Most people think of Dubai as an expensive place to visit. But while fancy brunches, five-star hotels and glamorous nightlife are certainly one side of this bustling Middle Eastern hub, there’s another, far-less-explored side, where you can get up close with nature, soak up some culture and get a glimpse of this proud nation’s ancient past – all without having to spend more than a few dirhams. Mum-of-three and long-time Dubai resident Kirsty Radley shares some of her favourite hotspots…
1. BIRDWATCH AT RAS AL KHOR
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is a peaceful wetlands reserve that feels like it could be in the middle of nowhere, but is situated just metres from the centre of Dubai, and is home to hundreds of fish, crustaceans and wading birds relaxing on the water. With the glittering towers of Sheikh Zayed Road an incongruous backdrop, the birds range from elegant heron to majestic osprey, but it’s the flamboyant pink flamingos that steal the show for most little ones, and there’s the chance to watch their daily feeding times from a wooden hide at the end of a pier. Get there early for the best views, and bring binoculars if you have them. No phones are allowed and quiet voices are encouraged. Take along a notebook and colouring pens and let the little ’uns be creative. Just make sure you have a bright pink felt tip!
When: The best time to visit is between November and April. Feeding times are generally 9 to 9.30am, and between 3pm and 4pm.
Price: Free to visit
More info: Call 04 60668 for more information, get location directions or see the website
Read more: '7 ways to get your kids closer to nature in the UAE'
2. FEED THE TURTLES AT AL NASEEM
The newly revamped Jumeirah hotel, squeezed between Wild Wadi and the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, is home to The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, which cares for endangered sea turtles that have been rescued and prepares them for release back into the wild. The feeding session on Wednesday mornings at 11am is perfect for little ones to see lots of different sea turtles up close and even get involved in feeding too. The food varies from lettuce leaves to fish (which can be stomach-churning for adults!) but the kids will love putting on the plastic gloves and sloshing around to grab turtle lunch from the bucket. Set in lush surroundings with easy, free parking at the Madinat (a 10-minute, buggy-friendly walk away) this is a well-organised event that only takes 20 minutes, but is well worth it.
When: Wednesdays, 11am
More info: Find out more about the turtle sanctuary’s work at their website
Read more: '8 ways to lessen your eco guilt (even while living in the desert)'
3. FLOAT BACK IN TIME AT THE CREEK
Catching a traditional abra at the Creek remains one of the most authentic ways to show guests a slice of old Dubai and its heritage. Perhaps for your more adventurous visitors – who may need to hold on tightly to little ones on these safety-rail-free bobbing half-boat half-rafts – it is great fun and the fresh juice bar on the Deira side is worth the journey. Depart from Dubai Old Souk, cross the Creek on an abra, enjoy the frenetic market atmosphere of the spice and gold Souks, and take in the sights and smells of Old Dubai.
Price: Dh1 per person per journey (cash only)
When: Just try to avoid rush hour
More info: See a map of the abra locations and opening hours details at the website
4. GO CRAB SPOTTING AT JUMEIRAH FISHING HARBOUR
A hidden gem along Beach Road, this fishing harbour surrounded by cafés and restaurants is a serene snapshot of Dubai’s marine past. While there’s no clear signage, it’s easy to find: drive along Jumeirah Beach Road with Mercato Mall to your left, pass two traffic lights and then turn right. Breathe in the salty sea air and take in the pretty coastal views ,complete with traditional-style architecture, fishermen relaxing in the shade and the quaint fishing boats dancing on the water. Kids will love watching crabs scuttle up and down the steps along the quay side, and there is a small play area to help (briefly) occupy toddlers. Tke buckets, string and bait to ensure a good crab catch (before throwing them back in the water) and then head to Omnia Gourmet for a slice of cake or juice. Bring colouring books and stickers, pick a table outside and enjoy the view and a hot drink.
More info: Map
Read more: '20 places under Dh20 to visit with kids in and around Dubai'
5. SIGHTSEE FROM THE WATER
You could spend a packet on a tourist boat ride, or you could pay peanuts for an equally pleasant journey on the low-cost, clean and rarely busy commuter boat service that is the Dubai Water Bus. Departing from just outside Dubai Marina Mall, there are many different routes to choose from, but our favourite is the one that heads over to Marina Walk, where there are plenty of coffee shops and fountains for the children to splash in. The water bus is buggy-friendly and air conditioned, and a fine way to enjoy the marina from the water.
When: Saturday - Thursday: every 20 mins, 10am to 11pm; Friday and public holidays: 12pm to 12am; Peak hours: 4pm - 7pm every 15 minutes
Price: Dh5 for adults. Children free
More info: See location and timing details
Read more: '6 Dubai restaurants where kids eat free'
6. MAKE SANDCASTLES ON BLACK PALACE BEACH
Nestled between two royal palaces in Al Sufouh, this is one of the few remaining undeveloped beaches in Dubai. Lovely for an early-morning picnic breakfast with a five-star view of the Palm and the Burj Al Arab, this long beach is clean and rarely crowded on a weekday. It has a life guard station, but no toilets or food outlets. The Madinat, Palm and Marina are short car journeys away, but lots of takeaways will deliver if you’ve found the perfect spot in the beach and don’t want to move. Take buckets and spades, a rug and some refreshments and you’ll be set for the day.
More info: Map
Read more: '5 ways to save on family entertainment in Dubai'
7. SOAK UP SOME CULTURE AT AL FAHIDI
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, previously known as Al Bastakiya, is a rich heritage area that features Dubai’s oldest building (1780s) the Al Fahidi Fort, as well as the Dubai Museum (Dh3 for adults to visit and Dh1 for children), and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). Although it is possible to visit the museum or to book onto various tours at the SMCCU (kids in particular may enjoy the Birds of Prey activity, which combines a short tour of the area and Q&A session with a bird of prey display), there is enough to enjoy just wandering through the beautiful traditional buildings, peeking into the odd art gallery here or catching a glimpse of a picturesque courtyard there, and kids will love running through the dusty narrow streets and looking up at the wind towers. The mosque in the centre is a good place to stop for a snack, or head over to the Arabian Tea House’s breezy courtyard for a relaxed refreshment or atmospheric lunch that feels a world away from the manic modernity of new Dubai.
Price: Free to visit
More info: You can reach the location through the Al Fahidi Metro Station nearby, or see the website for more details
8. WATCH WATER DANCE IN DOWNTOWN
You’re pretty much guaranteed that any new guest to Dubai will want to have a close-up look at the world’s tallest building at some point. Why not dovetail a trip to see the Burj Khalifa with a look at the fountains, which can be viewed from a variety of vantage points outside Dubai Mall? This spectacular, choreographed water and light show can be viewed at various points throughout the day, but the 6pm showing is perfect for little ones, with the sun setting, and the temperatures cooling. If you want to eat too, head to one of the Dubai Mall restaurants with an outdoor terrace at around 5pm (we like Carluccio’s for its kid-friendly menu and frequent promos), grab a table overlooking the water and fountains, and wait for the show to start.
Price: Free to view
When: Saturday to Thursday 1pm, 1.30pm, and 2pm; Friday afternoon 1.30pm, 2pm, and 2:30pm; Evening shows every 30 mins 6-11pm
9. THRILL LITTLE ONES ON THE TRAM
Children love a locomotive, and the Dubai Tram is a novel way to head to the Marina and JBR. Buggy- and child-friendly, with lifts and air-conditioned bridges where required, it is an affordable way to see some of the most picturesque parts of new Dubai without having to sit in the car. Parking (paid during office hours) near at Al Sufouh station is an easy way to start your journey, then you can stop off to eat at JBR. Pots and Pans has a great children’s area, while Lime Tree Café has opened up next to an outdoor play area, directly in front of the Bluewaters Island and the new Dubai Eye fairground wheel landmark.
Price: From Dh3. Children up to 5 travel free
When: Weekdays 6am-1am; Fridays 9am-1am
More info: Find out location and timing details at the website
Read more: '5 Family-friendly staycations you won't believe are in the UAE'
10. SEE THE SUNSET ON THE PALM BOARDWALK
On the edge of the southern crescent of The Palm Jumeirah, the stunning views back towards JBR from the Boardwalk will wow your guests and are well worth the effort it takes to get there. Pack scooters and trikes, or just a pair of trainers, and let the little ones ride up and down the wooden boardwalk. It’s fully enclosed so safe and completely flat so great for buggies. Stroll along and take in the magnificent panoramic views, with the jet skiers swirling in front of you, leisure boats sailing past, as well as skydivers falling towards Sky Dive Dubai.
When: Any time, but late afternoon into early evening will be cooler and you may catch one of Dubai’s spectacular sunsets.
More info: Map