The beauty of living in Dubai is that I have ample time to visit a place or area more than once! That really helped me get a good understanding of Old Dubai, so I’ve put together this guide to help you plan your next visit, and decide which experiences you want to try! Old Dubai is an area in Dubai where the city’s trade and settlement began. Today, there are souks, museums and heritage houses that are there to conserve the history and culture of Dubai, and a visit or stay in Dubai would be incomplete without coming here.
Getting to Old Dubai
You can take a taxi, and depending on where you are coming from, this might be a pricey option! Remember, the local yellow taxi is always the cheapest option, not Uber! If you need some pointers on getting around in Dubai, read this blog post. To take the metro, you can get off Al Ras Metro Station or Fahidi Metro station. Decide where you want to start exploring before you choose which metro stop to take. If you’re driving, then just type in the destination on Google maps. Be warned though, that parking is not easy to come by, and some of the spots are very tight.
1. Catch an abra ride to the Old Dubai Souks
I was surprised that things can be this cheap in Dubai! For AED 1, you can catch this Abra ride from one side of the creek to the other. The abras were the traditional form of transport back in the day, and though the ones today are motorised, it’s still a great experience to try. If you want to have the abra to yourself, you can just pay AED 10, because the abra would normally take 10 people. To take the abra, you need to be at the Deira Old Souk Abra station, or Bur Dubai Abra Station. The abra will take you to the other side of the creek.
2. Old Dubai Museum
For just AED 3, you can visit this museum in Old Dubai, that will take you through the city’s trade history. I was a bit sceptical when I went, because I wasn’t sure what history Dubai had. However, I was surprised to learn so much about the emirate. The museum experience talks about life in the early pearl diving days, right to how Dubai became the powerhouse it is today. With Covid-19 restrictions, be sure to check the website for updates on the regulations in place, to ensure you are compliant.
3. Al Seef
In a bid to extend the heritage area, the property developer Meraas built Al Seef to resemble the Bastakiya area. Because it’s new, there aren’t any heritage sites for you to check out. But there are many restaurants to try out after walking around. Of particular interest might the museum of illusions. I haven’t been to the museum yet, but when I do, I’ll update the post. If you are visiting, you might want to check out the Al Seef Heritage Hotel for your stay.
4. Old Dubai Souks
A souk (souq) is a market, and they capture the very essence of the old trade in this area. People visit them to experience what Dubai was like before the boom, and to pick up some souvenirs for their trip. From the gold souk, to the spice souk, there is something there that will definitely peak your interest.
Buy gold in the Gold Souk
If you intend to buy anything from the gold souk, you generally pay based on the weight of the item you’re buying. Yes, they put it on a scale, and get the price directly off the weight. This really got me by surprise because some of the pieces are very elaborate, so I thought that would affect the price too! But alas. The purity of the gold also affects the price, and the purity is determined by the number of karats. The purest form of gold is 24k, or 24 karate.
Pick up a cashmere scarf at the textile souk
In the Old Dubai souks, there are plenty of vendors selling the exact same thing. So, you can comfortably negotiate to get the best items at the best prices! Cashmere scarfs are one of those things you’ll want to keep handy in your bag, especially if you want to visit a modest country. You just never know when you need to cover your shoulders. If you intend to do a desert shoot, you can pick up some traditional outfits here for cheap too!
Learn a thing or two at the Spice Souk
When you hear spices, the first thing that probably comes to mind are cooking spices. However, there are other herbs that have good medicinal properties that will spark your interest. Go with an open mind. You might pick up one or two things that will help you relax and relieve stress!
Want to buy perfume in Old Dubai? There’s a souk for that!
The perfume souk is not a souk per se, but rather, it is a street of perfume shops that are just after the gold souk. Here, you can get your favourite fragrances mixed for you, or you can get a special fragrance made just for you! If you intend on driving, best to go early because there isn’t much parking, and when you do find parking, the spots are quite tight. But it’s well worth the visit!
Bastakiya is an old quarter located in Old Dubai. It’s also known as the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood. I know many people always complain that Dubai is fake and there’s no history. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Why is Bastakiya in Old Dubai significant?
The first people to settle in Bastakiya were Iranians. The name Bastakiya comes from the Iranian Town, Bastak. They settled in Dubai as merchants, after coming here on promises of low taxes and free land. They in turn, drove the commercial growth and architecture of this area. The picture below shows you what the houses looked like during this era.
Check out the caption to see why they all have these towers with the spikes (wind towers). These homes they built, have become a symbol of traditional architecture here in Dubai. Bastakiya will take you back into life in the early days of development from palm-thatch huts, to these luxurious homes with “air-conditioning”!
What can you do in Bastakiya?
It’s free to get in, and you don’t really need a guide in my opinion. There are several things you can do there, and because the area is small, you will not struggle to find any of the sites.
Visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU).
If you are interested in understanding more about Emirati culture, you should make a booking with SMCCU. They organise a variety of experiences, from walking tours to cultural meals with local hosts. I attended their cultural lunch, which costs AED130 for the spread above, including tea and soft drinks. The lunch is hosted by two locals, whom you can ask anything about their culture or the Emirati way of life. You have to make the booking in advance. You can’t just rock up. Give them a call or email them to make your bookings. The meals are very intimate, with a maximum of 10 people at any given time.
Grab a bite at the Arabian tea house
Whenever you search for iconic spots in Old Dubai, this is one that will definitely come up. This quaint little coffee shop should certainly be part of your experience in Bastakiya. They are known for serving some of the best Emirati cuisine. Check out their website if you want to make a reservation for a table.
Meander through the narrow alley ways
Seriously, just walking through the narrow alleyways is a plan in itself. Fun fact, the alleyways are so narrow, because they built the homes that way back in the day to provide shade! Be sure not to miss the mosque as you meander through.
Pick up something from one of the small shops
There are several shops selling spices, souvenirs and fabrics at Bastakiya. Take your pick! You might want to avoid the hustle of the old souks, and just pick up a few things here instead. But of course, the options will be a lot more limited.
You can stop by this free museum if you are interested in learning more about coffee, or if you want to grab a quick cup. Head over to the official website to see if this is something you’d like to see on your trip there.
If coins are something that interest you, then this is another museum for you to visit. Honestly, I didn’t get into this one. But if I get to go back, I will certainly update this post with what to look out for. You can visit the official website though, for details on what to do there. This is also free.
Catch the Sikka Art Fair in Old Dubai
Every year, Dubai hosts the Sikka Art Fair, in Bastakiya. It’s obviously delayed this year, but you can visit this website for updates on when it’s going to be happening next.
I’m pretty sure I will be visiting Old Dubai again soon, and will be adding more gems to my blog! If you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to my mailing list so you always get updates.