Dubai is a destination I’ve had conflicting feelings about for years. I was curious to see what the desert city that boasts the world’s tallest building and massive shopping malls was really like, not really sure there would be enough to love in Dubai. This is a quick three-day stop in Dubai to explore and see for ourselves whether it really is just a gleaming metropolis, or whether there’s more to be seen when you scratch the surface.
With the fast-paced development of Dubai, it is easy to forget that there was a city here before the influx of tourism and oil money. The old town offers a cultural insight into Dubai. The best way to get to know Dubai is by understanding its history, by heading to the Old Town, which is probably the opposite of what you expect from this modern metropolis. Low, brick buildings line the creek and it’s here that you find vibrant markets, temples rubbing shoulders with mosques, and the museum inside Dubai’s oldest building.
This is scruffy, noisy and busy Dubai. This is Deira. The shabby part of Dubai. No glitz and glamour of luxury hotels or high-rise monuments to modernism. Deira is where you are removed from sanitised Dubai and experience the authenticity of the Middle East. A place that is loved and lived. This is a terrific place to get a shot of Middle Eastern culture before retreating to your more lavish lodgings. In Deira you will experience a lively suburb, share pavements with burqa clad mothers dragging children through the streets or souks.
Deira has a selection of attractions, but you need to be prepared to do some investigation. There is the gold souk, which gives life to the saying all that glitters is gold. Then the spice souk, a warren of shopfronts selling all manner of spices. Outside the souks, there are streets where locals come to shop and eat, a part rarely visited by tourists.
Roam the streets of the old town to the Old Souq Marine Transport Station and jump on an abra water taxi across the creek, while checking out the traditional wooden Dhow boats.
The dhows bob in the water as you look across this busy working river, continuing to be a major transport arterial for Dubai. This continues to be a working river port. This part of Dubai is a far cry from the gleaming skyscrapers that we recognise and expect to see in this city. And all the time, you wonder how residents manage in searing heat.
Adjacent to the Dubai Creek is the aromatic Spice Souk, where barrels of spices and frankincense are visible, you are struck with the vivid colour as much as the heady smells. The souk is a bewildering market, a maze of alleyways and arcades with traditional stalls capturing the heritage of a bygone era. Just about anything can be bought here, if you have the fortitude to search. Vendors attempt to entice you into their stalls and this can be confronting if you are ill prepared.
A little further afield, not far from the Spice Souk is the Gold Souk, with window after window dripping with gold. It’s an unbelievable sight – pure gold takes centre stage in the pedestrian walkway.
With the fast-paced development of Dubai, it is easy to forget that there was a city here before the influx of tourism and oil money. The old town offers a cultural insight into Dubai. The best way to get to know Dubai is by understanding its history, by heading to the Old Town, which is probably the opposite of what you expect from this modern metropolis. Low, brick buildings line the creek and it’s here that you’ll find vibrant markets, temples rubbing shoulders with mosques, and the museum inside Dubai’s oldest building.
It is important to take time to explore the old town’s sites starting at the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, built in 1787 as a residence for the monarch and for defence of the city. It now houses the Dubai Museum.
One of the things that struck us with Dubai is that it’s quite unique and once you leave the fringe of the city skyscrapers, you realise pretty fast that you’re in the desert landscapes of the UAE. We organised a desert safari because…we wanted to get out of the city and into the desert. Our safari explored the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and took in dune bashing, which was such a thrill to drive through the desert, drifting over the tall sand dunes and lurching after a steep drop over the top of a dune, as well the sunset over the desert dunes, belly dancing performances and an abundance of food.