Dubai’s big spending on manmade islands and other over-the-top attractions left this unabashedly capitalist city with mountains of debt. That doesn’t mean a trip to the cosmopolitan Mideast sheikdom needs to send you to the poorhouse though. There’s plenty to do without spending a dirham.
Souk wandering: Steep yourself in Dubai’s mercantile spirit with a trip to the bustling old souk (market) in the creekside district of Deira. Gold merchants ply their glittering wares from dozens of shops at the heart of the market. Peek inside for the air conditioning alone. Surrounding alleyways tempt shoppers with exotic offerings like frankincense and pashmina shawls, and echo with the call to prayer from nearby mosques five times daily. Browsing while wandering doesn’t cost a thing. If you are buying, remember to bargain hard.
Beaches: Not all Dubai beaches are hidden behind high-end hotels and waterfront palaces. Jumeirah Open Beach is one of the city’s most popular, drawing everyone from Russian tourists and Arab families to Indian and Pakistani migrant workers relaxing on their days off. Once you’ve had your fill of the white sand beach and sparkling Gulf waters, turn around to take in the view of Dubai’s futuristic skyline. Facilities include showers and a rare cycle path. The nearby Jumeirah Beach Park offers more greenery and less ogling, but the upgrade comes with a 5 dirham ($1.36) entry fee.
Dubai Fountain: The manmade lake lapping at the world’s tallest building comes to life every evening when the Dubai Fountain gets down to business. More than 6,600 lights illuminate powerful jets of water that dance to an eclectic mix of classical, pop and world music. One of the best views is from the pedestrian bridge connecting the gargantuan Dubai Mall to yet another shopping center. It lets you take in the Las Vegas-style show against the backdrop of the 2,717 foot-tall (828 meter) Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper. Expect to get damp if you’re downwind.
Snow in the desert: It costs at least $49 to tackle the manufactured snow-covered slopes of indoor Ski Dubai. Watching unsteady first-timers and slick snowboarding veterans from the more modestly chilled corridors of the Mall of the Emirates doesn’t cost a thing. Windows overlook both the 25-story slopes and a kiddie snow park. If you’re lucky, you might just get a glimpse of the below-freezing facility’s newest residents: four snow penguins. Just don’t ask about the electric bill needed to chill this monstrous place this time of year, when temperatures routinely soar past 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees C).
Car-gazing: Dubai’s conspicuous consumers love nothing more than to show off their overpriced cars. Get a curb-side view with a stroll along the restaurant-lined waterfront promenade known as The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence. Nightfall in this Dubai Marina hotspot brings a parade of vehicles — some searching for parking, many just showing off — that includes Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and Bentleys. More common rides like Porsches and tricked-out Hummers prowl the 21st century cobblestones here too.