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Exploring Dubai's Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood

It is likely that the Dubai of your imagination comprises skyscrapers soaring towards a cloudless blue sky, mega malls sitting in the once arid and empty landscape like spaceships piloted by visitors from another planet, rows of sports cars gleaming in the untiring sunshine, affluent residents frolicking in designer swimwear on white sand beaches, and, perhaps, the odd camel. That vision is accurate, but it doesn’t offer a complete picture of the city that has deservedly garnered a reputation as the most opulent of the UAE’s seven emirates. Looking to discover a different side to life in Dubai? Take a look at our guide to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.

Dubai existed long before the Burj Khalifa, and if you want to experience something of the emirate pre-tourist boom, you will have to visit the old neighbourhoods of Deira and Bur Dubai, where members of the Bani Yas tribe first made their home beside the creek, and where the Al Maktoum family later began to build what has become one of the most talked about cities in the world.

Set aside a full day for your visit to Old Dubai. Jump in a taxi and ask for the Gold Souk on the Deira side of Dubai Creek. When you arrive, stride with purpose past the storefronts, with their window displays of bling and the hawkers trying to sell you jewellery and “designer” watches, until you reach the Spice Souk. Inhale the pungent aromas and fill your tote bag with spices, before making your way down to the water’s edge, where you can gaze across the creek at Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, formerly known as Bastakiyah, on the Bur Dubai side of the water.

Hop aboard an abra (one of the traditional wooden craft – now motorised – that function as water taxis), pay your AED1 (US$0.30) fare to the driver and take a seat on the wooden bench alongside your fellow passengers – a mix of residents of Old Dubai and tourists. As you take the short five-minute journey cross the river, you will be able to fully appreciate the unique view of both sides of the creek.

You will disembark close to the Textile Souk. Two rows of sand coloured buildings, separated by a wide path and protected from the sun by a high arched roof of wooden beams, the Souk is packed full of vendors selling an impressive, if often overpriced (be prepared to haggle), variety of brightly coloured textiles, as well as memorable souvenirs and Arabian trinkets.

Shopping bags filled, secure an outside table at Creekside, a café and cultural space dedicated to celebrating Emirati culture, which hosts a varied programme of workshops and events, and does a fine breakfast.

After eating, spend some time at Dubai Museum. Housed in Al Fahidi Fort, built in the 18th century, the museum is home to numerous historical artefacts and an exhibition charting Dubai’s growth from Bedouin settlement to modern metropolis.

For an even better window into Emirati culture, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding, which was set up with just that goal in mind. The centre encourages expats and visitors to pop in and find out more about the local customs, culture and religion, as well as offering regular Arabic classes, heritage tours and the chance to enjoy a traditional meal while chatting with an Emirati host. Enjoy lunch here, or sample the famed camel burger at Al Fahidi’s Local House Coffee Shop & Restaurant.

Every March, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood plays host to the Sikka Art Fair, and the Dubai Culture has done a fine job of transforming the area into a creative hub, bringing a sense of renewed vigour to the area. Wander the maze of alleyways between the neighbourhood’s restored houses, some of which sport iconic wind towers, and you will come across a large mural by graffiti artist Ruben Sanchez. Art lovers will also enjoy Majilis Gallery, run by Alison Collins (who has had an association with the area since the 1970s and opened Majilis in 1989), and Mona Hauser’s XVA Hotel And Gallery, opened in 1993.

You should end your day in the tranquil surrounds of XVA’s courtyard. Enjoy coffee and cake from the wonderful little café, beside the tree that, so the story goes, Sheikh Mohammed would tether his horse to when he visited what used to be a traditional Emirati house as a young man. And if you really love Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, stay a little longer and book yourself a room at XVA.

Written by Gareth Rees

Image credits:

Distinctive low-rise buildings in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood © Rebecca Rees

Dubai Creek: Wooden abras © Rebecca Rees

Mona Hauser’s XVA Hotel & Gallery © Rebecca Rees