Forget the seven star properties, the man made islands, the tallest building in the world, the underwater hotels, the malls with ski slopes and the glitzy Marina skyline – it’s all old news and hardly worth a mention in that postcard you send back home.
We all know Dubai knows how to create headlines. But is the city capable of leaving a lasting impression on the intrepid traveller or a long-time resident?
If you are looking to discover a different Dubai; a more authentic, fresh and fascinating face of this city teeming with centuries old souks, bazaars, forts and mosques where there is so much more on offer than meets the untrained eye, then look no further.
Here is our list of top 10 treasures to discover in Dubai:
1. Explore Bastakia: Start your Dubai day with a taste of traditional Arabia in Dubai’s Bastakia district, located in Bur Dubai (Old Dubai). An exploration of Dubai’s past includes a must-pay visit to the Dubai Museum, housed inside the characteristic Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 as the ruler’s residence which also served as Dubai’s primary sea defence. The displays inside the museum are imaginative and creative including a reproduction of a 1950’s souk and the chance to enjoy the tranquil beauty of a night in the desert.
2. Take an Abra (a water taxi) over the Dubai Creek: Do yourself a favour and get down to the Creek. It is here that you’ll be able to see the original historical Dubai with its glittering souks and old, winding streets with a skyline dotted by minarets. For a truly authentic experience, ditch the tourist boats and take one of the wooden “abra’s” like the locals take. You can take the boat from the Old Souk on one side of the river to several spots on the other side, including the Spice Souk. This rich experience will only set you back a grand total of 1 Dirham and be one of the best things you do all trip as you make your way peacefully across the cool emerald water, enjoying the sights and sounds of Arabia on both banks.
3. Forget the Malls, Visit the Souks instead: For a quintessential Dubai experience, dedicate an evening to exploring the multitude of traditional souks in the city; the Spice Souk, Gold Souk, Perfume Souk and Textile Souk are the most popular ones to visit. My personal favorite is the Spice Souk; imagine huge, open bags of sweet smelling cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper and even shisha, fill and spill out of tiny stores onto the street. The shopkeepers are charming, the value is great, the colors are intense and bewildering and the aromas are truly out of this world. Don’t miss it – your senses will thank you.
4. Delight in Arab Cuisine: If you’re in the mood for Arab cuisine, have dinner at the Khan Murjan restaurant at Wafi. This is an excellent choice, located in the venue’s recreated 14th century Baghdad souk, evoking an ancient Baghdad bazaar – a regular hangout place for the locals. Be prepared for huge portions and plenty of Arab charm. Arabic music played by three Syrian musicians helps to create an unforgettable dining atmosphere.
5. Enjoy the Café Culture in Jumeirah: Whoever said Dubai doesn’t have a café culture, has clearly not been to Jumeirah Beach Road; there are loads of cool cafes, independent diners, and quirky snack shops alongside a collection of fashionable boutiques making it the perfect place to stroll and shop. Eat by the water in the Jumeirah Fishing Harbour and choose amongst Lebanese, Indian or Thai restaurants while enjoying the beautiful sea views. Or shop for vintage pieces at Bambah Boutique or indulge in minimalist clothing at Hermione Boutique where you will find edgy French style mixing shoulders with exclusive Dubai brands.
6. Visit Jumeirah Mosque: Arguably the most beautiful mosque in Dubai, Jumeirah Mosque stands at the northern edge of Jumeirah Beach Road and is also the only mosque open to non-Muslims. Visits can be organized through the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding which runs a brief but very informative and entertaining tour of Dubai’s best-known mosque. The talk gives insight into Muslim culture as well as the chance to dispel some of the myths and misunderstanding around Islam. Don’t miss the chance to view the stunning interior of this building as you enjoy a peaceful afternoon here.
7. Camp in the Desert: A visit to the desert isn’t as peaceful as you’d think. The desolate Sahara this is not. The easiest way to get at the dunes outside the city is on a four-wheel-drive safari. The tours are incredibly popular, but your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for a) being thrown around the sand in a Jeep, b) touristy BBQs in the desert replete with a belly dancer and henna painting services and c) lots of other tourists. If you can handle all three, then Blue Banana has a number of expeditions on offer. The same outfit also has hot-air balloon flights over the sand at sunrise — a statelier desert experience. If you just want to see some sand without vertigo or nausea, then head out to the plush desert escapeBab Al Shams. Here you can sit on the rooftop and enjoy a cocktail as the sun dips below the dunes.
8. Discover Dubai’s Burgeoning Art Scene: Who says there is no culture in Dubai? Dubai itself, as a city and a society, is like a piece of art work. It should come as no surprise then that Dubai serves as the perfect backdrop to a burgeoning art scene; the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) is now home to several upmarket art galleries, whereas an underground art scene is flourishing in the unlikely industrial area of Al Quoz. Art Dubai; the first art fair of its kind in Dubai provides art professionals and art lovers from all over the world with an excellent reason to visit Dubai and to keep returning, as its scale of programs and activities expands each year.
9. Visit the only Sikh temple in the Middle East: – Dubai’s Guru Nanak Darbar in Jebel Ali is the only one of its kind in the Middle East. A visit to this beautiful Sikh temple is well worth the visit. The architecture is amazing and the dome, especially when lit up is simply beautiful. It’s worth walking around the building to see it from different angles. A feeling of calmness and peace pervades the place as the gathered faithful sit and listen. Don’t forget; all visitors visiting at meal times can have a vegetarian meal cooked completely in-house in the Gurdwara’s own kitchen.
10. Eat at Dubai’s famous local institution Ravi Restaurant: When renowned TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Dubai, the first restaurant he was taken to was not some super expensive, plush restaurant in Dubai (of which there are many!) but rather the very simple and unpretentious Ravi Restaurant serving the most delicious Pakistani food in town. At Ravi they say you eat like a prince but pay like a pauper. And it only takes one bite of their delicious curries to see why this long-running Pakistani restaurant in Satwa is so popular. Pakistani staples such as Nihari beef or lamb stew are available on the cheap. Don’t expect fancy tablecloths or fanfare, or even excellent service, but we guarantee you’ll forget everything once you taste that mouth-watering butter chicken. A true local institution, and a must do on your Dubai itinerary!
How many of these 10 Dubai treasures have you explored? What else would you add to the list?