Last updated on October 21st, 2020
Take a walk along Dubai Creek and explore its two sides to find remnants of Dubai old town. It is along the shores of Dubai Creek that the area was settled in the 1830’s, and it is here where I was able to still find some examples of traditional Dubai. On the south side of the creek is the Bur Dubai neighborhood where I explored the Al Fahidi Historical area, the Dubai Museum and the Bur Dubai Souq. Then, after taking a ride across the creek on a traditional abra to the northern Deira side, I explored the exotic Spice and Gold Souqs.
Most of Dubai is new and shiny and covered in big buildings. The city is reinventing itself as a playground for tourists with an array of attractions for all tastes and interests. It can be easy to forget that there was a culture and lifestyle here before the discovery of oil in the region. Along Dubai Creek, I found the best area to discover some of the city’s history and roots.
The best of Dubai old town
Dubai Creek is an interesting mix of old and new. You can still find traditional buildings with wind towers used for natural cooling. Traditional and somewhat worn dhows dock three or four deep, waiting to load up with every possible modern product before sailing off to ports further east. The traditional abras still act as water taxis ferrying passengers from one side to the other. But a few blocks further on, tall, modern architecture is a sharp contrast to these few remnants of old Dubai.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Walking through the quiet, narrow maze of pedestrian only lanes, it was hard to believe that shiny, high tech Dubai was only a few miles away. This part of town originally dates from the early 1900’s when it was settled by Persian pearl and textile merchants. But don’t expect to see crumbling buildings or half formed walls. The 50 or so buildings were preserved and restored about a dozen years ago. So while the buildings may have maintained their original structures, the area still has a new, clean and perfect feel to it.
The buildings have kept the traditional wind towers which are unique to this region. The towers provide the means for non-electric air conditioning. They are open on all sides and catch the slightest breezes, cooling them through the process of convection as the air moves into the rooms below.
I chose to stay one night at the XVA Art Hotel, one of the neighborhood’s boutique hotels. It’s a quirky and atmospheric combination of hotel, art gallery and café. Its central location in the neighborhood let me explore the narrow lanes early in the morning before other tourists and tours invaded the area.
The neighborhood is now a collection of art galleries, quaint museums and small neighborhood eateries. I briefly popped into the coffee museum where I learned about the coffee drinking ritual in this part of the world. The museum exhibits all sorts of coffee making paraphernalia from around the globe, as well as a traditional Arabic room set up for a coffee service.
The neighborhood is also dotted with street art. It showed up unexpectedly as I rounded a corner and in the nooks and crannies between buildings.
Arabian Tea House
On the edge of the Al Fahidi neighborhood, located in a traditional wind tower house, is the Arabian Tea House and Restaurant. The lovely blue and white shaded courtyard was a relaxing oasis after a morning of exploring. The restaurant prides itself on providing a traditional Arabian hospitality environment. Of course there was tea – 100 varieties to be exact. There was a full restaurant menu and afternoon tea as well, and, my favorite, a selection of deserts.
Dubai Museum in the Al Fahidi Fort
A few blocks from the Al Fahidi district was the Dubai Museum. This was a good place to learn about Dubai’s history and heritage. The museum is located in the restored Al Fahidi Fort, which was built around 1800, and is the oldest standing building in Dubai.
The first sight that greeted me as I approached the museum was a large traditional wooden dhow, apparently floating at eye level.
In the fort’s courtyard were examples of traditional abra boats as well as an Arish, a traditional summer house made out of palm tree branches with a burlap wind tower.
The museum also had galleries with dioramas showing examples of typical pre-oil life along the creek. There were also a variety of displays describing such topics as falconry, the desert and the oasis, water usage, pearl diving, bedouin crafts and more. It was interesting to see what life in Dubai was like before the current incarnation of glitz and steel.
Explore the traditional shops
Further west along the creek the streets were lined with all manner of shops. One area supplies Indian merchandise for the nearby Hindu Temple. This narrow lane was colorful and fragrant and had a distinctive non-Arabic feel.
Further on was the textile souq. I passed shop after shop displaying a kaleidoscope of fabrics. It was so tempting – but I was very good – I actually resisted the temptation to buy more fabric.
Then I continued to the Bur Dubai Souq with it’s a colorful collection of merchandise and vendors. The vendors could be pushy -they would drape a scarf over my shoulder to get me to stop. But I just keep walking – they quickly recovered the scarf when they saw the ploy was not working.
Take an abra ride across the creek
One of my most authentic Dubai experiences was also one of the least expensive. For the price of 1 Dhiram (about 25¢) I crossed the Dubai Creek to the Deira side in a traditional, albeit motorized, abra boat. T
here are designated abra stations on both sides of the creek. When the boat was full with about 20 passengers, it took off for the other side. It was a fun, 10 minute ride that gave me a different perspective of Dubai creek as other abras and dhows motored by.
Deira Spice Souq
Once I was on the Deira side, I explored the narrow aisles of the spice souk. As I first walked in, my senses were assaulted by the smells and also the colors. Displayed in front of each little store were bags of spices, herbs, dried flowers and dried fruits.
I recognized some of the colorful bundles, like the cinnamon sticks and the nutmeg and the chestnuts. Others were completely unfamiliar, like the dried whole lemons or the purple balls of indigo or, to my surprise, chunks of raw sulfur. There were also the traditional cooking spices from the region: turmeric, saffron, and cardamom.
Deira Gold Souq
Not far from the Spice Souk are the streets that make up the Gold Souk. Even if you have no intention of making a purchase, window shopping provides a peek into a different world. Some of the pieces look big enough to act as body amour. Others are truly beautiful and exotic works of art.
The gold here is monitored and controlled by the government so you can be assured of the quality of your purchase. The price will fluctuate as the market price for gold changes throughout the day. And don’t forget to negotiate – it’s expected.
Another Dubai Guinness World Record is the world’s heaviest gold ring. Weighing in at 64 kg, the ring is truly made to fit the finger of a giant.
The Dhows along Dubai Creek
I finished my day by walking along the Deira side of the creek. Dhows are lined up two or three deep, waiting to get loaded up with all sorts of merchandise. From TVs to refrigerators to food to chemicals, it all goes onto these traditional wooden ships.
Some of the boats look a little worse for wear – the wood is chipped, the paint is faded, the elaborately painted details only barely visible. Others are clearly better maintained, with their vibrant colors still intact.
Regardless of their condition though, it looked like all the dhows were heavily loaded up, maximizing the amount of cargo they carried to ports in Iran, India or Africa.
I had a great day exploring the traditional side of Dubai. The walk along Dubai Creek was enlightening, educational and entertaining. It was such an interesting contrast from the glitzy, shiny and new that exists everywhere else.
Thanks for visiting.