When I booked my visit for Dubai, I only had a few things I REALLY wanted to do:
- go on a desert safari/ride a camel (check)
- eat a fancy brunch (check)
- go to the top of the Burj Khalifa (check)
When I got here, I quickly realized that Dubai is freaking expensive and all these things cost way more than I thought. Not to mention just general things like a cell SIM card and transportation. So I needed to save and sacrifice everywhere else I can.
Dubai has a reputation for being a city of extravagance, the rich man’s playground. A lot of people are scared to visit for fear that it’d be just too expensive. The thing about Dubai is that you can make it as expensive or as cheap as you want (like any other city, I suppose). There were more things I wanted to do on my list (such as visiting Atlantis), but I decided to scrap them so I can focus on what I really came to do.
Luckily, Dubai also has plenty of free or really cheap things to do that barely cost a dollar. And this is why I was able to have some days where I literally spent only $6, in order to balance out the $100+ days.
Here are some tips for doing Dubai cheaply! Also read my post on my complete budget breakdown for 2 weeks in Dubai!
Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountain, look at the Burj Khalifa
The Dubai mall is INSANE! It is ridiculously big. You can easily kill an entire afternoon just walking around there. Talking about it can be an entire separate post. There are some unique areas in the mall such as the souks, the Village, the waterfall atrium, and the aquarium.
At some point, you’ll wander to the Dubai Fountain. This is the 2nd largest fountain in the world and covers 30 acres! Everyday starting from 6 pm onwards, every half an hour there’s a dancing water show (which you can enjoy for free). I think there are also performances at 1:00 pm and 1:30 pm. There is also a modern souk across the bridge you can walk around in.
And of course, you’ll catch an incredible view of the Burj Khalifa.
For an even better view, walk around to the other side of the fountain to the entrance of Burj Park (on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid street). You’ll get an unobstructed view of the entire building.
Old Dubai: souks, Dubai Museum, and Bastakiya
Old Dubai is where you can see the original city before the development of the super glam skyscrapers that we associate Dubai with. The original town was built along the Dubai Creek and that area still maintains a somewhat raw, old feel.
The souks are the traditional marketplaces in the old town. There are 3 main ones: the Diera Gold Souk, the Spice Market, and the Textile souk. I think it’s worth a wander just to see what the marketplaces are like. But be aware: you will get a lot of hassle from store owners calling you to look at their shop. Especially if you’re a solo female traveler.
The Gold Souk and Spice souk are on the same side across the Dubai creek. I recommend starting your exploration there. Then you can take the local boat across the Creek for only 1 dirham. It was really fun! The ferry will drop you off at the entrance of the Textile Souk.
Afterwards, you can head to the Dubai Museum just a few minutes walk away. Admission is only 3 dirham (less than $1). And it ended up being a lot more interesting than I expected. It has these models where you can see what life in old Dubai was like back then, as well as the Bedouin desert life.
Walk a little further and you’ll reach the Bastakiya, a charming little heritage site. You’ll know you’re there when you see old sand-colored walls. These are the original walls of the old city. Nowadays, there are cute little cafes, concept stores, and art galleries scattered through the narrow lanes.
You can spend another hour or so getting lost through the lanes (perfect for photoshoots!) and popping into the galleries.
Just beware that getting food here is expensive! I made the mistake of ordering a fruit iced tea at a cute little cafe, and it was completely artificial and really expensive!
Wander around the Marina and JBR beachfront
I think this is one of the best places to take a walk. The Marina is beautiful in the evening with all the glitzy skyscrapers. There are nice sidewalks along each side for a stroll. There’s not much going on there, so it’s just a quiet and pleasant walk to enjoy the area.
After you’ve had enough of walking along the marina, head to the JBR beachfront.
This is even more fun! It’s just one block away (just find a pathway and go towards the beachfront… google maps helped me figure out a path). It’s a lively area with a ton of street food vendors (though they are expensive) and local handicrafts (oh how I wished I had money and luggage room). There are even some famed restaurants like The Shake Shack and Ladurée.
The beach here is public with free changing rooms. I thought the beach here was super nice with warm clear waters and soft clean sand.
I lived in the Al Karama neighborhood, which is predominately an Indian ‘hood. And lucky for me, there are a LOT of cheap restaurants here. This was how I was able to eat so cheaply, so I could budget for the things I really wanted to do.
Here are just some examples:
– Idly set for just 4 AED ($1.08 US). Don’t mind the curry in the background… that costs more, and not even necessary since the idly set is enough for breakfast.
– Breakfast platter for 15 AED ($4.08 US). So good and so filling! (And so unhealthy.)
– Paneer sandwich for 12 AED ($3.26 US). I’m a bit obsessed with paneer.
– Indian thalis set for 17 AED ($4.63 US). Thalis is a bunch of small portions of dishes served with rice. SO filling.
– Chicken biryani for 24 AED ($6.53 US). This costs a bit more, but it’s one of my favorite! And this portion size is practically 2 meals worth.
Everywhere else in the city center, the food will be much more expensive. Even at the food court in Dubai mall, most stuff are around 30 AED. And in cafes/restaurants, you’ll be looking at 50-100 AED per meal.
Cheap day trip + free sights in Abu Dhabi
Also luckily, it’s not too expensive to visit the neighboring Abu Dhabi. Of course it’ll cost more than a few bucks. But once you get there, the sights are free.
There are buses that depart from Al Guibaiba Station (MRT: Al Guibaiba) and it only costs 25 AED each way ($7 US). But once you get there, you will have to spend a little bit of money on taxis to get to the sights.
There are two main things to see in Abu Dhabi: the Grand Mosque (official name: Sheikh Zayed) and the Emirates Palaces. Fortunately, both are FREE! Unfortunately, they’re on opposite sides of town, and the only way is to taxi there. I tried looking up public bus routes and could find none.
It costs about 30 AED ($8.16 US) to get from the bus station to the Grand Mosque. Each way! Now, I suppose you can also check if there’s Uber in Abu Dhabi, but I didn’t. What I did was ask a couple of other people if they want to share a cab. Since this is the main site in Abu Dhabi, it is highly likely that a lot of people on the bus are also planning on going there. I saw two other girls standing around looking confused, so I asked if they were going to the Grand Mosque and wanted to share a cab. This took my portion down to just 10 AED each way.
If you can find people to share to get to the Emirates Palace, that’s even better. Unfortunately, I went on a rainy day (and it literally rained ALL day without stopping), so the girls just wanted to go home. Luckily, the Emirates Palace is not too far from the central bus station, so after dropping the girls back off there, I took a taxi to the Palace. It was only 17 AED (about $5 US) each way from the bus station to the Palace.
I was cheap and only walked around the public areas of the Emirates Palace. I didn’t sit down at the cafe to have a gold-flaked cappuccino, though I really wanted to! But that one cup alone costs $20.
Total for the day trip was just $31, which isn’t bad to visit another city and 2 of the most famous sights in the world.
Other free things I didn’t do
There are seriously a ton of more free things I didn’t get to do! Maybe you can get around to them. :)
- Go to Palm Jumiera. It’s that man made palm-tree shaped beach, except I hear that when you’re on it, you can’t tell you’re on a palm tree.
- Walk around Mall of the Emirates. They’ve got a ski slope in there.
- Visit Heritage Village. This is another museum by the Dubai Creek that showcases how life used to be.
- Wander through the Ripe Food & Craft Market. Kinda bummed I missed this… I love local food and handicraft markets! I believe this one is in Zabeel Park on Saturdays.
A final note: even though these activities are free or cheap, you still have to pay for transportation to get to them. Taxis are quite expensive in Dubai. I mainly took the metro, which costs average of 5 AED per trip ($1.35 US). I also took the bus, which is about 3 AED per trip (80 cents). I also walked A LOT. Basically if a place takes about 30 minutes to walk from a metro stop, I’ll just walk. But I also went during a time of the year when it wasn’t hot yet.
Have you been to Dubai? What other free or cheap activities do you recommend?
Also read my detailed budget breakdown. I tell you exactly what I spent money on and how much things cost.