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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dubai on a budget: the best things in life are free

So what do budget travellers do in Dubai? There’s lots of fabulous stuff to do that is free or costs next to nothing. Your biggest costs are going to be hotels, transport and food: see this post for ideas on keeping those down. After that, Dubai’s your oyster:
1) Dubai’s museums
– Dubai boasts a number of fascinating but compact museums that take no more than an hour or so to see yet offer an extraordinary insight into the way of life in pre-oil days. Most museums are either free or cost a dirham (30 cents) or three (one dollar). Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort, near the Bur Dubai waterfront is the best, providing a great introduction to Dubai’s rapid development through a multimedia presentation and engaging displays of musical instruments, coins, firearms, costumes, and jewellery, a rather whimsical and very kitsch life-size diorama of an old souq, and a small but superb archaeological exhibition. Also, don’t miss the lovely Heritage House, a restored pearling master's residence, and Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai’s first, near the Gold Souq in Deira.

2) Bastakiya – this tiny old labyrinthine quarter on the waterfront near Dubai Museum boasts breezy narrow lanes that are home to traditional Persian merchants' houses that have been restored and in some cases reconstructed; the area was ramshackle and almost lost until it was decided it should be rejuvenated in the late 90s. The buildings are now home to charming boutique hotels, superb art galleries such as XVA and Majlis Gallery, and atmospheric cafes such as the enchanting Basta Art Café. Try the refreshing Basta Special, a thirst-quenching fresh mint and lime juice drink.
3) Dubai Creek and Dhow Wharves
– it costs nothing to wander along the waterfront of Dubai’s buzzy Creek. From the Bastikya, stroll through Al Seef Road Park for spectacular views of the Deira skyline opposite, with its stunning architecture. We never tire of the reflections in the glass buildings of the shimmering water and dhows (old wooden trading boats) and abras (small wooden water taxis) cruising along the Creek. In the opposite direction, wander through the wooden arcades of lively Bur Dubai textile souq, and then take an abra (1dh/30 cents) across the Creek to Deira to saunter along the dhow wharves and check out the amazing stuff they load and unload from the boats – everything from enormous flat screen TVs to chickens and cars – and see how the guys live on these things! Or continue to stroll along the Bur Dubai side of the Creek to the…

4) Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum's House
– one of several wonderfully restored old houses lining the waterfront. This grand building, like most in this area was built from gypsum, coral and sand, and boasts big cooling courtyards and beautiful wind-towers, the traditional form of air-conditioning. The former residence of Dubai’s ruling family, it's home to a fascinating and eye-opening exhibition of old black and white photos of Dubai.

5) Heritage and Diving Village
– Dubai’s wealth initially came from the pearling industry and the city was once a diminutive pearling and fishing village, so visit this recreation of the first settlement at Shindagha, at the mouth of Dubai Creek to get an idea of what Dubai was like not all that long ago. There are barasti (palm frond) houses, a small souq, beautiful old wooden boats, and traditional performances (pictured), when you’ll see more Emiratis than tourists. It’s loveliest and liveliest in the evenings. Afterwards, you can head next door to the sprawling al fresco Arabic eatery KanZaman when you can feast on Arabic food (a few mezze and a juice will cost you around $10) and try the aromatic sheesha, as you savour the sublime views of Dubai Creek, enchanting at night when the fairylights twinkle on the boats.


Anonymous said...

I think I would love Bastakiya.

All these posts about Dubai make me want to travel to UAE.

Fly Brother said...

Lara...infinite thanks for these two posts. And you're right; random street performances and events are always better than shelling out $50 for some contrived show geared toward foreigners. When I do swing through, I'll spot you a meal with some of the money you saved me.

Anonymous said...

Perfect ideas for us recessionistas forced to travel on the tightest budget of our young lives... Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

My sister lives in Dubai and I really wish I'd have read this blog before I went to visit! I'll take up your advice on my next visit!

Anonymous said...

Dubai is a nice place..

Melissa said...

Thanks for the info my younger brother is planning a trip to Dubai. I am going to pass the info to him. I just found a new travel site that you might like - You should post some of your tips on there.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi all! Thanks for commenting. Sorry about the delay in acknowledging - busy with these books.

Erica - if you do get to Dubai, stay in Orient Guest House or XVA in the Bastakiya - you will enjoy it - but those old buildings can be uncomfortably hot in the warm months.

Fly Brother - totally agree with you. But you wouldn't believe how many times I've read reviews by journalists who've flitted in to Dubai for 3 days to do a story for Vanity Fair or Conde Nast, have never been to the country or Gulf before, visit the Heritage Village and see these dances and say it *is* contrived. I've lived with these people for 10 years, and while I worked in education learnt about their culture from them - the stuff down at the Heritage Village couldn't be more authentic. Shame some writers don't do any research.
Dinner is on us!

Hey Laura - thanks for reading and thanks for the feedback. You know Terry and I are the kind of travellers who only seem to spend money on hotels and food when we travel. We do a tonne of other stuff, but we never seem to spend much on tickets to shows or anything.

Because we consider cities and towns to be living museums. So unless we're working and we have to see something to write a review for a book, we're spending most of our time just wandering around. I think that's what travellers need to do more of in these lean times.

You know, having been up the Eiffel Tower, I'd much rather avoid the lines and steep ticket prices and enjoy it from down below, lying on the grass below with a baguette, some good cheese, and a bottle of wine.

Hi travel muse - I've seen that site - thanks for posting that - it's wonderful. There are a couple of places in Dubai, such as Sheikh Saeed's House at Shindagha where you can enjoy those photos. You're right - it is a great game to play. And living there for 10 years has been like watching a city grow before our eyes.

Hello golearnto - your sister must have great tips too! A shame if you missed some of these things though. Let me know when you're next passing through to visit your sister.

Hi Melissa - I'll check out your site.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like Dubai when I went there

Anonymous said...

good article. Dubai is wonderful!