Dubai has a well-earned reputation as one of the most luxurious destinations in the world. Finding budget activities in the city of extravagance is hard, finding something you don’t have to pay for at all is… well, verging on impossible. But I am always up for a good challenge! Hard as it was, I’ve compiled for you a list of 10 things you can do in Dubai for FREE. From art and culture to outdoor workouts, there’s a range of fun activities that won’t break the bank. Promise.
1. Explore Al Shindagha historic neighbourhood
What better way to start our free exploration than by taking a journey back in time to Dubai’s origins? Located on the shores of the Creek, Al Shindagha district is a heritage site where you can learn about the city’s journey from a fishing village to the symbol of luxury it has now become. You can easily spend the entire day here wandering down the narrow alleys, visiting the Heritage village for a showcase of traditional Bedouin lifestyle and taking some great photos. In any case, make sure not to miss the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House which until the 1950s was a residence of the Al Maktoum ruling family. It is a beautiful example of the traditional Emirati architecture with wind towers and shaded courtyards. Inside, you’ll find an impressive collection of photographs of Dubai, tracing its development from the beginning of the 20th century to present day (you’ll need to “splurge” 3 dirhams on that, though). If you’re after something more quirky, the Camel Museum is the one for you. You’ll thank me later. When getting to the Al Shindagha by public transport, the nearest metro stop is Al Ghubaiba (it’s less than a 5min walk from there to the first museum).
2. Get your art fix at Alserkal Avenue
Going straight from historic to hipster, our next destination is the Alserkal Avenue. Founded in 2007 in abandoned warehouses, Alserkal, like every self-respecting art hub, has a strong industrial vibe. Some of Dubai’s best contemporary art galleries are located here: The Third Line, Lawrie Shabibi and Green Art Gallery just to mention a few. The emphasis on emerging talent and specific focus on Middle Eastern and Asian artists puts Alserkal at the very frontline of progressive art scene. The art district encourages all types of creative endeavours so alongside art galleries you’ll find here workshop spaces, concept stores and boutiques with designer fashion. Finally, one of the favourite expat coffee spots, Tom&Serg, is just round the corner serving artisan coffee with a side of easy-going atmosphere.
3. Watch a film at an open-air cinema
The summer AC-dependent existence can get really boring so no wonder the Dubai population flocks outside during the cooler months. And what better way to take advantage of the pleasant weather than spend the evening in an open air cinema? The good news is that quite a few of these are actually free to attend! At Dubai Marina Mall, you can watch family-friendly films free of charge on Fridays and Saturdays. Another initiative, LOCO'MOTION, is a community cinema screening films on various social issues and aiming to bring Dubai residents together. You can see when and where the screenings happen on their Meetup page. Rise Dubai Creek Harbour offers a few outdoor screenings per week mostly showing blockbuster films, while West 14th Steakhouse on the Palm has a kid’s screening followed by a classic film. Cinema Akil is worth to keep an eye on with pop ups in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi showing international arthouse films for free in various locations.
4. Try yoga with Lululemon
If you like to start your day off with some body and soul nourishment, then this option is going to take your fancy. Lululemon is a Canadian sports apparel brand which offers weekly free yoga classes in their shops around the world. Every Wednesday, Lululemon shops at Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Marina Mall and City Centre Midriff turn into impromptu yoga studios. It’s all easy peasy, no need to bring a mat or register for the class. Just make sure to be there early because it’s first come first served and you don’t want to get in your yoga outfit for nothing, right? All the information on free classes can be found on their Facebook page.
5. Join Nike+ Run Club
Nike+ Run Club is a free workout and a great way to meet new like-minded people at the same time! If you like running but find it too boring by yourself then joining a club is a perfect solution to combine physical activity and a bit of social life. Different running sessions cater to different levels and abilities. Whether you’re an experienced runner trying to smash those goals or a beginner lacking motivation to get out there and try, you will benefit from guidance by professional Nike coaches. There are several sessions per week in various locations around the city and at different times, so there is really no excuse.
6. Attend a camel racing festival
If you followed my advice from the first recommendation and went to the Camel Museum you know camels are a big deal in the UAE. If you didn’t, well, there is a sure way to witness the camel obsession in Dubai first-hand. Camel racing is a traditional Emirati sport that is celebrated each year with the Al Marmoon Heritage Festival. Camels might not be as graceful as horses but they certainly are determined as they make their way down the track as fast as possible. With the cheering crowds and palpable adrenaline in the air it is an exhilarating show and one of a kind experience. And, of course, completely free!
7. Enjoy the Dubai Fountain show
Visiting the observation deck at the Burj Khalifa is a rather expensive treat but don’t worry, that’s not the only tourist attraction in Downtown Dubai. Right at the foot of the tallest building in the world you can watch a dazzling performance of light, music and water. The Dubai Fountain is a stunning water show (the biggest in the world, unsurprisingly) set to a range of musical pieces from classical music through Arabic to international hits topping the charts. You can watch the show during lunchtime or in the evening but the light effects look best after dark and the shimmering Burj Khalifa adds to the charm. Enjoy!
8. Hit the public beach
The best that Dubai has to offer, its amazing sunny weather in the middle of the winter, always comes free of charge. If you just want to relax and reload on vitamin D, then head straight to one of the white sandy beaches and soak up the sun with no harm to your bank account. The Sunset Beach (Umm Suqeim Beach) is perhaps the most photographed one thanks to the awe-inspiring Burj Al-Arab backdrop and the Kite Beach is a vibrant hotspot for water sports. If excellent facilities are a must for you, then the JBR Beach is an undisputed winner with modern showers and changing rooms as well as plenty of food options at the nearby JBR Walk promenade. And you get a chance to take the iconic “camels against a skyscraper backdrop” photos here. Always a plus.
9. Go out on the cheap… if you’re a lady
Many of Dubai’s bars and clubs have weekly ladies’ nights which range from a few free drinks to unlimited alcohol for the whole evening. The biggest day for ladies’ deals is definitely Tuesday so if you’re planning a night out on a weekend you might want to rethink that. A fantastic location to bag a deal is Pier 7 in Dubai Marina: out of seven bars, five offer Tuesday freebies! Just think of all those free drinks within the reach of one elevator ride… Apart from ladies’ nights, there are also ladies’ days which usually include complimentary beach and pool access in fancy hotels. If there is a certain beachfront resort that caught your eye, worth checking on their website for special offers!
10. Fall in love with a new commute
Ok, so this one is technically cheating because it costs 1 dirham but it’s my favourite thing to do in Dubai so I don’t even feel bad about it. Your trip to Dubai simply will not be complete without riding an abra, a traditional wooden boat! Abras are used to cross the Dubai Creek from the Deira side to the southern Bur Dubai side, and they’re a lovely little reminder of Dubai’s humble past before the splendour of yachts and skyscrapers. The boats cruise every few minutes and the fee of one dirham is paid directly to the skipper. On either side of the creek you will find some great souvenir shopping opportunities to spend all those dirhams you saved on free activities. Dazzling spice souk and gold souk in Deira are well worth a visit even just to people watch and take some great photos, and the old souk in Bur Dubai offers fabrics, clothes and some typical Dubai souvenirs.
If like me you fell in love with cruising through the Creek, you can also try other kinds of water taxis in Dubai: from water ferries to water bus. And for those who don’t like to take things slow, there’s also speed boat tours offering all the highlights of Dubai in just 90 minutes.