Most people use Dubai as a stopover destination. They fly in, spend a night or two, then fly onward to their final destination. While Dubai is often seen as “Vegas in the desert,” there is a surprising amount of things to do here. There’s depth to the city that its popular image doesn’t accurately portray.
I found myself loving my visit here and even extending my stay.
Dubai is 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 was still left longing for more.
Dubai is a fascinating, multicultural city that deserves a lot more than a stopover. This travel guide to Dubai will help you make the most of your visit while showing you how to save money.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Dubai
1. Visit the Burj Khalifa
2. Take a desert safari
3. Visit Global Village
4. Explore the Dubai Miracle Garden
5. Have fun at Kite Beach
Other Things to See and Do in Dubai
1. Wander the Marina
The marina area is surrounded by tall buildings and is composed of a beautiful scenic boardwalk. Here, you’ll find lots of fancy boats, beautiful condos, and bars and restaurants overlooking the harbor. Be sure to check out Pier 7, which is seven floors of restaurants and bars on the water. I liked Asia Asia, with its gaudy Asian theme.
2. Hit the mall
Malls in Dubai are not like malls anywhere else in the world. There are over 65 malls in the city with more on the way. People love going to malls here! Between the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates, you’ll find a ton of amazing things to see and do. There’s luxury shopping, nightly fountain shows, an aquarium inside the Dubai Mall (which has a 270-degree underwater tunnel you can walk through), and even indoor skiing at the Mall of the Emirates (the Mall of the Emirates also has over 650 stores and 100 restaurants). You can also visit the world’s largest themed mall, the Ibn Battuta Mall. It has a Moroccan theme and is named after the eponymous explorer (it has over 270 stores and 50 restaurants too). Be sure to dress appropriately and avoid tank tops, shorts, or mini-skirts.
3. Visit the Grand Mosque
Located in nearby Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is definitely worth a half-day trip. Built between 1996-2007, the mosque and its surrounding gardens span over 30 acres. The mosque and its massive square are almost all white, giving it a very majestic look. It’s a 90-minute drive from Dubai (about 290 AED each way in a taxi or 25 AED on the bus). You’ll want to make sure you wear appropriate clothing since it is a place of worship (they have cover-up items available for anyone without suitable attire). During Eid, upwards of 41,000 people visit the mosque each day. Admission is free.
4. Explore 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 dizzying maze of alleyways. Take a boat across Dubai Creek to Deira (you can ride an abra, a traditional wooden boat) and wander aimlessly around the streets, 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. Don’t miss the Dubai Frame (a landmark offering the best views of the city), the gold market (which has upwards of 10 tons of gold at any time), and the spice souk (a large spice market you can browse).
5. Tour the Jumeirah Mosque
Opened in 1979, this beautiful mosque is one of two in the city you can actually visit. Built in the Fatimid style, it consists of one large room and there is a guided tour every day at 10am (except for Fridays). It’s 35 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.
6. 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. Tour operators 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 and how long you go but expect to pay 1,500 AUD for a 4-6 hour trip.
7. Relax at Jumeirah Beach
This white-sand beach is a fantastic place to sunbathe and stroll along the boardwalk. Located along the coast just south of the city’s historic district, 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. There are playgrounds here for kids as well as areas to BBQ. It’s perfect for picnics but gets super busy on the weekend so try to enjoy it during the week to beat the crowd.
8. Wander the Palm Islands
On this famous man-made palm tree-shaped island, you’ll find a large shopping walkway, the Atlantis resort, Aquaventure waterpark, and a host of fancy restaurants, bars, and clubs. It’s beautiful to walk around and explore during the day (at night, it’s pretty boring!).
9. Visit the Souk Madinat Jumeirah
This souk (market) is in a modern building designed to look like something out of Aladdin but it’s actually home to some incredible restaurants. There’s a beautiful inner courtyard pond in this complex, too. Come here if you want to splurge if you’re a foodie! Don’t miss Al Makan for local dishes, Anar for Persian cuisine, and The Noodle House for tasty Asian eats.
10. Binge at brunch
Brunch is a tradition among locals and expats. Every Friday, everyone flock to a midday buffet of unlimited drinks and food. As the day goes on, it often turns into debauchery that would make Nero proud. However, brunch is not a cheap affair, costing as much as 700 AED. Ask your hotel/hostel staff where the cheapest brunches are. You can usually find some for under 300 AED.
Dubai Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in a dorm room with 6-8 beds costs around 80 AED per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard though only one hostel includes free breakfast (Bombay Backpackers). For a private room with an ensuite bathroom, expect to pay around 175 AED per night.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels start at 285 AED in peak season. In the off-season, budget rooms cost around 90 AED. Expect basic amenities like a TV, tea/coffee maker, and AC.
There are lots of Airbnb options in Dubai. A private room averages about 165 AED per night, while entire homes and apartments start at 350 AED.
Food – Popular dishes in Dubai include hummus, shawarma, shish tawook (grilled kebabs), and knafeh (a sweet cheese pastry topped with rose syrup and pistachios). A meal out costs around 65 AED while dinner for two with drinks usually averages around 190-250 AED. For fast food like McDonald’s, expect to pay around 30 AED for a combo meal.
A large pizza costs around 45 AED while Chinese food is around 50 AED. A beer is about 45 AED while a latte or cappuccino is 19 AED. Bottled water is around 2 AED.
If you cook your own food, expect to pay around 500 AED per week for groceries including pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic staples.
Backpacking Dubai Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget of 260 AED per day you can stay in a hostel, cook all your meals, take public transportation to get around, skip drinking, and do mostly free activities. If you plan on drinking, you’ll need to add 40-80 AED extra per day.
On a mid-range budget of 770 AED per day, you can stay in a cheap hotel or Airbnb, eat out at the cheaper/non-expat restaurants, have a couple drinks, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do a couple paid attractions (such as a desert safari).
On a “luxury” budget of 1,425 AED, you can stay in a fancy hotel, eat out for every meal, drink as much as you’d like, go out for a brunch, take paid tours, visit the Burj Khalifa, and rent a car for some day trips. The sky is the limit here!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in AED.
Dubai Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Dubai is an expensive city. If you’re hanging out in the malls and restaurants that cater to expats, you’re going to spend a lot of money. That said, there are a few things you can do to cut costs so you don’t blow your budget. Here are some quick tips to help you save money in Dubai:
- Use Groupon – Groupon is huge in Dubai and you can find tons of discounts, 2-for-1 specials, and deals on the website. If there is something you want to do, check there first as there is a high chance you’ll find a discount.
- Get The Entertainer – The Entertainer is a magazine and app that offers discounts and specials on restaurants, hotels, and activities. Pick up a copy when you arrive in Dubai. It’s not cheap (it costs 395 AED) but sometimes you can find the app 50% off or get a free trial. If you plan to see and do a lot, it will be worth the price.
- Find happy hours – Dubai is full of happy hours. Plan your drinking accordingly to avoid the city’s high-priced booze.
- Skip the booze – Outside the happy hours and all-you-can-eat brunches, drinking is expensive so I would go easy on the drinking during your visit — or skip it altogether if you’re on a budget.
- Eat in Old Dubai – Step away from the hotels, malls, and fancy souks meant to make you think you are in Aladdin and head into Old Dubai for cheap eats. Meals at restaurants in this area cost less than 85 AED.
- Pick accommodation near the metro – Make sure your accommodation is near a metro stop. You don’t want to be walking around unnecessarily when it’s scorching hot and public transportation is much cheaper than taxis.
- Bring a reusable water bottle – The tap water is safe to drink in Dubai so bring a reusable water bottle to reduce your single-use plastic usage. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where To Stay in Dubai
Dubai doesn’t have a lot of hostels so you’ll want to book in advance if you plan to stay in a hostel. Here are your options when it comes to budget-friendly places to stay in Dubai:
How to Get Around Dubai
Public transportation – Dubai’s metro consists of nearly 50 stations. You can get to wherever you need to go, or close to it, with public transportation. Hours of operation depend on the day but both lines start operating from around 5:30am until about 1am. On Fridays, however, the trains don’t start running until 10am.
You’ll need a Nol Card to get around and you can buy the card at any of the ticket offices at the metro stations for 70 AED.
Fares depend on which of the zones you are traveling to. A standard ticket for one zone is 4 AED, for two zones it’s 6 AED and if you are traveling through 3 or more zones it’s 8.50 AED.
If you can’t get to where you’re going by subway, the bus will get you there. Like the Metro, the bus has different zones, and the Nol card is used as payment.
Ferry – The ferry in Dubai runs from 3 different terminals in the marina 7 days a week. Evening trips on the ferry are much busier, so be sure to get to the terminal 30 minutes early. Tickets range from 15-50 AED for silver class (seats in the main section of the boat) and 25-75 AED for gold class (more comfortable seats at the front of the boat).
Taxi – Taxis start at 12 AED and go up by around 2.50 AED per kilometer. Skip them if you can. They add up REALLY quickly!
Ridesharing – Uber and Careem are the two main ridesharing apps in Dubai. They aren’t usually cheaper than a standard taxi but they tend to be a lot more convenient.
Car rental – If you’re leaving the city, cars can be rented for around 65 AED per day. I would only rent one if you’re leaving the city. Otherwise, just use public transportation to get around.
Bicycle – Bikes can be rented from Nextbike for around 20 AED per hour or 80 AED per day.
When to Go to Dubai
The most popular time to visit Dubai is between November-April. The weather is cooler and perfect for desert safaris, with daily highs averaging around 27°C (80°F). Flights and accommodation will be more expensive during this time though.
May-August is the low season as Dubai just gets too warm. Daily highs average around 41°C (106°F) and make exploring the city unbearable. I visited in August and it was brutal. Skip the summer if you can!
The shoulder season between September and October is when the sea becomes perfect for swimming and water sports. It’s much less busy during this time so you’ll find fewer crowds and cheaper prices too.
How to Stay Safe in Dubai
Dubai is a very safe city. Violent crime is incredibly rare. Petty theft and pickpocketing can occur, though, that too is quite rare. As long as you keep your valuables secure, you likely won’t have any issues.
Be aware that many activities that are legal in other countries are not legal in Dubai, such as displays of public affection between unmarried or LGBTQ partners, drunken behavior, dressing immodestly, swearing, photographing people without their permission, and criticizing UAE’s government — among many other things.
In short, you’ll need to dress and act conservatively here. All the wild and crazy stuff in the city happens behind closed doors. It’s a see no evil kind of thing. Don’t push the limit in public or you’re likely to get in trouble.
If you do experience an emergency, dial 999 for police, 998 for an ambulance, and 997 for the fire department.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance protects you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Dubai Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Dubai. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a awesome accommodation alternative for people looking to stay in homes or apartments rather than hotels or hostels when they travel.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s an incredible way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Sweden, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Dubai Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Dubai Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Nabati Poetry of the United Arab Emirates, by Said Salman Abu Athera and Clive Holes
Nabati poetry is the traditional poetry of the Arab tribes of the UAE and surrounding area. This book is composed of dozens of historic poems and tales, offering readers an insightful look at both the original Arabic poems as well as the modern English translations. It’s a comprehensive introduction to the artistic and cultural roots of the UAE.
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, by Jim Krane
This book is almost a textbook-like account of Dubai and the UAE. It’s incredibly thorough and offers cultural, political, and historic insight into how Dubai came to be — and where it might be heading in the future. If you’ve never been to Dubai or the UAE, this book (while a bit slow to read) provides a comprehensive overview of the region and is worth reading before you arrive.
Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan
In the UAE, foreign nationals make up over 80 percent of the population. Much of this labor force has no rights of citizenship and endures stark and oppressive living conditions. In this debut novel, Unnikrishnan delves into the history and myths of temporary workers and sheds light on their collective struggles and triumphs.
The Sand Fish: A Novel from Dubai, by Maha Gargash
Written in 2009 by female Emirati writer Maha Gargash, The Sand Fish is set in the 1950s in the UAE. It sheds light on the challenges women face in the region, offering a glimpse behind the curtain of the UAE’s social order. It’s a light, quick read that nevertheless still manages to provide insight into the historic challenges women have faced in the UAE.
Dubai Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Dubai and continue planning your trip: