Located just 5 hours by plane from Europe, Dubai is one of the world’s most spectacular and futuristic getaway destinations. What had once been an oasis in the desert has become the city of superlatives. Excellent shopping opportunities, a vibrant nightlife, glamorous events, fine dining as well as breathtakingly high buildings make Dubai a diverse and somewhat surreal holiday destination. Although the city has its roots in Islamic tradition, Dubai is home to a very diverse and open-minded society with the largest immigrant population in the world living and working side by side peacefully.
Many people come to Dubai on a business trip or visit the city on a quick one-day stopover while flying to Asia or Europe. However, if you really want to explore this bustling emirate and learn about its culture and history, you will have to spend at least 3-5 full days in the city.
Thanks to some error fares, my best friend and I had the chance to check out Dubai for a little over a week, which gave us a lot of time to get to know not only many of Dubai’s diverse districts but also the desert area around.
This Dubai Budget Travel Guide covers the must-see places for first-time visitors as well as a few hidden gems. Also, you will get some ideas and suggestions for a four-day itinerary, which will hopefully help you make most of your time in this crazy city. At the end of the guide, you will also find some additional options you may include in your itinerary depending on your time and energy.
DAY 1: Get An Overview – Take The Metro
After you arrive in Dubai, make your way to your accommodation to settle in. If you’re not too tired, you can already head out into the city in the afternoon or evening. Since it’s the first day and you’re probably still exhausted from the journey, I suggest purchasing a metro day pass and taking the metro from one end of the city to the other.
Dubai’s metro lines run mostly overground and were built right through the skyscrapers, which makes the ride pretty scenic. Try to get into the first carriage and stand at the front window. That way you get to take a few impressive and somewhat futuristic shots of Dubai’s business towers. Taking the metro also gives you a good overview of the city’s dimensions. At the last stop of the red line, Jebel Ali, you’ll also find a mall where you can get some refreshments.
There’s a good metro map available here.
DAY 2: Dubai’s Old Town & Burjuman Mall
On your second day, head to the oldest part of the city near the Dubai Creek. Around the creek, most of the Souqs are located. These open-air marketplaces or bazaars can be found all over the Middle East and are usually divided into smaller souqs that are named after the products offered there, e.g., the Gold Souq, the Textile Souq, the Spice Souq or the Leather Souq. Stroll around, buy some souvenirs and enjoy the oriental smells in the Spice Souq. Oh – and don’t forget to bargain! 😉
When you’re done with shopping, take an abra, a local wooden boat, to cross the creek. It’s only AED 1 and probably the most authentic and fastest way to reach the Al Fahidi Historical District. Here you’ll find Dubai Museum (Adm: AED 3), many art galleries and traditional architecture.
Since it’s usually boiling around lunchtime, I recommend only having a snack for lunch and an early dinner instead.
After dinner, make your way to the Burjuman Mall, which is not far from the historical neighbourhood and one of the oldest malls in Dubai. This mall offers not only great shopping opportunities but also 12D rides and 14 cinema screens. End your day relaxing in one of the bars or shisha cafés inside the mall.
DAY 3: Jumeirah & Dubai At Night
Spend your third day in the Jumeirah area of Dubai.
Make your way to Dubai Internet City Metro Station, from where you can either walk (cheap, but hot eh!) or take a cab to Palm Monorail Station. Take a ride on the Palm Monorail and see the Palm Jumeirah island covered with the most exclusive suites, hotels and private apartments as well as the 5-star hotel Atlantis with its huge aquarium and Aquaventure Waterpark next door.
Once you’re back at the Palm Monorail Station on the main land, I suggest taking a cab to Jumeirah Beach, where you can take a picture in front of the world’s most famous 7-star hotel. Burj Al Arab is situated on an artificial island 300m from Jumeirah Beach. This iconic complex is designed to mimic a ship’s sail.
If you still have time, head to the very famous Mall of the Emirates, which is only a 5-minute taxi ride from the beach. Inside the mall, you will not only find hundreds of shops, boutiques, retail outlets and restaurants but also Ski Dubai, which is an indoor snow park with skiing and snowboarding opportunities.
After the exciting morning, have a little rest at your accommodation as well as an early dinner, and head out to experience Dubai at night. Go to the famous Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest shopping malls with a total of 1200 shops, 22 cinema screens, 120 restaurants and cafés, and even a luxury hotel.
As if you couldn’t spend a whole day in that mall alone, there’s the world-famous Burj Khalifa next door. With 828m, Burj Khalifa is the highest tower ever built. Tickets to its observation deck at 555m start at AED 135. During daytime, Dubai is often covered in fog, which makes the view less impressive. A lot of people therefore suggest doing a night tour to see the vibrant city of Dubai all lit up. Also, make sure to purchase tickets in advance – the lines are endless.
In front of Burj Khalifa, you’ll find the Dubai Fountains. They kind of look like the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas and are also used for a musical fountain show at night. In the evening, lots of people gather around the fountains to see the impressive water fountains dance accompanied by the sound and rhythm of classical music as well as the imposing Dubai skyline in the background. That alone is a reason to check out the Dubai Mall area at night.
Day 4: Desert Safari & Bedouin Camp
The last couple of days were pretty exhausting, I guess. So why don’t you have a relaxed morning, maybe spend some time at the pool if your accommodation offers pool facilities?
Today it’s time to head out of the city and explore Dubai’s desert. To do so, it’s best to book a desert safari in advance. Many local tour operators offer tours on a daily basis, just inquire at your hotel or take a look here.
On most tours, you will be picked up from your accommodation in the afternoon. Driving into the desert takes around 45 minutes to an hour. With a jeep, they will drive you right into the desert, up sand dunes and down again. Be sure to take some anti-vertigo pills with you if you’re likely to get car sick like me. 😉
They’ll usually stop at a few sweet spots so you can take pictures of the desert. The safari will end at a Bedouin camp, where you will have the chance to ride a camel, smoke shisha, get a henna tattoo and have a lovely BBQ dinner while watching the sun set. Depending on the tour operator you choose, this might be a very touristy tour, but there are a few local operators worth checking out. Not only are they cheaper, but also they operate in a more authentic way. Nevertheless, this will be an exciting night for you.
Are You Visiting Dubai As A Family?
From accommodation to transport and activities: be sure to take a look at this in-depth guide with budget-friendly tips and suggestions for a family trip to Dubai.
Spending More Than 4 Days In Dubai?
That’s great because you will have time to stretch the activities from the other days a little bit.
Also, I recommend taking a day trip to Abu Dhabi.
Just like a desert tour, you can book day trips to Abu Dhabi at many local hotels and tour operators as well as on the internet.
You’ll likely be picked up from your hotel in the morning. On the way to Abu Dhabi, you’ll learn about the history of the United Arab Emirates and why Abu Dhabi is, in fact, a lot richer than Dubai. You will probably visit the largest mosque in the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. With its magnificent architecture and beautiful white color, this mosque is absolutely worth a visit. Depending on the tour company, you will get to see other historical and cultural sites as well as spots where you can take great pictures of the Abu Dhabi skyline, such as the observation deck on top of Marine Mall.
Do you want to go a little more off the beaten path in the Middle East?
Check out Lebanon, which is still considered a hidden gem in the whole region and pretty high on history and culture!