While planning our trip to the UAE last fall, like most visitors, I prioritized a visit to Dubai attractions like the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Marina, and other spots around the city where we could fully appreciate the emirate’s glitz and glam. But I also knew that I wanted to dig deeper beneath Dubai’s surface. My hope was to learn about Dubai’s history, immerse ourselves in the local culture, and to see the city undisguised. As always, we were crunched for time with only four short days to try to take it all in.
If, like me, you’re headed to Dubai and want to get a glimpse of its authentic side but don’t have much time to spare, apart from the usual tourist attractions, here are my recommendations for where you should focus your itinerary…
Al Fahidi Historic District
Walking through the Al Fahidi Historic District, aka Al Bastakiya, is like taking a walk back in time. The district’s architecture dates back to the mid-19th century when buildings made of materials like stone, gypsum, teak, sandalwood, and palms with high air towers known as barajeel dominated the skyline.
The Al Fahidi Historic District is also home to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. We were scheduled to have a cultural lunch at the center, but it was cancelled at the last minute due to the extended holiday weekend in celebration of National Day. The center offers all sorts of cultural tours, meals, classes and events to help educate expats and tourists about the UAE’s customs and traditions. Whenever we return to Dubai, we hope to take part in one of the center’s many activities.
A few blocks away from the heart of the Al Fahidi Historic District, you’ll find the Dubai Museum located along the Dubai Creek in the Al Fahidi Fort which dates back to the late 1700s. Throughout the years, the fort was used as a weapons arsenal and as a prison before being converted into a museum in the early 1970s.
Although entry to the museum is super cheap (3 AED/less than $1 USD), I’d gladly pay more to visit. The museum is part open air and part underground, with exhibits and displays that chronicle the evolution of Dubai’s heritage and history from its barren desert roots, to its pearl diving days, and on to the thriving metropolis that it is today.
A dhow ride along the Dubai Creek is a quintessential Dubai experience that’ll help you better understand the city’s layout as well as Dubai’s pearling and fishing commercial history. This saltwater creek once divided the city into two main sections – Deira and Bur Dubai. In the early 20th century, Indians and East Africans arrived to the creek in dhows, and today, dhows continue to be the main means of transporting locals and visitors alike across the waters.
We took the short ride across the creek from Deira to Bur Dubai to do a little shopping at a textile souk near the docking station. The ride across the creek is a quick and very affordable way to get a sense of Dubai’s authentic side.
Dubai Deira Fish Souk
I’ll admit – it felt a bit awkward walking into the Dubai Deira Fish Souk since I was one of only a few women there. On one side of the market you’ll find vendors selling meat and produce, but your nose will eventually lead you to the other side of the market where you’ll find an impressive amount of all sorts of fish.
At the fish market, you’ll find everything from fresh crabs, lobsters, the hugest shrimp you’ve ever seen, and all sorts of unfamiliar fish. When you walk in, chances are that a man with a wheelbarrow will start following you around to carry your fish selections. Although we tried to explain that we were just looking and not buying, our wheelbarrow guy kept right on following us until we left.Discover the authentic side of #Dubai, undisguised. Click To Tweet
One of my favorite things to do in foreign countries is to check out local supermarkets to get an idea of how locals shop and the kinds of products they buy. As we wandered through the aisles of Carrefour, a global grocery brand located in the Mall of the Emirates, we came across all sorts of unique products like tandoori spice mixes, exotic fruit juices, labaneh, sheep’s cheese, and even shisha for hookah smokers.
In addition to some spices and juices, we bought some fresh baklava and a bottle of camel’s milk to enjoy back at our hotel room. While I loved the fresh baklava, the camel’s milk left a lot to be desired (let’s just say that it tastes the same way a camel smells). Still, the experience of wandering through the grocery store and buying new products to try is memorable because it gave us great insight into Dubai’s culture and a glimpse into daily local life.
I first learned about Ravi watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and I just knew that we’d have to eat there to see if the food was as good as Bourdain made it look while chowing down on his show.
Although Ravi is known for its mutton dishes, Jave and I stuck with our comfort zone and ordered chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, saag, rice, and lots of naan. Including two sodas, I think our total bill totaled $20 USD. I absolutely hated not being able to finish everything on our plates, but we were just too full to eat on. If I lived in Dubai, I’m sure that I’d be one of Ravi’s best customers.