Dubai’s coastal location makes for innumerable purse-friendly pursuits. (Nicholas Pitt/Getty)
Last month, the shimmering desert metropolis of Dubai unveiled the world’s most expensive cupcake. Sprinkled with gold dust and priced at 3,675.94 dirhams, it did little to challenge the city’s reputation as a hub for outrageous luxury. But what might come as more of a surprise is that it is possible to enjoy an affordable break in the Emirate, and even enjoy cupcakes for the more normal price of 12 dirhams. Here is how to have your reasonably priced Dubai cake and eat it:
Two years ago the orange beacon that is Easy, the company behind budget airline Easyjet, as well as Easycar, Easybus and now Easyhotel, beamed out across Dubai, flinging open the doors to its first hotel in the city. Charging from 99 dirhams a night -- compared to 400 dirhams for a mid-range business hotel or 70,000 dirhams for a night in the famed Burj Al Arab's Royal Suite -- it is a decent choice for patient types who do not mind hiking to the last stop on the city’s shiny metro (the trainline opened in 2009, and is by far the most cost-effective way of getting about the city, with fares starting from 2 dirhams – about the price of a pack of chewing gum).
Alternatively, the more adventurous can stay in Dubai’s fully air-conditioned youth hostel. Yes, the city of luxury really has a youth hostel – three in fact. Clustered together 15 minutes from Dubai airport, a little way from the popular tourist hotspots, each offers all mod cons and four to six-person rooms from 100 dirhams per night per person, including breakfast, towels and soap. Bookings should be made at least one month before arrival.
With Dubai’s biggest expat demographic made up of Indians and Pakistanis, many food connoisseurs argue that the city offers the world’s finest sub-continental cuisine. The most well-known and is Ravis Restaurant on Satwa Road, a no-frills canteen that serves renowned butter chicken, best chased with milky chai in a polystyrene cup for three dirhams. Defying logic, it seems that no matter how much you order here it will always work out at around 20 dirhams per person.
Second on every hungry spendthrift’s hit-list is Bu Qtair (Road 4d, near Burj Al Arab), a humble beachside shack that serves up fresh curried fish of the day on plastic dining tables on the sand. The bill comes in at around 100 dirhams for two, and there is something priceless about sitting shack-side, fish in messy hands, looking out over the neighbouring seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel.
Alternatively, those after an Arabic meal should visit lively Lebanese spot Al Mallah (2nd of December Street, Satwa; 971 4398 6467). Perch at a table on the pavement if it is not too hot out and order a dangerously addictive cheese manakish (thick Arabic bread warmed and topped with melted cheese) for six dirhams. Combine it with the complimentary salad served to every table and take in the view of stunningly expensive cars that whizz past, especially late at night on national holidays.
Go up the Creek
It seems as though more and more tourists come in search of the “real” Dubai, the one that existed before the glitz and the gold-dusted cupcakes took hold. Fortunately, this is one of the most affordable experiences of all. Glimpse the city’s trading hub history at the Creek, the city's original trading centre, by hopping on a motorised abra (a traditional wooden boat) from the Bur Dubai or Deira abra stations. Complete with cushioned seating and a leather armchair for the driver, you can chug across the water for just one dirham, or haggle a half-hour Creek tour down to 30 dirhams. On the Deira side of the creek, wander the Spice and Gold Souks; on the Bur Dubai side browse the Textile Souk and snap up a pashmina for the price of a can of soda. Marvel at how the city's non-stop stream of tourists has managed to keep so many stores in business for decades. And do not forget to haggle.
Muse on art
In the past decade, like many aspects of the city, Dubai’s art scene has flourished as though on steroids. The original art-championing district and still home to the city’s first ever gallery is Bastakiya, a maze of courtyards and refurbished wind towers harbouring myriad free art havens that, combined, showcase traditional and modern, local and international works. Recommended spots are XVA Gallery for modern works and a gorgeous courtyard cafe and Meem Gallery for Arabic-inspired and local pieces.
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