Living among the locals

A backpacker’s guide to Dubai


Dubai is a famous destination for luxury travelers, shoppers, and big spenders. But that never stopped backpackers with a limited budget from exploring the glamorous City of Gold. 

More recently, though, the Emirate’s flagship airlines have been carrying a growing number of travelers from Europe to Asia me who often stop here for transit. Catering to these – often low-budget – tourists, Dubai has been expanding to meet their needs.

If you have a trip that stops in Dubai, here are some suggestions for budget-friendly activities.

  1. Scan the city from the metro

One of the most popular sights in Dubai is the city’s tower-studded skyline.

Taking the metro, which travels above ground in most parts of the city, will give you a front seat view to some of Dubai’s most magnificent towers, including the world’s highest building, Burj Khalifa.

Riding the metro will also offer a view of Sheikh Zayed Road, the six-lane highway linking the old town to the newer cosmopolitan areas.

Cost: Less than $2.72

  1. The Old Town

The Bastakiya District – or Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood – is Dubai’s heritage area where old houses have been preserved and turned into art galleries, cafes, and bazaars.

Because it is entirely outdoors, this area is only recommended during the cooler months of the year, roughly between November and March.

This place, which used to be the heart of the city about a century ago, is one of Dubai’s most vibrant with a busy network of alleys. If you like bargaining, this is the place for you, and if you don’t, ignore everyone and keep going.

Take the time to explore local cafes and shops. There is an alley for everything, from candy to textiles and clothes. There is even an alley for shops that sell praying oils, flowers, and deity figurines near the Hindu temple. The most prominent of these streets form the spice and the gold markets or souks.

You can also cross the creek using one of the busy ferries or Abras.

Cost: Abra $0.41; Fresh juice $4.00; elephant-patterned yoga pants $5.45; Creek-view restaurant $8.17.

  1. Kite Beach

If you are a sports fan, you will definitely enjoy sunbathing at the Dubai Kite Beach.

It includes a space with a beach gym, cafes, fresh juice and ice cream kiosks, a track for cycling and jogging, beach volleyball courts, blow-up five-aside footy pitches, a sand football pitch, and, further down the beach, a boat yard.

That is not to mention, of course, the beach itself, where you can swim and enjoy the sunset. The waves combined with the wind create the perfect environment for kite surfing, making this strip of beach a hub for small-scale surfing schools and equipment shops.

Cost: Free entrance; Lunch: up to $13.61

  1. Alserkal Avenue

Alserkal Avenue promotes anything that is artistic, local, and organic. The project, which turned a car factory in the heart of Dubai’s industrial area of al Quoz into an art hub, hosts a plethora of activities and festivals, particularly during the winter months between November and March.

The complex includes numerous art galleries, a couple of business centers/cafes, an independent cinema, an independent vinyl shop, a small theater, a vintage car showroom, and a chocolate factory.

In addition to the option of roaming around the area to explore the different exhibitions and displays, Alserkal holds free activities like weekly discussions about literature and poetry and road trips to other art hubs in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

Cost: Organic burger $13.69; Independent cinema tickets $9.5; Masala tea $3.8.

  1. Picnic around the lake

Dubai has many man-made lakes around its neighborhoods and parks. You’re likely to find athletes jogging, parents pushing their baby strollers, and friends having a picnic.

But to have the ultimate experience, you will have to head to Al Qudra lake; located in the middle of the Saih al Salam Desert Reserve near Bab Al Shams, approximately 30-40 minutes by taxi from Burj Al Arab.

The site includes a cycling track, a spot for camping, and the chance for kids to fly kites.

Home to about 130 species of birds, including migratory ones, the area is perfect for bird watching. You can spot endangered species like Lappet-faced vultures, coastal birds such as Glossy ibis, Caspian plover, sanderling, eagles, and falcons. This is not to mention the large flocks of pink flamingos, black and white swans. 

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About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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