Dubai is frequently used in the same sentence as the word 'free' – though usually with the word 'duty' preceding it. Dubai of the duty free shopping, of the luxury hotels and glamorously dressed locals attending impossibly high stakes horse races in a greened desert is the one most people know, but even in this city, where money is one of the loudest talkers there are still some inexpensive ways to keep yourself entertained without resorting to trawling the malls dreamily.
In this city not even the coastline is free, however there are still some public beaches, Russian Beach being one of the most popular, and one of the best ways to while away a free afternoon on Russian Beach is to grab your inflatables and float. Dubai has a very, very salty sea, but it's perfect for bobbing around on, appreciating the money that's gone into creating the idyllic man made foreground to your free and even more beautiful sunset. It's also really good for your skin.
Snorkelling is another buoyant way to spend a free afternoon, off the coast of Khorfakkan Beach is a good spot for it If you prefer to catch fish rather than just watch them opt for JBR Beach by the Sheraton Hotel where there's supposed to be good eating sized fish. You need a licence to fish from the shore but it doesn't cost anything to get one from Dubai Municipality.
Dubai has another free way to see some really unexpected wildlife: at the heart of the city, just a few minutes from the World Trade Centre is the Ras Al Khor wetland sanctuary, an oasis of wetlands in the urban jungle. There's a big fence around it, but there are three hides, open to the public between 9am and 4pm Saturday to Thursday, where you can see the larger and more feathered of the sanctuary's inhabitants, including a Greater Flamingo if you're lucky.
The best advice if you're in Dubai and on a budget is probably to stay away from the temptation of the malls, but if you're strong enough to window shop, or just enjoy the free air conditioning, then the Dubai Mall also has a free sound and light show running in time with its fountains, a la Vegas, and an aquarium. For bargain shopping, and a more traditional experience that's as much about the trading culture of Dubai as about trading personally, visit the souks, around the mouth of the creek on the Deria side. The Gold Souk is the most famous, with its rows of shops selling 22k and 24k treasures, but if you're on a smaller budget the Perfume Souk and the Spice Souk are going to be less tempting, and provide the kind of treats you could afford to treat yourself to.
Cultural experiences are often some of the least expensive for visitors. Lots of cities share their stories in free museums, and while the Dubai Museum doesn't go as far as to let you in for free, their entry charge is a token 3dhm, which gives you access to some pretty impressive dioramas in the city's oldest building. The Jumeirah Mosque is the only mosque in Dubai that non-Muslims are welcome to visit, and they're also welcome to join a tour of the mosque, which runs at 10am between Sunday and Thursday. This is also one of the city's most beautiful traditional buildings.
Dubai isn't known for its art collections, but one of the best, the relatively newly opened Farjam Collection is free to enter, and with your free audio guide, downloaded onto your ipod, you'll be shown though an impressive collection of Islamic art, from early copies of the Koran to 19th Century ceramics and modern calligraphy.
Shindagha Village, like a cross between an outdoor museum a traditional craft centre is in Al Shindagha, the bit of Dubai that was first settled. Potters pot, weavers weave and all sell their wares – in the evenings especially it's a really good place to stroll and people watch. Absorbing local colour is always free.
Get help booking your trip to Dubai from WR's UAE Travel Specialists.