kind of budgets entertained. Here follows my favorite things to do in Dubai on a low budget.

Al Ras District. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Al Ras District. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Explore Dubai by walking
As I highly enjoy exploring big cities by foot, I got a bit disappointed when I realized Dubai is one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities I’ve visited. It’s not possible to make your way around by foot only, but there are areas where walking is the best way to experience the surroundings. Dubai Marina and the traditional districts of Al Bastakiya and Al Ras, located on each side of Dubai Creek, are examples of areas excellent to explore by foot.

Wandering around Al Bastakiya you’ll find museums, traditional souks (markets) and plenty of galleries. In Al Ras you may visit markets such as Gold Souk, Spice Souk, Naif Souk and Deira fish market. In Dubai Marina you can take the monorail to Atlantis hotel located on the tip of the huge artificial island of Palm Jumeirah. It will cost you 25 AED for a return ticket. You may also take a water bus ride along the marina from only 2 AED.

Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Ride an abra across Dubai Creek

The districts of Bur Dubai and Deira are divided by Dubai Creek. The short – but well worthwhile – boat ride with an abra (traditional boat made of wood) across the creek only costs 1 AED and is considered a must-do experience while visiting Dubai. I highly recommend taking an abra ride during sunset for great photo opportunities.

Marina Beach. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Marina Beach. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Enjoy the sun at public beaches

There are plenty of private beaches in Dubai where you either have to stay at a beach hotel or pay an entrance fee to access. There are also quite a few beaches which are free to visit. My favourite of the beaches I visited was Marina Beach. The views are not great due to construction work, though it’s a popular and well-maintained beach with access to clean toilets, restaurants, water sports, camel riding and shopping. Popular with tourists and families, I felt completely safe as a solo female traveller. It also has a small outdoor gym free of charge and a nice beach promenade.

Artist at Dubai canvas festival. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Artist at Dubai canvas festival. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Look out for free and low-cost events

I visited The Walk at JBR (close by Marina Beach) during the Dubai Canvas festival, and was lucky to see skilled artists from all around the world making really cool 3D street art. Dubai Food Festival was also going on whilst I was in town with loads of events, discounted food deals on high-end restaurants and food markets. At the art district of Alserkal Avenue I stumbled across an interesting event where a representative of an art exhibition called Smile described the thoughts behind the exhibition and the background stories of the photographs. Research online for events and happenings while you’re in town.

Explore the art and cultural hub of Dubai

In the industrial quarter of Al Qouz you’ll find the art district Alserkal Avenue consisting of art galleries, studios and a private museum housed in renovated warehouses. It’s a bit out of the way, but well worth a visit if you’re interested in arts and want to see a different side of Dubai. There are also a few restaurants in the area if you’re planning to stay for lunch.

From their website: “Spread across 500,000 square feet, we house numerous galleries of international repute, dynamic art spaces, and homegrown cultural initiatives. These include not-for-profit artists’ studios, residency programmes, project spaces, concept stores, black box theatre, independent cinema, outdoor event facilities and community-led cultural initiatives, as well as unique food and beverage outlets.” 


Enjoy free drinks with Dubai’s ladies’ nights
Every night of the week you’ll find bars and venues across Dubai arranging ladies’ nights. Most of those places serves complementary drinks to women (sorry guys!) and sometimes even something to nibble on for free. For Mondays I wouldn’t mind three complimentary low-calorie drinks at The Observatory, located on the 52nd floor of Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites by Dubai Marina. Barasti Bar and Restaurant, a beach venue also located by Dubai Marina, hosts a popular ladies’ night on Tuesdays. For the rest of the week there is plenty of choices.

Mall of the Emirates. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Mall of the Emirates. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Get lost in Dubai’s shopping malls
Dubai is home to quite a few shopping malls. Even if you don’t have the budget or space in your bag for shopping, some of them are worth checking out without actually spending any money.

At Dubai Mall you’ll find – aside for over 1200 shops – Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, a cinema with 22 screens, a theme park, a children education centre, a waterfall, an ice rink, a gold souk, DubaiDino – a 24-metre long and 7.6-metre high dinosaur skeleton and much more. Without paying the entrance fee for Dubai Aquarium, the best view of the 33,000 marine animals living in the aquarium is by H&M on second floor.  While visiting the Dubai Mall, don’t miss the dancing fountain show outside.

Mall of the Emirates is another huge shopping mall home to Ski Dubai – an indoor ski resort and snow park. Even if you’re not entering the place, watching from outside is also possible. Inside the mall you’ll also find Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, which is an entertainment and educational centre for people interested in arts, theatre, music, dance, film and more. Mall of the Emirates is also home to Dubai’s biggest indoor family entertainment centre and a 14-screen cinema.

Ibu Battuta Mall is smaller than the ones mentioned above, but still gives an interesting experience. Different parts of the mall represent countries the famous geographer and explorer Ibu Battuta visited during his 14th century travels around the world. The beautiful design is impressive and you’ll also find a small museum explaining the life and travels of Ibu Battuta. Entertainment offered in the shopping mall includes a 21-screen cinema and a bowling alley.

Dancing fountain show. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Dancing fountain show. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Watch the dancing fountain show by Dubai Fountain

One of my favourite experiences in Dubai was spending the evening around Burj Khalifa lake outside of Dubai Mall.  A few times a day the Dubai Fountain will show a spectacular light and fountain show. I watched it three times – each with different music and show. It’s a great place for people watching and to wander around the artificial lake with an impressive skyline and Burj Khalifa in the background. Evening shows starts at 6pm, with a new one circa every 30 minutes until 11pm.

Outside Global Village. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Outside Global Village. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Spend time with locals at Global village

Global village is a popular outdoor shopping and entertainment area, with shopping districts representing different countries of the world. It’s the place in Dubai where I encountered the most Emiratis and the least Westerners. Global Village is open from November to April every year and there is a 15 AED entrance fee. The entrances of the pavilions each representing a country are impressive, and I’ve heard they make new ones for every season. There’s also a theme park in the area.

If you’re good at haggling you may find inexpensive souvenirs here, and there’s also a possibility to try out local UAE cuisine cheaply from one of the snack stands. You can find food from all over the world, but beware as most restaurants are overpriced. Every day there are several cultural shows, entertainment and music performances included in the ticket. Global Village is best reached by car but it’s also possible to get there by bus.

Visit museums and galleries

I didn’t get the chance to visit any museums myself but there are quite a few free and low-cost museums around creek area in Deira and Bur Dubai. Dubai Museum, with an entrance fee of only 3 AED, gives an interesting history lesson of how Dubai evolved from a small fishing village to the huge metropolitan city it is today. If you’re a coffee lover there’s the free Coffee Museum close by.

Within walking distance, including a short abra ride across the creek, you’ll find Women’s Museum. The entrance fee is 20 AED and the museum gives an insight into women’s role in the local society. Another “museum” I heard is worth visiting, but hard to reach without a car, is Antique Museum located in Al Quoz industrial district. It’s not exactly a museum, but a huge warehouse-like place with a variety of antiques, handicrafts and souvenirs to buy for all kind of budgets.

Food on Al Mallah. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
Food on Al Mallah. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Try out food from all over the world

In Dubai you’ll find food from various countries suitable for all budgets. Eating at the food courts in shopping malls are reasonably priced. There are also loads of restaurants where you can eat cheaply such as shawarma (similar to kebab) joints and various fast food restaurants. I always bought my breakfast at Carrefour supermarket every morning cheaply (croissant, yoghurt and fruit), snacked during the day (mostly cashew nuts and fresh fruit juices) and had a bigger meal in the evenings.

Affordable food options are the chains of Al Mallah serving Lebanese food and Ravi’s for Pakistani food. I had a feast at one of the Al Mallah branches and didn’t get disappointed. If you’re around Jumeirah Beach you should not miss out on popular Indian restaurant Bu Qtair serving, by Dubai standard, reasonable priced seafood. You also get a splendid view of the seven-star hotel Burj Al Arab from Jumeirah Beach.

Join a guided tour around Jumeirah Mosque

If you wish to learn more about Islam and the culture of United Arab Emirates a guided tour at Jumeirah Mosque is a good idea to attend. It also gives opportunity to ask questions. The tour is arranged by Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and is available Saturday to Thursday. It begins at 10am and costs 10 AED.

Even if on a budget, I always try to treat myself now and then. Here’s activities I believe are worth spending money on: 


Ski Dubai in Mall of Emirates

Before visiting Dubai I couldn’t even dream of skiing down the world’s longest indoor ski slope at a huge shopping mall located in the desert. Thanks to Ski Dubai this unique experience of mine was possible. For 200 AED you may ski for up to 2 hours, which was perfectly enough time for me to enjoy my desert skiing experience to the fullest. I had very low expectations and got impressed by the pretty steep and uncrowded ski slopes. Warm clothes and gear are included in the price. You need to pay an extra 25 AED for locker hire for your valuables and you should bring your own gloves and a warm hat or headband as this is not included in the price (but possible to buy if needed).

View over marina from The Observatory. Photo: Josefine Nilsson
View over marina from The Observatory. Photo: Josefine Nilsson

Lunch at The Observatory

One of the most luxurious experiences I’ve had during my life as a backpacker was my two course meal at The Observatory. It’s a restaurant located on the 52nd floor of 4-star Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites. The panoramic view over Dubai Marina, and especially the view of Palm Jumeirah, is amazing. You will also be able to watch brave skydivers in the sky as SkyDive Dubai have their centre close by.

As a starter I tried Grilled Halloumi & Eggplant Salad and finished with Malabar Shrimps Curry as my main course – both delicious. The service was great, which I’m not usually used to as I tend to eat at simple local eateries. Lunch costs 99 AED for two courses and 129 AED for three courses; an unbeatable value for the standard and view. Water, soft drink and coffee or tea are included in the price. They also arrange daily happy hours, ladies’ nights on Mondays and a BBQ buffet on Thursdays.

Cultural meal at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

The same organisation who arrange the tour of Jumeriah Mosque also organises cultural meals at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Al Bastakiya quarter. As well as trying out local food you will learn more about UAE culture, traditions, religion and life. You will have an Emirati host ready to answer any questions you may have. Breakfast costs 80 AED and lunch 90 AED.

Finally some useful tips for your Dubai trip:

  • Plan your days ahead. Keep sightseeing to one area at a time – travelling long distances back and forth with local transport may be more time consuming than expected. The metro works flawless, but when you involve bus journeys the local transport doesn’t always work as convenient, especially if you hit the rush hours.
  • For free accommodation, local advice, events for travellers and kind-hearted residents happy to show you around the city – using Couchsurfing is a wonderful thing. If you’ve never used the site before, make sure you get a fully understanding what the Couchsurfing community stands for. And if you are a solo female traveller be extra careful choosing people to meet up with (that applies everywhere, not only using the website in Dubai). For solo female travellers Dubai City Hostel probably is the best budget option in town.
  • For visits in Dubai longer than one day I recommend getting a Nol Silver card for journeys with public transport. It costs 25 AED and includes a value of 19 AED. With the red and green metro lines you’ll get a good view of the city. The metro takes you to some of the most significant places to visit in Dubai, though sometimes you’ll need to combine your journey with bus to reach your final destination.
  • Make sure you have the minimum required balance on your Nol card, especially when using buses in places without recharge machines available. I managed to miss my bus and lost precious time due to insufficient funds on my card. A minimum balance of 7.5 AED is needed to start a journey. Also don’t forget to “check in” and “check out” on bus journeys, as well as on the metro, to avoid getting charged maximum fare.
  • Depending on the length of your stay, it may be worth spending money getting a local SIM card with internet access. For me, travelling mostly by metro and busses, being able to check how to travel with local transport at any time was a life saviour. Though most metro stations, restaurants and shopping malls have WiFi access. Both of Dubai’s mobile operators, Du and Etisalat, offer two-for-one deals on cinema tickets once a week.

If there is anything you wonder prior your trip to Dubai, please write a comment below and I will do my best to help. Enjoy your travels!

josefineeng

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