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Dubai has more to offer visitors than opulent shopping malls and sandy beaches. Whether you’re looking for inspiring art galleries, authentic Emirati restaurants or to learn more about the history of the region, you’ll find it in this buzzing emirate.
Dubai doesn’t do things by halves. Home to the world’s tallest building, the planet’s largest shopping mall and a seven-star hotel, there are plenty of reasons why Dubai is impressive and truly captivating. The major turning point for the city was the discovery of oil in 1966. The emirate has rapidly developed since then, showcasing itself with spectacular buildings and innovations ever since. Dubai is the busiest of the United Arab Emirates, with a buzzing nightlife scene and world-class attractions. There are water parks, indoor ski slopes, underwater zoos and massive fountains. However, the city isn’t just about fast cars and record-breaking skyscrapers; there’s also a thriving arts scene and plenty of historical sites to visit. Here’s how to spend a day in Dubai, whether your focus is art or history.
Although Dubai is known for its forward-thinking innovation and modern buildings, there’s plenty of historical charm to explore in ‘old Dubai’. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the historic side of the city, the best place to stay is in the old quarter. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, but Zabeel House in the up-and-coming area of Al Seef will position you in the heart of the old quarter. With plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance, the hotel is set right on the banks of Dubai Creek. Once you’ve explored the surrounding area, take a taxi to Jumeirah Mosque to learn more about Dubai’s rich culture and religion. Having opened in 1979, it’s one of only two mosques in the emirate that’s open to non-Muslims and is an ideal opportunity to ask questions about Emirati culture and Islam in a relaxed setting. Tours start at 10am every day except Friday, and tickets cost 25 dirhams (£5.25). Note that the ticket price also includes a light breakfast and Arabic coffee.
From the mosque, take a short taxi ride to the new Al Shindagha Museum, which opened in Bur Dubai in 2019, to learn more about the story of Dubai Creek, the oldest part of the city. There’s even a perfume-making museum, which is part of an ambitious Dubai Historical District Project that aims to open 23 museums in the area.
Continue your exploration of Bur Dubai in the historic districts of Al Fahidi and Al Bastakiya to learn more about Dubai’s rich history. Stop for lunch at Bayt Al Wakeel, a quaint and authentic Middle Eastern restaurant that is set out on the waters of Dubai Creek where you can enjoy some traditional mezze while watching the boats go by. Also in Bur Dubai, you’ll find the Dubai Museum, which is housed in Al Fahidi Fort. For three dirhams (£0.63), you’ll get 3,000 years worth of history about the Gulf and learn all about Dubai’s heritage, from its pearl diving roots to becoming the modern metropolis that is is now. Part with just one dirham and hop on an abra, a traditional water taxi, across to Deira. It’s a quick trip, but you’ll be able to see a quick snapshot of the area, which used to be the main site for trade for the city. It has been a vital part of Dubai’s history since the early 1900s. You’ll pass traditional dhows, larger boats used for bringing in produce, and see the city’s historical buildings.
Pro tip: for 150 dirhams (£32) you can hire an abra for an hour and take a trip further up the Creek.
Once you land in Deira, head straight up into the Spice Souk to explore the sights and smells here. Find displays of saffron, cumin, vanilla, zaatar and rose buds, before strolling up through the Gold Souk, which was founded in the early 1900s and is one of the biggest gold trading areas in the world. When you’re ready, take a return abra to Bur Dubai and back to your hotel in Al Seef.
Have a head for heights? The Dubai Frame, which opened in 2018, is set up as a gateway between Old and New Dubai. Take a trip up the 150m-tall (492ft) building and you’ll be able to look out over both sides (and down, as it has a glass floor). Made up of two towers with a 93-metre-long (305ft) bridge connecting the two, the landmark is a wonderful vantage point to check out Dubai from above.
Pro tip: purchase your ticket online to get a discount pass to a range of Dubai’s attractions.
Once you’re back down on street level, take a short taxi back to the Creek. Once there, stop for drinks at the Chelsea Arms or Sherlock Holmes for two of the oldest pubs in the city for a pint. After a tipple, head for dinner at Miyako, Dubai’s oldest Japanese restaurant, which has been serving traditional dishes since 1987. Be sure to try their sashimi sushi dishes and teppanyaki.
Pro tip: book into Miyako’s tatami room for an authentic Japanese experience, and leave your shoes at the door.
Dubai has a buzzing and rapidly growing art scene. For all art lovers, stay in the historic district of Al Fahidi at XVA Art Hotel, and book one of their quaint, individually decorated rooms. XVA also has a popular café, and is perfectly positioned in Bur Dubai so you can explore the free museums, including the Dubai Museum, and lively souks. The hotel has pretty courtyards for a coffee and also features local artists in their gallery space.
The main arts hub of the city is Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz, which has been a lively artsy area since 2008. There, you’ll find plenty of galleries to pop into and admire everything from photography to painting and sculpture. This should be your first stop as an art lover visiting the city for the first time. Don’t worry about making too much of a firm plan, just wander around and have a look at whatever takes your fancy. Highlights gallery-wise include the Custot Gallery, The Third Line, Ayyam Gallery, 1×1 Gallery and Grey Noise.
After a morning of admiring Dubai’s art scene, take a break and have a coffee at the hip, new homegrown UAE coffee shop Nightjar Coffee. They serve excellent coffee along with tasty breakfast and lunch dishes and have a sustainable ethos. Also in the area is KAVE The Story of Things, a 100% plastic-free café where you can slurp on a bowl of ramen or take part in a number of classes including laughter yoga and woodworking.
From here, take a 15-minute taxi ride to Downtown Dubai and Dubai’s financial district, DIFC, where there are several upmarket galleries selling and displaying art. One to stop into is the Opera Gallery that showcases emerging contemporary artists. If you’re getting hungry, have lunch at BOCA, a fantastic Mediterranean restaurant that prides itself on sourcing local, organic and sustainable ingredients. Try the daily-changing Market Lunch menu with dishes made from whatever’s freshly bought that morning from the Waterfront Market. If you’re interested in contemporary architecture, head to Dubai Opera, which opened in 2016, to take a tour of the performing arts space. Note that the last tour of the day is at 3:30pm. You’ll get a real insight into the vision and building process of what’s become a popular cultural hub in Dubai.
In recent years, Dubai has had a number of graffiti artists create murals across the city. Stop off via City Walk on your way back to XVA to see some of the best-known works. Some of the best designs come from from big names such as Blek Le Rat, Rone, Nick Walker Eelus and Eine.
After a day in Dubai’s city centre, take a trip back to Alserkal Avenue to the independent cinema, Cinema Akil, for an early evening film. Set up by Dubai resident Butheina Kazam, the cinema screens a wide programme of films, from National Geographic documentaries to small arthouse flicks. Get comfy on one of their sofas, and make sure you order a cup of the signature karak chai.
For dinner, try trendy French restaurant La Cantine Du Faubourg in Jumeirah Emirates Towers, which is one of the best places to go for a lively night out. Hailing from Paris, the restaurant attracts a hip crowd and serves up some excellent French food. The lamb short ribs are popular for good reason, but if you’re looking for something heartier, try the coquillettes de mon enfance, a divine truffle pasta dish.