Right in the heart of Dubai where the city set down its first roots, the recently-opened Al Seef development has brought a touch of modern flair to the emirate’s oldest and most atmospheric area. Growing up alongside the heritage neighbourhood of Al Fahidi where traditional wind towers and Arabian architecture has been preserved, Al Seef takes inspiration from the past as well as the present, bridging the gap between the quaint old pearling district and the future-forward city of skyscrapers that Dubai has become.
The low-rise development spans 2.5 million square feet, hugging the curving creek for nearly 2km and featuring cool waterside eateries, walkways and a marina with jumping-off points for the creek’s famous water taxis. Among its narrow pedestrianized lanes, squares and souks, visitors can explore almost 500 shops and eateries, and stay overnight in one of three luxury hotels.
Down to the river
Dubai Creek is possibly the reason for the city’s very existence and it’s where you’ll find the Arabia of old. Traditional wooden abras and graceful dhows still ply the waterway as they have done for centuries. Before Dubai’s oil boom, the area was a regional trading hub and centre of the precious pearling industry, with rich merchants settling here and building grand compounds besides the waterway.
Travellers interested in Dubai’s history can take a walking tour of Al Fahidi Historical District and fortress, before visiting Al Seef to see how this legacy has carried over to modern times. The new development has modelled itself on old Dubai, adding a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe while still celebrating tradition, and bringing a bustling vibrancy back to an area grown dusty and disused.
Clear links to Dubai’s rich maritime heritage and the creek’s role in the city’s evolution can be found down by the river at the traditional wharf with a floating market and pontoons housing pop-up Arabian eateries, art galleries and shops selling local arts and crafts. A marina has also been built to provide moorings for private yachts and Arabian dhows to dock alongside, as well as abra stops connecting up with Dubai’s water taxi network, which is unquestionably the finest way to get around.
You can embrace the slow pace of creek-life with a long lunch or sunset dinner down at one of Al Seef’s many restaurants, with terraces and tables spilling out onto the promenade and overlooking the water. Tucking into Middle Eastern fare while you watch dhows and abras glide along the creek is one of Dubai’s most authentic Arabian experiences, giving you a firm sense of place in a city that can sometimes feel like it has sprung from nowhere.
Among the new restaurants and dining destinations setting up shop in Al Seef are the 961 Lebanese Bar serving delicious mezze, rustic Mamikonyan recreating mouth-watering dishes from Lebanon and Armenia, casual Dukkan Burger that brings unique Arabian flavours to a fast-food classic, Times of Arabia offering smoky aromatic regional dishes in a fine dining setting and Nablus, channelling the timeless vibe of the old Arabian city of Nablus with its signature Nablusi Kanafeh. The renowned Bateaux group also has a boat docked here for dining experiences out on the water.
Shops, souks and shows
The new shopping and eating district is centred around an open-air plaza that hosts a full calendar of shows, exhibits and interactive events. In its short life, Al Seef has already hosted events for Sikka Art Fair, National Day, Dubai Shopping Festival, Chinese New Year and Ramadan. But even if there are no major events in Dubai while you are visiting, there’s always something interesting going on.
The network of narrow lanes and open squares is reminiscent of shopping districts across the Middle East, except glossier. Within its walls you can find stores selling everything from designer products and luxury fragrances to cute Arabian slippers and artisanal crafts. Fans of luxury handbags will love Zeneve London, while you can take home one-off customised jewellery pieces from Wired Up.
Hidden in the maze, a new souk – similar to those that were common in Dubai in the 1950s – adds a touch of authentic Arabia to Al Seef with stalls and shops selling all manner of goodies, occasional night markets and sometimes live entertainment in the evenings.
Stay the night
Al Seef incorporates three hotels offering a combined 550 guest rooms. A hotel offering authentic Arabian hospitality, architecture and interiors reflecting the Dubai of yore is located in Al Seef’s specially-designed heritage area, while the contemporary side of the complex boasts two smart and modern places to stay.
The four-star Zabeel House by Jumeirah at Al Seef is a modern home-from-home that makes a nice contrast to Dubai’s usual high-rise hotels. Alongside its 200 rooms, four restaurants and bars keep guests fed and watered, while the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the creek is a real bonus. But perhaps the most appealing for a short stopover is right next door. Hip new bolthole Zabeel House MINI has funky pocket-sized rooms, a courtyard hosting pop-ups and outdoor films, and two street-food inspired eateries.
The most romantic way to arrive at Al Seef is to catch the water taxi along the creek to the abra station by the wharf, but there are also two metro stations – Al Fahidi and Burjuman – nearby. For those arriving by car, Al Seef offers both valet parking and plenty of underground parking spaces. It’s only a short drive from Downtown Dubai and Dubai International Airport, and regular shuttle buses link Dubai’s key hotels to Al Fahidi, Al Seef and the creek-side.