Looking for things to do in Dubai that don’t cost the earth? Dubai is the home of the obscenely rich and the extremely poor. It invented seven-star hotels. Migrant labourers live in one dim star conditions. Between all that there’s anything you can think of. But if you’re on a budget (and I am always on a budget) ostentatious Dubai can seem a little out of your league. Here’s my 10 tips on how to have a good time and stay solvent, whether you travel solo or with friends and family.
10 best things to do in Dubai on a budget
1. Cheap and cheerful hotels such as the Ibis Al Barsha, which is about 315 dirhams or $A80 a night. It’s basic, but the beds are comfy, the Middle Eastern food is tasty value for money (although the Western style food is a bit meh), and the staff are down-to-earth and helpful. Rooms have WiFi. You just have to carry your own bags. I’ve stayed here several times. Ibis Al Barsha is located just minutes from the Mall of Emirates, Madinat Souk, Wild Wadi and Jumeirah Beach. It’s 25km from the airport, but there’s also an Ibis more centrally located. Dubai Youth Hostel is also inexpensive but more like a hotel than a hostel. Its location north of the airport is out of the way and you may end up spending more on transport.
2. Taxis are inexpensive. A ride of up to 30 minutes will cost up to 40 dirhams. Be warned that at peak hour they’re at a premium and locals don’t like to queue. It’s the quick and the left behind.
3. Al Dhiyafah Road (now called 2nd of December) is where the locals come for cheap eats. The food is diverse: Iranian, Indian and Lebanese. The smell of spit roasting lamb wafts down the street. Rice is fragrant and served with toasted pine nuts and topped with hunks of lamb and lashings of yoghurt. Or have a kebab with pickles and salad in nearby Deira, where the alleyways are crowded after dark. Take cash – this isn’t credit card territory.
4. Al Fahidi Fort houses the Dubai Museum. 3 dirhams entry fee and 1 dirham for children. Built around 1787 it was renovated in 1971 for museum use. The exhibits are a bit low tech considering Dubai’s modern whizz bang image. Life size dioramas depict before the discovery of oil. Galleries recreate scenes from the Creek, traditional Arab houses, mosques, the souk, date farms and desert and marine life. Saturday to Thursday 8:30am -8:30pm; Friday: 2:30 -8:30pm. Visiting Hours during Ramadan: Saturday – Thursday: 9am -5 pm, Friday: 2pm-5pm. Public Holidays: Open.
5. The Dubai Metro system is super cheap. Fares start at 2 dirhams for an adult, and the most you will pay is 6.50 for five zones. It doesn’t go everywhere, but it covers the areas of interest to travellers, from the airport to the current end of the line which is Ibn Battuta, named after the mall opposite. Dubai has serious traffic problems at peak hour, and if you can’t handle jostling for a cab, or paying to sit in a cab during gridlock watching the meter tick over, then the train is the fastest way to get around.
6. Dubai bars seem to have the most generous Happy Hours anywhere. Promotions allow you to drink cheaply in upmarket joints. If you’re a woman, you may find the Happy Hour will extend to you all night!
7. Kilims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey are great bargains. Iran is a major trading partner and probably the best ranges are Persian, although The Pride of Kashmir store is highly recommended. Specialists in home furnishings, including hand-knotted rugs, and shawls, wraps and scarves so you can get with the Dubai dress code. Located on Baniyas Road in the Deira City centre, there are also stores in Souq Madinat Jumeirah, Mall of the Emirates and Mercato Mall. Bargaining is fun. Prices in malls are less likely to be flexible.
8. The Gold Souk in Deira is a haggler’s paradise and the precious metal is definitely cheaper than you’ll find at home. Jewellers will create pieces to your own design.
9. Go dune bashing. I went with Desert Safari Dubai where the driver of the 4WD hooned over the sand dunes at breakneck speed but still managed to keep the box of tissues stationary on the dashboard. Quite a skill. This was part of a sunset trip which included camel riding, a meal at a Bedouin camp, bellydancing, henna painting. Prices start at 125 dirhams for adults. Many excursion companies offer variations on these experiences, including overnight safaris or four-day safaris so shop around. Arabian Adventures is probably the biggest company. I often travel solo and find this is a good way to socialise with fellow travellers.
10. Go the the malls, people watch and window shop. Absolutely free!
11. I know, it’s 11. Just work with me, OK? Google likes “10 best things to do in Dubai”, not 11. Go to the beach. For budget travellers not staying at beach hotels, there’s a straight choice between public beaches and beach parks. If you’re happy to pay for better facilities at private beach clubs within hotels, there’s plenty to choose from. Public beaches are white and sandy and they’re free. Some have few facilities so at quieter beaches you’ll need your own drinks, food and towels. Best known public beach in Dubai – Jumeirah beach corniche, next to the Dubai Marine Beach Resort. It has showers and loos, sun loungers, changing rooms.