There are no two ways about it, Dubai is an expensive place to visit and an even more expensive place to pass the time. Possibly this is because they have to recoup some losses from the massive amount of brand new construction they have created, or possibly it's to keep up appearances as being a sort of exclusive place to visit. I don't know why it is, but it is. All is not lost though, because there are some things you can do for free, or almost free, and they are pretty good things too.
Burj Khalifa is Dubai's main tourist attraction and it is the tallest tower in the world, but it definitely isn't free to visit. What is free is the spectacular Dubai Fountain show which takes place hourly after dark and twice during the day in the massive man-made lake at the foot of the tower. It has been designed by the same people that created the show at The Bellagio in Las Vegas and, in true arrogant Dubai style, it is bigger and better than the Las Vegas one. If you can only visit during the day, that is fine but you should really try to catch one of the night shows where the fountains come alive to music and an impressive light show. it really is spectacular.
There are lots of places around the lake to view the show from, but it does get exceptionally crowded. If you are planning on eating downtown, I'd grab a table in one of the restaurants on the higher floors of the adjacent Dubai Mall where they have balconies that give a simply fantastic, unobstructed view of the fountains from above.
The Palm is one of the most famous things in Dubai. It is a totally man made outlet into the sea that is shaped like a palm. Seen from above it is pretty impressive, but from land level it is hard to appreciate the shape. No matter, a visit here is a must and is cheap. There is a monorail that runs through the centre of the palm to the end where the world famous Atlantis hotel is.
The Atlantis is worth a visit because of it's sheer size and range of things to do. Walk round to the edge of the palm first where you can get lovely views of the Gulf and a cracking picture of the hotel. Then walk around the side to the beach. It is a free to use public beach that has a cocktail bar and some pretty comfortable loungers. The views back to the shoreline are impressive and you can even spot turtles and fish from the jetty.
When you've had enough sunbathing, walk through Atlantis and have a look at the giant aquarium. You have to pay to go in, but there is a massive fish tank you can see without paying, full of sharks and giant fish and it is pretty mesmerising.
If Dubai is famous for nothing else, it is famous for it's absolutely giant malls. There are quite a few of them to choose from as well. We visited the Mall of The Emirates, which has something like 2000 shops and concessions within it. It is also home to Ski Dubai, The UAE's only indoor ski slopes. Every type of shop imaginable can be found here.
If that one isn't big enough, Dubai Mall, at the base of the Burj Khalifa, is absolutely phenomenal in size. This one has a massive food hall and a huge selection of shops from cheap Poundland style ones to the high end boutiques of Louis Vitton, Armani and Jimmy Choo. Wandering around the high end shops is actually quite fascinating and the staff are surprisingly nice and welcoming, even if they can tell you are only there to gawk at the price tags!
So a visit to Dubai doesn't have to break the bank, there are fun things to do and spectacular things to see, even if you have spent all you money getting there and have none left to spend whilst you are there!