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How to see Dubai for free
The UAE city of Dubai has a reputation as a high-priced destination where restaurant bills can be as breathtaking as the views from Burj Khalifa. And most travel guides perpetuate the ‘only for the rich’ myth, with must-do lists crammed with costly activities, like afternoon tea at the 7-star Burj Al Arab and helicopter joy-rides along the coast.
These are fine to do if you can afford them, however, there are plenty of other fun activities – often more alluring and authentic – that cost nothing. Most centre on Old Dubai, on the lively waterfront, gritty backstreets, ramshackle souks, and enchanting Dubai Creek. Here’s what you can do – for free!
Wander the Dubai Creek waterfront
Dubai Creek is the lifeblood of the old city, chaotic with traditional wooden dhows (trading vessels) sailing in from Arabian Gulf ports, open-sided abras (wooden public water taxis) criss-crossing the artery transporting commuters to work, and flashy boats taking tourists on scenic cruises up and down the picturesque estuary. It costs nothing to saunter along the Creek taking all this in, watching fishermen throw out a line, workers playing cricket in the park, or photographing the shimmering reflections of the watery scene on the shiny glass buildings.
Lose yourself in Dubai’s labyrinthine souks
There are traditional old souks (markets) on both sides of Dubai Creek, and you can move between them on an abra for one dirham (around 20p). Not free, but close! Renovated Bur Dubai Souk consists of breezy wooden arcades shading glass-fronted textile shops and stalls selling cheap clothes, souvenir t-shirts and sparkly Aladdin slippers. Deira souk, on the other side of the Creek, is more dilapidated and chaotic, even labyrinthine in parts. While it’s fun to haggle for perfume and carpets, it costs nothing to browse or mosey around, taking in the action and indulging in a spot of people watching.
Learn about Dubai’s early days
Dubai has a handful of interesting museums, the best of which is Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort near Bur Dubai souk, which provides a brilliant introduction to Dubai’s frenetic development from diminutive port and pearling village to colossal transport and trade hub through a multimedia show and fascinating exhibits of archaeological finds, firearms, coins, Bedouin costumes, and traditional musical instruments, along with kooky life-size dioramas. This will cost you AED 3 (60p), however, so instead visit Heritage House, a splendid old pearling master’s residence, and adjoining Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai’s first school. Built in 1890, Heritage House offers an insight into life before oil through some peculiar dioramas of its own, while both buildings are beautiful examples of vernacular architecture with airy courtyards, impressive wind-towers, and intricate decorative gypsum panels.
Ogle the glittery stuff at the gold souk
Nearby you’ll find Dubai’s famous Gold souk and while serious shoppers will tell you gold is not the bargain it once was, you’re here to take in the atmosphere, not shop for jewellery. Take a seat under the wooden-latticed arcades and soak up the scene of tourists, shoppers and traders from all walks of life passing by: East African women in colourful clothing and colossal headdresses, pink-faced Europeans who’ve clearly had too much sun, Pakistani and Afghani porters dragging weighty wooden carts, and Indian guys selling “copy-watches” – outside jewellery stores with Rolexes in the windows. Then there’s the glittering stuff. Gawking at the extravagant displays is the best bit: windows gleam with ornate gold bangles, gigantic gem-encrusted rings, and flamboyant necklaces intended for dowries and weddings.
Inhale exotic aromas at the perfume and spice souks
When you exit the Gold Souk, you’ll find a block lined with brightly lit shops selling vibrant Middle Eastern and African outfits, belly-dancing costumes, and – what you’re here for – perfume. Behind the counters of these glitzy shops, you’ll find salesmen pushing every kind of perfume from high-end European knock-offs to an astonishing array of Arabic attars (essential oils) from across the Arabian Peninsula. Participating in the perfume-buying ritual is fun, from admiring the elaborate and often bizarre-shaped perfume bottles (from tiny embellished daggers to glass coffee pots) to inhaling the dozens of different heady fragrances the sales guys spray on your wrists, arms, neck, and any other bare bits they can find. There’s rarely pressure to buy, so when your skin is splotchy and your head’s pounding, stroll to the waterfront to the Spice Souk to inhale the dried lemons, chillies, nuts, pulses, herbs, spices, and frankincense that spill from the jute sacks outside the shops.
Inspect the dhows on Dubai Creek wharves
Cross the road and wander along the dhow wharfage, where these traditional old wooden trading boats dock for a few days while they unload and load goods from the souqs for their passage across the Arabian Sea to various destinations in the Gulf. Dubai has been a trading hub for centuries and it’s heartening to see these guys going about business as they’ve always done. Take a close look at the crazy cargo – flat screen televisions, fancy fridges, mattresses, kitchen sinks, tyres, and even small cars – and life on board. It’s not unusual to see sailors picnicking on deck, snoozing atop a stack of boxes, or, well… you can guess what the bottomless barrel-like structures protruding from the boat are for!
Amble the breezy lanes of arty Bastakiya
Back on the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, the evenings are an ideal time to amble the diminutive Bastakiya, Dubai’s historic Persian quarter, where the skinny alleyways are lined with grand old merchant’s residences with courtyards and wind-towers (traditional form of air-conditioning) that have been transformed into art galleries and boutique hotels. For Arabian-inspired commercial art and antiques visit Majlis Gallery, while XVA specialises in contemporary art and installations from the Middle East. Even if you’re not into art, it’s worth peeking inside to enjoy the architecture.
Soak up some history and heritage
From Bastakiya, stroll through Bur Dubai souk and along the waterfront to the oldest part of Dubai, Shindagha, at the mouth of Dubai Creek. Along the way, admire the beautifully restored old residences, such as Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House, similar in style to the Bastakiya buildings and Heritage House.
A little further on, the Heritage and Diving Village is a kitsch recreation of the original pearling and fishing settlement made of barasti (palm frond) huts that once stood here. Often dismissed as touristy, it’s a favourite spot for locals who like to visit on cool winter nights. After a wander, return to the waterfront to savour those Creek vistas once more, listen to the belly-dancing music boom from the party boats, watch the fairy-lights flicker, inhale the heady fragrance of strawberry sheesha wafting from the waterfront cafés, and sigh. It’s enchanting and it’s all free!
Written by Lara Dunston