Dubai is known for glitz and glamour, but before the tourism boom, before the discovery of oil and before the union of the Emirati tribes in 1971, it was a vastly different place. The UAE was an area of sheikdoms – where bedouins lived as herders, date farmers and fishermen.
Throughout history, the UAE was known for pearls and was used as a pit stop along foreign trade routes, including Persian routes to Rome, the Silk Road to China, the Portuguese African routes and the British Spice Route to India.
Dubai was once a sleepy town with a significant seafaring port. It grew out from humble beginnings on the Creek (Khor Dubai), the area we now call Old Town, or Old Dubai, and transformed itself to what it is today in just a few decades, (see the video below to see old pictures of Dubai and its neighbour, Sharjah). Enter the Dubai Creek, now a lively tourist destination, and step into the past.
Take an abra along the Creek and explore the Bastakiya quarter, the oldest standing residential area of Dubai. First established at the end of the 19th century by rich textile and pearl merchants from Bastak, Iran, today the Bastik Quarter or Fahidi neighbourhood is a maze of old-world wonders.
While taking a walk through the tight, winding alleyways, you will see ochre-coloured buildings made of coral, mud, gypsum and palm wood. When you look up, notice that the houses are adorned with towers. Wind towers are the traditional air conditioner of the Middle East; an old Persian invention that funnels cool air through a building. Most of the wooden doors that you will stumble on will lead to hotels, cafes and galleries, so go ahead, explore the old town.
Stop at the charming Arabian Tea House for breakfast or refreshments. Wind down in the courtyard with a fresh lemon and mint juice (a Dubai favourite) and a date cake. Or choose between a light Western or Arabian meal and one of 150 different types of tea.
Have a wander through the artistic side of Bastakiya. XVA is one of the more prominent galleries in the Middle East and specializes in contemporary artworks created by Arab artists. Besides being a showroom, it is also a hotel. Another space that you need to check out is Dubai’s oldest art space, the Majlis Gallery. This premier fine art gallery has a reputation for showcasing high quality artworks from around the world, and for bringing regional artists onto the international stage.
While you’re in Bastakiya, you may get lucky and the SIKKA Art Fair will be on. This event coincides with Dubai’s annual Art Week, which happens every March. At SIKKA you will find workshops and talks as well as a range of art exhibitions and performances created by talented UAE-based artists (locals and residents alike).
Next, head over to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The SMCCU hosts programmes, tours and events that promote cultural and historical awareness. SMCCU has an ‘open door and open mind’ policy where all guests are encouraged to ask cultural and religious questions. This centre is the best place in the city to learn about heritage and tradition. For a real Arabian experience, opt for a tour of the Jumeirah Mosque.
The SMCCU also serves traditional, homemade Emirati and bedouin meals throughout the day. Experience the famed hospitality when you stay for an afternoon feast.
A must see spot in Dubai is the Al Fahidi Fort. Built in the late 1700s, this is the oldest functional building in Dubai; originally made with coral and shells which were cemented together with lime. Over the centuries, the fort has served as a defence post, complete with ammunition storage and a prison, as well as an office and residence for the ruler of Dubai. In 1971 the space was converted into the Dubai Museum. Get lost in the world of antiquity as you explore the museum; home to traditional weapons, ancient artefacts from the UAE, as well as Africa and Asia, and exhibitions that feature the old-world way of life, including pearl diving and date farming. (See the video below for a glimpse of the Dubai Museum’s courtyard).
Have Arabian cuisine for dinner, with an atmosphere to match at Bastakiah Nights restaurant. Or, go down to the Creek and hop on a dhow for a dinner cruise with live entertainment, like belly dancers.
The Dubai Creek is full of cultural wonders. After exploring the Al Fahidi Historical District check out Shindigha and its museums, the Diwan (ruler’s court), the Grand Mosque and the bustling old souks.