For most backpackers heading out to South East Asia, Australia or New Zealand, Dubai is a natural layover and most flights pass through here. Many of those passing through on long trips overseas will be on a tight budget and might consider just passing through this notoriously expensive city and braving the excruciatingly long flight connections, which we did the first time we flew to China. However our second time around flying from Berlin we decided to spend a couple of days here and actually see if it can be done on a budget! We found Dubai to be a strange and fascinating place to visit that truthfully isn’t the usual place we would enjoy, but that in itself was something very different for us to experience, and, we managed to find some pretty cheap things to do in Dubai! Here’s our things to do in Dubai on a budget guide!
Accommodation, transport and food:
The single biggest cost in Dubai is your accommodation for sure and there is not much in the way of budget friendly options so this is important on our things to do in Dubai on a budget list! If you want to spend a few nights here on a backpacker budget you are just going to have to either splash out or suck it up in some less than ideal dwellings. Our tip would be to go with either a more expensive hostel or AirBnB with good reviews as many of the very cheap hostels seem to be full of migrant workers and are pretty run down. We would recommend Deira city as a good compromise between travel time and price.
We actually stayed in the city of Sharjah which is technically a different Emirati than Dubai! This was both a great and a bad decision all at once! It was nice as it was much quieter than Dubai and much more local, it was actually quite surprising to see this side of the UAE as it was much more rundown than what you imagine of the UAE and a sobering contrast to the glitz of Dubai itself. It was also nice to stay with a local family, though we didn’t get as much interaction as we hoped for partly due to language barriers and lack of time. It was also a little too far in terms of travel for such a short trip but that was also partly because we underestimated the size of the city and surrounding areas!
Bearing in mind where we stayed transport was a big factor in our time in Dubai. Dubai does have a Metro but it only has two lines and many of the stops are very far apart. Walking in the city is really quite a challenge and most people combine metro travel with taxis to get to their final destination. For us where we stayed in Sharjah also required bus travel to and from the nearest metro station. To take the bus or metro you will need a card which you can pre load with money and use to tap on and off/ through the gates at stations. You should buy this as soon as you arrive in the Airport as the buses/ metro runs to and from the airport and into the city. Transport is not too expensive so its a great way to stick to our things to do in Dubai on a budget guide.
You can use the same card for the bus, metro and boat and will be charged according to which zones you travel within. You can top up at many places including stations and shops.
You need a Nol card, the RED ones are the most useful for tourists as it can be loaded up with 10 trips or 5 day passes. The SILVER cards are also another good option. The RED card costs 2 AED ( £0.40 / $0.54) and the Silver 25 AED (£5.07 / $6.80) with 19 AED preloaded credit. See more here: Dubai Transport
Taxis: Unlike much of the world Taxis in Dubai are used pretty much like public transport. Many of the metro stations are an annoying distance from where you actually want to be and walking isn’t a great idea because of how the city is designed. They are actually quite cheap though and are mostly used for short journeys, 3km should cost roughly 18.00 AED (£3.85 / $5.17) which when then split between two is pretty cheap for a taxi! See more info here: www.dubai-online.com/transport/taxis
Food isn’t as expensive as you might imagine in Dubai and is inline with most western countries. Firstly you should try and get accommodation with cooking facilities as this will save you heaps of money. The shops and supermarkets in Dubai are very reasonably priced especially when you get further out and more into the local areas (Don’t eat at the Marina is our top tip for eating on our things to do in Dubai on a budget guide!)
Eating in the city is also not too bad, in the Dubai mall for example they have a large food court with and endless choice of cuisine in a canteen style for a pretty reasonable price. There is also many fast food places like McDonald’s which do good veggie options here and are a good choice if you want something quick and cheap for a couple of days. Again, if you go further out from the centre and towards more of the local areas, around Deira and Sharjah for example, the restaurants here are aimed more at the migrant community and locals who aren’t Sheikh’s so offer a good selection for a budget.
Things to do in Dubai on a budget
Stare up at the world’s tallest building
Ok, so for us the main reason we wanted to come to Dubai was to see the worlds tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, an oasis in the centre of the desert, an engineering marvel and a wonder of the world! We didn’t end up venturing up to the lofty height of its summit as it was too expensive for our budget, you are talking around 350 AED (£71 / $95) each and that doesn’t even get you all the way to the top! We decided that maybe that was for another time when we have more money to spare! This has to be a highlight of our things to do in Dubai on a budget list, looking up at the worlds tallest building for free!
We were happy just to sit in the sun at the bottom of the building and gaze up at this incredible 829.8 m (2,722 ft) structure for free!! The area around the building provides wonderful surrounding from which to take it in from many different angles. Over by the Dubai fountain is the best vantage point with its tranquil turquoise waters. It really is just an amazing sight to see and honestly just too big to even wrap your head around!
Wander around the insanity of the Dubai Mall
We’re not really ones to go shopping and being backpackers be both have to keep a limit to what we carry and spend. But the Dubai mall is a must see for the experience rather than just purely to shop. The sheer scale of the place is really a representation of the vastness of wealth here and craziness that has been created as a result. If you can resist the urge to shop then this is a great one of the many things to do in Dubai on a budget.
This place is huge covering 502,000 square metres (5,400,000 sq ft) which makes it the largest mall in the world by area! It’s insane, it’s got a theme park, aquarium, ice rink, several cinemas and even a waterfall to add to the 1,200 shops and 150 restaurants! If anything sums up the consumerism of Dubai it is this place!
Explore the local souks and bazaars for a bargain
Dubai might be a by word for excess and lavish displays of opulence, but many forget that before this region was a gold mine, it was an ancient trading port for the normal everyday person. Many of the Souks and bazaars remain today and operate much in the same way and is a fantastic one of the many things to do in Dubai on a budget and a great place to get some bargains.
Thrifty locals come to bag a bargain in the warren of stalls, from the magical aroma of piled spices to the enchanting colours of incredible fabrics and carpets, this place is the Dubai of old and for us the most charming part of the city. Exploring these back streets, tight alleys and crowded markets is like stepping into the world of Aladdin and is by far the best place to get a great souvenir from Dubai, just don’t forget to barter!
Take a traditional boat across the Dubai Creek
At first we weren’t overly taken by Dubai, all the money on show and obviously displays of excess didn’t really appeal to us. But heading out to the area around Deira and the Dubai Creek we were able to see another side to Dubai. Here in the creek, a salt water estuary where the very beginnings of Dubai’s history started with the Bani Yas tribe.
Before the influx of oil money Dubais main economy was pearl diving and fishing in the creek and it is still the heart of the real Dubai today. Incredibly you can still cross the creek on one of the traditional wooden Abras, crammed full of locals transporting goods and heading home. For only 1 AED (£0.20 / $0.27) you can’t argue with the value which is why it made our things to do in Dubai on a budget list!
Soak in the atmosphere at the Marina
Heading right back into the insanity that is modern Dubai another must visit is the incredible Marina. Of course, it’s the worlds largest man made marina and its a great place from which to take in the unbelievable skyline of Dubai whilst taking a leisurely stroll along the waterside. Here you can see where the world’s millionaires hang out in their astonishing yachts and see some of the Emirates most famous buildings.
It’s a great place to just sit back and take in the spectacle of Dubai! If you are on a budget don’t eat around here! But it is still a cool thing to do on our list of things to do in Dubai on a budget if you just explore the area!
Discover the old Dubai in Al Fahidi and the Dubai museum
If the new side of Dubai isn’t really your thing then venturing out to Al Fahidi is the best way to soak in the historical side of the Emirates. This neighbourhood is one of the oldest in the city and evokes a more traditional way of life with its wind towers, tight alleyways and grand old mosques sounding the call to prayer throughout the day.
The Dubai museum is located in the impressive Al Fahidi fort which was built in 1787 and is the oldest existing building in Dubai!. It transports you back through the history of this incredible city from humble beginnings to innovative pioneer. The museum is also very cheap too costing only 3 AED making it a one of the great things to do in Dubai on a budget.
Our impressions of Dubai
Dubai has been somewhere we have been semi interested in visiting for a while, its the sort of place we wanted to see more from an outsiders perspective and a fascination for seeing it rather than to embrace the consumerism and fakery of it. I can’t say we fell in love with the place, its very odd and doesn’t feel like a real place in many ways. How the city is spread so far apart, how hard it is to walk anywhere and how that almost makes you feel directed to move around the city in a certain way is odd to say the least.
Little things like each metro stop being named after a bank or company that just has a huge random building there and nothing else! It’s a surreal place to say the least, it has a cold and almost impenetrable feel to the centre that just feel too clean cut, to manufactured and for show to really bond with. Its also a very international place but not necessarily in a good way, it feel like most of the people here are just stopping by for a few years to make some money, live the high life and move on, nothing really feels permanent about real life here!
However we did really enjoy visiting the souks, The Creek and the areas around Deira, seeing this side to Dubai really pulled it back for us and was nice to see. it proved that there are many things to do in Dubai on a budget for the casual visitor. However in truth these are just really snippets of what can be seen when you visit muslim countries and nowhere near as intense as those in say Kosovo or Turkey, but it does inspire us to want to travel much more around the Middle East in the future.
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