Behind Dubai’s wow factor is a city with history and culture that is still rooted in Islam and trade. The Arab culture and folklore is expressed through music and dance; vibrant souqs (markets) and rich art.
Traditional sports such as falconry, camel racing and dhow sailing are popular in Dubai to this day. It’s possible to see the traditional side of life here – in the bustling souqs, from a local wooden boat on Dubai Creek, and in galleries, museums and cafes throughout the city.
Dubai is famous for its traditional souqs – Arabian-style covered outdoor bazaars with a warren of lanes and central courtyards. Nothing compares with the atmosphere and chaos of the souqs – the colours and textures, the cacophony of sounds and the shop owners bargaining for customers.
Unlike in the modern shopping malls, bargaining is the norm here. Some of the best include the Deira Gold Souq for gold and jewellery; the Deira Spice Souq for exotic herbs and spices; Bur Dubai Souq for textiles and trinkets; and Madinat Jumeirah or Souq Al Bahar, a modern take on the souq where you can find just about anything.
If you want to explore some of Dubai’s history, culture and traditions take a trip to the Dubai Museum, a 1799 Al-Fahidi Fort, considered the oldest building in Dubai and once the seat of Government and residence of Dubai’s rulers. It tells the Dubai story through displays of old-time fishing boats and traditional dwellings, instruments and hand-crafted weapons, traditional costumes and jewellery and galleries charting Dubai’s exponential growth from tiny trading post to megalopolis.
Al Ahmadiya School and Heritage House is a renovated 1890 courtyard house that once belonged to Sheikh Ahmed bin Dalmouk, the founder of Al-Ahmadiya School (now a museum which you can also visit), and offers a rare opportunity to peek inside a wealthy pearl merchant’s residence. Built from coral and gypsum, its rooms wrap around a central courtyard flanked by verandahs.
The tiny Heritage Village, Bastakiya is the oldest Emirate neighbourhood in Dubai. Established at the end of the 19th century by well-to-do textile and pearl traders from Persia, its labyrinthine lanes are lined with restored merchant’s houses, art galleries, cafés, and boutique hotels.
‘The Bastakiya’ is a picturesque step into Dubai’s past. It’s big on atmosphere and a delight to wander.
Typical houses are two storeys, with a central courtyard with rooms opening onto it, and decorative arches featuring intricate carvings. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding operates guided Bastakiya walking tours, but the compact area is also easily explored on an aimless wander. They also host breakfast and lunches through the week – the perfect place to enjoy a traditional Emirati meal while chatting with an Emirati host about UAE culture, customs and religion.
Smoking sheesha is Dubai’s most relaxing traditional pastime and palm-filled Sheesha Courtyard is the most enchanting place to enjoy it. Sheesha, also known as a hookah pipe, is both the act of smoking the fragrant flavoured tobacco and the long-stemmed, glass-bottom pipe you smoke from. Sit back and relax on the cushions and puff away!
Every day 15,000 people cross Dubai Creek (the Creek) on abras, traditional wooden water taxis. You can cross the creek from the Deira to Bur Dubai side for just one dirham (25 cents) or you can hire an abra for a personalised cruise, with the wind in your hair and seagulls in your face.
If the boat captain speaks English you might learn a lot about the Creek and those who work on it.
Dhows are long, flat, wooden vessels used in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, and they’ve docked at the Creek since the 1830s when the al-Maktoum family established a free-trade port, luring merchants away from Persia. You’ll see them precariously loaded with everything from air-conditioners to chewing gum to car tyres, almost all of it re-exported after arriving by air or container ship.
Heritage and Diving Village is a traditional village, located near the mouth of Dubai Creek in the Shindagha district, it features potters and weavers practicing traditional crafts, as well as exhibits and demonstrations of pearl diving. The area also includes the official residence of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai (1912-1958).
The house, which dates from 1896, houses a rare collection of historic photographs, coins, stamps and documents that record Dubai’s history.
While Dubai is steeped in history, it is also a modern metropolis, full of massive hotels with huge swimming pools, huge shopping malls, and bustling population. Just outside the city centre is expansive red desert and rugged mountains where you can go off-road driving in the dunes, camping under the stars, camel riding, skydiving over The Palm and sand-boarding.
There are many exciting ways to experience this unique environment. Even around the city itself you can go indoor skiing or ice skating, kite surfing or diving among wrecks in the warm Gulf waters.
One of Dubai’s biggest adventures is in the sea of sand that surrounds the deserts of the United Arab Emirates – a 4WD Safari. Safari tours often include some ‘dune bashing’, a sunset camel ride and a night in a Bedouin-style camp complete with Arabian barbeque dinner. There are some decent-sized dunes out in the Arabian Desert and what better way to get from top to bottom?
Sand boarding and sand skiing are very similar to snowboarding and skiing, only slower, hotter and scratchier. There are plenty of local operators in Dubai that will get you out on the sand.
Many visitors to Dubai are surprised that, in addition to the rolling sand dunes and world-class beaches, the city is just a short drive away from the impressive Hajjar Mountains. These mountains play host to one of the locals’ favourite past times – ‘wadi bashing’.
‘Wadi’ is the Arabic word for valleys or dry riverbeds formed by streams that flow through the mountain range. A bumpy 4×4 drive through the wadis (or ‘wadi bashing’) is great fun – and isolated rock pools filled with fresh mountain water provide the perfect place to cool off.
These terrains are best for adrenaline seekers who can enjoy exhilarating drives and a range of action-adventure activities.
The landscape is also ideal for exploration through trekking, mountain biking, abseiling or rock climbing.
Locals, expats and travellers camp freely in the desert, and if you’ve got a 4WD, the possibilities are fantastic. You can head to the windswept sand dunes of Al Faqa of Ras al-Khaimah or the East Coast beaches around Dibba. If you don’t have a 4WD, you can still find some beautiful spots within walking distance of well paved roads, or you can organise a camping trip with a tour company.
The city’s most incongruous attraction, Ski Dubai is a faux winter wonderland built right into the gargantuan Mall of the Emirates. It comes complete with ice sculptures, a tiny sledding hill, five ski runs (the longest being 400m) and a Freestyle Zone with jumps and rails.
Gulf Arabs especially are fascinated by this snowy display, especially the Snow Park with its igloo filled with carved-ice penguins and dragons. Skiers and boarders whiz down a forking slope, which at 60m may be an ant hill compared with a real ski mountain, but if you’ve never skied or boarded before, it’s a good place to learn the basics – and at -1°C, it’s a great place to escape the desert heat!
Dive into the warm Gulf waters and you can nose around shipwrecks submerged on the sandy seabed at a depth of between 10m and 35m and encounter clownfish, sea snakes, and Arabian angelfish and possibly even rays and barracuda or go pearl diving. With calm waters and predictable winds, Dubai also has a huge range of fabulous water sports. Water lovers can water ski, Jet Ski, parasail, kite surf, wakeboard, wind surf, scuba dive, snorkel, or go deep sea fishing.
Drift high above the Arabian Desert and Dubai itself on a dawn balloon ride. The tranquillity is a sharp contrast to the chaotic city and the views are amazing.
Thrill seekers can also sky dive over the desert or the Palm in Dubai – what better way to see it!
Dubai is a haven for world class sporting events. The combination of great weather and first class facilities attracts sporting enthusiasts from all over the world.
Of course, in the city there are unbelievable hotels, divine restaurants, amazing beach and rooftop bars, cigar bars, and you can be pampered at the most luxurious spas in the world.
Now that I have whetted your appetite into visiting a land of mystery, history and excitement, you will want to know how to get there.
Emirates connects Australians to the Middle East, offering special fares to Dubai starting from $1,816 return in Economy Class and from $7,388 return in Business Class (fares valid at time of publication).
Emirates’ currently operates 84 flights per week to Dubai from Australia.
All passengers enjoy Emirates’ award-winning inflight service from an international crew, including
gourmet food and wine menus and an inflight entertainment system with up to 1,400 channels, and generous luggage allowances.