34 things to do in Old Dubai

We discover the charm of our city's older areas

34 things to do in Old Dubai
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Every great city has a geographical and cultural divide: whether it’s the friendly rivalry between Londoners living north and south of the river, or the diversity of the boroughs of New York, the division often evokes a tongue-in-cheek sense of competitiveness and plenty of impassioned debate. Dubai may be a young, fast-developing upstart in comparison to these long-established cities, but it’s similar in that is has two distinct areas, commonly known as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Dubai.

The city first began to grow around the creek – the beating heart of its import-export industry – but once the emirate became rich from the discovery of oil, ambitious developments began to spring up along Sheikh Zayed Road. The newer parts of town, such as DIFC, Downtown Dubai and Dubai Marina, have since attracted expats, which has led to the majority of new bars, restaurants and galleries opening in those areas. But with the opening of several new hotels – including the Meliá Bur Dubai (home of the much-hyped Marco Pierre White restaurant Titanic and edgy club Mansion) and the forthcoming Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, which is set to open ‘softly’ in Garhoud on July 1 – there’s a sense that Old Dubai is enjoying a rebirth. Fuelling this revival is news of the scheduled soft opening of Versace Dubai Hotel in late 2013, not to mention Mövenpick Deira’s arrival last year – the first international five-star property to arrive in Deira for more than ten years.

With this in mind, we decided it was high time to celebrate the older, northern part of town by taking a closer look at what makes it tick in terms of art, architecture, dining and nightlife. We’ve also rounded up an inspiring checklist of things to do there, whether you live in the area, fancy visiting, or are hosting a visitor keen to experience the ‘original Dubai’.

The Architecture

Head north and you’ll step back in time to a vibrant neighbourhood that’s still full of abras, dhows, and spice souks A quick tour around Bur Dubai and Deira should silence any armchair historian who claims Dubai’s history only goes back 60-odd years. The Bastakiya area is home to Dubai Museum, itself located inside the city’s oldest building: Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787. ‘Historically, that’s a very important, iconic building,’ explains Emirati architect Shatha Al Mulla, an engineer in Dubai Municipality’s Architectural Heritage department. ‘And in terms of administratively important buildings, the first Dubai Municipality building, which is now Dubai Municipality Museum in Deira, is a big one. Dubai Municipality’s first administration work was done there, all the goods coming in and out – everything went through there at the time,’ she notes. ‘Meanwhile, the house of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum [ruler of Dubai from 1912-1958] is one of the most important houses because it was the ruler’s house, and has many unique architectural elements.’

As well as Old Dubai’s historically iconic structures, Al Mulla also points out one of Dubai’s first notable business towers. ‘The Trade Centre was the first iconic building built in Dubai, 33 years ago. A lot of people don’t see it now [compared with newer buildings].’ With its recognisable beehive exterior, the 39-storey tower was the tallest in the UAE when it was built in 1979, and the first high-rise on Sheikh Zayed Road – at the time, the road itself was a fraction of the six-lane highway it is today, and was yet to be renamed in honour of the UAE’s first president.

At the heart of Old Dubai lies the source from which the entire city has developed outwards. ‘As a person working in conservation, Dubai Creek is very, very important. If you look back to when Dubai was first mentioned in 1587, the creek had the same purpose at that time as it does today,’ Al Mulla explains. ‘For me, that’s what’s unique in Dubai. You still find goods being imported and exported to and from different areas – the creek is still the heart of Dubai.’

To acknowledge this heritage, Dubai Municipality has spent two years working towards registering it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The creek is one of the few areas that encapsulate a bygone era, yet the old souks betray early signs of Dubaians’ penchant for shopping, paving the way for our now world-famous malls.

Aside from industry, the creek’s waterways are still functional commuter lanes, with passengers continuing to pay just Dhs1 to cross from Deira to Bur Dubai or vice versa by abra. And the ancient, colourfully decorated wooden dhows are still loaded daily with all manner of goods to be shipped to destinations as far flung as Somalia and Mumbai.

The Art scene

The city’s old quarter is rife with creativity and culture

Dubai’s diverse art scene can, today, generally be classified into three areas: the heritage-style art spaces of Old Dubai’s Bastakiya, and the contemporary galleries of New Dubai’s DIFC and Al Quoz. While each has its own personality, there are few places in the city that have Bastakiya’s unique charm. Wind towers pop up out of low-rise heritage homes that house some of Dubai’s oldest art galleries, including The Majlis Gallery (04 353 6233, www.themajlisgallery.com), founded in 1989. This, coupled with the artsy café scene, makes it a unique place to view art in our city, says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai.

‘Bastakiya houses the roots of today’s contemporary art scene. That’s where the city’s first gallery, The Majlis, was founded and it’s where Sikka Art Fair [www.sikka.ae] takes place each March. Bastakiya is still at the heart of Dubai’s heritage sector. It’s a totally unique environment. At an event like Sikka Art Fair, you have Dubai’s oldest architecture paired with its most contemporary art. That juxtaposition is what makes it so unique.’

The area itself is also inspiring the city’s artists. ‘In Bastakiya, UAE-based artists are tapping into Dubai’s history. In Deira and Bur Dubai there is obviously much more of a street culture, which is inspirational for a lot of people. You’re able to people-watch, see what’s going on and speak to vendors in the souks.’

Culture and tradition are two things that Bastakiya’s art scene holds unique. Dubai Museum (04 282 1111), one of the city’s only informative hubs on UAE history, sits alongside the galleries, and nearby Heritage Village is a hotspot for learning about Bedouin culture and the emirate’s natural environment.

But how does Bastakiya measure up with the cutting-edge art of New Dubai? ‘The art scene, in terms of contemporary galleries, has moved to Al Quoz and DIFC. But I don’t think it’s really a matter of one being better than the other – they’re just all part of the ecology that makes up any art scene. One wouldn’t exist without the other,’ says Carver.

These days, Old Dubai’s art scene has become better known for its event-based activities, and – as seen during this year’s Art Week in March – its status as a pop-up hub for live music and Emirati talent. ‘Bastakiya really comes alive during Sikka Art Fair, and that’s something everybody supports. The Emirates Literature Festival events held in the area [at the newly opened Dar Al Adaab ‘House of Literature’] also had a great run this year. Even Dubai International Film Festival [www.dubaifilmfest.com] had its main party in Bastakiya this year,’ she says. ‘I think Bastakiya will continue to grow. You need all kinds of venues and art scenes to make up a creative capital.’

The Dining

You can’t beat Old Dubai cuisine for authenticity, affordability and tantalising diversity

Ten years ago, a certain Gordon Ramsay saw the culinary potential of Dubai and opened high-end restaurant Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek in Deira. Here he nurtured the talents of a series of culinary disciples (most notably Angela Hartnett and Jason Atherton), all of whom have gone on to high acclaim. The news that Verre by Gordon Ramsay would close in 2011 was met with shock and disappointment – until aspiring Ramsay acolytes Nick Alvis and Scott Price decided to take on the space themselves. Nick and Scott’s decision to go it alone and open Table 9 by Scott and Nick (04 227 1111) heralded a new era in Dubai’s dining scene – it proved that the city’s palate had matured, making it less inclined to demand an international celebrity endorsement with each opening, and could now start growing its own culinary heavyweights.

Of course, the cult of celebrity is part and parcel of Dubai: for those who will only dine where there’s a global name above the door, there’s the new Meliá Hotel in Bur Dubai, home to Marco Pierre White’s Titanic (04 386 8111) and Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor (04 386 8111). The opening of these two restaurants signifies a renewed faith in Dubai diners’ ability to travel outside their comfort zone – or, as the case may be, New Dubai. As renowned restaurateur Marco Pierre White told Time Out earlier this year, a restaurant's location should have no bearing for the discerning diner. ‘How long does it take to reach A from B? Not that long. It’s a modern city and it’s very easy to travel [around]. At the end of the day, it’s all about a night out. One thing I like about getting in a car and driving ten, 15 minutes is that it creates that sense of occasion.’

While New Dubai may boast a high number of sleek, modern restaurants, it cannot compete with Old Dubai for ethnic diversity and authenticity. Dubai’s huge South Asian community has provided Bur Dubai and Satwa with some of the best Indian restaurants outside India (at least, so says Michelin-star chef Atul Kochhar). From Asha’s (04 324 4100) in Oud Metha – named Best Indian at the 2012 Time Out Restaurant Awards – to Aryaas (04 357 7800), winner of Best Budget, there’s a wealth of expertly prepared dishes hailing from Rajasthan to Kerala. Likewise, Pakistani favourite Ravi’s (04 331 5353) in Satwa – highly commended in the Best Budget category – is usually the first port of call for any Dubaian wanting to impress out-of-town visitors with their extraordinary knowledge of the city’s hidden culinary gems. We still can’t believe how many high-end restaurateurs and chefs claim that Ravi’s is their favourite restaurant. And for authentic Arabic cuisine, let’s not forget the spellbinding Khan Murjan (04 327 9795), which scooped the MENA gong at this year’s awards.

Ultimately, Old Dubai’s dining scene doesn’t just offer authentic (and affordable) sustenance, but a tantalising reflection of Dubai’s wonderful multiculturalism.

The Nightlife

Old Dubai’s clubs are raw, raucous and real – and all the better for it

It’s baffling to many of Dubai’s visitors that areas such as Deira and Bur Dubai, populated with buildings just a few decades old, can be referred to as ‘old’. But take an evening stroll around Old Dubai’s backstreets, where the poky, forgotten bars and cosmopolitan dancefloors feel a world away from the high-rise, cork-popping glitz of ‘New Dubai’, and you’ll feel the antiquity.

As a result, a few heads turned when high-end nightclub Mansion opened last month, at the Meliá Hotel in Port Rashid (04 386 8111), some distance from any similar competition. British manager Daniel Ashley Yantin, 34, says this was a deliberate attempt to capitalise on the older area’s charms. ‘For me, Bur Dubai is cool – it has that underground feel,’ he says. ‘I looked at cool, happening cities such as London and New York: you don’t find the coolest clubs in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, you find them in Elephant and Castle or the Meatpacking District.’

There’s no denying the authentic bustle of Bur Dubai’s disparate range of old-school bars, which can’t really be recreated among ‘New Dubai’s’ five-star glam. Rick Da Costa, the former manager of Dubai’s oldest club, 16-year-old Rock Bottom Café (04 396 3888), agrees. ‘It’s not pretentious,’ says the 40-year-old Brit. ‘A lot of people don’t want to get really dressed up to go out. It’s one of the few places that’s busy every night, and you can show up wearing jeans and a T-shirt. You can’t always do that on the other side on Dubai.’

Much of the appeal stems from the relaxed vibe created by Old Dubai’s lively, international clientele. Mohammed Anwer, the manager of Chi@The Lodge (04 337 9470), nestled in the heart of Oud Metha, says the proximity to Dubai’s airport provides an integral component in the old quarter’s nightlife demographic: cabin crew. ‘It’s a very mixed crowd down here – lots of different nationalities,’ the 36-year-old explains. ‘We’re right next to the airport, so there are always hundreds of cabin crew here.’

Another main draw is the wealth of live music. While the music venues in New Dubai can be counted on one hand, it would take all of your fingers and most of your toes to log the number of bands playing week in, week out throughout Old Dubai. For a taster, try The Music Room (04 359 8888), winner of Best Live Music Venue at the 2012 Time Out Nightlife Awards.

‘If you like live music, Old Dubai is a really, really cool place to go,’ adds Daniel. ‘There’s [not a lot of] live music in New Dubai, but in Bur Dubai you get people going to otherwise forgettable bars, just to hear a band.’

‘If you go out in [some of] the new parts of town, clubs are always stopping the music whenever someone buys a bottle,’ adds Mohammed. ‘This is where you come if you want to actually hear the music.’ It’s impossible to define exactly what gives Old Dubai its unique buzz, but the unpretentious atmosphere, international crowd and live music are what we love most. While much of Dubai is a whirlwind of constant flux, Old Dubai feels like a comfy old glove, a treasure from another era that’s barely changed for years. Authenticity, comfort, soul – and the cheap drinks don’t hurt.

The old Dubai to-do list

Try these 16 essential experiences
Buy a curry plant
Move over, basil plants. No kitchen (or dahl) is complete without a curry plant – and they’re cheaper.
Dhs4. Last and only plant stall at the south end of Hindi Lane, near Dubai Museum, Bur Dubai (no number).

Eat at one of Dubai’s oldest Mexican spots
Cactus Cantina had a close shave when its host hotel changed hands, but fortunately Dubai’s best fajitas and tastiest Mexican beverages live on.
Open daily noon-1am. Eden Hotel, Satwa (04 398 2274).

Rock out at Maharlika Café
Watch Filipino cover bands do their best Axl Rose impersonations at this delightfully dingy Karama nightspot.
Open daily 6pm-3am. President Hotel, Karama, Dubai (04 334 6565).

Snap up a bargain in the souks
Soak up the scents, sights and sounds at the spice souk (you can buy saffron from Dhs10 per gram), the textile souk (grab a pashmina from Dhs30) and the gold souk. Gold is cheaper in Dubai than anywhere else in the world, and the price is set twice a day: expect to pay from Dhs149.75 per gram. Check the latest prices at www.currency.com.pk/uae-gold-rate-dubai-exchange-rate.html.
Open Sat-Thu 10am-1pm; Fri 4pm-10pm. Al Sabkha Road, Deira (no number).

Get your favourite shirt or dress duplicated
Found something that fits perfectly? Get it remade in different colours and fabrics. Try Coventry for tailoring or Montexa for special-occasion dresses.
Coventry: open Sat-Thu 9.30am-1pm, 4pm-9.30pm. Satwa Road (04 344 7563). Montexa: open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm, 3.30pm-9pm. Off Al Satwa Road (04 349 4037).

Sing your heart out
Head to China Sea for the most authentic Chinese food in Dubai, with karaoke thrown in. Book a private room upstairs to save embarrassment.
Open daily 11am-2am. Al Maktoum Street, Deira (04 295 9816).

Enjoy delicious Indonesian satay
Discover insider spot Betawi Cafe: it’s hard to find (it’s hidden two streets behind Spinneys on Bank Street, on the Karama side), but well worth the effort.
Open daily noon-midnight. 4B Street, Karama (04 357 6245).

Explore Dubai Museum
There’s always something new to learn at Dubai’s main museum – and the video charting the city’s growth is essential viewing.
Dhs3. Open Sat-Thu 8.30am-5.30pm. Al Fahidi Fort, Bur Dubai (04 353 1862).

Hear the Rock Spiders
These Filipino musicians have been thrilling crowds for more than a decade with their tight rock and pop covers.
Open daily 7pm-3am. Rock City, Howard Johnson Hotel, Bur Dubai (04 393 9911).

Sail on an abra
Crossing the creek this way dates back centuries, and it’s still a thrill today.
Dhs1. Boats run until around 11pm daily. Dubai Old Souq (Bur Dubai) or Deira Old Souk stations (no number).

Eat at Ravi’s and try some sweets
A must-visit for Pakistani food. Sit outside for great people-watching, and order the butter chicken (it’s a classic). Afterwards, wander the backstreets and pick up dessert in one of the many shops selling Indian sweets – try the intensely sugary gulab jamun.
Open daily 5am-3am. Satwa Road (04 331 5353).

Visit The Iranian Club for a dry Friday brunch
For Persian food, this authentic venue can’t be beaten (women must cover their hair).
Open daily 12.30pm-3.30pm, 8pm-10pm. Oud Metha Road (04 336 7700).

Relax at Basta Art Café
After a stroll around Bastakiya, this spot – highly commended in the Best Café category at the 2012 Restaurant Awards – is ideal for a coffee break in the shady courtyard.
Open daily 8am-10pm. Al Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai (04 353 5071).

Dine at Thai Kitchen, drink at QD’s
Enjoy high-end, low-priced Thai fare, then try al-fresco spot QD’s (short for quarterdeck).
Thai Kitchen: open daily 7pm-midnight. Park Hyatt Dubai (04 317 2222). QD’s: open Sun-Fri 5pm-2am, Sat 6pm-2am. Dubai Creek Golf Club, Deira (04 295 6000).

Hang out in a cactus garden in Creekside Park
Hop in a (warm) cable car for Dhs25, hire a bike for Dhs30 or pretend you’re in the Wild West in the cactus garden.
Dhs5 entry. Open daily 8am-11pm. Bur Dubai, near Garhoud Bridge (04 336 7633).

Stop for a drink at Sherlock Holmes
This authentic Brit pub is like stepping back in time – in a fun way.
Open daily noon-2am. Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa, Bur Dubai (04 351 9111).

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