Finding history, culture and a very different shopping experience in Old Dubai, on the banks of the Dubai Creek.
Dubai is often described as soulless. Dubai-haters say it’s over-shiny, shopping-obsessed and lacking in culture. But if you head to the banks of the Dubai Creek in the Bur Dubai and Deira districts, you’ll find a very different experience.
I’m fascinated by Dubai’s history and how it developed from a tiny port into the massive, futuristic city it is today, so visiting the Dubai Museum, the old houses of the Bastakiya area and the Gold and Spice Souqs across the Creek in Deira was really important to me on our visit to Dubai.
The first thing you’ll see when arriving at Dubai Museum is the massive dhow sailing ship outside, next to the remains of the city walls. The museum itself is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort which was built in 1787 and is Dubai’s oldest remaining building. Getting into the museum costs 3 AED (about 65p).
Inside the museum there’s a courtyard with displays of different types of boats used in Dubai’s pearl-fishing industry, along with cannons from the days when the British were involved in the region.
Most of the museum is underground and is mainly made up of atmospheric displays showing everyday life in Dubai in the days before oil was discovered.
The Bastakiya area
When we emerged from the underground museum into the bright Dubai sunshine, there was only one thing on our minds – food. We walked along busy Al Fahidi Street and into the quiet lanes of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. This area full of traditional 19th century houses was nearly bulldozed in the 1980s but is now a peaceful, pedestrianised area full of museums, galleries and arty cafes.
We stopped for a halloumi sandwich and mint lemonade in the courtyard at MAKE Art Café, where the food and drink were complemented by cool art and music.
With our bellies full, we called into a photography exhibition, peeked into courtyards and admired the historic wind towers which were used to direct cool air into the houses – a sort of pre-electricity aircon.
Crossing Dubai Creek
Next, we walked back towards the museum and down through the Bur Dubai souq towards Dubai Creek.
When we emerged from the souq, the Creek was right in front of us. It was nothing like I’d imagined and absolutely nothing like anywhere I’ve ever seen before. It’s still very much a working port.
On the opposite side of the Creek, huge, rickety-looking dhows were being loaded with all kinds of goods and setting off on their journeys. The odd cruise boat and glamorous yacht sailed past, followed by seagulls. And all over the water were small boats ferrying passengers from one bank to the other.
The trip across the Dubai Creek on one of these little boats (abras) was a definite highlight of our trip to Dubai. We boarded at the abra station, sat on the bench which surrounds the driver in the centre of the boat and paid our fare – just 1 AED (about 20p). The abra sets off when the boat is full or when the driver is ready to go. The trip only takes a few minutes but the experience is unforgettable.
The Deira Souqs
On the Deira side of the Creek, we headed for the souqs to experience a completely different type of shopping to what we’d seen in the Dubai Mall the day before.
In the Gold Souq, every shop window is filled with gold; bracelets, necklaces, rings and huge body pieces. The biggest of the lot is the world’s officially largest gold ring, worth more than $3 million.
We mustn’t have looked like we were in the market for precious metals though, as all we were offered by the touts was cheap watches and t-shirts.
Down the street in the Spice Souq, the fragrance of hundreds of bags of spices filled the air. It was amazing to see spices that we normally only see in supermarkets in tiny jars being sold from massive sacks.
The Deira dhow wharves
Back on the side of the Creek, we got a closer look at the dhows being loaded up for their journey with everything from fridge-freezers to children’s toys. The dhows sail from Dubai to ports along the Gulf and Indian Ocean, including Iran, Somalia and Sudan, often dodging pirates on their way.
This type of ship has sailed these trade routes for centuries and the contrast between their brightly-painted wooden hulls and the shiny skyscrapers of modern-day Dubai couldn’t be more dramatic.
Have you visited Bur Dubai and Deira?