As long as I can remember, Dubai has been framed as that place you flee to if you 1) can’t get a job in London or 2) can get a job in London (but you’re prefer your salary tax free and multiplied by 3). To the latter point, I’ve seen a steady stream of friends make the jump over the years with little regret, and an undeniable glow that comes with plenty of Vitamin D and no debts in the bank. No doubt, it’s a charmed life.
Holiday-wise, travel books will tell you that the young Middle Eastern city – one of the richest cities in the world – is very modern, American and excessive; a liberal playground for wealthy magnates that fly in, hit the highways in sleek rides and flock to the high-rise hotels for big pimpin’ and spendin’ cheese (Just ask Jay-Z, Drake , DJ Khaled et. al who consider the DXB their spiritual home).
But for some of us who are less inclined to pop swanky bottles or make it rain with our rent money, there’s a Dubai for us too – one steeped in more history and alternative culture, less shopping malls and boozy brunches. And, if you go in January and February, you can get a flight for under £200: not bad for guaranteed sunshine (average 24 °C) in the winter.
So for things to do in Dubai – quirky things, arty things, foodie things, value for money things – who are five activities I managed to tick off on my recent Christmas holiday (NB: Dubai is a driver’s city, but car rental is a doddle or you can cab /Uber it everywhere.)
A mooch around Alserkal Avenue
This industrial compound of revamped warehouses is the hub for edgy art galleries, regular festivals, music nights, pop-up shops, a cinema, cafes and everything else you’d find around Boxpark in Shoreditch (but much better). Free to walk around, Alserkal Avenue is where you’ll find the hipster expats hanging out with Emirati cool kids, and the moneyed art set bringing a fresh wave of creativity to the masses.
The gold souk in Deira
If crowds give you anxiety, this probably isn’t for you. And real talk, I thought I was gonna have a panic attack the first time I visited the legendary gold souk. But, once you can tune out the relentless salesmen asking if you want a watch or their other wares, it’s bearable – especially if you want to buy a bit of bling aka gold. Just make sure you have the current market price of the precious stuff committed to memory so you can work out how to get value for money and what you can afford. It’s sold by karat and weight, so you’re basically haggling on the labour cost.
An ‘Abra’ boat ride
For 30 dirham (£6-£7) each, we took a private, 30 minute boat ride from Deira on an Abra – a traditional wooden boat that is a cheap way to see the old Dubai via the creek. If you don’t want to do the whole private thing, it’ll only cost you 1 dirham for a quickie ride across the river. Do it before sunset for a charming end to an afternoon of haggling at the nearby gold souk.
Lunch at the Arabian Tea House
For foodie things to do in Dubai, There’s a branch of the Arabian Tea House in the quaint Al Bastakiya area, and it’s so popular they don’t take reservations. But it only took 15 minutes on a Saturday to get seated at this lovely restaurant which serves traditional and affordable Arabian fare.
Hitting JBR beach
There’s something very Beverley Hills about the Jumeirah Beach Residence – a glossy, residential, waterfront community near the Dubai Marina. Still, the JBR beach is free. This one’s pretty popular given it’s easily accessible, but there’s plenty of sun, sea and sand for everyone.
Looking for things to do in Dubai? Or maybe you’ve already been? Let me know in the comment!