Dubai has a global reputation for luxury and opulence that attractors visitors from around the globe. Maybe it’s your primary destination or maybe it’s part of a stopover. If you’re flying Emirates it’s likely you’ll find yourself in Dubai, so if you have the flexibility to extend your layover, take advantage of it! I decided to explore the city for a couple days in between travels to Mauritius and Jordan.
Side note, if you have the opportunity to fly Emirates, do it. Even flying standard economy, the amenities are great. Emirates offers a direct 14-hour flight from Seattle (my home airport) to Dubai, which flies north over the top of the world, nearly passing over the North Pole.
As a budget traveler, Dubai might seem a little daunting, but I’ll assure you you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy yourself. There’s so much to explore in this massive city that sprawls up out of the desert to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Keep reading to discover fun, FREE things to do in Dubai! I’ve also included ways to up level your experience if you have budgeted to spend more on your activities. You’ll find more budget information, including where to stay and eat for less.
1) Burj Khalifa
You can’t travel to Dubai without seeing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Literally, because at a record breaking 163 floors tall, you can see it from virtually everywhere. But it is impressive to see the Burj up close and personal.
At the base of the Burj Khalifa, a water and light show is hosted daily every half hour from 6-11 p.m. The show was cool and free, but also very crowded. We went at 6 p.m. to try to catch it during sunset, but unfortunately it was a cloudy evening and there weren’t any impressive sunset colors.
Splurge: Go up to Level 124 & 125 viewing decks
Cost: Starting at 141 AED (~$38 USD)
Level 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa boasts large viewing decks that hold masses of people. They offer 360 degree views of Dubai, from the gulf to the city to the desert. There is a large gift shop, as well as open air decks. A spiral staircase connects the two floors.
Ball out: Go to the world’s highest viewing deck and the highest point open to the public on Level 148 (requires a VIP Experience)
Cost: Starting at 370 AED (~$100 USD)
The only way to reach the highest viewing point in the Burj Khalifa, at floor 148, is by shelling out for the VIP experience. We figured if we were going up in the highest building in the world, we might as well go as high as we could possibly go. We wouldn’t have paid for this during our world trip, but decided to really splurge here (plus we would be enjoying the rest of the free activities listed in this blog). You can also visit Levels 124 & 125 with the VIP pass, and don’t have to wait in the long line to take the elevators back down to the ground floor.
Prices are even higher during sunset, which is considered a peak time, but we opted to book the first time slot of the day at 9:30 a.m. to avoid crowds. We arrived early and waited in the VIP lounge where we drank tea and then were taken on a short informative tour after passing through security.
We took the elevator up to the VIP lounge on floor 148, which travels rapidly at 10 meters per second and were greeted with trays of juice and snacks, from mini macarons to pastries. As a budget minded traveler, I made sure to have my fair share of snacks “to get my money’s worth.”
As I looked out at the expansive view in front of and below me, it was hard to grasp just how high up I was. The buildings below looked small from above, so it was crazy to think they were normal sized skyscrapers!
There is an open-air viewing deck with glass walls and open spaces you could reach your arms out of (and camera if you are careful!).
2) Dubai Mall
At the base of the tallest building in the world is the largest mall in the world (although that title is occasionally contested by other mega malls). The Dubai Mall appears endless with shops and restaurants galore from all around the world. Stores range from all price points, from luxury designer brands like Dior and Chanel to more affordable international brands like H&M. It is a great place to escape the desert heat in the air conditioning while window shopping.
Not only does The Dubai Mall have your typical mall fare, it boasts an aquarium, ice rink, and waterfall fountain. The waterfall spans all four stories of the mall and is adorned with sculptures of human divers.
Bonus: Free food! As we walked around the mall, I happily accepted ice cream and frozen yogurt samples from a handful of different storefronts.
Splurge: Visit the Dubai Aquarium
Cost: Starting at 135 AED (~$36 USD)
We were disappointed to find out the aquarium was an additional fee (although we should’ve known better). You can still see the aquarium from the mall, but you have to pay to walk through the famous tunnel. There are several different packages and experiences available at different price points. We personally didn’t think it was worth the extra money, especially since you can see the tank and sea creatures from inside the mall (and we had already splurged on the VIP experience at the Burj Khalifa).
3) La Mer
La Mer is a trendy beachfront neighborhood and boardwalk in Dubai. La Mer boasts several restaurants, food stands, and shops along Jumeira Public Beach, with a hip, new industrial feel mixed with colorful cute beach huts.
If you love bright and colorful street art, you’ll love La Mer. Fun murals cover the outdoor walls, with messages like “Positive Vibes Only” and “Stay Cool.”
From the beach, you are granted a view of Dubai’s skyline and you can really grasp how tall the Burj Khalifa is. The Burj towers over the rest of the city’s skyscrapers, making them look minuscule in comparison.
Splurge: Laguna Waterpark and/or Roxy Cinemas
Cost: 99 AED online (~$26 USD) / starting at 68.25 AED (~$18 USD)
If you’re looking to cool down, you can take a dip in the gulf for free at the beach (change into your swimsuit in one of the colorful huts) or splurge to splash around Laguna Waterpark. If you’re looking to beat the heat without getting wet, you can catch a movie at the Roxy Cinema. You can buy a standard movie ticket or purchase a seat with a pillow, blanket, and a three-course meal.
4) Spice & Gold Souk
Wandering through the Spice Souk and Gold Souk is a great way to get a glimpse of Old Dubai, whether or not you’re in the market to buy spices or gold.
The shopkeepers in the Spice Souk stand outside their open-air shops and try different tactics to entice visitors to buy their goods, from spices to pashminas to shoes. When we visited, their tactics ranged from shouting out deals, to asking or guessing where we were from (“Italy?”), to different forms of flattery (a few shop keepers called me Shakira, which I thought they were referring to the singer, but apparently is a local term for a pretty woman).
We visited at night and as the only tourists walking through the Souk at that time, the amount of attention we received was intense. We felt slightly preyed upon, not in a dangerous way, but this deterred us from actually stopping at any shops to browse. We have been in other markets around the world where shopkeepers have acted similarly and understand their persistent sales methods are a cultural tactic, it is just not one we are always comfortable with. If we had something specific in mind we were looking to purchase, we would have enjoyed bartering with the shopkeepers (a skill we’ve improved throughout our world travels).
The Gold Souk has a different vibe, as all of the shops are enclosed and air conditioned.
We felt much more comfortable browsing outside here and enjoyed ourselves window shopping, as we were left relatively alone to gaze at the impressive displays of gold and jewelry. Every now and then an owner would come out of their shop to try to tempt us in, telling us it was free to look, but we politely declined as we didn’t intend on buying anything.
In both souks, men would regularly come up to us and ask if we wanted to buy Rolexes or designer bags. We continually refused offers to buy the designer knock offs.
Outside of the Gold Souk, there is a pretty green mosque in Old Dubai.
5) Sunset Beach
If you’re looking to watch a sunset in Dubai, look no further than aptly named Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach is home to world’s first seven star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. The Burj Al Arab is famous for its iconic sail shape. The man-made Palm Islands (shaped like a palm tree, which is visible from the sky) are off in the distance and on one of the islands sits the famous Atlantis hotel.
We arrived at Sunset Beach just as the sun was starting to set. The sun burned a bright pink as it sank into the horizon in between the sail of the Burj Al Arab and the Atlantis.
Where to stay on a budget
Use Airbnb to save money on accommodation in Dubai. Get $40 off your first Airbnb by using my referral code here!
We stayed at this Airbnb for 3 nights for $211.50 (including a $19.50 discount from a previous host cancellation), which came out to $70.50 a night or $35.25 a person per night. The location was great, not too far from the metro (less than 10 minutes walk to the nearest station) and affordable to get a Uber or Careem (local version of Uber) from as well. There was a little 24 hour market on the ground floor level, which was convenient (especially since we arrived late at night). The bed was very comfortable too.
We had originally booked another Airbnb but the host was strict on check in time (only until 8 p.m.) and we were getting into Dubai after 11 p.m., so the host had to cancel our reservation.
Where to eat on a budget
To get a taste of local cuisine, venture to Ravi Restaurant, which has two locations in Dubai (we loved it so much we ate at both!). Ravi Restaurant is a no-frills restaurant with plastic tables and Styrofoam cups. We came across rave reviews about the restaurant online after searching TripAdvisor’s “Cheap Eats.” One reviewer mentioned he ate at Ravi six times in five days while visiting Dubai, so we were curious if it would live up to the hype (spoiler alert – it did!).
When you see big neon green lights, you’ll know you are in the right place. Both locations were completely packed with people, but we were lucky to score an open table without a wait both times, as turnover is fast with speedy service.
The menu was extensive and we were a little overwhelmed by what to order, especially since we didn’t know what many of the dishes were. We ended up selecting lentil soup, salad, four rotis (flat bread), a mixed grill platter, and chicken biryani (a mixed rice dish with chicken). We were impressed by our waiter’s ability to remember our order without writing anything down, while rushing around a full restaurant. Our dishes came out quickly and we found out we ordered much more than we needed. The
food was absolutely delicious and affordable, especially compared to the prices of everything else we had seen in Dubai.
We loved our meal so much, the following night we ended up eating at Ravi Restaurant again, but this time we tried the other location and were just as satisfied the second time around. We learned that the restaurant was a Pakistani restaurant after looking up the origin of the green flags that adorned the walls. We still talk about how much we wish we could eat at Ravi again!
Planning a trip or stopover in Dubai? Why not take a day trip to Abu Dhabi to visit the Grand Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi?
Read more about my adventures in the UAE as SWISSGEAR’s Travel Ambassador on Swissgear.com.
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