Dubai Insider Guide: Top 10 free sights to do

By Marina Aagaard, MFT. Photos: Henrik Elstrup and Marina Aagaard.
Wish for luxury? Go to Dubai; a natural choice.
Want special sightseeing? Visit Dubai at least once.
Worried about travel expenses? Find Dubai on a Budget Insider Tips here. 

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The city of Dubai in the Emirate of Dubai is a top international tourist destination. Reason: Lots of sun, shopping and sightseeing options.
Most first-timers are overwhelmed by the heat – 23-30 gr. C December-January (winter), up to 55 gr. C June-July (summer) – and the skyscrapers.

The bad news:
Most things cost a lot, general price level is high. 

The good news:
Good deals exist and there are super free sights.

Fortunately, it is possible to find cheap tickets from e.g. Europe to Dubai. Flight time 5-6 + hours. Prices are from 300 USD return (!).

On booking portals it is possible to find three star hotels at 100 USD per night for two people. For a slightly larger amount you can live in luxury.
Taxi services are very cheap compared to Nordic prices; half an hour drive from one end to the other end of the city costs about 20-30 USD).

Visit during the Ramadan? It can be an advantage, because it’s easy to get around; not so many tourists and it is decorated in the city and in shops. On the other hand, all restaurants and cafes (except at hotels) are closed from dawn to sunset and one must not eat or drink in public. And there is called prayer from 4.15 am …  In some of the malls there are partitions in front of the food courts with snack bars; it is open to non-Muslims and Muslim children.

The Ramadan falls on different dates from year to year because the Islamic calendar follows the moon. After a month of fasting, when it’s new moon – after about 29-30 days, the fast ends. This is celebrated by the three-day feast eid al-fitr. The Ramadan is not only about fasting but about faith, attitude, wisdom and good deeds.

Top 10 Freebies & Supersights

  1. DBX
  2. skyscrapers
  3. Super Cars
  4. Shopping malls and souks 
  5. Dubai Marina
  6. Downtown Dubai
  7. Dubai Creek
  8. Burj Khalifa
  9. The Fountain
  10. hotels 

Read on for tips for your most memorable and memorable – and affordable – Dubai vacation ever. 
If you want to pay up, there is of course lots of options a.o. the usual: Zipline, parachuting, boat trips, desert trips, water park and more.

# 1 DBX

Okay, maybe not completely free, but inclusive to your trip. Your Dubai experience starts at the airport:
DBX, Dubai City Dubai International Airport , is a newer mega airport, the world’s busiest airport measured by international passengers, the world’s third largest airport measured by total passengers, over 88 million visits per year (2017) – and approx. 90,000 employees.

From the arrival terminal you go by an express train to the arrival hall, passport control and baggage claim. Waiting time is mostly short, there are over 30 counters and they are manned. Remember photography prohibited and subdued behavior required.

The airport has is a great large tax-free area and many eating places – once you have checked in.
Outside, in the hall before check-in there is only a sandwich bar, a kiosk and a suitcase shop. Do not go there too early (> 3 hours before).

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Once you have been reunited with your luggage, you can take a taxi (cheap), a bus, tram or metro.
You do not walk from district to district; Dubai covers a huge area with three city centres; Dubai Creek and the old part of town, Downtown with Dubai Mall and Dubai Marina … with the marina.

Dubai has approx. 3 million inhabitants; 2,714,719 (29.1.2017): 17% local, from the Emirates, and 83% of other countries.
Expats are foreigners who live and work in the city, many for shorter periods.

# 2 Skyscrapers

One of the first things you see is: The city is full of skyscrapers, not just the world’s tallest building, but a variety of special and even beautiful mega structures. For architectural enthusiasts, photo enthusiasts and big city fans there are lots of unique free sightseeing: Dubai city area covers 4.114 sqm.

Get up early in the morning and go for a walk before there are too many people and cars on the street.

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# 3 Super cars

If you’re into cars, there’s plenty to oggle in Dubai. Not only in the car stores, but free glimpses every single day on the street. By the entrance to the hotels, Dubai Mall or The Walk, Dubai Marina, you will see an exceptional number of superb cars: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Maserati, Range Rover, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Audi etc. The lower the number plate number, the more expensive.

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# 4 Shopping malls and souks

Dubai is called the shopping capital of the Middle East … over 70 shopping malls . The country’s main income comes from trade and tourism.

Whether you are shopping or not, there is something to look at. The two major malls, Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall are sights for sore eyes. You will find architecture, design and exhibitions for every taste, from minimalist to super kitsch and sumptuous luxury. Dubai Marina Mall is smaller but also nice. A special mall: Ibn Battuta Mall at The Gardens a little south of Dubai Marina has six theme areas China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia.

Mall of the Emirates

An older mall. Not as big as Dubai Mall, but very elegant with beautiful marble floors, large glass ceilings and delicate escalator decorations – and nice restaurants. A highlight for locals is the indoor ski slope. It can not measure up to the Alps, but will do nicely for a cold, white, snowy afternoon.

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Dubai Mall
The world’s largest shopping center. You should spend at least one full day for a visit, preferably more.
For absolutely free you can go window shopping in gold, diamond, jewelry, clothes, shoes, bags and home deco stores. Gucci, Hermes, Prada, Manolo Blahnik, Jimmi Choo, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton side by side … and Tiffany’s, Cartier, IWC, Rolex, Patek Philippe and more.
In the corners you will find shops for budget shopping, too. And of course, any real mall offers lots of restaurants and cafes with ice cream, sweets, snacks and delicacies from many countries.
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Markets, souks

In the Middle East, markets are quite big. In Dubai, the middle east, a market or bazaar is called Souk, zouk. Going to the souk – even without shopping – is an authentic, free Dubai experience.

If you want to buy something in the souk, you have to haggle (the exception is the Gold Souk Dubai Mall). You are advised to bid half of the price and continue to bid a bit more, if you want to buy.

There are many souks, among others:

Gold Souk Dubai Mall
The world’s largest indoor gold market; with gold, jewels and jewelry. The beautiful designes and elegant shops should be experienced.

Gold Souk Dubai (Deira)
In the old town there is also a huge, dynamic gold market with gold and jewelry of all kinds and price ranges. It’s worth seeing whether you’re buying or not. You get to the Gold Souk by crossing the river from the oldest district or via the Green Line Al Ras metro station. The souk is also a stop on hop-on hop-off tours. Nearby there is a spice souk.

Old Souk Dubai Creek
A typical market with many small shops in narrow alleyways, here are spices, clothes, shoes, carpets, glasses, ceramics, souvenirs and more. A vibrant market atmosphere with many colors and scents. The sellers are flocking around you, but not in an aggressive way.

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# 5 Dubai Marina

The city’s perhaps most ‘cozy’ place – at least a place to visit, not least because of three free “attractions”:

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Marina promenade
7 km long promenade that encircles the marina. Here are skyscrapers, restaurants, shops and mall and lots of ‘medium size’ yachts and tour boats.

The Walk 
1-1 ½ km long pedestrian street on either side of a narrow one-way lane, where taxis and super cars cruise continouosly. Earlier this was the ‘in’ spot. Now part of the shops and restaurants has moved a few meters closer to the water. However, there are still Walk restaurants and shops – and passage from the JBR Jumeirah Beach Residence, the high rise complex, to:

The Beach
Boardwalk. A 1.3 km winding walking-running (synthetic surface) path, located between the beach and the ocean – overlooking Dubai Ayn (the world’s largest Ferris wheel (ready in 2018?); worth trying when open). In addition, many shops, stalls and exotic restaurants, including the Arabic Seven Sands, are recommended.

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# 6 Downtown Dubai

Downtown should be visited by all Dubai tourists. Here you find the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, a large number of beautiful skyscrapers, the elegant new Dubai Opera building, Dubai Mall and The Fountain. Even though you pockets are close to empty, you can fill your experience account with overwhelming visual impressions. Downtown is a perfect representation of Dubai, which is known for its many records and that (almost) “Nothing is impossible.”

In Downtown Dubai you find Dubai Mall and in it the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo . It’s completely free to watch the huge 10 million liter aquarium from the outside – and many so for hours on end.
There are close to a hundred sharks as well as countless tropical fish. You can walk inside a glass tube in the aquarium or for a larger amount you can snorkel or dive (requires PADI license).

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# 7 Dubai Creek and Old Dubai

The old part of Dubai is located by The Creek, a U-shaped river that flows in from and out into the ocean. Here is a small old town with the old souk, museum, mosque and local restaurants. There is a lively traffic of small ferries across the river. On the other side of the river lies the more modern 60’s and 70’s part of the city with traditional urbanization. Here you find the gold souk.

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# 8 Burj Khalifa

The city’s current landmark Burj Khalifa is not only the tallest building in the world , it is also the most beautiful: An ingenious design and amazingly elegant design, despite the huge size. A unique landmark, the star of the Mission Impossible 4 movie. With its 828 meters (2.717 ft) and 163 floors it can be seen from many miles away night and day.
Current landmark? It is hard to believe, but Dubai / EMAAR has an even higher tower scheduled. The model can be seen in Dubai Mall. A relatively slender sky-high minaret- or lilly-like tower.

Burj Khalifa is a must-see attraction you can watch for free: Come in the afternoon and enjoy the sight in daylight, at dusk and at night – including the superb light show in the evening. There are different ones every half hour from 19:45 (7:45 pm).

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If you want to enter the tower, it costs around 135-299 AED (35-95 USD) depending on the time period. It is worth it. Much more than an elevator ride and a view. Pay up. Go up. Full stop. You should book in advance so you are able to go. There may be sold out days (weeks?) In advance. And lots of queuing in high season. Be patient.

Set aside plenty of time; at least 3-4 hours: In addition to the queue, you can watch displays the design and the construction process … and the viewing platform is filled with vloggers and selfie-snappers.

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In the tower there is a stunning view over the city’s other skyscrapers, which appear small from this angle! You can also see pictures of how Dubai has developed with enormous speed in recent decades.

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 # 9 The Fountain

By the foot of the tower in front of the Dubai Mall, every day between 18:30 and 23:00 (6:30 to 11 pm) (there are also a couple of afternoon performances), see The Fountain , a spectacular fountain show, accompanied by music. There are three different songs, shows of 3 minutes every half hour, so stay on. It is completely free and popular; year round there is a crowd of spectators.

If you want to see for free, get there early and line up by to the railing around the lake and fountain. If you want to sit down and watch most (though not the lower part of the water covered by the crowd), you can sit at one of the restaurants. It is not possible to book a table in advance; You have to arrive early to secure an outdoor table at the first parquet.

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# 10 Hotels

There are about 1500 hotels in Dubai (Booking.com, 2018): 122 five-star, 148 4-star, 81 three-star, 38 two-star, 40 one-star and 1071 off-rated. The top hotels are in a class by themselves. In addition to staying in them, many of those hotels are worth seeing from the outside – and inside – maybe even for free.

There is no serving of alcohol at the city’s restaurants or cafes. However, the world’s finest wines and other alcoholic drinks are available at the hotels – at sultan and sheik prices. 
For a low budget trip, choose the brasserie instead of the restaurant and mocktails instead of cocktails or wine. 

In the bars and lounges of the hotels the party is on until 1:30 am or all night long – also for adults 30+. At Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort there is Barasti Beach, drawing a full crowd of party people.
In Grosvenor House there is Bar 44, an exclusive lounge and bar. Across the street by the same hotel there is Buddha Bar, noisy, packed and dynamic.

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Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Five stars. Six pools. Pay up and check-in. Or enjoy the design from the street side (here a view from the water side during renovation from May to October 2018). Here are three other well-known top hotels:

Burj al Arab

Probably the most beautiful hotel, an absolutely recommended architectural attraction: the “Sail”, the iconic  Burj Al Arab , the world’s only seven-star hotel. Normal price for the budget suites is 4-5 digit USD, luckily there are periodic deals for de luxe wanting travellers …

Fortunately everyone can enjoy the sight quite free: You can get close to the sail by following the road signs, e.g. when visiting Souk Madinat. The beach in front of this and the other hotels is private, though, so you must stay at the hotel or eat at one of the restaurants. You do not come  in “from the street”.

In addition to dinner at one of the many restaurants, you can also book and enjoy brunch, afternoon tea or drinks at the hotels. Recommended. But: Even for just cocktails, the ‘Sail’ minimum amount per person is approx. 100 USD. Prices are very high, but the experience is worth investing in.

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At a distance, seen from the highway or the metro (photo), the ‘sail’ looks small; an optical illusion! It stands 321 m tall; 60 floors.

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Sail close up – in the evening sun and at night, when it is changing its color from time to time: red, blue, green, yellow.

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Sailed inside. Most are ‘air’, a sign of economic profit, and the purest gold.

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Atlantis

Another attraction is the giant Atlantis hotel   with supersize water park and gourmet restaurants like NOBU.
The hotel is located at the far end, tip of The Palm, the artificial islands and peninsula area.

It is free to visit the hotel and gaze at at the amazing decorations with the sea theme and the big aquarium.
If you want to spend the night and make use of the formidable water park – a hit with children and adults – you have to pay.
Another option is to have drinks and dine at one of the restaurants; It’s not cheap, but prices are about the same as in the Nordic countries.

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Al Qasr (Jumeirah Madinat)

Al Qasr means, among other things, the palace, or the castle, and it is very descriptive. Like a huge desert castle with many towers, it is right next to the sea (opposite Burj Al Arab).
It is a beautiful hotel with long hallways with high gloss polished marble floors, Persian rugs and giant chandeliers.
There are several restaurants with different price ranges. The hotel even has its own great souk, Souk Madinat Market, which is definitely worth a visit.

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Respect the country’s rules

Dubai is Muslim, abiding by the Quran and the country’s laws are strictly enforced. This means, among other things, that:

  • Five times a day, prayer is called.
  • Friday (and Saturday) is holiday (s) and weekend. Much is closed Friday.
  • Public caress are prohibited. Even holding hands in public is frowned upon and though it is not illegal for spouses, you can still be arrested if one of the locals is offended by it.
  • Bare knees and bare shoulders are either prohibited or frowned upon – even at Dubai Mall. In mosques, the entire body, except hands and feet, and hair must be covered.
  • It is forbidden to photograph if there are other people in the picture. They must be asked by law. Additionally, you may not photograph any official building, you should stay with tourist attractions. In doubt? Ask!
  • Alcohol is forbidden (except in hotels). So you can  not  buy alcohol in town or (like in Europe) rushing around the street with bottles in your hand.
    There is zero tolerance to alcohol and driving. The limit is 0 blood alcohol (BAC) cent and violation results in a prison sentence and / or a minimum fine of 25,000 AED.
  • It is forbidden to drive too fast, like everywhere else: The speed
    limit is 20-40-60 km/h on the streets and 100-120 (a short distance 140) km/h on the highway. Dubai is a dangerous country to drive a car:
    Drivers include people with very different traffic backgrounds and vehicles ranging from old vehicles to the world’s fastest street cars. Drive safely.

The insider guide is based on four tourist visits as well as tips and guidance from several resident friends as well as local and expat advice.
Do you have tips or questions? Please write a comment.

4 Replies to “Dubai Insider Guide: Top 10 free sights to do”

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