Yes, Dubai Can Be Affordable: Here’s How

by  Christina Garofalo | Jun 12, 2019
Dubai, UAE
Dubai, UAE / johny007pan/iStock

From the world’s tallest building to an indoor ski slope, Dubai is a testament to what humans can do with infinite wealth and imagination. But the U.A.E.’s prominent tourist destination isn’t just a playground for the rich. In fact, there are plenty of free and cheap things to do when you're in town. Here are our some of our favorites.

What to Do

Go to the beach:

Temperatures in Dubai rarely drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can (and should!) advantage of the city's beaches all year long. Among the many free public beaches, Umm Suqeim is relatively uncrowded and near public transportation. Showers, changing rooms, and toilets are all free, plus a row of restaurants offer midday sustenance. For more action, Kite Beach offers equipment rentals for kitesurfing, wakeboarding, and stand-up paddleboarding, as well as food trucks for when you work up an appetite. Both beaches have views of the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab.

For a more exclusive experience and added comforts, book a resort day pass. At Nikki Beach Resort and Spa in Pearl Jumeirah, entry includes access to the resort’s private beach and two pools, with a cabana or lounge chair and umbrella, towel, and bottled water ($54 during the week and $82 on weekends). The café offers healthy and delicious dishes (ranging from burrata to fresh seafood), which feature ingredients from the on-site garden.

View the city by boat:

One of the best views of Dubai’s futuristic skyline is from the water. For a quick jaunt, hop aboard one of the abras — old-fashioned water taxis that connect sights like the Spice Souk and the Old Souk (tickets under $1).

The more comprehensive (and modern) ferry sails the Dubai Water Canal, which connects Dubai’s main thoroughfare to the Arabian Gulf. The 60 to 90-minute ride passes the Burj al Arab, the Palm Jumeirah, and a motion-operated waterfall that's illuminated in the evenings. Ferries are equipped with a snack bar and toilet for the long jaunt, and they’re wheelchair accessible. Check the schedule here ($6 per ticket).

If you're looking to splurge, consider booking your own boat tour. Hero OdySea’s 90-minute boat tour brings you to famous sites like the iconic Burj Al Arab and Atlantis the Palm. The best part? You get to drive your own boat. The two-person dinghies reach nearly 40 mph, without the risk of flipping (which makes them a great option for families). We love that it’s a more active alternative to a guided tour (priced from $215 per two-person dinghy for the signature boat tour). 

See the Dubai Fountain show:

It’s no surprise Dubai is home to the world’s largest choreographed fountain show. Built by the company behind the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the show starts at 6 p.m. each night in front of the Burj Khalifa. Every 30 minutes (until 11 p.m.), the jets shoot 22,000 gallons of water 460 feet into the sky to a soundtrack that spans from classic '80s hits to Emirati classics. 

Thousands flock to the floating waterfront promenade outside the Dubai Mall — just 30 feet from the action — to watch it for free. (We recommend arriving 30 minutes early to secure a spot.) If you're looking for a less crowded alternative, watch the show from Souk Al Bahar. If you want an up-close and personal view of the show, you can arrange an abra (a traditional boat) ride around the fountain (more information on that here). 

Alternatively, make a dinner reservation at a restaurant that overlooks the fountain. We booked a table on the deck at Thiptara, which offered a prime view of the dazzling display. The Thai street-food-style appetizers (which can be served as an optional tasting menu) and well-prepared main courses offer great value (dinner entrées from $26). And, because there are many restaurants with fountain views (and the show happens every 30 minutes), it's not difficult to get a reservation — though we recommend booking in advance to be safe. 

Go to the top of the Burj Khalifa:

You can’t leave Dubai without a trip to the top of its greatest icon, the Burj Khalifa. The 1,483-foot ascent to the 124th floor takes just 60 seconds, and the view dwarfs ordinary skyscrapers to toy-like structures ($38 per ticket). People start lining up at 6 a.m. — but don't worry: the line moves fast. 

You can also buy a  VIP ticket ($100 per ticket), which lets you skip the lines and wait in a private (and much less chaotic) room before boarding the elevators. Most importantly, the upgrade lets you bypass the crowds on floor 125; instead, you'll go up to148, which, at 1,821 feet, is the world’s highest observation deck. With complimentary refreshments and ample space, you can take your time without having to elbow your way through to catch the extraordinary view. Tip: On the way down, stop on the124th floor to steal a peek of the full 360-degree view (floor 148 only overlooks one side of the building). 

Explore Dubai’s arty side at Alserkal Avenue:

At Alserkal, visitors are free to explore 500,000 square feet of warehouse space dedicated to art, food, and design. While you're here, we recommend stopping by the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, which advocates for accessible art. Here, attentive gallerists gave us a free tour of an exhibition on the history of monochrome art. Other highlights include Dubai's only independent record shop, an artisan chocolate shop with an open kitchen, a classic cars gallery, and a cinema. Also, be sure to check this schedule for talks, film screenings, young collectors’ auctions, food festivals, and more fun events. 

Compare the old vs. new city at Dubai Frame:

The 24-karat gold plated Dubai Frame (which opened in 2018) is one of the newest additions to the skyline. After a brief exhibit on local history, a windowed elevator whisks guests 492 feet up to a dizzying glass-bottom walkway. The frame itself creates a split screen: On one side, Old Dubai comprises small, dusty buildings (home to longtime residents and souks) and, on the other, you'll see the city's gleaming, modern skyline ($14 per ticket). 

Experience a traditional souk:

The Gold Souk brims with unusual spices, teas, and coffee — as well as jewelry and textiles. Most items are imported from Iran and India, but the combination of non-aggressive vendors, colorful displays, and minimal crowds (on weekdays) offer a safe and comfortable market experience that is conducive to families. Credit card-friendly shops make shopping for souvenirs easier, but you'll still have to haggle.  

Walk the Dubai Water Canal:

Walk or bike the new four-mile waterfront path along the canal for views of the city, especially lovely at night once the temperature cools. There are five pedestrian bridges, which make for the perfect spot to people-watch and admire the passing boats amid stunning vistas. Afterwards, have dinner on the beach, where locals show off their Lamborghinis and Maseratis. 

Where to Stay

The 197-room Manzil Downtown is centrally located, and our deluxe room was considerably more affordable and spacious compared a similar room in other big cities (deluxe room rates from $128 per night; standard room rates from $97 per night; includes breakfast). Amenities include USB outlets in the nightstands, rain showers, a whirlpool-style tub, and a seating area. The stylish lobby features lounge and work space alongside large windows that overlook the courtyard, where locals and guests indulge in shisha (hookah) and cocktails until 2 a.m. The Burj Khalifa, which is just a 15-minute walk from the property, peaks over the pool, which is located on a second-floor deck and is complete with daybeds, loungers, and a bar.

During your stay, be sure to take advantage of the free breakfast at Boulevard Kitchen. At the restaurant, you'll find an abundant daily spreads, such as a a congee station; Levantine classics like shakshuka, hummus, and lebneh; fresh-squeezed juices; charcuterie; baked goods; and make-your-own crepes. Bonus: The property is also offering 25% off stays this summer.

How to Get Around

Easy to use, efficient, and (of course) brand new, Dubai’s public transit system is the ideal way to get around.

By Metro:
The above-ground metro connects most major points of interest, including the Dubai Mall, the marina, the Gold Souk, and the financial district.

By Tram/Monorail:
A tram runs between Al Sufouh and Jumeirah Beach Residences (about 40 minutes) — and makes stops at Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina, and Jumeirah Lakes Towers along the way. It links to the Palm Monorail, which runs from the trunk of the Palm all the way to the Atlantis, which is located at the other end. 

By Bus:
Nearly 1,500 buses and air-conditioned stops make the bus is an excellent budget-friendly transit option.

By Car:
Taxis are available nearly everywhere around the clock for a reasonable price (an eight-mile ride can run as low as $3). You can also use Uber and Careem, a local ride-sharing app. 

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