Dubai's rep may be 'gaudy and gold-obsessed', but peer beyond the skyscrapers to find culture and heritage, mountain treks, desert drives and unexpected wildlife sightings...
I know what you’re thinking: Dubai doesn’t belong on the pages of Wanderlust. It’s gaudy and gold-obsessed. It has nothing but skyscrapers and shopping malls. It’s as shallow as a teaspoon.
I used to think so too – until I lived there. I planned to stay for a couple of years, earn some sweet tax-free cash, and go home to get on with my life – but with every weekend that I spent exploring, Dubai’s culture unveiled itself. Naysayers will tell you the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has no identity beyond oil and excess, but they simply haven’t taken the time to look.
Until 80 years ago, this was a nation of pearl divers, bedouins and tradesmen (read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands for a primer) – but the UAE’s richly-storied Emirati heritage is just the tip of the iceberg.
Over 200 nationalities have settled in this single city, lured by opportunities they would never have in their homelands – and they’ve brought their own customs, cultures and religions with them.
Here, Muslim mosques sit beside Hindu temples and Catholic churches. You can drop £260 on a gold-dusted sirloin steak (at Nusr-Et restaurant, if you’re interested) – or you could pay a few dirhams for fragrant Filipino adobo (pork stew), made to a beloved grandmother’s recipe.
The Emirate is rich in oil and tourism dollars, yes – but it’s even richer in stories, personalities and adventure.
The Creek – the spot where the Arabian Gulf encroaches into the sands of the emirates – was the first permanently-inhabited part of Dubai.
Centuries before oil brought big business to the city, Iranian spice merchants and Indian silk barons converged here to trade their treasures in a warren of waterside souks, their dhows (wooden boats) bobbing outside.
Today, the scene is little different. Sure, there are now pashminas and toy camels for sale on the souks’ main drag (and dinner cruises moored alongside the dhows) but deeper in the labyrinth you’ll find stalls piled high with frankincense from Oman, tea from Sri Lanka, saffron from Iran – and much more.
The Gold Souk glitters with bling that would make Cleopatra swoon, while the Textile Souk is the spot for dresses and silks. Haggle hard: these merchants have been practising for centuries. Welcome to old Dubai, worlds away from the skyscraper city you were expecting.
The souks sit on either side of the water, so at some point you’ll need to cross it – and what better way than an abra?
These wooden, open-air boats were traditionally rowed across the water, but these days they’re engine-powered: a one-way trip costs just AED1 (21p), handed to the driver when you board.
He’ll only set off when the boat is full (each one holds 20 passengers), but you won’t be waiting long because thousands of people cross the Creek every day. You can hire a private abra for AED20 (£4.20), but it’s best to pile in with everyone else and enjoy the ride.
On the south side of the water, visit the excellent Dubai Museum (AED3/63p entry): it brings the area’s history to life with interactive exhibits, old photographs, and artefacts that date back 3,000 years.
Dubai has one of the most exciting food scenes on Earth: not because of its five-star restaurants, but because everyone that settles here brings their homelands’ recipes with them.
Nowhere is this more evident than old Dubai, where you can munch on everything from Indian street food to sizzling falafel and velvety mutabel (aubergine dip) – the Middle East on a plate.
The excellent Frying Pan Adventures offers foodie walking tours through the area, costing AED395 (£82.80). They dip into incredible little eateries you’d never find on your own, and provide the company of an entertaining and eloquent guide. I’ve lost count how many tours I’ve taken: they’re fascinating, fun, and utterly moreish.
On the Dubai Souks and Creekside Food Walk, you’ll munch on delicacies from across India, Iran and the Emirates – all of them delectable – while strolling through the souks and crossing the Creek on an abra.
You’ll learn the stories behind the spices on sale, and explore in a group of no more than 13. There’s no pressure to buy anything, even in the markets: this is a night of culinary adventure, bursting with dishes you’ll never forget.
On Dubai’s doorstep lies the Rub' al Khali desert, a 650,000 sq km ocean of dunes. Don’t leave without glimpsing these golden sands, but choose your tour wisely.
Too many tourists opt for ‘dune bashing’ trips, which see them speed through the desert in 4WD trucks, a white-knuckle ride that threatens the landscape and wildlife.
But Platinum Heritage does things differently: its Heritage Desert Safari trips head out into a wildlife reserve owned by the royal family, where long-horned oryx – the UAE’s national animal – graze in peace, and gazelles skip through the dunes.
You’ll be travelling in a 1950s open-topped Land Rover, with a knowledgeable guide at the wheel and the wind in your hair. Deep in the desert, a falconry hunting display offers a glimpse of the nation’s bedouin traditions, before a four-course feast is served in an open-air majlis (seating area). Emirati drumming and dancing provides a bewitching finale. Tours start from AED595 (£125).
The city’s appetite for art just keeps growing – from the vibrant galleries tucked in Al Fahidi Historical District, to the contemporary Jameel Arts Centre which is renowned for its eclectic and inclusive programme.
When I visited, pieces created by Dubai’s Bangladeshi and Indian labourers hung beside art from Saudi, Pakistan, Iran and beyond.
While Alserkal Avenue showcases regional artists in its numerous galleries, it also harbours the region’s first independent cinema, art-and-craft workshops, and everything from an Italian shoe-maker to a designer kimono atelier.
Don’t miss Mirzam chocolate factory, which crafts exquisite single-origin bars infused with Emirati spices – or Howlin’ Rooster (at Kave studio), run by Basil Azizoghly, who makes guitars from old Arabic tobacco boxes and salvaged wood.
Dubai will leave you with all kinds of questions. Are women forced to wear hijab? What will happen when the oil runs dry? At the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), there’s no such thing as a daft or offensive question.
Book a cultural meal, and you can tuck into Emirati machboos (chicken biriyani) and cardamom coffee with a local, who’ll answer all of your queries – and plenty more besides – in an informal yet frank Q&A. The meal costs AED120 (£25).
It’s located in a beautifully-restored old mansion in Al Fahidi Historical District: a fascinating area in its own right.
While walking through Al Seef, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled back through the centuries. In this dusty warren of streets, traditional bayt (Arabian houses) lie behind heavy wooden doors, their exteriors clad in coral and palm leaves.
The air is heavy with oud, and mud-brick wind towers bake in the sun. But hang on a moment: isn’t that a Starbucks behind those curvaceous archways?
Al Seef is an illusion: a brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed fallacy. It’s traditional Arabia painstakingly reconstructed, then filled with all the cafés, shops and restaurants you could wish for.
It might sound crass, but with a pinch of imagination it’s an enchanting spot to spend the evening – sipping a Frappuccino as you stroll through the centuries.
Everybody visits the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower – but for more up-close views of the city, head to Dubai Frame.
This rectangle-shaped skyscraper sits between old and new Dubai: on one side, the towers of Downtown soar skywards (with the Burj Khalifa centre stage) – while the other overlooks the souks and Creek.
Up on the observation deck, a glass walkway gives a thrilling peek down at the fountains and gardens 150 metres below. It costs AED50 (£10.50) for the experience.
At sunset, make a beeline for Eve Penthouse & Lounge, the rooftop bar (34 floors up) at Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights. The 360° views are magnificent, and you don’t have to pay for a ticket! It’s a slice of flashy expat Dubai, where the vistas and fancy cocktails (half price from 4.30pm until 7pm) lure in-the-know locals.
Order a Suntrap (rum, grapefruit and vermouth) and watch starry-eyed as dusk descends over the city. The food is incredible, too.
A two-hour drive from the city centre lies Dubai’s best-kept secret: the mountainous enclave of Hatta, where you can spend your days hiking, mountain biking and kayaking (through local activity centre Wadi Hub) – and your nights stargazing and snoozing in glamping-style lodges.
It feels like a desert oasis, complete with lush date farms (follow the marked trail through them) and a gemstone-coloured reservoir surrounded by mountains: an epic spot for canoeing and picnics.
Hatta Heritage Village reveals the area’s history, with everything from ceremonial daggers to traditional dwellings on show – and you can even climb to the top of an old fort, for views over the emirates of Ajman and Ras al Khaimah, and Oman.
After a few days in the city, Hatta is just the tonic: spend at least two days here, staying at Damani Lodges, a tranquil cluster of simple-yet-stylish dwellings overlooking the mountains. Double rooms cost from AED585 (£122) per night, including breakfast. If you don’t fancy driving from the city, Knight Tours offers well-organised private packages.
For an unforgettable stay in old Dubai, look to Al Seef Heritage Hotel – located in the heart of fascinating Al Seef (see above).
The rooms are an evocative homage to old Arabia, with intricate mashrabiya (lattice screens) and black-and-white photos of the old days – albeit with a few luxurious mod cons: the Nespresso machines are hidden in spice trunks.
Marvellous fun, and handy for stopovers too. Doubles from AED280 (£58.70) per night, excluding breakfast.
In recent years, Dubai’s five-star hotels have been joined by budget-friendly stays – such as Rove Dubai Marina, which blends clean and comfortable bedrooms with quirky interior design.
There are six Rove hotels in the city, but each one feels like a hip little enclave, complete with jazzy artwork and cafe-style restaurants. Doubles from AED176 (£37) per night, excluding breakfast.
There's plenty more to discover: you can spot flamingos at Ras Al Khor wildlife reserve, or jog beside the ocean at Kite Beach.
Foodies can find Filipino food (and street art) in Karama, or scoff camel milk ice cream in the Marina. Shop for Indian sarees in Meena Bazaar. and then relax in style, sipping fragrant Emirati brews in Al Fahidi’s Arabian Tea and Coffee House.
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