The city of megatalls and huge malls, Dubai is a traveler’s paradise. There is something for everyone. Backpackers can backpack and glampackers can come back with even more luggage and a thinner wallet. Although neither ever complains, they happily co-exist, making the most of what the city has to offer. Similar to how old Dubai and new Dubai co-exist, both telling a different story.
New Dubai has been glamorized and showcased to the world to attract more tourists world over. But old Dubai is where you can really get to know the real heritage, history, and local food. You will get the best idea of the real local culture away from the fancy malls, posh hotels, and the upscale restaurants.
Time travel back to olden days in an Abra. This small boat leaves every few minutes and will take you to the other side of the creek to Bur Dubai. You get in and pay the driver DH1 for your 10-minute ride. You will also see some bigger boats called dhows which are used to carry cargo.
If you have already been in Dubai for some time then stepping out of the boat will give you a very contradictory feeling than the modern Dubai. It will be less clean and polished. The first stop you make will be to the exotic souks. You cannot go 10 feet without somebody asking you to come inside his shop and check out scarves or spices. They will come at you from all angles. You will be asked out in English, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish or whichever other Nationality you are. You have to be very feisty here. Do not step into the first shop you see as they can be very persuasive. Look around and then haggle with the shopkeepers as best as you can. That’s the whole fun of it.
The spice souk, gold souk, and perfume souk, which are all within a walking distance of each other, will give you choices that make you dizzy. The smells of perfumes and spices will fill the air with an unusual fragrance, which you will later associate with Dubai. Here you can source just about anything. Long, endless streets of shops selling mojdis (Ethnic covered shoes for girls), Arabic lamps which are covered with small pieces of colored glass, silk pashminas, scarves, purses, incense, perfumes, jewelry and so much more. Be sure to get a very authentic souvenir for your folks back home.
Al Fahidi Fort is the oldest existing building in Dubai. It is opposite the Grand Mosque in Bur Dubai. Inside the fort is Dubai Museum. For DH 3 you can get a ticket to see what life was like for the ancient Emiratis living in the dessert – primitive, traditional houses, the Islamic way of life, their lifestyle, their industries and what work they did. You can see the evolution of the whole city and cannot help but notice how Dubai is such a young city.
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood or Al Bastakiya is a historical district with a collection of free museums. You can walk on the small streets with coral structures and be exported to ancient Arabia where there were no buildings or malls.
They say when in Dubai, eat like the Emiratis do. Well, they say that for Rome but it stands true for Dubai too. So when hungry, don’t miss a chance to experience an authentic, sit-down, Emirati traditional meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). You can eat a hearty earthy lunch, which they prepare using age-old recipes and then go on a tour, understanding their lifestyle, their culture and their ways of living, before tourism skyrocketed in Dubai. The hosts are very generous and after you finish your lunch, they pack a container of leftover food and let you take it home. Another very important aspect of the tour is when they set aside their sensitivities and encourage you to ask them any question you have about Emiratis, Arabs, and Islam. They will always have a witty and intelligent answer that will satisfy you. In my opinion, this should be a MUST DO item on your itinerary. It is time worth spent to eat good Emirati food and learn about UAE.
At the end of Dubai Creek is the Shiek Sayeed Al Makhtoum House. The former ruler of Dubai and grandfather of the present Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. One of the oldest and biggest buildings of Dubai, the house has now been converted into a museum showcasing old photographs, official documents, coins and antique furnishings. Only a part of the house is open for viewing. Do check out the wind towers here where you can catch some cool breeze after a tiring walk in the hot sun. You can see a panoramic view of the creek and the magnificent skyscrapers of Dubai from the top floor.
Dubai was once a village of fishermen and Bedouin communities inhabited by weavers, potters and pearl divers. Step into the past by visiting The Heritage and Diving Village. Here you can see potters and jewelers in their natural home and environment of palm and mud houses and barasti huts going about their daily routine, practicing their craft. You can sample some local cuisine, buy Bedouin handicrafts, visit a traditional coffeehouse, and pose with a falcon.
After a day of soaking in the culture and tradition if you start to feel overwhelmed, the nightlife in old Dubai is actually one of the best. Bur Dubai is crowded with plenty of cafes, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. The Bollywood Bar and The Chill Rooftop Club has great ambiance. Deira is filled with Indian & Filipino clubs. There are plenty of Arabic and Iranian nightclubs with a lot of belly dancing scenes happening.
And a few pointers that will help you be on your foot:
Download maps and directions before stepping out of your hotel using your hotel wifi. Old Dubai may not have a very good internet connection while on the go. A few places have free wifi but you need to have a local Dubai number for that (Don’t see the point of that)
Dubai is generally hot all through, especially in the afternoons. So avoid carrying chocolates and other foodstuffs which will melt and become difficult to eat. Always carry water with you.
And now that you are all set to conquer old Dubai, have a ball of a time but remember to be respectful of their culture and sensitive towards their tradition. Avoid getting into political discussions or commenting on their lifestyle in public.