Ask anyone to name a symbol of Dubai and chances are they’ll mention Burj Khalifa or Palm Jumeirah. Understandable for a city with a glittering skyline that rose from the sands. And yet there’s another side to the place, one that you probably won’t see in the record books. Away from the shiny vistas of Downtown Dubai and the glossy waterfront of Dubai Marina, there’s a completely different aspect to the city that is every bit as impressive.
If you want to explore Old Dubai the best place to start is around Dubai Creek, which is where the city started life. It all began when the Sir Bani Yas Tribe settled on the banks of the creek in the 19th century, establishing what would one day become the Al Maktoum dynasty. This was the centre of Dubai’s first source of wealth, where the pearl trade once thrived. Wooden dhow boats would set sail for the Arabian Gulf from here, carrying brave divers out to sea for months at a time, where they would free-dive to the sea floor in search of the treasure.
Still a bustling hive of activity today, take a stroll along the banks and it’s easy to imagine what life must have been like. You’ll still see traditional boats weighed down with their cargo, criss-crossing the waterway alongside leisure cruises. A couple of dirhams will get you a ride on a traditional abra from one side of the water to the other – a great time to do this is in the late afternoon, as the light turns golden and the sound of the call to prayer from nearby mosques rings out across the water.
If you’re going to explore Old Dubai, Rove City Centre makes a great base, thanks to its Deira location that’s just a short distance from the best historic attractions – it’s also just 10 minutes from Dubai International Airport. It’s a fuss-free hub that has all the essentials: comfortable rooms, free Wi-Fi, plus fun touches like free games in the common areas of the hotel. Plus, there’s an outdoor pool and a 24-hour gym.
Rove Trade Centre is another option – close to both the older side of the city and all the sights of Downtown Dubai. It’s a great middle ground. Like all Rove Hotels properties, they offer a trendy, laid back vibe with rates that are budget friendly too, just minutes away from the business hub of Dubai World Trade Centre. There are plenty of modern amenities, including an outdoor pool and sun deck, 24-hour gym and even a self-service laundromat, so the hotel makes a great home away from home.
The south side of the creek has a number of interesting places to explore. Here you’ll find Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, one of the oldest heritage sites in Dubai. A maze of traditional buildings, wind towers and courtyards, there are lots of hidden gems here. Look out for XVA Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant connected to a contemporary art gallery. Also worth a visit is Dubai Coffee Museum, where the story of Arabian blends are told in quirky exhibits.
Learn more about local culture at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, where you can sit down to a traditional meal with an Emirati host who is happy to field all questions on life in the UAE. A short stroll away is Dubai Museum and it’s filled with historic relics such as pottery, jewellery, photographs and sailing paraphernalia that tell the story of a bygone era.
During the cooler months, wander around Dubai’s souks. There are quite a few to choose from – the textile souk on the south of the creek is one of the best places to pick up scarves, pashminas and decorations for your home. Or hop on an abra boat across the creek to get to my personal favourite, the spice souk. It’s one of those places you’ll never forget, with amazing aromas reaching you long before you turn into the warren of colourful alleys. A riot for the senses, this is the place to come for everything from exotic spices and rare ingredients, to sage advice on Arabic cooking. It really does feel like you’ve stepped back in time and makes for an experience you’ll never forget.
Louise C. is an avid traveller, history buff and seeker of captivating stories