Famed for its opulence and sky-skimming towers of glass and steel shimmering like a mirage in the dry heat of the Arabian Gulf desert, it’s easy to think of Dubai as simply an ultra luxe shop-and-flop destination. But if you look close enough, there are still pockets of the old Arabia around the thoroughly modern metropolis that can add an authentic cultural slant to your break in the futuristic city. And beyond the city bounds, camel races and Bedouin camps still offer a sense of traditional desert life.
Once a fishing and trading town, the original Dubai grew up around a saltwater creek, where today the souks still bustle with activity and merchant’s houses with their trellised wind catcher towers still give a sense of that older world. Here are some suggestions on how to get a taste of the real Arabia during a stay in Dubai.
1. Shop in the souks
The city’s collection of colourful souks around Deira and Bur Dubai offers visitors a glimpse of traditional Arabia and the chance to barter for a bargain. Some goods are still brought into the souks by wooden dhows docking in Dubai Creek, sometimes travelling all the way from India, adding to the old world ambience in this part of Dubai. In one of the oldest parts of the city, the Spice Souk, also known as Deira Grand Souk, is a feast for the senses, where you’ll find fragrant herbs and potent spices by the basket-load, different types of tea, nuts and dates, shisha tobacco and even some traditional fragrances. In the same area, head into the lanes of the Gold Souk to browse its glittering treasures the colour of majestic Arabian culture. Just beyond, local frankincense and jasmine wafts from the line of shops known as the Perfume Souk. Down by the creek, the Deira Fish Market is another spot where you can witness the timeless spectacle of Arabian-style trade.
Over in Bur Dubai the vibrant Textile Souk or Old Souk is not to be missed. Visitors hunting for scarves, slippers, cashmere, silk and muumuus beneath its vaulted wooden roof will find a rainbow of options, but be sure to do as the locals and haggle down the price.
2. Cross the creek
Down by Dubai’s saltwater creek, you can see where it all began before Dubai struck black gold. The city was originally established around the creek as a trading post and a simple fishing and pearling settlement, and today you can still catch a sense of old Dubai by taking a wooden abra across the waterway between old Deira and Bur Dubai on the other side. Traditional wooden skiffs taxi tourists across the waterway on two different routes between docks in Deira to the north and Bur Dubai to the south side of the creek.
You can hop aboard the canopied boats just outside the Old Souk (also called the Textile Souk) in Bur Dubai for a short trip to Sabkha in the Deira heritage area or board at Deira Old Souk abra station near the Spice Souk for a 5-minute cruise to Bur Dubai abra stop, just west of the Old Souk. One-way trips cost just one dirham and transactions are done the old-fashioned way by handing cash directly to the driver.
There's usually a departure every few minutes from early morning until late at night. For longer cruises you can charter a boat by having a word with the operators at the station. In the evening, Arabian dhow sail boats offer dinner cruises on Dubai Creek with music and belly dancing shows. Some dhow cruises also depart from modern Dubai Marina Yacht Club.
3. Take a history lesson
Bur Dubai on the south side of Dubai Creek is a remnant of the old settlement where heritage sites and museums tell of traditional Arabia. Tour the living museums of the Heritage and Diving Village in Al Shindagha National Museum to get a sense of Dubai’s beginnings as a typical Arabian Peninsula fishing town and trading post. In the atmospheric Al Fahidi district you can step inside a rich pearl merchant’s mansion, and visit Dubai Museum housed inside a fortress built in 1787 to keep watch over the town. For an interesting take on Emirati culture, make a stop at the Dubai Coffee Museum to learn about the local coffee-drinking customs and refuel with a rich cup of joe.
4. Walk through time
If you aren’t staying in Deira or Bur Dubai, it’s still easy enough to drop in for a stroll through the heart of old Dubai via the city’s excellent metro. The maze of lanes in Bur Dubai’s restored heritage district of Al Fahidi are the perfect place to get lost in old Arabia. Its distinctive crop of wind tower-topped buildings were once the homes of merchants grown rich on local trade, but now contain a collection of craft shops, galleries, museums and cafes. Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers enlightening guided tours of the area and you can see a section of the old settlement wall more than two hundred years old – pretty ancient for Dubai. Bur Dubai also contains the colourful Textile Souk (also called the Old Souk) which can be visited as part of a walking tour of the area. Nearby, a new cultural corridor beside the creek called Marsa Al Seef is due to open in late 2017, and will feature a floating market, an open-air Emirati museum, souks, galleries, shops and eateries showcasing the national culture.
On the opposite bank, Deira is another good place for a walk through time. Wandering through its warren of atmospheric lanes and covered souks is a wonderful way to experience old Dubai. If you get disorientated, head out onto the waterfront corniche that winds along the north side of the creek. If you’d like to stay in a neighbourhood with a distinctly Arabian feel, there are some nice hotels in Deira including Raffles Dubai, Ahmedia Heritage Guest House, Marco Polo Hotel and Crowne Plaza Deira.
5. Dwell in the desert
Drive into Dubai’s desert reserve to experience ancient nomadic traditions at a Bedouin camp against the backdrop of the stunning Empty Quarter, which has some of the world’s highest sand dunes. Take tea with the Bedouins and tuck into a traditional Arabian barbecue feast amid carpets and canopies, cushions and low tables, lanterns and open fires. Some camps like to entertain guests with henna hand painting and Arabian belly dancing shows, while all will offer aromatic shisha pipes stuffed with fruity tobacco so popular in the Arab world. From the camp you can try more modern pursuits such as sandboarding or dune bashing, or opt for a traditional local falconry lesson, meeting the magnificent birds of prey trained for hunting. For the full experience, stay overnight under the desert stars in a luxury tent.
Mornings are a good time for a nature safari in Dubai’s Desert Conservation Area where you may be able to spot local wildlife like Arabian oryx (a type of white antelope with straight horns), learn about the fragile ecosystem and stop for a traditional breakfast in a shady palm grove. In the late afternoons, take a camel safari into the sand sea and watch the sun set from a high crest. To really get into the local spirit, you can also watch a traditional desert camel race usually held on Fridays or public holidays.
Whether you go dashing through the dunes atop a camel, bartering for colourful textiles and spices in the souks, ambling through the atmospheric alleys of old Dubai, or sailing across the creek in timeless local style, you’ll have gained a different and quintessential Arabian angle on Dubai – one that speaks of the past while the rest of the city rushes headlong into the future.