With a reputation for over-the-top luxury (to wit: the towering, gold leaf-burnished Burj Al Arab hotel), the flashy emirate may seem out of reach to anyone who isn’t Beyoncé or Jay-Z, but vestiges of the old city and a handful of only-in-Dubai spectacles keep frugal travelers entertained.
Some 20 percent of the world’s gold reportedly passes through Dubai’s Gold Souk in Deira. Even if you’re not in the market for bling, this labyrinth of jewelry vendors is worth a meander just to gawk at all that glitters. If a piece does strike your fancy, be sure to haggle: Prices are based on the market rate for an item’s weight, plus a charge for workmanship (where the bargaining comes in). You have more leverage if you plan to pay in cash. The souk is open daily until 10 p.m., except for the hottest part of the day, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
For less than a buck, the Dubai Museum offers visitors insight into the city’s transformation from sleepy port to oil-rich metropolis through dioramas of life before the discovery of oil and artifacts from excavations in the emirate. Short on time? Beeline to the exhibit on the city’s pearl-diving heritage.
Find out everything you ever wanted to know about camels and more at Beit Al-Rekkab, or House of the Camels, where admission is always free. The small museum explores the role of dromedaries in the Emirates, including their apparently myriad uses in traditional medicine (e.g., camel scat is purported to have curative powers for nosebleeds).
The landmark Jumeirah Mosque welcomes non-Muslims for a small entrance fee (about $2.50). Free guided tours of the elaborate interior are offered by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., followed by a question-and-answer session. No booking is required, but you must arrive at the main entrance by 9:45 a.m. Women are encouraged to cover their heads with a scarf (available to borrow at the mosque) and wear long sleeves and long pants or skirts.
Named for Bastak, a town in southern Iran from which many of its Persian settlers hailed in the late 19th century, the Bastakia Quarter (also known as the Al Fahidi Historic District) in Bur Dubai is the historic heart of the city. Today, its narrow lanes, many of them closed to vehicle traffic, are lined with restored homes—note their wind towers, an early form of air-conditioning—cafés, and galleries. Stop in at the Majlis gallery to peruse Asian oil paintings and watercolors of desert landscapes or at XVA for contemporary art, and take a breather in the garden of the Arabian Tea House.
The best way to take in all the iconic sites on the cheap is to hop on bus line 8 starting at the station near the Gold Souk. The route tunnels under Dubai Creek, parallels the beach along Jumeirah Road, and winds up near the Mall of the Emirates—known for its indoor ski hill—if you're in the mood for window-shopping or those downhill lessons you’ve been saving for.
With 1,200 retail stores, an Olympic-size ice rink, and a massive aquarium where one can cage snorkel and shark dive, the Dubai Mall offers plenty of opportunities to blow your budget. It does have one feature, however, that won’t cost you a dirham: The world’s largest dancing fountain in the middle of the 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake shoots water jets as high as 500 feet. The spectacle is accompanied by a music repertoire that includes Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, and, in the evenings, a light show so bright, say mall publicists, that it’s visible from space. Performances Monday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday at 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. (Fridays at 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.) and every 30 minutes from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
While not free, the minimal entrance fee for Creekside Park (about $1.35 per person) may seem well worth it for the opportunity to let your kids go wild in the green space. If that’s not going to cut it, splurge on a family ticket to Children's City, a sort of interactive kid-centric museum and play zone within the park (cost is about $10 for two adults and two children ages 2 to 15; tots under 2 get in free; separately, kids ages 2 to 15 are less than $3, adults $4). There’s a hundred-seat planetarium and a new special toddler area featuring some 30 exhibits and games, like a slide and a mini-carousel.
Food & Drink
Prepare for sensory overload when you visit the Spice Souk, a maze of narrow passageways lined with hawkers of saffron, turmeric, cloves, and all manner of other exotic spices and dried fruits. Brace yourself for some pushy merchants. Open daily until 10 p.m., except for between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Dubai has its share of outrageously priced restaurants (the tasting menu at Al Mahara in the Burj Al Arab hotel will set you back about $320, without wine), but there are still plenty of options on the opposite end of the spectrum. For inexpensive and authentic Arabic and Asian food, head to Al Diyafah Street, where a satisfying lamb or chicken shawarma at Al Mallah costs about a buck.
The best way to see the city skyline is from the water. Hop aboard an abra, a traditional wooden boat modernized with a diesel engine, to ferry across Dubai Creek. The ride from Deira to Bur Dubai, for instance, takes about five minutes and costs less than 30 cents. The boats on this route operate daily from 6 a.m. till midnight.
Some of the swankier hotels on the Jumeirah strip have called dibs on the patches of sand in front of their properties, reserving their beachfronts for guests and those willing to fork over a fairly hefty day rate. Still, there are several public beaches accessible for free or a small entrance fee. The nicest stretch, Al Mamzar Beach Park, features playgrounds, barbeques, two swimming pools, changing rooms, and showers for about $1.30 per person or roughly $10 per car. Get there early if you want to nab an umbrella. Mondays and Wednesdays are women-only days. Or head to Umm Suqeim (also known as Kite or Woollongong Beach) to watch the kite surfers in the shadow of Burj Al Arab; entrance is free, but there are limited facilities.