Away from the Glitz and Glamour – Exploring Old Dubai

The glitzy side of the Dubai, with the huge malls and skyscapers filled with million dollar apartments, is never far away, but a jaunt through the souqs and streets of the old part of the city around Dubai Creek is a journey to a different world.

I started on the Deira side of the Creek with a wander through the gold souq then the spice souq, seeing no Westerners at all till I hit a couple of tourist groups in the latter. I don’t like gold but all the shops with their glittering window displays are a sight to behold even if you have no interest in buying.

Suitably dazzled, I left the gold souq and wandered the back streets and into a part of the souqs that I’ve not found myself in before, with shops selling all manner of household things-you-never-knew-you-needed. I very soon came upon the spice souq and decided to go to one end and work my way back so as not to miss anything. It’s easy to get pleasantly disorientated in the souqs and I realised when I got to the start of the spice souq instead of the end that I had been walking in the exact opposite direction to what I thought.

The spice souq is a wonderful treat for the senses, with the competing aromas of spices and incense, the different colours, textures and shapes as you pass the sacks piled high outside each small shop.

If only photos could convey the wonderful aromas of the spice souk

If only photos could convey the wonderful aromas of the spice souk

The workers are generally from Iran or Pakistan and there are also many Omani traders wandering around (Omanis wear kandouras, the traditional long robes of the Gulf, but are distinguishable by the round hats they wear or the particular way they tie their headscarves). Whilst wandering I chatted with Pashtun shopkeepers about Peshawar (all bad), with Iranian shopkeepers about the election in their homeland (all good) and with everybody about the merits of frankincense from Sudan versus Iran versus Oman – no contest, nobody tries to argue the fact that the best stuff comes from southern Oman.

By the end of my wander back up and down the souq, shaded from the burning sun by the wooden roof over the alley, I was smelling of various different perfume oils which I’d had dabbed on me while pondering which to buy, stocked up with cardamom seeds and ready for one of my favourite things to do in Dubai.

Commuters - mostly South Asian - on an abra

Commuters – mostly South Asian – on an abra

For the princely sum of 1 dirham (15p/25 US cents) I took an abra (water taxi) across Dubai Creek, the inlet from the sea and one of the keys to the trading that has existed in this area for generations. The abras shuttle back and forth across the Creek from early morning till late at night, carrying mainly South Asian workers commuting between the crowded and congested Deira side with the gold and spice souqs, and Bur Dubai with its endless fabric shops in an area known as Meena Bazaar, touristy souq, and many other small businesses. Out on the water, cooled by the breeze, we passed the cargo dhows being loaded and unloaded as they always have, only the cargo changing over time. When laden they ply the waters of the Arabian Gulf to the ports of southern Iran.

A wander through the souq selling all the touristy stuff is always fun, this time the shop workers are mostly from Pakistan or Afghanistan and try to entice me in with dirt cheap pashminas. It’s all nicely low key and low pressure, even though I’ve somehow arrived when there are few tourists around and have every shopkeeper in the passageway chasing my custom. A couple place pashminas around my shoulders but it’s not, unlike in many countries, a transparent excuse to touch a woman as they never come into contact with me. With unasked-for pashminas around my shoulders what else is there to do except exclaim ‘how beautiful, a free gift, thank you so much!’ as I walk away and then quickly whip it off and toss it back to the slightly bemused man behind me.

Buildings with traditional wind tower design

Buildings with traditional wind tower design

I could continue up the Creek (so to speak) to reach Dubai’s oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort built in 1799 and now home to Dubai Museum, or meander further through Bastakiya, the heritage area with its beautiful restored old wind tower buildings, but it’s pretty hot so time to repair to one of my favourite cafes, Bayt al Wakeel. This eatery is housed in what was the first office building in Dubai, built in 1934 by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.  Sheikh Rashid kick-started the drive to change Dubai from a small collection of fishing villages into the ‘anything is possible’ world city it is today.  His son, Sheikh Mohammed, is the current, much-loved, ruler of the emirate.

The food in Bayt al Wakeel is distinctly average but the setting is sublime with outdoor seats on a platform jutting out over the Creek. I sit for a while drinking mint tea and watching life on the busy Creek. I could sit in this spot all day.

By the time I leave, having read my newspaper cover to cover and drank two pots of tea, it’s after 1pm and the streets are very quiet. It’s getting on for 40C and most sensible people are indoors. I wander in the general direction of where I think the metro station should be (I’ve only ever taken taxis in this area in the past), and come across a couple of Indian women whom I ask for directions – women are not too plentiful in the streets in old Dubai, where everybody going about their business seems to be male. They kindly go a little out of their way to point me in the direction of the metro station and bid me farewell outside the very colourful and large Bollywood clothing store. Bollywood is having a big sale, a permanent feature I suspect, but somehow I’m not tempted, just looking forward to the cooling a-c in the metro station.

Store catering to Dubai's huge South Asian population

Store catering to Dubai’s huge South Asian population

The metro station itself is an attraction, it has lots of pictures of traditional pursuits and old buildings, of men riding camels and horses, of the old wind towers in houses and, my favourites, of falcons. A few photos later and I’m on the ultra modern, efficient and clean, four year old metro system, cocooned in air conditioning, making my way above the twelve lanes of traffic, along the grand avenue of high rise towers that make up Sheikh Zayed Road, to my home in what is very much ‘new’ Dubai.

It feels like a train journey from one era to another.

The Info

Metro1-frame

Outside of Al Ghubaiba metro station

 

Arrival metro station in Deira – Al Ras on the green line

Departure metro station in Bur Dubai- Al Ghubaiba on the green line

Dubai public transport journey planner

 

 

 

 

Inside Al Ghubaiba station

 

Walking tour: National Geographic

Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

I

 

17 thoughts on “Away from the Glitz and Glamour – Exploring Old Dubai

  1. Pingback: Deira, Dubai | The Desert Diva

  2. Pingback: Dubai Luxury for Less - Top 10 Tips to Live it up on a Budget - Desert to Jungle

  3. Indira

    Hey Candice, Im travelling to Dubai next week. I intend on renting a car to drive. As a visitor is it easy? Is it better to buy tickets for activities online in advance or wait til i get there? Is meena bazzaar best and cheapest shopping for asian wear? Apart from the huge malls, where else is affordable shopping? Many thanks

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi Indira, I recommend not hiring a car in Dubai as it’s more a hassle than a help. The road layouts can be confusing and it’s very easy to miss your turn and because getting from one area of Dubai to another usually includes going on fast, multi-lane (up to 12 lanes) highways then you may have to drive a further 15km to get back to where you wanted to be!

      Driving standards are poor and it can be overwhelming for people used to driving in countries where the traffic is a bit slower and people actually follow the rules of the road. Also, parking can be a problem. The Meena Bazaar area, and old Dubai in general, is congested. All in all, it’s easier and less stressful to use a combination of taxis and metro to get around. Taxis are plentiful and are government controlled and metered and the metro gives great elevated views of the city.

      If you do decide to hire a car then make sure you have an international driving licence with you.

      Meena Bazaar is a vibrant area which is great for South Asian clothes and food. See my account of an evening there here: Dubai Indian Food Tour The clothes in the old parts of the city, Deira and Bur Dubai, are cheaper than in the flashy malls.

      Have a great trip!

      Reply
  4. Sahan

    Hi Candice,

    Thank you for the lovely post on the old-side of Dubai; something which caught my eye while searching for Dubai related travel blogs. I’m visiting Dubai on November 5th to the 12th. My main concern is, how easy was it to get around alone? I love walking to be honest. I hope the weather won’t be harsh on me. Up to now here goes my list of places I’m planning to visit:

    Dubai Creek
    Dubai Museum
    Palm Jumeirah
    Jumeirah Beach
    Ferrari World
    Dubai Mall
    – Dubai Fountain
    – Aquarium
    Burj Khalifa

    I know most of these places are the ‘glitz ‘ part of Dubai (My not be as fun as they sound though). What other places would you recommend me to visit? I’m a hobbyist photographer by the way 😉

    Best Regards,
    Sahan

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi Sahan, thanks for your comments. It’s very easy (and safe) to get around Dubai on your own and the weather in November should be very pleasant for walking. The easiest way is to use a combination of metro and taxi. The metro is great as it gives you a good elevated view of Dubai.

      You don’t get any sense of being on the Palm where you are at ground level. The best view is from the air by a scenic flight by seaplane or helicopter. A more affordable alternative is going to the Observatory bar and restaurant at the top of the Marriott Harbour hotel in Dubai Marina (they have a happy hour in the early evening). You will get a good view of the Palm from there. The souqs are good for photos and I assume you’ll include them when you explore old Dubai around the Creek.

      One area I love for the modern architecture, and a place most tourists don’t visit, is DIFC (Dubai International Finance Centre). The buildings around there are great to look at and photograph and there is a metro station there (red line on Sheikh Zayed Road).

      Have a fantastic trip.

      Reply
  5. Mirtha

    Hello Candice,

    i am traveling to Dubai the week of Thanksgiving with my husband and 6 year old daughter. what fun things do you recommend during that time. is it safe to take my 6 year old?

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi, there may be some restaurants doing Thanksgiving dinners but I don’t know of anything that would be specifically fun for your daughter – I’m not a parent, myself so I’m not clued up on this sort of thing, I’m afraid. However, I do know that Dubai is a child-friendly place and hotel and restaurant staff tend to look after little ones well. I’d suggest looking at the Dubai forum on Tripadvisor. On the right side of the page you’ll find Top Questions about Dubai and under that you’ll find information on Dubai for children.

      Reply
  6. Kim

    My husband and I are traveling to Dubai on Saturday. You mentioned an e-book. If it is ready, amy I inquire as to how i can receive it?

    Thank you,
    Kim

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi Kim, thanks for asking. It’s not going to be ready till a bit later in the year due to me simply not having time to get it done. Have a great time in Dubai 🙂

      Reply
  7. Jennifer Burnette

    I will be traveling to Dubai for 1 week in April. Please tell me what fun things I should do. I would like to do something fun and different every day. I am not interested in spending a lot of many. I heard about the Friday brunches and I am looking forward to that. I am a US citizen. What is a reasonable amount of cash do I need on a daily basis?

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi Jennifer, if you don’t want to spend much money then I’d avoid Friday brunch! The best ones cost %150 or more. I’m working on an e-book at the moment about Dubai on a budget but it won’t be ready in time for your trip. It’s impossible to say how much money you will need on a daily basis as everybody is different but the good news is that it’s cheap to travel around Dubai and there are many things to do free/cheap from wandering the souqs, to visiting Dubai museum to people-watching on The Walk in the Marina. Have a great trip!

      Reply
  8. Pedro @TravelwithPedro

    Hi Candice, it was great to read about this part of Dubai, almost always forgotten by tourists. I was there last week and, I must confess, I had to take the abra (for the 1000th time, I guess). Not only it is very cheap, but I find them so unique that I want to enjoy them, before they’re replaced by modern boats.

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Hi Pedro, it would be a real shame if they abras were replaced by modern boats. Like you, I’ve taken an abra lots of times and I still love it, it feels like stepping back in time being out on the water, going past the cargo dhows and all the other water traffic on the Creek.

      Reply
  9. Prateek

    Hi,
    Thanks for the above info.
    I am planning a honeymoon trip and i have listed down 4 options please suggest which one shud i opt for
    -> Dubai
    -> Thailand
    -> Hongkong
    -> Singapore

    Reply
    1. Candice - Desert to Jungle Post author

      Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. Where to go depends very much on what you want from your honeymoon – shopping, beach, culture, activities or relaxation etc. And also how much you can spend. Thailand is cheaper than the other destinations and you can get great hotels here for less than in many other destinations. Having said that, I’m a huge fan of both Dubai and Singapore, not such a fan of Hong Kong although I lived there for a short while. I think deciding what sort of holiday you and your wife-to-be want, and the budget is the place to start. You’ll find lots of helpful information on the destinations above on Tripadvisor forums and plenty of people to answer any questions you have to help you decide. Have a great honeymoon!

      Reply

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