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?
29 thoughts on “A different side to Dubai: Visiting Dubai Creek and the Souqs”
Thank you so much for this post!! A friend recently suggested I go to Dubai, but it just seemed too glitzy for me. So happy to see the other side of Dubai that you shared here. Thank you!
We were there for 5 days and didn’t do anything remotely glitzy 🙂
Interesting perspective. Never seen any of Dubai which looks like this which definitely wants me to visit. And the gold, I mean seriously?
Thanks! The gold is just incredible! I loved the futuristic side of Dubai too, it’s the contrast between these different worlds that’s so interesting to me.
Thanks for sharing this. I had no interest in Dubai because it seemed to fancy for me. Definitely would consider it now if I get a good flight too.
Oh I am definitely not fancy! It’s a really interesting city with loads to do even if you’re on a budget or prefer things a bit more cultural/low key.
This is such a great side of Dubai! I love the photos and it makes me want to go there someday! 😊
Wow, so much gold! It’s pretty to cool to see this side of Dubai. I Always thought it was shopping and glamour. Great pics. I can imagine the markets are AMAZING!
The gold was amazing and the smell of the huge sacks of spices in the Spice Souq was incredible 🙂
I really enjoyed this perspective on Dubai. I’m not keen on glitzy malls either and had kind of written Dubai off as a place I wouldn’t want to go. Having read this I am reminded that there is an alternative side to every destination and I am happy that my preconceived notions of Dubai have been challenged!
That’s great! I think it’s seeing all the different sides to Dubai and knowing the history that make it such an interesting city.
this look at Dubai actually makes me interested to visit! i’m indeed one of the Dubai doubters based on its shiny appearance but this looks much more authentic 🙂
Thanks! Visiting the Dubai Museum, the Creek and the Souqs definitely gives you a different perspective on the rest of the city.
Thanks for this post! I had no idea there was this side to Dubai 🙂
Yes there’s a lot more to see in Dubai than fancy hotels and shopping centres 🙂
This is SO different from the Dubai I usually see posts about! To be honest, I’ve largely avoided Dubai for those reasons you mentioned – that it’s a bit too glossy and soulless, but it’s really refreshing to read a different perspective on the city. Might have to rethink my plans 😉 The Spice Souk especially looks so up my alley. I can’t resist markets!
Thank you! The contrast between this part of the city and the Downtown area where we stayed is just amazing. If you love markets then you’ll be in heaven!
I love this article and your photos! It’s great to see somebody who’s taken the time to explore old Dubai, I love that area and riding an abra across the Creek is one of my favourite things to do in the city. I lived in Dubai for five years and I’m going to be back next week, the souqs/Creek/abra ride are very high on my list of things to do.
Thank you! I read your blog a lot before we went 🙂 Visitors who skip this area are really missing out on a wonderful experience.
I had NO idea there was so much water in Dubai!! Looks like an amazing day, and I love a good museum. This article makes me more interested in Dubai than ever before. Saving for later!
Thanks! Yes the Creek was pretty amazing, I’m so glad we spent a day there.
Really a different side of Dubai and one that surprised me a lot. I’m visiting Dubai at the end of May so this was really useful! I’m really intrigued to visit a souk (especially the spice one!) – is there anything I must look out for to bring back from the souk?
There are quite a few souks around the city, so as well as the Gold, Spice and Perfume souks in Deira you can visit more tourist-oriented souks at the Madinat Jumeirah and there’s even a souk-style part of the Dubai Mall which is worth seeing (especially as there’s a dinosaur skeleton there!). We didn’t buy anything but I loved the beautiful lamps and there are lots of stalls selling pashminas. My favourite was the Spice Souk just because it smelt so good! Hope you have a fantastic trip in May 🙂
So that’s where they hide it! Glad to know pre-megapolis Dubai didn’t just disappear!
Haha nope, it’s still alive and kicking!
I have never been to Dubai but this is certainly different from what I have seen. I feel like I get a better sense of their culture from these photos than the usual tall buildings.
Thanks! Visiting the Creek and Souks really helps you understand where Dubai has come from and how it’s developed.