Dubai is a unique city: It is a blend of the old and the new. In addition to the glitz and glamour of its more newly developed areas, Dubai has some old-world charm in its historic center. Set aside at least a day to explore old town Dubai – you’re in for a cool experience.
Getting to Old Town Dubai. The historical heart of Dubai is easily accessed via metro or taxi. Both options are pretty cheap. If you’re using the metro, get off at the Al Fahidi stop on the green line. The metro is not underground, so you get views of the city while riding. The metro system is a good example of Dubai’s modern infrastructural development: It is clean, air-conditioned, and easy to use (albeit a bit slow, haha).
Here are the top 5 things to do and see to make the most of your visit to old town Dubai:
#1. Street stroll and eat lunch at an art café in Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. The restored Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood is designed to take you back to the 1900s, when Persian merchants settled down in the area. The sand-colored buildings with their traditional wind towers now house modern establishments, including restaurants and hotels. Avoid walking around this area in the middle of the day in the summer heat – trust me, I can say from experience that it’s a bad idea, haha. If you do find yourself needing a respite from the heat, duck into one of the neighborhood’s cool art cafes. We really liked the AlSerkal Cultural Foundation and the café at the XVA Art Hotel. Order a refreshing juice or smoothie (I recommend the avocado smoothie at AlSerkal – they make it with avocado, milk, and honey. So good!), connect to the WiFi (we all know how important that can be while in a foreign country), and browse the art galleries.
#2. Get some history and culture at the Dubai Museum. After recharging with lunch at an art café, head to the Dubai Museum. For just a few dirhams, this museum is a good way to learn about local history and culture. The museum includes exhibits on the history of Dubai and the UAE, life in the Arabian desert, the city’s traditional souks, the pearl fishing that fueled Dubai’s pre-oil economy, and, of course, the discovery of oil.
#3. Cross Dubai Creek on an “abra.” The picturesque creek is one of the most charming parts of Dubai. The image of the creek reflects the essence of the city: the old and new meet as traditional boats, or abras, are juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers in the background. For one dirham, cross the creek to Deira on an abra. Then, head to the souks.
#4. Haggle at the Deira souks. These souks were my favorite in Dubai. If you’ve been to any traditional souk, you may know that they can be overwhelming: merchants often call to you as you walk around and pressure you into purchasing their goods. However, the souks in Dubai are not too exasperating.
The Gold Souk. This souk is well known, but I found it underwhelming. It’s effectively just a breezeway lined with shops that sell gold jewelry. It didn’t strike me as having much charm.
The Spice Souk. This souk is also well known, but I found it much more enjoyable. I had fun asking the vendors about the myriad of spices displayed outside their shops. Spices included indigo, saffron, turmeric, salt, dried lemon, peppers, peppercorns, rose buds, and other delicacies, making for a stunningly colorful visual as we strolled the alleyways. When I asked what some brown stone-looking things were, I was consistently given this response: “Natural viagara!” Haha. On another note, if you like dates – this trip was the start of my love affair with the delicious fruit – then be sure to ask about almond-filled, chocolate-covered dates. You’ll find different varieties, including white, milk, and dark chocolate. These typical sweets are delicious and actually nutritious as well! At the end of our visit to the souk, I stopped into a jewelry shop and successfully haggled for some well-priced silver and turquoise earrings. Proud of myself for that one.
#5. Relax with a sunset drink on Dubai Creek. To top off your afternoon in old town Dubai, have a sunset drink and appetizer by the creek before heading to dinner or back to your hotel. Bummer disclaimer: Creekside restaurants, like most others in old town Dubai, do not serve alcohol, as alcohol is only legal in licensed bars and restaurants that typically cater to expats and tourists. However, freshly squeezed juice and some well-seasoned chicken curry spring rolls did the trick for us!
Old town Dubai is an entertaining change of pace from the rest of the city’s ritzy attractions. I highly recommend you take some time to visit and learn more about Dubai’s historical hub.