When everyone thinks of Dubai, the first things that come to their mind are the tall buildings, seven-lane roads, luxury cars, and the 24/7 party atmosphere. But there is another side in Old Dubai where the old boats are still a thing, centuries-old markets are still bustling with crowds, and medieval buildings are still intact.
Here are is a guide for you to visit and explore this place where the glory of Dubai began from. Getting to know these things beforehand will help you understand everything better once you are there in this heritage part of the emirate.
Visit Gold Souk in Old Dubai
Before the modern-day oil boom, the main source of Dubai’s revenue was from trade. The creek became a natural harbor, and hence Dubai became a middle man in the trade between the major players. That was long ago. Like, more than two centuries ago.
One of the things that attracted traders to settle in Dubai was its tax-free economy. This was great for the gold business. Within a few decades after introducing tax-free gold trade, Dubai had become the center for gold business and thus earning the name, the city of gold.
At present, prices of gold in Dubai are some of the lowest in the world. Gold souk has been there for nearly two decades and is brimming with gold shops. The yellow hue of this precious metal fills outs to the streets, giving the whole area an otherworldly vibe.
The daily prices of the gold will be displayed on the shop windows. The actual price of the jewelry will have an additional price tag of craftsmanship. Even though the price of the gold is fixed, you can still haggle over the price of the jewelry for what is costs for the craftsmanship.
Walk through the heritage in Al Bastakiya
Legends have it that when prince Charles of England visited Dubai in the 1980s, he advised the rulers of Dubai against demolishing these historical buildings. Since then, the Bastakiya is preserved as a part of the heritage village in Dubai.
Bastakiya is a complex of buildings predating the 1950s. They were houses of the elites of Dubai at those times. Today these buildings showcase several small museums and shops that educate us of the heritage of Dubai before there was the UAE. The Bastakiya is located next to the old Grand Mosque of Dubai.
Arabic coffee at Coffee museum
The Arab culture gifted coffee to the world. And they still have their unique take on the coffee called Gahwa or Arabic coffee. It is a coffee vastly different from the European latte or espresso. Arabic coffee is filled with spices. Cardamom, saffron, pepper, and few other spices are added to make the Arabic coffee. Some of the spices are added according to personal preference.
The Coffee museum curates the coffee culture in Dubai. You will find the old pots and vessels used to brew them. It also has a cafe attached to it where you can order a customized Arabic coffee, of which the price is included in the entry fee.
A different take on tea – Arabian Tea House
A great place to experience the authentic taste of Emirati cuisine. There arent many restaurants that specialize in the traditional food of the UAE. But the main attraction of the Arabian Tea House is the tea itself. The cafe, which is a part of the Bastakiya, offers over 150 varieties. Order anything from the herbal tea to the traditional Arab Karak tea.
The Arabian Tea House cafe lounge is a part of the Bastakiya quarter. This is not the only branch of this restaurant. But this one offers a traditional dining experience replete with Arabic majlis and old-style silverwares.
Unravel the history at Dubai Museum
Dubai Museum is the oldest and most comprehensive museum about the history and development of Dubai.
The most monumental artifact of the Dubai museum is the museum building itself. The museum is inside Al Fahidi Fort, which was built in the eighteenth century, only a few decades after the Arabs settled in Dubai. The fort started out as watchtower to guard the boundaries of the city. It expanded into a garrison, to a fort, and to the office of the ruler over the centuries.
In 1963, the Dubai Museum opened its door to the public. This museum has played a significant part in teaching the short yet glorious history of Dubai to the millions who visit Dubai every year.
Textile Souk – A colorful place in Old Dubai
This souk is where you can shop for fabrics from across the world in one place. But the majority of them are traditional clothes from India. There are both old-style clothes and the more modern variants of them. An array of souvenir shops are also present in the souk. Unlike all other souks from the antiquity, the textile souq is in bur Dubai.
Abra ride across the creek
Being divided by the creek, there was a need for transportation between the two. Abras were a part of the daily lives of Dubai from day one. Interestingly, these traditional wooden boats are still operating in old Dubai. Even though it was preserved as a tourist attraction, it is one of the most used options to move between Deira and Bur Dubai by the common folks.
This is something you should never miss when you are exploring old Dubai. The ride only costs one dirham, and the sights are worth so much more than that. There are half a dozen abra stations in Deira and Bur Dubai.
Refined versions of abras run in downtown Dubai as well. There are electric abras in the Burj Khalifa lake and Global Village, petrol abras in the Dubai Water Canal, and Marina. You might even come across a few air-conditioned abras.
Cargo deck – Something that didn’t change
Not a place where you can look for a specific thing, but the cargo deck in Deira near the Gold souq abra station is where the changes haven’t affected. Although much of Bur Dubai and Deira reminds us of the old Dubai, this part of it is particularly notable. You can see the old-style cargo boats moving the goods.
This is not the main port of Dubai anymore. But these small cargo boats carry the goods from the main ports to the main marketplace in old Dubai.
Walk along the creek in Deira
On the Deira side, there is a long and wide walkway that takes you all the way along old Dubai. This is a great place to go for a morning run or an evening walk. The Dhow wharf, Rolex twin towers, cargo docks, abra stations are all along this promenade.
Sheikh Muhammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
People from all across the globe come to visit Dubai. Besides seeing the wonders in Dubai, understanding the culture and traditions of it is also important to gain a good insight into the lives of the local population. If you are in for that, then look nowhere else than the Sheikh Muhammad Centre for Cultural Understanding. This is what you will first see when you enter Al Bastakiya.
They offer cultural meals for breakfast, brunch, lunch, evening tea, and dinner. The trained guide will explain the traditions with demonstrations where necessary. After that, you can relish traditional Emirati food.
Dhow cruise in Creek
The creek that cuts through the middle of old Dubai is something you cannot ignore. For one thing, it is ubiquitous and can be seen from a lot of places in Old Dubai. Another thing is that most of the major attractions rub their shoulders with the creek.
Before the city started sprawling to the neighboring regions, everything in Dubai was on the shores of the creek. Apart from going to visit all the attractions individually, taking a dhow cruise through the quintessential creek is an unmatched experience.
Dhows dock on the Deira side of the creek. You should book the cruise beforehand for the trip. Deira is infamous for heavy traffic. So park your car elsewhere and walk to the dhow station.
The 2-hour cruise is your chance to see the attractions in old Dubai, which are close to the waters. All of the major attractions are lit up at night. One of the things you will notice is the medieval-looking buildings along the creek on the bur Dubai side that stretches for 2 kilometers. That’s Al Seef, and it’s not a historical building. Al Seef was completed about two years ago. It complements the whole atmosphere of the area surrounding the Bastakiya.
Although most of Al Seef is build the old way, some part of it is a modern rendition of the traditional Arabic architecture. After all, Al Seef is a marriage between the traditional and the modern.
On Bur Dubai side, it is mostly historical buildings dating back before the 1950s. Some of them are even older. Like the house of sheikh saeed al maktoum and the buildings that surround it. The oldest of all the things in Dubai is the Dubai museum itself, although you cannot see it from the dhow. When you are sightseeing from the dhow, the Dubai Museum is blocked entirely by the old Grand Mosque of Dubai.
Contrary to the Bur Dubai side, buildings on the Deira side is taller and more modern. After the oil boom, Deira became a bustling market place while bur Dubai remained a residential district. Although there are both markets and residential buildings on both sides, predominantly, that’s the case.
The main attraction of a dinner cruise is, you guessed it, the dinner itself. The dinner serves the best of eastern cuisine. As the dhow starts moving, the starters will be served. Then the main course follows. You can have as much as you want to your hearts fill. Then as you are enjoying the dessert, the Tanoura dancer will take the floor.
The cruise lasts for two hours. You will travel through the most prominent places in old Dubai.
Dhow cruises always happen exclusively at night unless it is Ramadan. During Ramadan, you will also find iftar cruises, which start the trip a little while before the sunset.
Enjoy the art at XVA Gallery
Another great place to explore in Al Bastakiya. But this one is for art lovers. The XVA Gallery is a hotel, a cafe, and an art gallery at the same time. It is a starting place for you to explore the world of middle eastern art. This isn’t a huge gallery, but for the fact that it is free, it is a great place to visit. So include this place to your itinerary on your visit to the old part of Dubai.
The cafe inside serves specializes in vegetarian food that is inspired by other middle eastern dishes. Although most of the middle eastern dishes have meat as an integral part of it, XVA presents a good many items on their menu. You can even have a staycation at the hotel in the midst of all the heritage buildings.