Living in a futuristic metropolis of glass skyscrapers and man-made islands, it’s very easy to forget that there is a completely different side to Dubai. Spanning Dubai Creek, which was once the life-force of the city, lie the areas of Bur Dubai and Deira.
It is difficult to believe that so many residents and visitors to Dubai have never visited this colourful intriguing area of the city. What was once a sleepy fishing village, formed when members of the Bani Yas tribe (led by the Maktoum family) settled at the mouth of the creek in 1883, at that time the main industries were fishing and pearling.
Over time the fishing village expanded and by the early twentieth century, the creek was home to a busy port, where ships would come from as far as Africa and India to trade. It is this melting pot of cultures, traditions and global influences that show just how multifaceted a city Dubai is. In this post we look at the sights of Deira and Bur Dubai, areas that are well worth exploring for an authentic Dubai experience.
We begin in Deira, one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, a commercial district flanked by Dubai’s busy saline creek and an area where traditions remain unchanged from the significant changes that took place in the city from the ‘oil boom.’
The gold souk is a maze of narrow streets that house hundreds of shops that are literally overflowing with jewellery, like Aladdin’s secret treasure trove. It is no wonder that people flock to Dubai from all around the globe to purchase this precious metal, wether than be in the form of Arabic jewellery, 24 karat coins, or gold bars for investment purposes. The window displays that flank either side of the busy streets, contain some of the yellowest gold that you are ever likely to encounter. Don’t miss the shop at the junction with Old Baladiya Street, whose windows display a world record holding ring – the size of which will leave you in awe.
Wondering the streets of Deira’s souks, you are likely to be constantly by shop keepers trying to sell their wares, while some may find this daunting, a simple “no thank you” will suffice and allow you to browse in peace. Thankfully the souk is covered from the harsh desert sun, so exploration is possible at any time of day, though after the sun sets is when the souk really comes to life – bathed in neon lights and with the climate cooler, this is the ideal time for a visit.
Passing the pretty green facade of one of the most striking mosques in Dubai, you will arrive at the spice souk. This souk is an altogether different experience to that of the gold market, a pure assault on the senses, as smells and colours overwhelm you. Popular items include saffron, frankincense, cinnamon and rose buds.
The area encompassing the spice souk also sells household goods, shisha and other essential items. The streets closer to the creek are a lot narrower and the passages much darker, yet this all adds to the fun and authenticity of a visit. When visiting then spice souk to be aware that many of the shops are closed between the hours of 12pm and 4pm and if you do intend to purchase any items, it is essential that you haggle to obtain the best price.
Personally, we love this area, as it represents the ‘real Dubai.’ A culturally immersive experience, where the past meets the present in a clash of traditions that is hard to beat elsewhere in the Emirates.
Leaving the spice souk, you will arrive at the waters of Dubai Creek. For just one dirham you can travel across the busy waterway on a traditional wooden abra. The journey across the busy creek takes just a few minutes and is certainly a unique experience, with the abra’s travelling low in the water, while customers sit on narrow benches facing outwards. Boats are busy, so expect to cram in with the locals, on what was once the only way to cross the creek. En Route you are likely to see traditional dhow boats and the waterway itself is a great vantage point for people watching and to experience Dubai’s traditional pace of life.
Out on the water you will see the many contrasts of Dubai, as mosque minarets give way to the glass facades of downtowns modern glass skyscrapers, with the Burj Khalifa’s towering spire piercing the clouds in the distance. It as though the old and modern world are fighting for precedence over the desert landscape.
Disembarking the abra (be careful it’s bumpy) marks your arrival in Bur Dubai (Old Dubai) and the heart of the textile souk. The area here is very touristic with many souvenir shops, but venture just a few meters off the main thoroughfare and you will find a completely different experience. The bazaar is full of textile shops, tailors, shawarma joints and cheap restaurants for Indian food, these are the modern alternatives to what was once the main trading centre of the city. The textile souk is fun to explore and you will be offered ‘knock-off’ hand bags, watches and jewellery, though it is better to head to the famous ‘secret shops’ of Katana to purchase these items.
Looking at the architecture of this slightly modernised version of a souk, visitors can expect intricate wood work, hanging Arabic lanterns, and shaded ceilings that cast beautiful patterns of light. If visiting the souk, ensure to look out for the fresh sugar cane and coconut stall and also the busy shop selling Arabian slippers.
Walking all the way through the textile souk, you will break out into the daylight on Ali Bin Abi Taleb Street. Home to the grand mosque and Al Fahidi Fort – the oldest building in the city which dates back to 1787. The fort is now home to the Dubai Museum, a great way to get acquainted with the history of Dubai.
A few minutes walk from the Dubai Museum is Al Fahidi historical district, also referred to as Bastakia Quarter. A collection of fascinating old coral houses and traditional wind towers (known as barajeel), that were built in the early 1900s by merchant settlers from the Persian town of Bastak. The neighbourhood features over fifty buildings, that are now home to art galleries, cultural exhibitions, museums, cafes and craft workshops. It is a fascinating place to explore and certainly provides a contrast from the modernity of areas such as JBR or Downtown.
Al Bastakia was recently home to the Sikka art fair and many of the exhibits are still on display throughout the area. This is a rare opportunity to witness street art, as any form of graffiti is considered illegal in the UAE, so there is (disappointingly) very little street art culture. These art works are fantastic samples of the artistry of over fifty local talents in Dubai and it’s a shame we don’t see more of it.
Being the oldest part of Dubai, there are a few items of historical significance to see. Look out for the ‘old tree’ planted in 1910 and the only remaining potion of Dubai’s city wall. This defensive structure was constructed in the 1800s from coral stones and gypsum, the 600m walk was eventually demolished to allow for the cities expansion.
Al Bastakia, though not a huge area, is a great place to get a little lost amongst the maze of passageways. For those looking for something a little different, pop into ‘The Local House’ where you can dine on traditional Emirati dishes, including camel meat.
There are other elements worth checking out in the area. From Deira’s busy fish market (get there early in the morning), to the ancient art of Kushti, a wrestling tradition that originates from Pakistan and is practiced on a patch of sand close to the fish market each Friday.
We fully recommend taking to the waters of Dubai Creek just as the sun sets, or to sit in a cafe on the waters edge to soak up the infectious atmosphere of Dubai’s oldest areas.
All views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE.