Dubai: Some of the best experiences are free (almost)

Dubai: Some of the best experiences are free (almost)

It's possible to leave the decadence behind in Dubai -- all these cultural attractions will wow you for a buck or less

Dubai. A city where wealth and luxury know no bounds.

It's home to the world’s most expensive auto plate, the world’s most expensive purse and, aptly enough, the world’s most expensive camel.

But Dubai isn't all grandeur.

Some of the the most rewarding experiences are virtually free.

For insight into the United Arab Emirates' heritage and culture, here's a list of things to do in the city that cost less than five Emirati dirhams (US$1). 

Dubai Museum

A traditional Arabic boat, one of the displays at the Dubai Museum. Cost: 3 dirhams

To find out how Dubai evolved from a key trader in pearl exports in the 1930s to a vital regional shipping hub in the 1960s, head to the Dubai Museum.

It's housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which was constructed in 1787 and is the oldest existing structure in a city of perpetual expansion.

Visitors enter through the heavy wooden doors into an open sandy courtyard, the busy air above clouded by thousands of streak-throat swallows that nest in the coral rocks of the fort.

From the main courtyard you can explore the different rooms, which are crammed with exhibits on how Emiratis lived before coming into oil riches.

The Dubai Museum once also served as a prison. The dungeon has been converted into an Arabian culture showcase. Down the spiral staircase you can wander through exhibitions on pearling, metallurgy, bedouin life and fishing.

Open Saturday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday 2:30-8:30 p.m. Oppotsite Dubai's Grand Mosque, Al Fahidi Street, Al Fahidi Metro Station 2; +971 4 3531862

Abra ride

Scenes like this defy most people's mental image of skyscraper-mad Dubai. Cost: 1 dirham

For a look at Dubai's traditional dhow trading vessels, which have been upgraded with diesel engines to function in the 21st Century, hop aboard a tiny abra to cross to the Deira side of the Dubai Creek.

The bustling northern bank has been alive for generations with the shouts of sea-traders as they load their cargo and swap stories following their return from Iran.

The abra is a small wooden vessel with an open canopy that seats about 20 people. Passengers jostle for space as the craft bobs across the creek, powered by a small outboard motor that sounds like a lawnmower.

Abras have been servicing Dubai for decades as the traditional way to ferry across the creek, offering a unique perspective of the city’s skyline.

Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House

Established around 1894 as the seat of the Al Maktoum family, the home's owner has since moved into more luxurious digs. Cost: 2 dirhams

Once the royal residence of Dubai’s ruler, this traditional palace has been converted into a museum.

The house now showcases the city's transformation from a confusion of Bedouin huts along Dubai Creek into the sprawling leviathan that it is today.

Though redundant due to the modern miracle of air conditioning, ancient wind towers once used to cool the palace punctuate the top of the building, a testament to the ingenuity of Arab architecture.

Only hardcore philatelics should enter the stamp collection rooms and, unless you’re a diehard historian, the rooms with municipality records should also be given a miss.

A top draw, however, is the comprehensive photo archive of Dubai life pre-oil. Photos dating back to the early 20th century offer a fascinating glimpse into the private life of the ruling family.

Shindagha Heritage Village, Bur Dubai, towards the mouth of the Dubai Creek; Open Saturday-Thursday 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday, 3:30-9:30 p.m.; +971 (0)4 393 7151

Dubai Camel Museum

Where are the humps? Cost: Free

Hidden behind Sheikh Maktoum’s palace is one of the city's more offbeat attractions, the Dubai Camel Museum. This small house is a testament to the passion that Emiratis have for their beloved "ships of the desert."

Visitors get to learn about the medicinal role of camels in traditional society. For instance, camel urine can cure a volley of ailments ranging from ulcers to alopecia. Camel excrement cures nose bleeds and smallpox. Fat from the humps is believed to relieve haemorrhoid symptoms.

And then there's the aptly named “Camel -- The Body" section. One half of the room focuses on the inner workings of a camel’s digestive tract at a macro level. We’ll leave it up to you to guess where you exit.

Shindagha Heritage Village, Bur Dubai, towards the mouth of the Dubai Creek. Open Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; +971 (0)4 392 0368

More on CNN: Insider Guide: Best of Dubai

Pehlwani Wrestling

Our money's on the man in black. Cost: free

Pehlwani wrestling (sometimes known as Kushti wrestling) is an ancient sport that made its way west from Southeast Asia.

Every friday, hundreds of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi laborers gather in an excited circle to watch broad, stocky men compete for victory.

The objective is simple: knock your opponent to the sand using your bodyweight.

Wrestlers are dressed in nothing but a scant loincloth -- an outfit that contrasts the conservative dress codes that permeate Dubai.

Before the match, the crowd is whipped into a frenzy by the animated cries of the ringmaster, set to the rhythmic background of a drummer and his colorful dhol.

The crowd is generally friendly but visitors are advised to be respectful and ask before taking photos. Women are advised to dress modestly.

Deira (sandlot behind the fish market); closest Metro station: Palm Deira; matches take place every Friday at 5 p.m. 

What are your favorite Dubai attractions? Share your picks below. 

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