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.

The current heart of the art world, however, is Al Serkel Avenue in industrial quarter Al Quoz. Dubai’s answer to New York’s Dumbo, a number of venues have opened up here in adjoining warehouses to ensure easy mooching from one to the next. Green Art  and Mojo are Al Serkal’s most pioneering, with the former recently exhibiting Palestinian artists, and the latter the first gallery in Dubai to show contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. Check the websites for exhibition openings, when free drinks (soft, and sometimes hard) and canapes fly freely.

Watery fun
Dubai’s coastal location makes for innumerable purse-friendly pursuits. As well as the free public beaches (of which Jumeirah Beach Residence next to the Walk and Jumeirah Open Beach are the most popular), it is possible to hop on a shiny, new and air-conditioned ferry outside Dubai Marina Mall for a 50 dirham cruise through this futuristic, skyscraper-crammed part of town.

If you fancy getting in the water, grab your trunks and head to the Address Montgomerie Dubai's Dine In Movies every Thursday and Friday, where you can watch a kid-friendly film and enjoy pool access, popcorn and a soft drink for 65 dirhams. Finally, if you would rather stare at 33,000 sea creatures for absolutely nothing, make a beeline to the Dubai Aquarium in the Dubai Mall, where you can watch through the world's largest acrylic panel for as long as you like for free while shopping. Alternatively, the 50 dirham entry fee to the spectacular 270-degree walkthrough aquarium tunnel is worth the investment: stand face to teeth with 400 shark and ray species, and also gain entry to the Underwater Zoo upstairs for everything from penguins and piranhas to giant spider crabs and garden eels.

Go up the Burj, for less (ladies only)
So you want to scale the world’s tallest building, the 828m-high Burj Khalifa, but do not want to pay the entry fee to the viewing deck on the 124th floor? Ladies should head to the curiously-punctuated bar At.mosphere on the 122nd floor on a Wednesday between 6 pm and 9 pm, when all females get free entry as well as two complimentary glasses of champagne . (Men, however, must still spend a minimum of 200 dirhams.)
Label junkies should grab a taxi (with fares approximately one tenth of the price of a black cab in London) to Karama, Dubai’s sub-continental equivalent of New York’s Chinatown, where you can snap up all manner of faux designer items from leather goods to sportswear to sunglasses. Haggling is expected, but exchanges tend to be surprisingly polite and ordered. For determined, steely-elbowed bargain hunters, the monthly Dubai Flea Markets are the city’s carboot sales, offering insanely cheap treasure to those who arrive first (around 8 am in the morning) and negotiate the loudest. For a more regular retail steal, head to Dubai Outlet Mall, 20 minutes down Route 66 from the Trade Centre Roundabout, for discounted high-end brands, from Missoni Dutti to Versace and Dior. Even better, visit on a Monday, when many items are half-price.

Surf for discounts
Dubai has embraced the discount website trend like a long-lost sibling, and it is a good idea to browse online at the start of your shopping spree to cash in on the best available bargains in town today. Start with,, and