A baby’s smile, a gentle breeze while watching a sunset, chips pinched from a friend’s plate – we’re strong proponents of the “best things in life are free” philosophy here at Time Out Towers.
Never more so than after splurging the small amount of cash we’d saved in 2017 on Katy Perry tickets, luxury afternoon teas and fancy restaurants to end the year with a bang.
Now, with freshly concocted New Year’s resolutions about saving more and doing things differently (we think it will last about two weeks) we’re eyeing the best budget-friendly things to do in the city. Everything on this list is either free or has a token surcharge of a couple of dirhams.
What’s more we’re pretty sure that even if you had a couple of billion dollars tucked away somewhere they would be just as enjoyable. You’re welcome.
Go back in time at Heritage Village
What did people do before on-demand video services, streaming music libraries and video game downloads? Make their own fun, of course. This cultural attraction gives a realistic look back to the times of goat-hair tents, pearl diving and traditional crafts in the UAE. You may even get a chance to try some of these bygone activities for yourself. It is free and should be on every resident and visitor’s must-do list.
Open Sat-Thu 9am-4pm; Fri 3.30pm-9pm. Heritage Village, Near Marina Mall, Corniche Breakwater (02 681 4455).
Take in the splendour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
When TripAdvisor released its readers’ choice of the best landmarks in the world last year, this stunning Abu Dhabi architectural marvel was ranked as number two on the planet. Ahead of the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China and Machu Pichu, the breath-taking mosque was only bettered by Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Dress conservatively for a tour and you can wander around the iconic building. Non-Muslims are invited to look at the 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns, 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, as well as learn more about Islamic culture in the UAE.
Open Sat-Thu 9am-10pm; Fri 4.30-10pm. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street (02 419 1919).
Dodge F1 cars at Yas Marina Circuit
Truth be told, there will be no cars on the track, but you can find hundreds of sporty people training for free several nights a week. The fantastic StartYAS (Sunday nights from 6pm), TrainYAS (Tuesday nights from 6pm) and GoYAS (ladies’ nights on Wednesdays from 6pm) are opportunities to run around one of the world’s best known motorsport circuits. No expensive gym membership or personal trainer required – just lace up your running shoes and enjoy the community atmosphere at the free fitness sessions.
Every Sun, Tue, Wed from 6pm. Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island (800 927).
Perfect your lazy afternoon stroll at Ripe Market
We’re allowing this one on the list because it is one of the greatest ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. Yes, there is a Dhs5 entrance fee to get into the Umm Al Emarat Park itself, but saunter over to the Ripe Market and that part is free. When there you will find a mixture of live music, pop-up foodie outlets, handicraft stalls, fashion and even the occasional fitness workshop. It is the sort of hangout hipster dreams are made of and it is an event that deserves your support.
Saturdays 3-9pm. Ripe Market, Umm Al Emarat Park (04 315 7000).
Have a mini-makeover in a mall
Sephora stores in malls across the city offer free 15-minute makeovers and beauty consultations. You don't need to book in advance – walk-up sessions are available (although lengthier, detailed and personalised consultations are available for a fee). Learn how to create smoky eyes, perfect lips, concealing tricks and many more professional tips. We’re not suggesting for one minute that you pop in and get a professional make-up job done before going out for a night. Nor are we saying we’ve never done that ourselves.
Open Sun-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Sat 10am-midnight. Sephora, The Galleria, Sowwah Square (02 412 4100).
Bash dunes in the Empty Quarter
What would the ultimate adventure feel like? Imagine a rollercoaster with no tracks. Cross that with whitewater rafting. Throw in a little F1 track circuit driving. Then sprinkle a bit of a mountain hike in the mix. That, more or less, is what dune bashing is like. No two trips are the same and the vast Liwa Empty Quarter is a wide-open landscape just waiting to be explored. Travel safely and in convoy and off-road driving is a thrill-a-minute adventure that can be combined with a night of camping under the stars for a free staycation you won’t forget any time soon.
Set your GPS for 22.974905, 53.785472 and explore.
Haggle for stuff in the souks
Call it timewasting if you want (it almost certainly is, sorry), but are we the only ones who like to rock up to the souks and just engage in a bit of mindless haggling? Even with no intention to buy it is always fun to get the price down from an exorbitant Dhs100 to a more reasonable Dhs15 for a pashmina you don’t really want.
Various locations across the city.
People-watch and walk on the Corniche
Hand over a couple of dirhams for a takeaway cup of karak and then see what the Corniche has to offer in the way of people-watching, sunset splendour and the occasional dive out of the way of a passing bike. Walking in a straight line and then turning around and walking back again is a favourite free activity chosen by madmen and depressed zoo animals for decades, but on this iconic stretch it is joyous any time of day.
Ride your bike on the Al Wathba track
With the dunes on either side of the well-maintained track this is a flat-out fantastic place to take out a bike. Numerous routes and varied journey distances mean you won’t get bored and it ticks exercise, sightseeing and Arabian cliché boxes in a single go. Now where did we leave our Lycra all-in-one?
Open 24/7. Al Wathba Cycle Track, Al Wathba, take exit 47 on the Al Ain Road and it is behind the camel racing track.
Bounce up a sweat
An entire weekend of complimentary body-toning events is coming to the emirate this month. The Yas Family Fitness festival will have free health, nutrition and activities for all comers to try. Yoga, Zumba, body attack, cardio and an array of other open-air classes can be tried without charge and there is an outdoor gym, inflatable obstacle course, strongman challenges, climbing wall and a cookery school to try as well.
Fri, Jan 26-Sat, Jan, 27 9am-5pm. Gateway Park South, Yas Island.
Play air guitar along with the International Playboys
We love Abu Dhabi's mega-gigs. The global superstars on the big stages are incredible. But they are rather expensive. Especially when you can see the best house band in the world – well, at least the country – for free several nights a week. Catch the hands-in-the-air, sing-along, grab-your-mates-and-pile-onto-the-dancefloor spirit that has seen them win a handful of Time Out awards at Heroes five times a week and don’t pay a fil for entry.
Tue-Sat from 10pm. Heroes, Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, Hamdan Street (02 616 6132).
Buy a camel. Or at least look at some in a camel souk
The trouble with window-shopping is that temptation often takes over and you “treat” yourself to that special something. That happens much less often than you might think when you’re at a camel souk. Who among us hasn’t secretly wanted to own one of the majestic beasts before? Really, just us? Visiting a camel souk, however, is more than just an opportunity to see the livestock up close and take some incredible snaps. Yes, it is that, but much more besides and as a cost-free way to spend part of your day it is something to add to your bucket list.
Open daily 6am-7pm. Cattle Market, Zayed Bin Sultan Road (800 555).
Have a laugh at Frankie’s Comedy Club
We might be playing fast and loose with how we’re defining free here. Facts are thus – entry to this up-and-coming fortnightly comedy club is free. You don’t have to pay a buck and there is a chance to see a couple of hours of top local comedy for free. It is, however, in a popular lounge so you may feel obliged to fork out for a few drinks or maybe a plate of pasta to slurp at while you watch the performances.
Every second Saturday 7-9pm. Frankie’s, Fairmont Bab al Bahr, Khor Al Maqta (02 654 3238).
Watch a free film
Adam Sandler earned more than $50million in 2017. Just let that sink in for a moment while you question if there is something wrong with the way Hollywood works. You’re unlikely to find the latest blockbuster movies, but, for film enthusiasts and lovers of classics, the free film screenings at the Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium offer a chance to see discussion-worthy movies on the big screen. Recent screenings include a 1957 Stanley Kubrick anti-war movie, an oil painted feature animation about the work of Vincent Van Gogh, thought-provoking Indian cinema and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Check schedule for show times.
Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium, Cultural District, Saadiyat Island.
Watch a (kind of) free film
Does buy-one-get-one-free count as free? If you’re sitting in a plush seat watching a major blockbuster and shovelling fistfuls of popcorn into your mouth it must do. Exclusively for du mobile subscribers who just need to text “MOVIE” to 9979 in order to get a code to redeem the discount. All you have to do is find a friend to take along with you and decide whether or not to tell them one of the tickets was on the house.
Tuesdays. Vox Cinema, Yas Mall, Yas Island (600 599 905).
Get stuff for free on Dubizzle
There is more to the city’s most popular classifieds website than second-hand cars and trying to find roommates who don’t terrify you. Click on the Free Stuff tab and there is a veritable treasure trove of items being offered to a good home. Last time we checked there were sofas, gadgets and a variety of furniture that is being shifted on the sole proviso that you turn up and collect it.
Visit https://abudhabi.dubizzle.com/classified/free-stuff to see what is available.
See how things used to be, at Qasr Al Hosn
Abu Dhabi’s oldest building has been around since 1761 and, despite starring on the Dhs1,000 note, it is a free, fun favourite. You may have heard of a Dhs710million revamp, which will see the fort and surrounding areas – seen as the symbolic birthplace of the UAE – transformed into a major tourist attraction and education site. Qasr Al Hosn is a living monument to the story of the city with many historic artefacts, photographs and memories of the rise of the city to peruse.
Open daily 9am-8pm. Qasr Al Hosn, Sheikh Zayed the First Street (800 724)
Run around in Zayed Sport City
The facilities in the UAE’s sportiest corner are world class. While you are not likely to get on courts and pitches or in pools without having to hand over a few notes, you can soak up the general athleticism with wallet stuffed firmly in tracksuit bottom pocket as well as sample some free fitness. Cycling, running, roller-skating are all encouraged. Plus you can watch cricket, rugby, ice hockey and more within the compounds. Or, if you really want to get a sweat on, join the TrainZSC fitness club. Dashing up and down the steps of Zayed Sports City Stadium with other motivated trainers is inspiring.
Zayed Sports City, Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street (403 4200).
Top up your tan
Save the swanky beach club, with its padded lounger and ready supply of mixed drinks, for a special occasion. With a towel on the ground, portable coolbox and some homemade sandwiches you can catch some rays, swim in the sea and save yourself a few hundred dirhams into the bargain. Besides, Bateen Beach, with its 800m of sand, excellent swimming, Blue Flag (it basically means awesome) status, children's playground, changing facilities and pristine beach is hardly slumming it.
Open daily 8am-sunset. Al Bateen, Khalifa Al Mubarak Street, off Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street.
Meditate at the Inner Space Centre
Is there anything more relaxing than saving money? There is so much to love about this meditation and self-development centre, but the cost-free nature of the seminars and workshops is among the finest. The whole set up is designed to promote happiness, positive values and stress-free living. By teaching meditation techniques, apparently. Can’t, or at least shouldn’t, complain.
Call for timings. Inner Space Meditation Centre, Bain al Jessrain Co-op building (050 515 9649).
Soak up culture in a warehouse
While the Louvre is buying up international art and making global headlines, a former industrial unit over in Mina Zayed continues to charge ahead as a cultural hub of the city’s artistic community. You’re not going to see any $400million paintings here (maybe masterpieces of the future), but there are loads of free workshops, screenings and exhibitions from local artists. The eclectic nature means you’re as likely to see poetry and music as you are calligraphy or ceramics.
Open Tue-Sun 10am-8pm. Warehouse 421, Mina Zayed (02 676 8803).
Step into Al Ain Oasis
Not only does the UAE's first UNESCO World Heritage site save you money, the 147,000 date palms and 1,200 hectares are, literally, an oasis of calm tranquillity. Visit the Garden City when life becomes too much and you need soothing shades of green and deep breaths of fresh air in your life.
Open daily 9am-6pm. Al Mutawaa, Al Ain.
Remember at Wahat Al Karama
Try something different and pay your respects to the UAE by visiting this military memorial. The name means “oasis of dignity” and it is a permanent tribute to soldiers who have given their life protecting the nation’s values and security. Massive aluminium standing sculptures feature and there is a visitors’ centre to learn more of the story of the fallen as well as a 4,000 square-metre plaza with views of the memorial and the nearby Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Open daily 9am-10pm. Wahat Al Karama (02 668 1000).
Ponder the Etihad Modern Art Gallery
Those with a penchant for culture should make the effort to visit this multi-purpose artspace. An emphasis on Emirati art means the venue often exhibits work by emerging artists and there is a commitment to nurturing regional talent. The owners and curators are determined to discover and promote artists and use exhibitions here
as a jumping off point to take artists’ work and display it internationally.
Open Sat-Thu 10am-10pm. Etihad Modern Art Gallery, Al Bateen Area, Al Huwelat Street (02 621 0145).
Saving a species and money in one simple step sounds all right by us. The UAE Dolphin Project is a non-profit initiative that aims to take a scientific approach to tracking the species in our waters. Gaze out to sea long enough and report any sightings, or volunteer with the organisation to become more involved in this great project.
Visit www.uaedolphinproject.org or call 050 955 1742 for more information.
Look down from Jebel Hafeet
Truth be told we’re not blessed with a magnitude of great hiking locations here in the UAE. However, the emirate’s tallest mountain is a premium spot for a long and challenging walk. The rocky mountain rises 1,240m above sea level and borders Al Ain and Oman. The limestone formation has more than 500 burial tombs in its foothills and there have been significant fossil discoveries. Watching a sunset from high up and walking down as the day turns to dusk is a great way to spend a weekend evening.
Take the E22 out of Abu Dhabi. Look for the large, mountain-shaped object and follow the brown signs.
Turn off the TV and read
Tens of thousands of books, magazines and journals can be borrowed, at no cost, from libraries in Abu Dhabi. Fiction titles to monthly magazines are available and can be taken home to read or enjoyed in a quiet nook in the library itself. Drop in to the Khalifa Park Library (sorry, this might set you back Dhs2) and you can even lie on the grass in the sunshine with your latest tome.
Al Nahyan Library, Nahyan Camp, Muroor Street (02 657 6034). Khalifa Park Library, Khalifa Park (02 657 6182). Mazyad Mall Library, MBZ City, opposite Al Jaber Exchange (02 651 5424). Al Bahia Library, Al Bahia Park (02 657 6120). Zayed Central Library, Next to Al Silmi Garden (03 711 8270).
Play out in the street
Remember being a kid when all you needed was a ball and a few friends and you would be entertained for hours? It shouldn’t be any different now. Street basketball courts attract players of all standards and are great for pick-up matches, shooting practice and vigorous workouts. There are courts at Al Nahyan playground, Al Reef Community Park and Khalifa City Park.
We know that a very significant proportion of the population won’t get a thing for free at a ladies’ night promotion. But women can cash in and save big time several days of the week. So fantastic are the savings on food and beverages, in fact, that we have to include a pick of the finest.
Barfly by Buddha-Bar
Free nights out and budget deals can, in other cities at least, conjour images of a dive bar or substandard way of spending an evening. This Buddha Bar offshoot scores high on even the most critical of scales and yet still manages to provide excellent value for money (especially as it is free!). Whether on the canal-facing terrace or the sleek interiors ladies have unlimited beverages on the house and a 50 percent discount on the Time Out Award highly commended food.
Wed, 6pm-1am. Venetian Village, The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, Khor Al Maqta (02 408 7201).
One of the great things about a ladies’ night freebie is that it brings something that would be normally beyond budget right within your grasp. If you are a lady, of course. This cool Beirut import isn't the cheapest venue, but it gives out four beverages to women on a Sunday night. Better than that – no, really – is the retro soundtrack that sonically saunters merrily through the ’80s and ’90s.
Sun, 6pm-3am. Iris, Yas Marina, Yas Island (055 160 5636).
MAD on Yas Island
Abu Dhabi’s best club? Brilliant atmosphere and top resident and international DJs and performers? Free entrance and a complimentary bar and for ladies? Excuse us while we do a little victory dance.
Thu-Fri, 9pm-3.30am. MAD On Yas Island, Yas Island (055 834 6262).
Terms such as ‘Irish hospitality’ are bandied around to a point where they become almost meaningless. It takes Abu Dhabi’s best pub, the peerless McGettigan’s to define what that actually means. Tuesday nights see ladies get five free drinks as well as a 50 percent discount on the price of main courses between 6pm-10pm. Chuck in a chance to dance along to a resident DJ and it is no surprise to see midweek nights out as busy as they are.
Tue 6pm-10pm. McGettigan’s, Al Raha Beach Hotel, Al Raha (02 652 4333).
Free and unlimited mixed Cuban mixed drinks and sparkling grape are headline-grabbing attractions at this stylish and long-serving haunt, but it is the chic atmosphere and relentless style that make it a favourite hangout for bargain seekers week after week.
Wed, 7pm-1am. Sho Cho, Souk Qaryat Al Beri, Khor Al Maqta (02 558 1117).