Explore the bustling heart of the UAE without breaking the bank
With its record-breaking hotels, ultra-lavish brunches and gold-plated everything, Dubai has built a reputation for extreme luxury. Yet, this glittering city can also be incredibly affordable — our three-day itinerary reveals how to explore, enjoy and even indulge in the bustling heart of the UAE, all without breaking the bank.
*US dollars are widely accepted in Dubai; hotels, airfare and spontaneous brunching are not included in our cost breakdowns
Day 1: Old Dubai
Start your morning in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, also known as Al Bastakiya. This winding network of sand-colored buildings and traditional wind towers nods to Dubai’s past. The area’s boutiques and galleries start operating at around 10am. When roaming the shaded alleyways becomes a little stifling, pause for a date cake at the Arabian Tea House (US$8).
Take a stroll 10 minutes west to the Textile Souk (a souk is an Arab bazaar or marketplace), one of Dubai’s bustling shopping markets. Here, the scents of cardamom and cinnamon fill the air, while vendors whisper offers of cheap goods as you pass.
Skip the urge to shop by heading north to the Dubai Creek and the Bur Dubai Abra Station (3A Street). For just one dirham (US$0.27), you can hop onto an abra, a traditional wooden boat of the type once used by the region’s pearl traders, and cross the creek. Just watch out for tour operators, who may try to ferry you onto a more expensive vessel.
Once docked, walk north to explore the Gold Souk, the best spot to haggle for cheap jewelry, then head west to enjoy the vibrant and aromatic Spice Souk — do note, though, that some of the scents here might be a little heady for some visitors. Hungry for local flavors? Then enjoy a yummy Lebanese chicken kebab with a side of samosas at Al Bait Al Qadeem, near Al Ras metro station (US$11).
When the sun goes down, save some time and grab an Uber (around US$10) from the Spice Souk to Ravi Restaurant. This Dubai institution serves up plates of fragrant butter chicken that’s best mopped up with naan (US$8). Grab a seat outside to watch the casual street life of Dubai’s Al Satwa district, an area off the tourist radar that’s great for affordable accessories, clothing and souvenirs.
- Day 1 costs: Breakfast US$8; Lunch US$11; Transport US$10.27; Dinner US$8; Total: US$37.27
Day 2: Sun, sea and sand
Dubai developed from a saltwater creek and expanded along a coastline, and this brings the focus to the city’s beaches. Start your morning — as early as 6am, if you wish — by getting to Sunset Beach. There’s no specific location pin here, so go to Sunset Mall and walk three minutes directly west to the sea. This quiet beach is a perfect spot for catching the sunrise against the Burj Al Arab.
Later in the morning, stroll south along the beach and you’ll reach the recently developed Kite Beach (in about 35 minutes). This bustling area is filled with food trucks, a skate park, fashion kiosks, a jogging track and changing rooms. When hunger strikes, grab a Wanna Banana (blended banana that tastes like ice cream) topped with raw cacao and chocolate sauce (Kite Beach kiosks; US$6.25).
Make the best of the sea, and rent a stand-up paddleboard from Dukite on the southern edge of Kite Beach (US$22 per hour). Regain those calories with a wagyu beef slider from Salt (US$8.71), a homegrown food truck with Joshua Tree vibes.
When the sun begins to set, walk further south to reach Bu Qtair restaurant, a tiny venue for seafood lovers (with plastic tables crammed inside and out) that makes the perfect offbeat dinner spot. Only cash is accepted, but Bu Qtair has a revered status among UAE residents; the menu varies day by day, and seats are filled quickly. Order a plate of fried fish and prawns served with rice (priced by weight; around US$20 for a decent portion).
- Day 2 costs: Breakfast US$6.25; SUP US$22; Lunch US$8.71; Dinner US$20; Total: US$56.96
Day 3: New Dubai and new malls
Grab a morning ride on the Dubai Metro (Red Line) from the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station to Damac Properties station in “New Dubai”. A gold-class ticket will give you panoramic views of the city’s mosques and record-breaking skyscrapers (US$3.30). At Damac Properties, exit and stroll 15 minutes west to the Dubai Marina Walk, then follow the marina southward. In this yacht-docking area, you can’t take home a boat but at least you’ll have a #luxeinspo shot for the ’gram.
For brunch, cross a bridge to the other side of the marina to Seven Sands. This Emirati restaurant serves incredible mixed mezzes of local Arabic dips like hummus and baba ganoush (mashed, seasoned and cooked eggplant) and flatbreads, all for just US$13. Then, stroll along the manicured contours of The Beach at Jumeirah Beach Residence to take in locals jogging on the public track, fitness bunnies pumping iron at the outdoor gym and views of the brand-new Ain Dubai, the largest observation wheel in the world.
No trip to Dubai is complete without a visit to one of the city’s many malls and entertainment complexes. Drop by one of the world’s largest, Dubai Mall, by catching the metro from Jumeirah Lake Towers station back to Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall, with a silver-class ticket (US$1.63). Once inside, grab a bag of roasted nuts and chickpeas — a typical local snack — from one of the many kiosks in the mall’s souk section (around US$8, depending on weight). Hop between the 1,200 retail spots to the Dubai Aquarium to marvel at sharks and other fish from the outside.
Finish your Dubai trip by walking along the Dubai Fountain, also in Dubai Mall. As the world’s largest choreographed fountain, this massive marvel shoots water 153 meters into the sky, and watching it is entirely free (every 30 minutes from 6pm). Jostle your way through the outdoor crowds to Baker & Spice in Souk Al Bahar, an organic eatery that has some of the best fountain-facing tables and serves an epic tahini-falafel sandwich with ingredients from the UAE’s local markets (US$15).
- Day 3 costs: Transport US$4.93; Brunch US$13; Snack US$8; Dinner US$16; Total: 40.93
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Local etiquette. Emiratis are incredibly kind and hospitable, but they’re also very private people. This applies to many things, including public photography and drone usage — it’s illegal to take photos of someone without their consent in Dubai, so make sure to focus that camera wisely.
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Underground success. The Dubai Metro is, for many visitors, the cleanest and most luxurious subway they have ever come across. To keep things ultra-tidy, officials have banned any eating or chewing of gum on the trains. Also, keep an eye out for women-only sections, marked with pink signage.
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This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.