The world has watched Dubai rapidly develop over the last 20 years. The city has become known for its slick skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. People visit from around the world to experience a modern metropolis, with pristine shopping malls, idyllic beaches and futuristic architecture – but where are Dubai’s more traditional charms?
Away from the man-made islands and futuristic skyline we’ve come to know, you will find Old Dubai. Sidestep the beaten track, and prepare to feel the real heartbeat of the largest and most populous city in the UAE.
Ride an abra along Dubai Creek
As its name suggests, the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek is based alongside the creek, making it the perfect place to begin your own walking tour of Old Dubai.
Stroll along the water to Deira Old Souk Station, where you can ride an abra (wooden boat). The abra holds around 20 people, and is the fastest and most affordable transport option between Deira and Bur Dubai.
Dubai Creek was once home to a bustling port, where ships from places as far as India and Africa would come to trade. In the days before oil was discovered, pearling and fishing were big here. Historically, the creek divided the city into 2 parts: Deira and Bur Dubai. Savor your abra journey – it’s a centuries-old way to cross the creek, and a truly unique experience.
Uncover the past at Dubai Museum
Dubai Museum unravels Dubai’s remarkable journey from humble fishing and pearling village to the financial, commercial and tourism powerhouse it is today. Situated in Bur Dubai (just a 30-minute walk from the Radisson Blu), the museum is housed in Al Fahidi Fort.
The fort itself has a storied past, having served as a ruler’s palace, a prison, and a garrison. Built in 1787, it is thought to be Dubai’s oldest surviving structure. The site officially opened as a museum in 1971 and inside you’ll find everything from old maps and dioramas, to depictions of desert life and facts on local marine animals. There are also lots of fascinating archaeological finds on display, some dating back as far as the third millennium BC.
Indulge in the local cuisine
After cruising the creek and soaking up some history, you’ll be ready to stop for lunch, and when it comes to dining out in Dubai, it’s not all about Michelin-starred luxury. Prepare to be spoilt for choice. Restaurants in Old Dubai boast old-fashioned Emirati hospitality, with traditional dining setups and beautifully-presented meals. The food itself is wholesome, hearty and packed with flavor.
Here are our top 5 must-eats:
Chicken flavored with coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and pepper, served with rice.
Goat meat is so tender, you’ll wonder why you’ve never tried it before.
This moreish dessert is popular in Dubai for a reason.
Falafel is very cheap in this part of the city, not to mention delicious.
A cheese-laced pastry packed with meat and vegetables – need we say more?
Lose yourself in Old Dubai’s souks
Traversing the winding souks is the perfect post-lunch treat. Old Dubai is home to 3 souks: the Spice Souk, the Perfume Souk and the Gold Souk. The sights, sounds and aromas at these lively markets are out of this world.
The Gold Souk
Based in Deira, the Gold Souk contains over 300 impressive jewelry stores. Wander the passageways and marvel at the glittering wares, which include precious stones as well as gold. You’ll encounter plenty of tradesmen and jewelry designers, as well as locals and expats. It’s worth noting that the gold here is amongst the cheapest in the world, but don’t forget to haggle – it’s all part of the fun!
The Spice Souk
Follow the aromatic scent of herbs, spices and fragrances to the Spice Souk (also known as Deira Grand Souk), just a 5-minute walk from the Gold Souk. Food-lovers won’t be disappointed by the colors and flavors on offer. As well as herbs and spices, you can pick up candied nuts, dried fruits, and locally blended teas. Most stores offer the chance to try before you buy, too. You will also find souvenirs, textiles and kitchenware here.
The Perfume Souk
Don’t miss this fragrant wonderland – a labyrinthine emporium packed with scents of rose, amber jasmine and more. At some of the stores, you can create your own signature scent and the shopkeepers are happy to help you choose something if you’re not sure where to start. Look out for oud; derived from agarwood, this is one of the world’s most expensive perfume ingredients, and is sometimes referred to as ‘liquid gold’. If you don’t want to buy any perfume, why not pick up some incense instead? Frankincense is a local favorite.
Social etiquette tips
Dubai is an Islamic state, so it’s important to acquaint yourself with local cultural norms and etiquette.
Keep these tips in your back pocket when exploring Dubai’s historic center:
• Avoid engaging in any public displays of affection.
• Swearing in public is not allowed.
• Being drunk outside a licensed venue could get you arrested, as could rude gestures such as sticking out your tongue.
• When with Emiratis, you should only use your right hand to eat and drink. This rule applies in Indian establishments too.
• Be prepared for glorious sunshine, but remember to keep covered. Opt for loose-fitting cotton clothes.