Last month, Dubai, the glittering desert city, introduced the most expensive cupcake in the world. Adorned with gold dust and priced at 3,675.94 dirhams, this confection did little to dispel the city’s image as a playground for extreme opulence. However, it may surprise you to learn that one can enjoy a budget-friendly break in the Emirates, complete with reasonably-priced cupcakes for a mere 12 dirhams. Here’s how to savor an affordable slice of Dubai:

Lodging

Two years ago, the budget-conscious brand Easy, known for its ventures such as Easyjet, Easycar, and Easybus, made its foray into Dubai with its first hotel in the city. Priced from 99 dirhams per night – a bargain compared to 400 dirhams for a mid-range business hotel or an astonishing 70,000 dirhams for the prestigious Burj Al Arab’s Royal Suite – it is an ideal choice for those who don’t mind journeying to the city’s furthest metro stop (the train line, which opened in 2009, is the most affordable way to navigate the city, with fares starting at just 2 dirhams, roughly the cost of a pack of gum).

For the more adventurous, Dubai offers fully air-conditioned youth hostels. Yes, even in this city of luxury, there are three youth hostels. Located about 15 minutes from Dubai airport and somewhat removed from popular tourist attractions, each hostel provides modern amenities and rooms for four to six people, starting at 100 dirhams per night per person, inclusive of breakfast, towels, and soap. It is advisable to book at least one month in advance.

Cuisine

Given that the largest expat demographic in Dubai comprises Indians and Pakistanis, it’s no wonder that the city boasts some of the finest sub-continental cuisine in the world. The most famous is Ravis Restaurant on Satwa Road, a no-frills eatery renowned for its butter chicken, best enjoyed with a milky chai for just three dirhams in a foam cup. Somehow, regardless of how much you order here, the bill always comes out to around 20 dirhams per person.

Another must-visit for thrifty foodies is Bu Qtair (Road 4d, near Burj Al Arab), a modest beachside shack offering fresh curried fish of the day on plastic tables right on the sand. Expect to pay around 100 dirhams for two, and savor the priceless experience of dining by the shore with a view of the neighboring seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel.

For those craving an Arabic meal, head to bustling Lebanese eatery Al Mallah (2nd of December Street, Satwa). Grab a table on the sidewalk if the weather permits and order a delectable cheese manakish (a thick Arabic bread topped with melted cheese) for six dirhams. Pair it with the complimentary salad provided to each table and watch the parade of luxury cars zooming by, particularly during national holidays in the late evening.

Explore The Creek

More and more visitors are seeking the “authentic” Dubai experience, the one that predates the glitz and gold-dusted cupcakes. Fortunately, this is one of the most wallet-friendly adventures of all. Catch a glimpse of the city’s trading heritage at the Creek, the original trading center of the city, by hopping on a motorized abra (a traditional wooden boat) at the Bur Dubai or Deira abra stations. With cushioned seats and a leather armchair for the driver, you can cruise across the water for a mere dirham, or negotiate a 30-dirham half-hour Creek tour. On the Deira side of the creek, meander through the Spice and Gold Souks; on the Bur Dubai side, peruse the Textile Souk and snag a pashmina for the price of a soda can. Marvel at how the city’s constant influx of tourists has managed to sustain numerous stores for decades, and don’t forget to haggle.

Appreciate Art

In the past decade, Dubai’s art scene has blossomed at an astounding pace. The original art-promoting district, still home to the city’s first-ever gallery, is Bastakiya, a labyrinth of courtyards and renovated wind towers housing numerous free art havens showcasing traditional and modern, local and international works. Recommended spots include XVA Gallery for contemporary pieces and a charming courtyard cafe, and Meem Gallery for Arabic-inspired and local creations.

The current epicenter of the art world, however, is Al Serkel Avenue in the industrial area of Al Quoz. Dubai’s answer to New York’s Dumbo, several venues have opened in adjoining warehouses for seamless gallery hopping. Green Art and Mojo are Al Serkal’s trailblazers, with the former recently exhibiting Palestinian artists, and the latter being the first Dubai gallery to display contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. Check the websites for exhibition openings, which often feature complimentary refreshments and canapes.

Watery Escapades

Dubai’s coastal location provides countless budget-friendly activities. In addition to the free public beaches (Jumeirah Beach Residence next to the Walk and Jumeirah Open Beach are the most popular), you can board a sleek, new, air-conditioned ferry outside Dubai Marina Mall for a 50-dirham sightseeing cruise through this futuristic, skyscraper-filled part of town.

If you prefer to dive into the water, grab your swimwear and head to the Address Montgomerie Dubai’s Dine In Movies every Thursday and Friday, where you can watch a family-friendly film, enjoy pool access, popcorn, and a soft drink for 65 dirhams. Alternatively, if observing 33,000 sea creatures for free is more your speed, make your way to the Dubai Aquarium in the Dubai Mall, where you can gaze through the world’s largest acrylic panel for as long as you like while shopping. The 50-dirham entry fee for the incredible 270-degree walkthrough aquarium tunnel is worth the investment: come face-to-teeth with 400 shark and ray species and gain entry to the Underwater Zoo upstairs, home to everything from penguins and piranhas to giant spider crabs and garden eels.

Ascend Burj For Less

If you’re eager to scale the world’s tallest building, the 828-meter-high Burj Khalifa, but are unwilling to pay the entry fee for the 124th-floor viewing deck, ladies should visit the peculiarly punctuated bar At.mosphere on the 122nd floor on Wednesdays between 6 pm and 9 pm. During this time, all females receive free entry and two complimentary glasses of champagne. (Men, however, must still spend a minimum of 200 dirhams.)

Retail Therapy

Fashion enthusiasts should hail a taxi (with fares approximately one-tenth the price of a London black cab) to Karama, Dubai’s sub-continental counterpart to New York’s Chinatown, where you can find an array of imitation designer items, from leather goods to sportswear and sunglasses. Haggling is expected but tends to be surprisingly polite and orderly. For determined bargain hunters, the monthly Dubai Flea Markets across various locations in the city are a goldmine. Here, you’ll find second-hand items, vintage clothing, handmade trinkets, and charming souvenirs, all at reasonable prices. Upcoming markets can be found on the Dubai Flea Market website.

For those who prefer air-conditioned environments, head to the Outlet Mall, a short drive from the city center. This mall hosts over 200 brands offering discounted items, from high-street brands to luxury labels such as Coach and Michael Kors. While it may lack the glitz of Dubai Mall, the slashed prices make it worth the trip.

Entertainment On A Budget

Experience the cinematic side of Dubai without breaking the bank. The Alserkal Avenue Cinema, an outdoor film screening venue in the heart of the art district, hosts free monthly screenings, showcasing a mix of regional and international movies. Make sure to check their social media pages for announcements on upcoming screenings and events.

For an Arabian night out, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), located in the historic Al Fahidi district. The center offers enlightening cultural experiences, including traditional Emirati dinners and Q&A sessions, for a fraction of the cost of a desert safari. Immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage of the region while learning about local customs and etiquette.

In conclusion, despite its reputation for opulence and extravagance, Dubai offers countless affordable activities and experiences for visitors. From budget-friendly accommodations and delicious meals to art, retail therapy, and entertainment options, it’s possible to enjoy this desert paradise without breaking the bank. So go ahead, book that trip, and savor the best of both worlds: a luxurious destination with budget-friendly adventures.