Dubai is mostly used as stopover destination for travelers flying in and out on Emirates. While Dubai can easily be a stopover city where you hit the big sites in a couple of days, there’s a surprising amount of things to do here for those looking to spend more time. I loved my time in Dubai more than I thought I would! It’s a city trapped between the old and the new. A place in a conservative culture with old world customs while at the same time a Middle-Eastern Vegas where anything goes (so long as it’s behind closed doors). I was surprised at how much there was to do in this city – and how even in a week I barely scratched the surface. Dubai is a fascinating, multi-cultural city that deserves a lot more than stopover and I hope you use this guide to help plan a trip that won’t break your budget!
Hostel prices – Hostels are not that common in Dubai. There are only a few here and most charge between 100-120 AED for a basic dorm. If you want a private room, expect to pay between 250-375 AED. Most will include free WiFi and a couple places also offer free breakfast. If you can avoid them, I would as they aren’t that nice in the city.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start between 200-250 AED per night for a basic twin or double room. Free WiFi is standard, and many budget hotels also include extras like free airport shuttles or swimming pools. Mid-range hotels start around 250 AED per night, but if you’re looking for something more luxurious, the sky is the limit here! Airbnb is also an option here (I suggest you avoid other paid sharing economy services as they are reliable here). A shared room on Airbnb starts around 100 AED per night, while an entire home or apartment will be closer to 400 AED.
Average cost of food – You can find cheap meals in Dubai for around 30 AED, while fast food will cost a bit less (around 25 AED). The best meals are usually shared by the table and consist of hummus, pita, falafel, foul, fattoush, tahini salad, and grilled halloumi cheese. Operation Falafel is a great cheap restaurant chain with 7 locations around Dubai. If you want a meal at a mid-range restaurant, expect to pay closer to 100 AED. For an all-day brunch extravaganza, expect to pay at least 375 AED per person. If you plan on cooking your own meals, groceries will cost between 175-225 AED per week. Debonairs in the Dubai Mall has a lunch special for 15 AED ($4 USD). It’s one of the best bargains I found. Be sure to head into Old Dubai for cheap eats. Meals at restaurants in this area generally cost 20-30 AED ($5-8 USD). I really loved Al Usted, an Iranian restaurant near the Al Fahidi metro.
Transportation costs – The metro, while not extensive, is efficient and well-maintained and the public buses can take you anywhere. A single fare will cost between 4-8.50 AED (prices are based on how far you are going) and a day-pass is 20 AED. Taxis are on the cheap side, though if you need to call one, call an Uber instead since the addresses here can be a bit wonky to explain over the phone to a taxi company. The prices between the two are comparable, so stick with whatever is most convenient. A bus to Abu Dhabi will cost around 40 AED (you can also take a taxi there for 290 AED each way).
Suggested daily budget – 300 AED / $80 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, doing lots of free activities, keeping your drinking to a minimum, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher! Dubai is not cheap but it doesn’t need to be super expensive either!)
Money Saving Tips
- Walk around – Dubai is full of places that are free to enter, and stunning to walk around. Spend the day at any mall or shopping area: Mall of the Emirates, The Dubai Mall, Ibn Battuta Mall, City Center Mirdif, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Sunset Mall, Souk al Bahar, etc. There’s plenty to see and if you leave Dubai without going to a mall – you did it wrong!
- Eat hummus – Lots of restaurants have hummus and “tapas” style food available. Have a filling meal by ordering 2-3 instead of ordering a main meal. This is especially good if you’re eating with others so you can split the bill too!
- Skip the Burj Khalifa at sunset – If you’re going up the Burj Khalifa (not my favorite activity), tickets during the sunset hours are much more expensive. Since the sunset view really isn’t that much better, skip it. You’ll pay around 30% less!
- Talk to the locals – The people here are incredibly hospitable and sweet, making them a wonderful resource for the intrepid traveler. Don’t hesitate to ask the locals for suggestions on places to eat, things to do, etc. Not only will you get to interact with the population but you’ll definitely get some great, local insight!
- Pick your accommodation wisely – Stay within walking distance of a subway stop. The subway is really cheap, so if you can walk to a stop, you’re able to get to so many places without much money or effort.
- DIY desert safari – Don’t rent a car. If you know anyone who lives in Dubai, ask if they have a friend who will take you to the desert. This isn’t a big deal as locals go to the desert very often in the cooler months. You might even get lucky and find someone who wants to camp out there.
- Use Groupon –Groupon is very popular in Dubai. Use it to find discounts on restaurants, activities, and attractions. If there is something you want to do, check here first. Chances are you can find a discount!
- Attend a budget happy hour – The lifeblood of any drinker, happy hours are where you can go to save a buck: from McGettigan’s drink specials (29 AED ($8 USD) for selected house drinks) to Agency’s 100 AED ($27 USD) bottle of wines. Dubai is FULL of happy hours (and drink specials can be found in The Entertainer too).
- Get The Entertainer – This magazine has discounts and specials for hotels, restaurants, and activities, including 2-for-1 offers. You can get a hardcopy at a supermarket or bookstore for 495 AED or download the app for 445 AED. While it’s not cheap, chances are you will get you money’s worth if you plan on doing a lot.
Top Things to See and Do in Dubai
- Visit Burj Khalifa – The tallest building in the world lets you go up to the 128th floor for 100 AED ($27 USD). From there, you get panoramic views of the city and desert. When I went it was pretty hazy, but it still made for a beautiful contrast. I would highly recommend it (but don’t pay 500 AED ($136 USD) for the 148th floor. It’s not that much of a difference!). At night, the building is illuminated by a spectacular light show of fish, palm trees, and other scenes while the fountain below dances to music.
- Take a desert safari – If you want to get a taste of the desert, head out on a day-long safari with Arabian Adventure. You’ll be able to ride a camel, hold a falcon, explore the desert, and eat some traditional food. A day-long excursion will cost around 315 AED. (Note: there are other desert safaris that may be cheaper, but this is the full experience).
- Visit Global Village – This is a massive entertainment extravaganza, with shopping, dining, and live performances all coming together to create an incredible cultural experience. This is like Epcot Center at Disney World, except it showcases the different cultures of the Middle East. There are dance and sword shows, as well as plenty of local foods to try. Admission is only 15 AED!
- Dubai Miracle Garden – This quirky and colorful garden is worth spending some time seeing. The garden was opened in 2013 and is spread over 72,000 square meters, making it the world’s largest natural flower garden featuring over 109 million flowers planted. Do not forget your camera for this. Admission is only 40 AED. (Note: it’s best seen in the daytime).
- Visit Kite Beach – If you’re into kite surfer or water sports, this is a great place to catch some waves. The winds pick up in the afternoon, making it a good time to hit the water or just sit back and watch others do it. If watersports aren’t your thing, just come here to catch some rays and relax. My favorite, more “local” restaurant is called Tent Jumeriah, and it’s on the walkway between Kite Beach and the Burj Dubai Hotel.
- The Marina – The marina area is surrounded by tall buildings and contains a beautiful boardwalk. You can see the fancy boats and get some stunning photographs of the harbor and skyline. Be sure to checkout Pier 7, which is seven floors of restaurants and bars on the water. I liked Asia Asia, with its gaudy Asian theme (it has 2-for-1 specials in The Entertainer too!).
- Souk Madinat Jumeirah – This souk (market) is a modern building designed to look like something out of Aladdin, but it’s home to some incredible restaurants, like Agency, a modern wine bar with a huge selection of wines and yummy meat and cheese plates. There’s a beautiful inner courtyard pond in this complex, too.
- Dubai Museum – A small museum in Old Dubai with not a lot of information but some really cool displays. It teaches you the history and culture of Dubai and life in the desert. At $1 USD admission, you can’t go wrong.
- Visit Old Dubai – This is Dubai as it used to be. Markets (like the famous gold market) pepper the area, small shops line the streets, and you can get lost in a maze of alleyways. Take a boat across the river, wander aimlessly, visit the Dubai Museum, eat at some of the traditional restaurants, explore the art district, and see Dubai as it is away from the glitz of the malls and high-rises.
- Hit the mall – Malls in Dubai are not like malls anywhere else in the world. Between the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates, you’ll find a ton of amazing things to see and do. Beyond shopping, you can watch the nightly fountain show (think Vegas) or visit the aquarium at the Dubai Mall, or go indoor skiing at the Mall of the Emirates. Just be sure to dress appropriately (avoid tank tops and mini skirts).
- Visit the Grand Mosque – Located in nearby Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque is definitely worth a half-day trip. It’s a 90-minute drive from Dubai (about 290 AED each way in a taxi or 40 AED on the bus), and you’ll want to make sure you wear appropriate clothing. They do have cover-up items available there, however, for anyone without suitable attire. Admission is free.
- Stroll along Jumeirah Beach – This is a great place to sunbathe and stroll along the boardwalk. There are lots of shops to visit, and there is even an outdoor movie theater. Not only is this a great place to visit, but it’s a great area to stay because you’re surrounded by so many things to do.
- Enjoy Ripe Market – This outdoor market has many locations around both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Browse organic foods and crafts made by people living in Dubai. This is held in a gorgeous park, so grab lunch from the food trucks and sit on the grass to relaxingly eat it.
- Go dancing at Barasti – This dynamic outdoor bar is full of locals and expats. It’s multi-level with a beach at the bottom (so don’t wear heels). There’s a huge dancefloor, sheesha smoking, food, a food truck, and many different lounge areas. Drinks are 45-75 AED each (normal for Dubai).
- Watch an outdoor movie – By the beach or up on a rooftop, when the temperature dips in the winter, Dubai offers the perfect place to catch a screening of your favorite films outdoors. So grab some popcorn, curl under a blanket and unwind under the stars at these open-air cinema experiences. There’s one at the Galleria Mall, Wafi Mall, Cinema Akil, and Reform Social and Grill.
- Go deep sea fishing – It’s quite easy to book a spot on a boat and head out to sea if you want to try your hand at deep sea fishing. Operators like Go Fishing Dubai cater to all ages and levels of experience, and most packages even include lunch. Prices will vary depending on what sort of vessel you book but more luxurious boat packages will cost upwards of 900 AED.
- Visit the Jumeirah Mosque – This beautiful mosque is one of two in the city you can actually visit. It consists of one large room and there is a guided tour every day at 10am. It’s 20 AED and comes with a great breakfast spread. If you don’t know much about Islam or the role it plays in the UAE, it’s pretty a interesting tour.