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As anyone who’s watched Sex and the City 2 knows all too well, Dubai is a gem glinting in the heart of the Arabian Desert. But a fun fact about the idyllic locale? It’s not nearly as expensive (read: out-of-reach) as you may believe. Vacationing in Dubai on a budget—and in style—is more than doable. Because you deserve to channel your inner Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda without thoroughly breaking the bank.
Now, we’d be remiss not to mention that Dubai was crowned the most expensive city in the Middle East in 2012. It’s a stunning, wealthy, ever-evolving city with an impressive skyline, there’s no doubt about it. Drive any which way on the highways—notably down Sheikh Zayed Road—and you’ll be met with glistening, newly opened skyrises neighboring halfway-completed estates. From any point in the ever-growing port city, you’d be hard-press to miss the sky-piercing Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world—and one that was completed just nine years ago. “Dubai is one of the largest city brands,” said Janelle Lewis, senior manager of international communications for Dubai Tourism. “We look to the future; nothing is impossible.”
Yes, booking the roundtrip flight that ranges from $800 to nearly $1,500—depending on the time of year you book it and from where you’re departing, of course—may be daunting, but it’s on par with flying to more popular, and, admittedly, more expensive, overseas destinations. How? For starters, consider the currency exchange rate: 1 United States dollar is worth 3.67 United Arab Emirates dirham, or AED. So $1 goes a long way in Dubai. In other words, once you get past the flight-booking costs, you’re in for an absolute dream.
1. The hotel
For the most part, the hotels in the downtown Dubai area—the pristine, bustling hub for tourists—are affordable, especially when comparing the nightly rates to larger cities and metropolitan areas in the U.S. But one hotel we recommend—one that both offers a striking view of the Burj Khalifa and is mere minutes away from the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest shopping malls—is Manzil Downtown.
At Manzil, nightly rates range from AED 420, or about $130, for the deluxe room, to AED 505, about $140, for the executive room, and AED 950, about $260, for the Burj Suite, which has its own, private patio and a view of the Burj.
Airbnbs are also inexpensive, ranging from $70 to $350 a night.
2. The must-see
You can’t visit Dubai and not take in the views from “the top” of the Burj Khalifa.
The highest visitors can travel up the over 2,700-foot-tall Burj Khalifa is to the 154th floor, and it’ll cost you about $177. That’s pretty steep for an attraction that won’t take up more than about an hour of your day, so we recommend taking the elevator to level 125 for $39, instead.
Be warned, though: It’ll be crowded, and taking a selfie without any other tourists in the frame might be difficult. So, if you want more privacy and you’re willing to pay more than double the price, then grab a $101 ticket to level 148, where you can lounge on the couches, sip on complimentary beverages and snack on small bites.
3. The mall
Roaming the Dubai Mall is a solid way to spend a few hours during the afternoon. In it, you’ll find nearly every popular restaurant and store imaginable, as well as the unmissable Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo.
For $35, you can Check out the aquarium tunnel, the underwater zoo and the underwater observatory, as well as take part in the behind the-scenes tour. If you don’t want to pay anything, no problem; you can get an impressive, floor-to-ceiling view of the sharks, stingrays and other underwater creatures as you pass by inside the mall.
4. The beach
You can practically smell the Persian Gulf from the downtown area, so you’d be remiss not to at least take a stroll down the beach.
For a sleek, chic and very trendy resort and spa experience, check out Nikki Beach Resort & Spa Dubai located on the waterfront of Pearl Jumeira. With five restaurants and lounges, you’ll have plenty of dining options; but what we love about the resort are its cabanas located right on the beach and the lounging beds surrounding the pool. Reserving a lounging bed ranges from about $40 on weekdays, $80 on weekends and, if you really want to splurge on a cabana, spend over $1,075 on a bed that’ll have a chilled bottle of Dom Pérignon waiting for you.
Or, grab a fresh seafood lunch at Café Nikki, then take a quick stroll the beach for free.
5. The Frame & skywalk
Get a bird’s eye view of both new Dubai and old Dubai at the Dubai Frame.
Towering over tourists at over 492 feet, the Dubai Frame is UAE’s latest cultural landmark described as a metaphorical bridge that connects the emirate’s rich past with its present. Inside, visitors not only learn about old Dubai and are inspired by Dubai’s aspirations for the future, but they also have the opportunity to walk the vertigo-inducing skywalk on the 48th floor.
So, for less than $15, you can get a history lesson and take in the jaw-dropping panoramic views of the city—the perfect afternoon activity.
6. The culture
What better to learn about the culture, particularly that of the Bedouin—nomadic people who inhabited the Middle Eastern deserts—than by spending the golden hour riding a camel into the Arabian desert?
The Al Marmoom Bedouin Experience will cost you a little over $100, but the experience will truly last a lifetime, as cliche as that sounds.
As part of the experience, a car is sent to your hotel to drive you to the desert. You’ll then hop on a camel, ride into the desert, watch a falcon demonstration with a Saluki dog, walk over to an authentic Bedouin village and learn all about how the Bedouin, lived, cooked, entertained and used the stars to navigate. You’ll be served a traditional dinner as well, where you’ll sip on warm camel milk and eat plenty of dates.
7. The adrenaline rush
For just over $50, take a 90-minute ride along Dubai’s iconic coastline. The best part? You can drive your own boat.
On the Hero OdySea Boat Tour, you’ll stop at famous landmarks and sites, including Kite Beach, Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, Logo Island, Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis, the Palm. The tour guide may even stop the group to point out harmless jellyfish—and encourage you to hold one, too.
8. The city pass
The Dubai City Pass costs nearly $130, but it includes a handful of attractions that make it worth the cost, including skip-the-line entrance to Burj Khalifa, Dubai Museum, a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the city, a traditional Dhow cruise along Dubai Creek and a 4WD desert safari that includes a BBQ dinner and a camel ride. Not bad—not bad at all.
9. The water show
Located on Burj Khalifa Lake, between the Dubai Mall, the Souk Al Bahar and the Burj Khalifa, is Dubai’s most popular free attraction: the Dubai Fountain water show. It also happens to be the world’s largest musical fountain.
We recommend grabbing dinner or a quick drink at one of the restaurants with patios directly on the water, like faux-French café, Madeleine Café & Boulangerie, or Thai restaurant, Thiptara. One hot tip about Thiptara: The dishes are fairly large, so feel free to share. Don’t be shy ordering from the cocktail menu, either; they’re all worth trying.
10. The souks
Gold, fabrics and spices: This trifecta rules the old Dubai souks, or marketplace.
The gold souk has just that: lavish gold jewelry, gifts and even swimsuits made entirely of gold. The spice souk is a colorful, aromatic alley that’ll stimulate the senses. Here, you’ll find everything from saffron to organic dates, every tea under the sun and more. And finally, we have textiles, where silk is the name of the game.
Visitors will also find the perfume souk, where merchants will want to dab your arms with an array of fragrances, many of which have a floral, fresh scent.
One tip before you go: Bring plenty of dirham with you, and get ready to haggle. According to our host, many of the items are nearly double what they’re actually worth, so don’t be afraid to lower the prices, especially on the spices.
11. The market
The best time of the year to visit Dubai is between November and March, as it’s much cooler during these months. Plus, the city is able to host more outdoor activities, like the Ripe Market.
The Ripe Market is an outdoor farmer’s market, and it’s held at the Police Academy Park. During the summer months, the market moves indoors at the Dubai Festival City Mall. Residents and visitors alike will not only find fresh produce, but also live music, clothing, jewelry and activities, like workshops, fitness classes and more.