Gazing at the gleaming skyscrapers of the ‘Manhattan of the Middle East’, it’s easy to forget that Dubai was once little more than a fishing village. Old Dubai sprung up around the Creek in the mid-1800s and became a centre for fishing, pearling and trading. The discovery of ‘black gold’ in 1966 has meant the emirate has undergone a remarkable transformation in a very short space of time.
Today, Dubai is home to more than 200 nationalities, but it is proud of its rich heritage, which blends Bedouin, Islamic and Emirati culture and traditions. To get a flavour of the old city, slip on your comfy walking shoes and head to Dubai Museum in the historic Al Fahidi district of Bur Dubai. Housed in the impressive Al Fahidi Fort, built around 1787, making it the oldest building in the city, the museum has fascinating old photographs that show a very different Dubai and a slick multimedia presentation that charts its evolution from tiny trading port to modern metropolis.
Next stop should be the excellent Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Established by Dubai’s ruler in 1998, the centre offers walking tours through the atmospheric old Bastakiya neighbourhood, home to wind-tower houses (clever structures that were an early form of air conditioning) built by wealthy merchants nearly a century ago. The centre also hosts cultural meals in a traditional majlis (‘place of sitting’ in Arabic), with guests seated in a circle on carpets and cushions and a typical Emirati feast laid out before them. A frank and open discussion follows, giving you the chance to ask questions, no matter how sensitive, of your Emirati guide. You can opt for brunch, lunch or dinner; just be sure to book in advance.
In Bastakiya, you will also find small art galleries, shops and cafes tucked away in the breezy courtyards of the beautifully restored houses. It’s the perfect spot to reflect on the contrasts of the city and write postcards home!
Then wander around the old souks, synonymous with the Middle East, beginning with the Textile Souk, where you can barter for colourful pashminas, and fabrics. Take a wooden abra (wooden water taxi) across the water to Deira, where you’ll find aromatic spices, herbs and frankincense in the Spice Souk, over 300 shops in the glitzy Gold Souk, and heady Arabian attars in the Perfume Souk.
You’ll no doubt hear the melodic call to prayer echoing across the city at some point during your stay. If you want to learn more about Islamic religion and culture, the centre also hosts visits to Jumeirah Mosque, the only one in Dubai that’s open to non-Muslims. The one-hour guided tour allows you to explore the splendid architecture and intricate design and, again, ask plenty of questions. Mosque tours take place every Saturday to Thursday at 10am. No reservation is required, but you will need to dress modestly (pack a pashmina to cover your hair and wear loose clothing that covers your arms, shoulders and legs).
At the entrance to Dubai Creek, you will get a sense of the city’s origins as a bustling seaport. Stop at a creek-side café for a lemon and mint juice or an avocado milkshake and pop into Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House in the Al Shindagha ‘heritage village’ area. Built in 1894, the wind-tower house was the humble adobe of Dubai’s ruling family until 1958 and features an excellent collection of photos from the 1940s and 50s.
To delve deeper yet into Dubai’s cultural heritage, spend a day pearl diving aboard an authentic wooden dhow. Jumeirah Beach Hotel organises day trips with real-life pearl divers that include swimming, snorkelling and a sumptuous lunch – plus, if you’re lucky enough to find a lustrous beauty inside an oyster, you are able to keep it. Now if that’s not an incentive to get wet, we don’t know what is!