Dubai is known as one of the world’s most extravagant cities. The largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, it's home to the tallest building and largest mall in the world. Mere mention of its name conjures images of royalty, flashy sports cars, and towering skyscrapers. And as it revs up to host the 2020 World Expo, the city of superlatives is only going to get more fantastic.
However, despite its glittering reputation, you don’t need deep pockets to visit Dubai. There are plenty of ways to experience the city without breaking the bank. You might even see a deeper, more authentic side of Dubai, tucked underneath the lavish facade.
Visit one of the free beaches in Dubai
With a tropical climate, and little rainfall, Dubai is one of the best beach destinations in the world. Even better, some of the city's best beaches are public. Check out Black Palace Beach, if you’re looking for a calm day on the sand, or head to Kite Beach to enjoy kitesurfing on the waves.
Opt for a late-night brunch instead of a club in Dubai
Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t party in Dubai. If you’re looking for the most cost-effective way to enjoy the city’s nightlife, consider an evening brunch. You'll be able to sip unlimited Champagne, gobble down delectable food, and then dance it all off.
Women will find they can drink for free at many of these events. Every Wednesday, Luna Sky Bar hosts a Ladies Night, where women get free drinks and sushi alongside one of the most beautiful views in the city.
Use public transport in Dubai
The Dubai Metro is one of the city’s proudest accomplishments. Its sleek train cars and clean tracks make other urban public transit systems look like crumbling wagons held together by duct tape.
Since its opening in 2009, the metro system has expanded to include two lines and 47 stations. A day pass with unlimited rides around the city will cost 14 dirham (or $3.80 USD). While the trains won’t be able to take you everywhere, the metro stops at most major tourist attractions, including the Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, and traditional souks. Another line is expected to open in 2020, with direct access to the World Expo grounds.
If you prefer a more old-school style of public transit, board the Abra. The water taxi ferries people across the Dubai Creek for only one dirham per person (about 25 cents).
Fill up on street food in Dubai
You could let your wallet bleed at one of the city’s fabulous Michelin-starred restaurants, or opt for something equally mouth-watering, but still budget-friendly, on 2nd December Street. Laws in Dubai prohibit cooking in the street, so this strip of small restaurants is the closest thing you'll find to street food.
Al Mallah is renowned for its Lebanese food (about 110 AED for two people), Pars Iranian sells mountains of kebabs (180 AED for two), and Ravi is a local favorite for its Pakistani fare (60 AED for two). Most meals on this street are served in large portions, so it’s a particularly economical option if you’re dining out with friends.
Once you’ve stuffed yourself, work off the food with a walk and explore the city’s street art.
Know your souks in Dubai
No trip to Dubai is complete without visiting the souks and haggling for spices, jewelry, and fabric. But be warned: The souks are as diverse as the goods you’ll find there.
The souks on the Deira side of the Dubai Creek are among city’s more touristy attractions. The Gold Souk, Spice Souk, and Perfume Souk are all within walking distance, and the famed Textile Souk is just across the creek. While you’ll be able to bargain very low prices, you’ll likely find many goods emblazoned with the words “Made in China.” Thoroughly inspect all items before settling on a price.
Meanwhile, the Souk Madinat Jumeirah was constructed to resemble a traditional Arabic market. While you’ll score stunning photos here, you’ll also pay for those pictures with higher prices at all of the stalls. The goods at this market are more likely to be handmade, but still inspect everything carefully and haggle to get the best price (try for half of the vendor's opening offer). If you visit at night, you’ll enjoy a free concert, as live music fills the halls.
Visit Dubai on a stopover
If you don’t think you can afford a full vacation in Dubai, but still want to experience the Middle Eastern metropolis, tack it onto another trip. When flying to Asia or Australia on Emirates, you'll likely connect through Dubai, and you can extend this into a free stopover.
Emirates has partnerships and deals with hotels that allow you to book a night or two for cheaper than what you may see online. Take full advantage of your time in the city by purchasing a Dubai Stopover Pass (from $57), which will get you into the city’s top attractions, like the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Frame, for less.
Download an app to score discounts on entertainment
Locals love The Entertainer app for its discounts on hotels, spas, and restaurants around the city. It's a particularly good idea for anyone traveling with a partner. Many of the offers advertised are BOGO (buy one, get one) — get two indulgent Arabic massages for the price of one.