Dubai is bucket-lister, that’s for sure. But it’s also earned a reputation for being a bit on the spendy side. But if you’re headed to the City of Superlatives on a tighter budget, there’s still a whole load of things you can do without dropping a dirham – here’s our top 10 free things to do on your Dubai holiday.
Heading to Dubai in winter? Check out our guide on 10 free winter activities in Dubai.
Ignite at Dubai Festival City Mall
First up on our list of free things to do in Dubai is ‘Ignite’, a multimedia show of water, fire, and light, choreographed to a pretty mind-blowing soundtrack and projected onto the InterContinental Dubai using super swanky state-of-the-art projection mapping tech. They often mix up the show to reflect the season or a local holiday too.
Usually held in the evenings after sunset, you’ll find the action at Festival Bay, a mesmerizing outdoor setting at Dubai Festival City Mall, nestled right along the Dubai Creek – the perfect backdrop. The show is completely free to both locals and tourists alike – wahey!
The Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo has been snuck into the heart of The Dubai Mall, one of the world’s biggest shopping and entertainment spots. The star of the show here is the ginormous cylindrical tank, boasting a jaw-dropping range of marine folks, including the largest collection of sand tiger sharks anywhere, rays, and loads more of the most diverse fish species around. With over 10 million litres of water, the tank is also home to a walk-through tunnel, giving you a mega 270-degree view of the underwater world around you.
Because it’s located in the Dubai Mall (a mall is never just a mall in this city), you can actually see a big chunk of the main tank without dropping a dirham, but if you wanna get up close, or take a walk through that tunnel, you’ll have to grab a ticket – if you’re curious, it’s about £40 per person.
JLT Cinema Under the Stars
Picture this: the JLT Park, specifically the area known as Cluster Q, sometimes becomes an enchanting outdoor cinema, where you can snuggle up under the starry sky and watch your movie faves. On the roster this season are Disney classics like 101 Dalmations and Lady and the Tramp, Christmas crackers like The Grinch and Home Alone, and mega blockbusters like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and Captain America: Civil War. And it’s all completely free.
Seats are on a first-come-first-served basis, with the show starting at 7.30 prompt. Their calendar usually runs from November to March each year, and you can find out more here.
Sunset stroll around Dubai Marina
One of the best free things to do in Dubai, this prominent waterfront development is situated along a 3km man-made canal that connects to the Persian Gulf and is surrounded by a mix of residential, commercial and leisure developments, making it a mega sought after area for those looking to move to the city and a fave spot for tourists. Think upscale apartments, penthouses, and villas – luxury with a big, fat L.
It’s home to the Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), a beach-front community with its own popular boardwalk, and has loads of water activities too, with yacht cruises, boat tours, and water sports. Spot some of the local landmarks whilst you’re here: it’s got the Cayan Tower, the Princess Tower, and that super twisty Infinity Tower.
One of our fave things to do of an evening though, is to take a sunset stroll through the Marina Walk, a 7km, gorgeous tree-lined promenade with incredible views. And whilst technically not free, but still pretty cheap, you can rent a bike and do a couple of laps on two wheels instead. Just grab one from the stalls dotted around, register with your phone number, pay, and you’re off! It’s 20AED for a regular bike – around £4.30 for 30 mins.
The Viewing Point at Dubai Creek Harbour
This is Dubai’s newest observation deck, and you can find it in Dubai Creek Harbour. A 70m walkway that stretches 26m over the water, and almost 12m above it, it’s got views of both the Creek and Downtown Dubai, as well as icons like the Burj Khalifa and Sheikh Zayed Road that are completely – and here’s the golden word when it comes to observations decks – unobstructed. It’s a great spot to see how the city changes over the course of the day, from sunrise to sunset (it’s extra pretty at sunset, FYI).
The BoardWalk at Palm Jumeirah
Another popular walking route, this waterfront promenade is on the outer crescent of the Palm Jumeirah and has views of the Arabian Gulf, the Dubai skyline and the fronds of this palm-shaped man-made island. A pedestrian-friendly area, it’s perfect for just walking, or taking it up a notch with some cycling or jogging (maybe leave the jogging to the locals, you defo need to build up the stamina for it in the local heat!)
A perfect method of whiling away the afternoon or enjoying your evening, you can stop off at one of the restaurants and cafes along the stretch and people watch for a bit. Or just keep walking and play Eye Spy with landmarks like Atlantis, The Palm. Keep an eye out for any special events being held in the area too, including cultural festivals and art exhibitions.
You can access the BoardWalk from various parts of the Palm Jumeirah, some of which are part of the Palm’s own monorail system.
Mushrif National Park
To the east of the city, about 16km from the centre, is a little hotspot of nature a world away from the glitz and glass towers of Downtown Dubai. Aaaaaand, breathe. One of the oldest parks in Dubai, Mushrif National Park stretches across more than 5sq km of natural ghaf forest, and is a haven for birds. Arabian babblers, yellow-throated sparrows and Rufous-tailed robins all call this place home.
You can cycle the 20km of biking trails here, with multiple tracks of varying difficulty, or you can just walk it instead, with a 10km hiking path that features bridges, sculptures, and public facilities (loos!) along the route. There’s plenty of spots to keep kids entertained, like play areas, games, horse riding – even a train ride. Then there’s Aventura – a tree-top adventure course with 80 different challenges. In the summer you can catch concerts at the theatre there too.
To keep transport cheap, hop on the Red Line to Centrepoint Metro Station, then catch the 11B bus from the bus station here to Mushrif, Park 1. It’s a 30 min walk from here through some lovely greenery to the park itself – so bring comfy shoes!
Alerskal Avenue is where warehouses have been turned into wonderous galleries, dance studios, and fancy artisanal cafes. Once an industrial area, it started as just one gallery back in 2008, and now it’s one of the region’s best hubs for all things artsy.
It’s a great place just to have a good old mooch, and a lot of the art galleries are free to enter, like Leila Heller Dubai, the gallery’s first location outside of New York and which is known for promoting a creative dialogue between Western artists and the Middle East. The JamJar, meanwhile, is a community arts centre all about developing the local art scene, holding workshops for adults, teens and children.
Hatta Heritage Village
If you’re headed to Dubai in the summer and fancy escaping the heat for a bit, you can pop inside a mall where the AC is on max…or you could take to the mountains and visit Hatta, a heritage area high up in the Hajars and about 115km southeast of Downtown Dubai.
Considered a vital historical site, Hatta Heritage Village showcases traditional Emirati architecture and gives you a glimpse into life in the region before the Burj Khalifa. You can see dwellings, tools, utensils, and artefacts here, as well as learn about the traditional farming practices, including the ancient falaj system – an underground water channel used for irrigation. Then there’s the fort and watch towers to check out too.
Previously only really open to those with a rental car, you can now catch the H02 express bus from The Dubai Mall between 7am and 7pm that’ll get you to Hatta in around an hour and a half in blessed AC. It costs AED 25 each way, which comes in at just over a fiver. You can find out more in our Hatta blog.
Cross the Creek on an Abra
If there’s one thing that’s gotta be done when in Dubai on a budget, it’s crossing the Dubai Creek in an abra! Okay, so it’s not quite free, but it’s only about 1AED to use it, which comes out a princely sum of…20p.
Dividing the city in two, the Creek is a natural saltwater inlet and crossing it an abra – a traditional Arabic boat – means you’ll get some of the best views in the city whilst getting from A to B. Plus you’ll get a real feel for local life here, watching the bustling work happening along the waterfront. It gets really special if you cross the Creek at night, with the city lights creating a proper captivating ambiance.
They operate throughout the day, and it’s pretty easy to catch them near souks on both sides of the creek, like the Spice and Gold Souks, and the Textile Souk.