We have the pleasure of introducing Rebecca Haddad tweeting @bechaddad as our guest blogger today. Here, expat, Rebecca, shares her tips for discovering the real Dubai…
No doubt when you hear about Dubai, the word calls to mind images of gleaming glass towers, sophisticated beach clubs, larger-than-life malls and man-made islands, all of which sprouted from the exotic desert landscape at record speed. With architectural world records seemingly broken here every month, a tourist will have to do a bit of digging to find the ‘real’ Dubai. It’s all too easy to get swept up in the modern glamour to realise that just some 40 years ago, Dubai was nothing more than a small fishing village with history dating back a few centuries. Since arriving in ‘The Sandpit’ in April this year, I have made it my mission to find the hidden gems that still show evidence of what was. Here are my top things to do and places to go to soak up true Emirati culture (without visiting a single mall, promise).
Tour the old quarter
Dubai’s saltwater creek was the first settlement site for the Bani Yas tribe, who arrived to the area in the 19th century. The creek quickly became a key port for dhows (traditional wooden boats) from India and Africa, as was the site of a flourishing pearl farming industry in the early 20th century. Although the banks are now home to many top hotels, you can still catch glimpses of what life was. Pay a visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for cultural understanding – there, you can enjoy a meal in a traditional wind tower house, hosted by an Emirati, or embark on a guided tour of the historic district of Al Fahidi, now a tourist village of galleries, restaurants and the iconic wind tower houses that defined Dubai’s skyline long before the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa.
Bargain like a local
Take a dhow ride across Dubai Creek to Deira, Dubai’s former main commercial hub. The area is famous for its historic souqs, all of which really come alive in the evening. The most popular of these are the spice and gold souks, where you can engage in some spirited bargaining and pick up some fabulous souvenirs. You’ll find plenty of downloadable walking tour maps online, which will take you through winding narrow streets past Heritage House, an example of a 19th-century pearl merchant’s residence, and one of Dubai’s oldest schools, Al Ahmadiya.
Of course, Emirati culture isn’t just found by exploring the city’s past. Dubai’s industrial area of Al Quoz has evolved into the city’s art quarter, with many regional galleries taking up residence in the area’s warehouses. Art Sawa and Ayyam Gallery are just two spaces exhibiting works from contemporary artists from around the Middle East and Africa.
Dine on local cuisine
Given the myriad cultures that make up Dubai’s populace (some 80 per cent of the population is expat), you can be sure to find eateries specialising in any and every type of cuisine of the world. But where to find the authentic, Emirati stuff? Al Fanar Restaurant and Café in Dubai Festival City is a great place to start. There, you can tuck in succulent grill meats and hearty rice dishes. When you’ve eaten to bursting point, there are plenty of shisha bars nearby where you can find a cushion, sit back and wind down with the locals.
About the author
Earlier this year, Rebecca Haddad decided to swap the sun in Sydney for the sand in Dubai. She's currently on several missions: to discover Emirati culture, to learn Arabic and to find the best shish taouk in the Middle East. You can read her ramblings on life as an expat at www.rebeccahaddad.com and follow her at @bechaddad.