This week’s Cities for Less post comes from Dubai, a fairytale city in the desert, the Middle East’s Las Vegas. This city has come a long way in a short space of time. Many Dubai attractions now adorn shoreline which was barren desert fifteen years ago.
Seven star hotels, mega shopping malls, souks and even a ski slope are now just some of the things to see in Dubai, but can you experience luxury in Dubai without it breaking the bank? Can you carry on like a sheikh without a millionaire bank balance? Let’s find out from the lovely Christabel who is today sharing her tips for places to visit in Dubai for the cost-conscious.
Welcome to Where’s Bel
Christabel was born and raised in the Middle East, and has been traveling since she was a young’un. She moved to sunny California for college and loved every second of it. A job in the non-profit sector made her relocate to Washington, DC where she was fortunate enough to meet her bestie and Where’s Bel co-founder, Shaine!
Besides travel blogging, Christabel runs a digital design studio, where she works primarily on website design, graphic design, illustrations, and social media management. You can view her portfolio here.
Chances are if you’re on social media, or even watch the news, then you’ve heard of Dubai. Located in the Middle Eastern country of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the UAE, and by far the most renowned. But it wasn’t always the luxurious and extravagant city that we’ve come to know it as.
It started from humble beginnings in the 1800’s with members of the Bani Yas bedouin tribe settling at the mouth of the Dubai Creek becoming a center for fishing, pearling, and a thriving sea trade. In the 1960’s, following the discovery of oil, the ruler at the time, Sheikh Rashid put into motion the plan to develop Dubai’s infrastructure. It was his visionary and forward-thinking that led Dubai to transform into what it is today!
The boom in development led to an influx of migrant workers from around the world, my parents included. I was born an expat, and spent my formative years growing up in the cultural melting pot that is Dubai. I remember the weekends of my childhood, where we’d drive to the capital Abu Dhabi to visit friends; there weren’t any highways at the time and we’d stop to pick dates off trees lining the roads. Those were simpler times, and it’s been incredible to have witnessed first-hand the fast-paced development.
Dubai is now a city that boasts properties from the world’s top-hotel chains, diverse restaurants, and unique architecture. But, that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money to visit. I’m sharing my guide to visiting Dubai for less. Here’s a list of great things to do and see in this extravagant city without burning a hole in your wallet!
Getting to Dubai
International travelers to Dubai arrive into Dubai International Airport (DXB), one of the world’s busiest airports. I have to confess it’s my favorite airport because of all the amenities. It is easy to relax before your flight at any of the numerous bars, restaurants, airport lounges, or if you’re like me, at Dubai Duty Free. (Anne: I recommend Skyscanner for the best flight deals from the UK.)
Emirates, the official airline of Dubai, flies the world over, and offers world-class service and on-board entertainment. I might be a bit biased in saying that they’re my preferred airline of choice, but they really are!
Places to stay in Dubai
Just like any major city in the world, Dubai has a number of neighbourhoods that provide you with a different local experience. If you choose to stay in the Dubai Marina or Palm Jumeirah neighbourhood, you’ll feel like you’re somewhere in Europe! Staying in Downtown Dubai or the Financial Center means you’re close to Dubai Mall and it’s a quick metro/taxi ride to Old Dubai and staying along the Creek puts you in the heart of Old Dubai, giving you a taste of what life’s like for the majority of the South Asian immigrant population.
Whenever I travel, I tend to stick to Airbnb’s (though I have been known to stay in luxury hotels, when the price is right) because you can get away from the touristy-areas, meet locals, get their recommendations, and see how the local expats live.
If that isn’t your cup of tea, then finding a hotel or hotel apartments using HotWire, Hotels.com or Trip Advisor is the way to go – there are so many to pick and choose from (ranging from $75 a night – $500+ a night), making finding one in your price range pretty easy! (Anne: I love Airbnbs and have booked some amazing properties through them. You can use this code to book and get £25 off your first booking too.)
Getting around Dubai
Just make sure that wherever you choose to stay is metro-accessible so you can make use of Dubai’s convenient metro and bus system. Dubai Metro, opened in 2009, is efficient and highly recommended as a cheap way to get around in Dubai – the metro fares are among the cheapest in the world with the longest one-way trip costing $1.77.
If you’re heading out to explore Dubai’s varied nightlife scene, then be warned, it doesn’t run all night. The last train is usually at 11:00pm or 12:00am. In that case, metered taxis are plentiful and generally very safe or if you prefer, Uber is available in Dubai. Finding free Wifi access throughout the city can be problematic at times, so unless you have an international data plan, requesting an Uber can prove to be quite the challenge.
Where to eat
As a city with a large expatriate population, it’s no surprise that the dining scene is extremely diverse. You can spend your entire stay in Dubai eating at five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants, OR you can spend it exploring the unique ‘street food’ scene.
Dubai’s street food scene comprises restaurants and cafes owned by South Asians or other Arab nationals, serving up their version of fast food dishes. Meals often run from $0.82-$1.63 for a single shawarma to $10 for a comprehensive meal. Think falafel, shawarma/gyros, pani puri or warm, freshly baked arabic breads…are you drooling yet?!
For those unfamiliar with shawarmas, as burgers are synonymous with US fast food, shawarmas are the Middle Eastern favoured dish. Made from shaved meats (chicken, beef, or mixed meats) that have been grilled on a vertical spit for almost a day, shawarmas are served as a sandwich wrap. They’re topped with garlic sauce, pickled veggies, hummus, and sometimes even french fries can be put inside. (Anne: I will definitely be trying this on my next trip to the Middle East)
If you find yourself in Karama, head to Al Reef Bakery and sample their cheese or zaatar manakish. It’s what they’re most known for! If Indian cuisine is more your thing, you’ll be happy to know that thanks to Dubai’s large South Asian population, good and affordable Indian food is not hard to find. My favorite is Sind Punjab restaurant. Try their butter chicken with some freshly baked naan bread.
In Jumeirah, Bu Qtair restaurant is basically a small fish shack, and a definite foodie to-do. They only serve each day’s fresh catch, so you never know what’s on the menu until you get there. The chef transforms it into a curry, or fried dish – it’s very unassuming, but extremely popular. If you’re an Anthony Bourdain fan, you’ll remember this restaurant from his No Reservations Dubai episode…it made his list, so that’s definitely saying something!
Top things to do in Dubai
A trip to Dubai is incomplete without partaking in a Desert Safari. I think it has to be one of the most popular tourist things to do when visiting the emirate. You head out to the desert to experience dune bashing, where 4×4’s ride the desert sand waves. It’s like a roller coaster ride through the desert.
Then, depending on your tour company (they run from $50-80, but you can also find deals on Groupon, you can spend some time quad biking in the desert, or sand-boarding – the desert equivalent to snowboarding. I recommend choosing the evening tour so you get to see the sun set over the gorgeous dunes before they whisk you away to a desert camp that mimics a bedouin camp, the original nomads of the desert.
There are camels to ride, dinner you eat while watching a belly dancer perform and though it may seem a tad cheesy, it is worth the experience. If you’re lucky as I was, you’ll see some desert wildlife – I saw a herd of Arabian oryx grazing across the dunes.
Dubai Mall Fountains
I know, you must be thinking, Christabel, I didn’t hop on a plane to visit a mall! Well, it is Dubai – what were you expecting? We’re a city of malls, and Dubai Mall is the queen of them all. It’s the world’s largest mall and honestly contains just about everything – from luxury department stores, to even a full-fledged grocery store, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find what you’re looking for.
I like coming here ever so often to view the daily fountain show – if you’ve been to Vegas (Anne: See what I mean!! The Vegas of Arabia!), the Bellagio water fountain has nothing on this one! You can either view the fountains from one of the many restaurants (I recommend either Wafi Gourmet or Al Hallab), or find a place to stand amongst the crowd and watch the lovely display overlooking the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
After that’s done, spend some time exploring Dubai Mall – here’s six alternative things to do in Dubai Mall other than shop.
We have lovely weather for most of the year, and then summer hits! Summer is a miserable time in Dubai, with temperatures reaching close to 50C and high humidity. It’s when most people leave Dubai on vacation to escape the heat. You see why we love our malls so much – they serve as a much needed refuge from Mother nature!
The best time to go to Dubai is when the weather’s nice from January-April or October-December, when spending a day at the beach is the perfect choice. There are a number of private beaches that belong to hotels along the coast, which you can access (at a cost). Kite Beach, however is for the public, free and Western friendly.
While you’re getting your tan on, you also get a nice view of the Burj Al Arab hotel in the distance.
Old Dubai/ Gold Souq
To get a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, spend a day exploring the Bur Dubai and Deira neighborhoods. Start off in Deira with a visit to Naif Market – it’s the perfect place to go souvenir shopping, buy fabrics, or even the local garb for a fraction of the price at the mall.
Be prepared to bargain, because everything is negotiable and they definitely hike the prices up for tourists. Head to the Deira Gold Souq, to admire the gold that adorns every shop’s display, and perhaps even purchase a small souvenir. Then, head towards Dubai creek and ride Dubai’s oldest, and cheapest mode of transportation: the abra (it costs $0.27 for a one way ride)!
The neighborhood across the creek is known as Bur Dubai, and it’s where the Dubai’s oldest building is located. Built in 1787, the Al Fahidi Fort was originally built to guard the town from neighboring tribes. It has since served as the ruler’s palace, a garrison, a prison, and finally transformed into the Dubai Museum.
If you want to learn more about the history of Dubai, it makes for a great visit, and costs a whopping $0.81 for adults – you’ll learn all about the traditional way of life and how the locals lived and worked. (Anne: wow that has to be the bargain of the century!)
The art scene in Dubai is relatively new, with galleries throughout the city, but one district in particular has gained popularity, Alserkal Avenue. Located in the industrial zone of Al Quoz, Alserkal is often referred to as the arts and culture district of Dubai and features art from the Middle East and world.
The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence
If you happen to stay in the Dubai Marina area, head for a lovely sunset stroll at The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence. It’s a lovely little area, right on the beach with restaurants, shopping, and even an open air cinema. I sometimes come to this beach with friends, rent towels and chairs, and just spend the day lounging away.
Your best splurge
A great way to see the inside of the Burj Al Arab is to book a reservation for high tea ($108 per person). It’s the cheapest way to get inside the world’s only 7-star hotel!
Dubai likes to do everything on a grand scale, and weekend brunches are just the same. Lavish, boozy, weekend brunches are all the rage, but just know that in order to fill your tummy’s, you will be emptying your wallets. I highly recommend Friday brunch at Al Qasr at Madinat Jumeirah, or if you’re in the mood for some delicious Japanese cuisine, make a reservation for brunch at Zuma. Expect to spend anywhere from $108-$135 per person.
Cultural note: Dress code and behaviour
While Dubai is lenient and welcoming to a lot of cultures, you have to remember that the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country, and with that comes a set of behavioral rules. The saying When In Rome couldn’t be more appropriate. Dressing conservatively is ideal (and is especially important for women exploring Old Dubai/Deira)- whenever you walk into a mall, you’ll see indications of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Yes, you’ll see people walking around that obviously didn’t pay any attention to the signs, but don’t be like them. The thing about travel is you go to foreign places, gain new perspectives and experience new cultures – respect them. Not everyone in the world will be as modern as you, and that’s okay.
Also, know that public displays of affection are frowned up, as is being intoxicated in public, or driving while under the influence. You can only purchase alcohol if you’re over 21 at a bar (and all bars are attached to hotels, it’s part of the food and beverage regulations), or if you’re a resident with a valid liquor license. Don’t expect to get beer and wine at the grocery store, we have special liquor stores that only let you purchase with a license and valid ID.
It can be very easy for tourists to forget that they’re in the Middle East when they visit Dubai but if you’re just aware, you’ll have a great time exploring this Middle Eastern metropolis!
Anne’s top tip
So there you have it, some great tips for a places to visit in Dubai for the budget conscious. Feel free to connect with Christabel on Instagram for more of her top tips.
One tip I have made use of on previous trips to Dubai, is to book into an apartment (take note of Christabel’s comments about alcohol above) and then simply head to the ritzy hotels at night. This saves a fortune on the price of hotels along the Jumeirah beach which seem to have risen beyond belief in recent years.
There’s no cost to enter and you can sip a cocktail on the roof of the Jumeirah beach, overlooking the desert, knowing that you have paid a fraction of the price for your bed.
How about you?
Over to you….what top tips do you have for visiting Dubai? Maybe you know a particular spot for dinner that offers mouth-watering cuisine or a great, independent hotel. Be sure to share
Pin this for the future:
Photo credits: Christabel unless stated otherwise
Disclaimer: Links within this post may be affiliate links for which I receive a small commission, which contributes towards the running costs of the website. If you want to support me so I can continue writing content please do click on these if you decide to make purchases. There is however no obligation to do so!