Decadent is the go-to descriptor when talking about Dubai. Ever since the United Arab Emirates city struck oil in the late 1960s, Dubai has developed a reputation as a playground for the one-percent. A city where ATMs dispense gold, the police patrol in Lamborghinis, children have their own pick of high-fashion retailers like Dior, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, teenagers carry around the latest iteration of Chanel's Boy Bag, and everything from the botanical gardens to the shopping malls and hotels set world records in opulence. As the 22nd most expensive city in the world, even bare necessities like imported bottled water can cost nearly five times more than the going rate in the United States, a scoop of ice cream can ring in at $817, a burger can sell up at up to $7,000, and a cupcake purchased at the mall can set you back $1,000. Those aren't just anomalies: designer goods are also marked up endlessly to the point where even the wealthy locals prefer to shop abroad. Even Vogue, the American arbiter of upper echelon living has its own restaurant in the Dubai Mall, fittingly nestled in the world's largest luxury shoe store.
But don't be dismayed by the sheer numbers, even a city like Dubai can be done on a budget. With airlines offering last-minute specials from around £200 to fly out of London or about $600 from New York on Delta and United, it's becoming easier than ever to visit this breathtaking city without breaking the bank. Here are some of the tips for navigating the city without overspending.
One of the few commerce hubs in Dubai that isn't a mall is BoxPark, an urban renewal project consisting of shipping containers transformed into stores and restaurants. Situated off Sheikh Zayed Road road in between downtown and Jumeirah Beach, the strip is full of independently run boutiques like the concept store Zoo where you can find a wide range of international designers, gifts, and home decor. BoxPark is still up and coming, with only 44 stores of its 220 capacity filled out, but it's already become Dubai's best anti-mall alternative.
With all of Dubai's looming architectural marvels, you have to go searching for the city's history. You'll find it in Al Bastakiya—the historic area dating back to the 1890s, that's a stone's throw from Dubai's markets like the Gold Souk, the textile Souk, and the spice Souk—where you can actually bargain unlike the tourist shops downtown. Feel free to wander around these areas at no charge and take an old fisherman's boat, also known as a Dhow, across Dubai creek for only one dirham, which is about 27 cents.
Another area that's free of charge to visit in Dubai is Jumeirah Beach. Situated on the Arabian Sea, the beach is arguably the city's crown jewel. The water is sparkling, cyan, and lukewarm and the sand is a powdery white. The public beach even has free showers. Just be sure to bring a towel since lounge chairs will cost a rental fee.
Even though you should avoid purchasing anything in the malls, they're an easy place to kill time and find air-conditioned refuge. Plus all of the malls have free wifi, if you want to people watch while catching up on email. The Dubai Mall, the world's largest, also offers the world's splashiest fountain show (the Bellagio's fountain show has nothing on this) for gratis where water dances to songs like "Thriller" beneath the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
Visiting the Burj Khalifa can run a pretty penny and might not even live up to the hype. The neo-futurist building is gorgeous to look at but, given that Dubai is still a developing city, surrounded by desert, the view was underwhelming as there wasn't a whole lot to see once you're up there. That said, one of the coolest things about the view is that if you go during sunset hour, you can watch the sunset twice: from the ground and the top. If you want to go on a budget however, you'll have to book a week or more in advance online. If that's not possible, you can purchase early bird tickets at more than half the price to go to the 124th floor at 8:30 a.m.
The Burj Khalifa aside, it's not difficult to capture some of Dubai's main attractions without shelling out for admission. You can scope out the three-story, record-setting Aquarium & Discovery Centre in the middle of the Dubai Mall without paying to go inside. Likewise, you can grab a picture of the ski slope at Dubai Ski without setting foot inside the fake arctic marvel.
Alcohol costs in a premium in Dubai and isn't easy to find. Accordingly, there aren't a lot of affordable nighttime options that don't revolve around costly bottle service. But there's plenty to do in the daytime, even if that just means lounging around the beach or a hotel pool with a book in hand. So take advantage of each day; skip the clubs, go to bed early and enjoy the cheaper daytime.
Tuesday nights are the best time to party in Dubai. There are ladies night specials with restaurants offering everything from unlimited free drinks to free food—all of which you can find listed here. For everyone else, Neos at the Address Hotel, a popular night spot, offers a decent Tuesday night drink special: buy one, get one free.
Don't attempt to eat at any of the hotels in Dubai. Even the food courts at the mall are pricier than they should be. But, if you venture away from the tourist areas, you can find affordable local haunts like Ravi's Restaurant, widely recognized as the best Pakistani cuisine in the city. If you find yourself downtown and hungry, Leila is a good choice for Lebanese food that serves generous portions.
One of the few things to do in Dubai that won't break your bank is a desert safari. The options range from sand dune bashing, a rollercoaster-like ride through the desert in a SUV, to camel and ATV rides and taking in belly dancing. For $56, you can do all of the above, plus gorge on an Arabic buffet, smoke sheesha, and watch the sun set on the Arabian desert.
One last thing you should know about Dubai is that the tap water is safe to drink so definitely pack your reusable water bottle and stay hydrated.
Lead photo: Marwan Naamani/Getty Images