Many will tell you that Dubai is no place for backpackers on a budget. Rob Garratt proves the naysayers wrong with a cash-savvy guide to the city’s cultural highs
Mention Dubai to your average holidaymaker and the first clichés they’re liable to utter include five-star hotels, luxury resorts, and myriad skyscrapers. But there’s far more to our emirate; a bustling, cosmopolitan, melting pot of cultures and traditions that caters for everyone – and every price bracket. Despite that, it’s not always easy for slightly more thrifty arrivals to know where to start, which is why we’ve compiled this backpackers’ guide. Inside you’ll find cultural and artistic attractions to challenge anyone who claims the emirate is lacking in history, or ‘soul’.
We’ve also rounded up the best cheap eats catering to Dubai’s many varied communities, showing that you can eat your way around the globe by visiting just one city – our city, that is – and save a wad of cash on overpriced hotel buffets. On top of that, we’ve handpicked a variety of nightspots to show you a different side of the emirate after dark without breaking the bank. Lastly, we’ve taken care of the essentials by rounding up some of the cheapest places to stay, and road-testing Dubai Youth Hostel.
A night at Dubai Youth Hostel
The most ‘Dubai’ thing about the emirate’s only youth hostel is the car park. Backpackers aren’t generally known for travelling with their own wheels – yet when we visited, the unusually large parking area was marked by two Mercedes parked neatly side-by-side. This proved to be deceptive – after spending a night at the hostel we’re pretty sure these vehicles didn’t belong to any of the guests we met. Meanwhile, reports online (and in guide books) that the hostel boasts a Jacuzzi, tennis court, sauna and gym proved unfortunately false. This member of the Hostelling International community won’t feel unfamiliar to any backpacker who’s trekked between a few cities in their time.
That isn’t to say it’s unpleasant. Dating back to the ’90s, the hostel’s tired-looking exterior opens onto an airy, welcoming lobby and hangout area. In one corner a twenty-something traveller in shorts stares earnestly at his laptop. As we check in another guy waltzes over and orders a KFC delivery from a menu stuck to the counter.
If you don’t mind sharing a room with up to six people, the hostel offers single-sex dorm beds for Dhs100 a night, while private rooms go at Dhs200 for a single, Dhs235 for a twin and Dhs305 for a triple. Despite garish, outdated furnishings typical of a hostel, private rooms come with modern luxuries including an en suite shower and toilet, fridge, phone and TV. A tip: ask to stay in the modern block A for the newest and nicest rooms. However, the biggest luxury is a communal pool and pleasant garden out the back.
Situated in Al Qusais near the Sharjah border, the location isn’t instantly appealing. But just a few minutes’ walk from the Stadium Metro Station, it’s practical for cash-conscious backpackers. It’s also a pedestrian-friendly part of the city with some decent, cheap dining options: a five-minute walk after turning right out of the hostel down Al Nahda Road takes you to Lulu Hypermarket, where’s there’s cheap, hot food available. Turn left and you’re five minutes away from McDonald’s and KFC, and ten minutes from taxi drivers’ budget Pakistani favourite Karachi Darbar (open daily 4.30am-1am, 04 258 0443). Another ten minutes in the same direction and you’ll reach the Fortune Plaza Hotel, home of Freddy’s bar, where draught hops cost Dhs30 (04 263 5500).
After a perfunctory free breakfast of scrambled eggs and Arabic bread, served in a large hall alongside some fellow solo travellers, we left largely impressed. For a short stay straight off the plane the hostel is ideal and the dorm beds may be the cheapest in town. However, with many budget hotel chains offering similar discounted rates, backpackers looking for a longer stay in a private room are advised to shop around. Al Nahda Road, Al Qusais, www.uaeyha.com (04 298 8151).
Other backpacker accommodation
Old Dubai is studded with plenty of cheap and cheerful hotels, which will generally quote a walk-in rate far lower than advertised. However, the safest way to score a deal is to book online at backpacker-friendly websites, which offer huge discounts of as much as 70 percent. www.hostelworld.com or www.hostels.com.
Citymax Al Barsha
This regional hotel chain offers cheap and reliable accommodation that’s a two-minute walk from Mall of the Emirates and easily connected to the metro. It also hosts two welcoming bars with good drinks promotions.
Dhs250 per night. Next to Mall of the Emirates, www.citymaxhotels.com (04 407 8075).
It’s basic, out of the way and extremely orange, but easyJet’s trademark budget hotel offers some of the cheapest rooms in the city. You’ll be based on the edge of town at the Jebel Ali Free Zone, but it’s not too far from the metro making independent travel convenient.
Rooms Dhs170. Jebel Ali, www.easyhotel.com/hotels/dubai.html (no number).
Marina Byblos Hotel
The winner of Best Budget Hotel at last year’s Arabian Travel Market, the Byblos may not rival the prices found in Bur Dubai and Deira, but is generally the cheapest spot in the tourist-friendly Marina area.
Single Dhs560. Dubai Marina, www.marinabybloshotel.com (04 448 8222).
Ten essential cultural sights
Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi
Check out the life-sized reproductions of times gone by at Dubai Museum and be sure to watch the diverting video that charts the emirate’s expansion, set to a retro soundtrack (Entry Dhs3. Open Sat-Thu 8.30am-5.30pm; Fri 2pm-5.30pm. Al Fahidi Metro Station). Afterwards, wander between the restored wind towers which make up Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood (formerly Bastakiya), and stop at The Majlis Gallery (04 353 6233). Set in an old house, it’s one of Dubai’s oldest commercial galleries. Then head to the Local House Coffee Shop for a quick camel burger (localhousedubai.com, 04 354 0705).
Last chance The Fish Market
Anyone who says there’s no street life in Dubai should check out the attack on the senses that is the fish market – a colourful, noisy, and overwhelmingly smelly hub of trade for more than 25 years. Watch as scores of traders exhibit their exotic wares, from octopus to shark, all freshly caught around the region. But visit quick, because plans are underway to open a new, more tourist-friendly Dhs250 million complex next year.
Open Sat-Thu 5am-1pm, 5pm-11pm; Fri 5pm-11pm. Palm Deira Metro Station.
Shindagha and Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House
Walk from the Textile Souk along the arching entrance of the creek to Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House (Free entry. Open Sat-Thu 7.30am-9pm; Fri 3pm-9pm). Prime minister and vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s grandfather lived here from 1896 until 1958, and now fully restored in 1994 it represents perhaps the best depiction of Emirati life in times gone by. Afterwards, carry on around the corniche to the family friendly Heritage Village.
Open daily 8.30am-10.30pm (04 393 7151). Al Ghubaiba Metro Station.
Learn Emirati customs and traditions
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts traditional Emirati breakfasts, lunches and dinners throughout the week, followed by a Q&A to learn more about local customs and traditions.
From Dhs60. Check the website at www.cultures.ae for latest times.
Dubai’s only mosque open to non-Muslims, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers tours six days a week. There’s no need to book, just show up, but be sure to be dressed modestly (no shorts, no arms or backs showing, and women should wear a headscarf).
Tours Dhs10. Sat-Thu 10am. Jumeirah Road, www.cultures.ae.
Heritage House and Al-Ahmadiya School
Conveniently located side-by-side are two of Dubai’s best examples of traditional architecture. The renovated 1890 courtyard house once belonged to Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk, founder of the emirate’s first school, Al-Ahmadiya, established in 1912.
Both free entry. Open Sat-Thu 8am-7.30pm; Fri 2.30pm-7.30pm. Al-Ahmadiya Street, next to the Spice Souk.
Spend a relaxing afternoon in one of Dubai’s long-established parks, and visit at weekends to watch families gathering for picnics. Try Creek Park (Dhs5. Open daily 8am-11pm. Dubai Healthcare City Metro Station), Safa Park (Dhs3. Open daily 8am-11pm) – and be sure to arrange a trip to the Dubai Desert Conservation Area.
Get lost in the souks
While parts of Dubai’s traditional souks are getting increasingly commercialised, head off the main stretches and explore the backstreets and you’ll find there is still plenty of authentic trade going on. Browse textiles in Bur Dubai’s Meena Bazaar, then wander between Deira’s Spice, Gold and Perfume Souks after crossing the creek by abra for Dhs1.
Baniyas Metro Station.
Take a look at a way of life that has barely changed since the early part of the last century: walk east along the waterside from the Sheraton Dubai Creek, taking in the lively hubbub of activity as archaic dhows are loaded up ready to take to the high seas. When you reach the Al Maktoum Bridge, cross over and walk 1km further east to discover where these traditional vessels are still built today, at the Dhow Building Yard.
According to recent statistics, more than 70 percent of Dubai’s population is Asian, with huge Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan communities. There are also dominant Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian and plenty more Arabic nationalities. For the traveller this means there are loads of authentic yet affordable eateries dotted around – if you know where to look. Time Out’s Eating Out editor Penelope Walsh selects some of the best cheap bites from Dubai’s Asian and Arabic communities.
Eat and Drink Restaurant
Head to this Al Wasl Road stalwart for super cheap, classic Arabic shawarma wraps.
Al Wasl Road (04 349 9200).
This bright and modern Emirati café serves local bread delicacy khameer, stuffed with delicious sweet and savoury fillings.
Town Centre, Jumeirah Beach Road (04 385 4437).
This cosy, homely Iranian restaurant is a good budget choice. Don’t leave without checking out the sweet shop next door.
Jumeirah Beach Road, Jumeirah (04 394 0950).
This Chinese restaurant is quirky and a little baffling, but serves an authentic menu and a particularly good seafood selection, with a side order of karaoke. Try the deep-fried duck bone marrow.
Al Maktoum Street, Deira (04 295 9816).
Klayya Bakery and Sweets
A colourful, fun and vibrant spot, the café serves traditional Emirati breakfast dishes, alongside freshly baked breads, cakes and classic hot drinks.
Al Barsha Mall, Barsha (04 325 5335).
Lola’s Best Restaurant
Try Filipino signatures including freshly made lumpia, fried chicken, sizzling bulalo steak and okoy.
Mankhool Road, Opposite Al Hana Centre, Satwa (04 398 9193).
This Pakistani street food spot has become so popular within the city that it has spawned an array of imitators, but in our opinion the Satwa venue is the best. The spicy dal fry is a must-try, and you can watch your grilled dishes being cooked on the streetside barbecue. The butter chicken remains one of the top ten dishes every Dubaian must try at least once.
Satwa (04 331 5353).
The Sri Lankan menu offers freshly baked fish and seeni sambol buns, fiery, vibrant curries and string hoppers.
Damascus Street, Al Qusais (04 258 3318).
Sample Egyptian street food classic, feteer meshaltet. These giant pies are baked fresh and filled with a variety of sweet and savoury options. Head to the counter to watch the dough being kneaded, spun and baked.
First Rigga Road, beside Port Said Mosque (04 250 0115).
This Uzbek venue is not one for vegetarians or dieters as the dishes are exceptionally meaty and heavy, but if you can leave your doubts at the door, you’ll find it to be tasty and comforting food.
The Zen Tower, Dubai Marina (04 392 7311).
A budget favourite in the city for sampling street foods from across the Middle East, with. As well as classics including falafel and manakish, you can also try Syrian and Palestinian-style dishes in a funky, vibrant setting. Jumeirah Tower, Sheikh Jumeirah Tower, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 327 6060).
Dubai’s nightlife scene is notoriously five-star, gold-plated, Swarovski-encrusted, and served with a sparkler, right? Not entirely so – for every VIP-catering, high-end nightspot there are at least three more affordable venues targeting different segments of Dubai’s cosmopolitan crowd. Here we’ve rounded up the best venues to get a taste of the different sides of Dubai.
Goan Shack: The Pub Grub
This Bur Dubai drinkery is a must for any self-respecting backpacker for two reasons: firstly, it’s one of the wackiest venues you’ll find, with palm trees, phonograph records, telephones and street lights all dotting the room. But secondly, it’s fast-becoming one of the prefered hangouts in Old Dubai, making it a great place to make new friends from all over the world – just like a backpacker should. Need a third reason? A daily two-for-one happy hour means you can get two draught hops for Dhs36 between 6pm and 9pm.
Open daily noon-4pm, 6pm-3am. Ascott Hotel, Bur Dubai (04 352 0900).
For a taste of the Dubai high life that won’t break the bank, The Observatory is spot-on. With amazing views of the Palm and beyond from the 53rd floor, it offers a taste of class and an amazingly reasonable happy hour, when drinks cost from Dhs20 every day (Sun-Tue 5pm-10pm; Wed-Fri 5pm-8pm).
Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites, Dubai Marina (04 319 4000).
For a touch of touristy twee you can’t do much better than Latino-tinged bar-restaurant than Malecon, complete with the backpacker staples of graffitied walls and a Che Guevara portrait. And for a midweek dance off, the house band are a guaranteed giggle.
Open daily 7pm-3am. Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa, Jumeirah (04 346 1111).
Want to see what Euro expat life is really like? Or simply found yourself thirsty on tourist hotspot JBR The Walk, but don’t want to break the bank? Stop by loosely Scottish-themed bar Girders, where the daily happy hour offers half-price drinks, 4pm-8pm.
Ocean View Hotel, The Walk at JBR (04 814 5599).
Hang with the Filipino expat community at this delightfully spirited nightspot. The house bands serve up a fun mixture of rock, pop and amusing dance routines, but really it’s about watching the regulars throwing down impressive moves on the dancefloor; a must for any curious backpacker.
Open daily 6pm-3am. President Hotel, Karama (04 334 6565).
Away from home and need to catch up on some sporting action? Hopefully Time Café can help you out with one of its 50-plus TV screens, which stream sports from across the globe. And if they can’t, you can still enjoy a drink at one of Dubai’s most cosmopolitan, come-as-you-are nightspots.
Open daily noon-3am. Ramee Royal Hotel, Karama (04 334 4088).
All major malls host currency exchange counters, as does Dubai International Airport. If you’re stuck head to the reliable
Al Fardan Exchange. The Dubai Mall (04 346 6235).
Wi-Fi is common in most major hotels in Dubai, and many cafés in larger malls will offer access to customers. If you don’t have a portable browsing device with you, head to the Living Rooms in Festival City Mall, where computer access is free to customers.
www.livingroomscafe.com (04 232 9291).
To get out of Dubai on the cheap and into the desert (or even further afield), bag a cut-priced excursion online before you arrive by signing up for regular deals.
If you want to explore the rest of the region check out Flydubai’s route map for the cheapest fares – singles to Muscat start at Dhs265.