From bustling souks to engaging museums, Marcus Briggs looks beyond the modern mega-towers and highways to explore the history and attractions of Old Dubai.
Image: Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash

If you visit Dubai you will probably be struck by its modernity, from the new airport a skyline dominated by some of the world’s tallest buildings. But despite the spectacular modernity, Old Dubai remains close to the surface if you know where to look.

In the historic neighbourhoods of Deira and Bur Dubai, you can discover stories of pearl divers and nomads, while the old souks retain the old city’s bustling charm.

How did Dubai become important?

We know very little about the earliest history of Dubai, and the first reliable record dates back to 1822, when a British naval officer produced a detailed map of the coastline and creek, as well as the tiny settlement of Bur Dubai on the south shore of the creek.

A second village, Deira, developed on the north side it inevitably merged with Bur Dubai to form one larger town, and this flourished in the 19th Century thanks largely to the pearl trade.

By the early 20th Century Dubai had established itself as the primary port for trade through the Persian Gulf, and the discovery of oil in 1966 gave it the economic power to begin growing even more quickly into the hyper-modern city it is today.

What remains of old Dubai?

Even until the 1980s Dubai was a fairly low-rise, traditional Middle Eastern port city with winding streets and an important river port. The rapid development changed the city completely.

Parts of the old neighbourhoods survived the surge to modernise, and you can see these if you visit the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood. This part of Dubai is on the south side of the creek, and includes a number of significant buildings, including the tower of Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai’s oldest building and now part of Dubai Museum.

Dubai is making efforts to preserve important part of Old Dubai, so the history is not being lost.

How do I get to Old Dubai?

Probably the best way to get to the preserved parts of Old Dubai is by taking an abra, a traditional Arabian boat which works like a water taxi. You can take an abra between the Bur Dubai and Deira sides of Dubai creek for just one dirham.

This is a great way to soak up the idea of Dubai as a port city sprawling along the saltwater creek.

The abra station is a short walk from Al Ras Metro Station, or you can get the Metro directly to the historic neighbourhood itself by using Al Fahidi Station.

Dubai Museum is a great attraction

From the abra station on the south side of the creek you can walk to Dubai Museum, which is surrounded by roads but is unmistakable thanks the presence of an enormous replica dhow outside its southern wall.

The museum includes recreations of historic Arab houses, mosques, souks and date farms. It also offers a fascinating section dedicated to the pearl diving trade, which helped establish the city in its early days.

Al Fahidi is packed with cultural interest

The Al Fahidi neighbourhood could divert you for hours, and this is a wonderful place to get a sense of Old Dubai. You can even see a piece of the original city wall, which dates back to around 1800.

At least 50 buildings in Al Fahidi host museums, exhibits and craft shops, and you can even get guided tours from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The XVA Gallery hosts displays of art from local and international artists, and the Majlis Gallery is the city’s oldest fine art gallery. Both are well worth a visit.

Al Seef reconstructs the image of Old Dubai

Adjoining the Al Fahidi neighbourhood is a new development called Al Seef, which occupies a strip of riverside which was once the economic heart of Old Dubai when the pearl trade was at its peak.

It has been turned into a pedestrianised riverfront development, split into a modern and traditional style, so it evokes the city’s history and provides a charming place to stroll and dine.

Souks remain a part of life in Dubai

Dubai’s souks are beautiful reminders of how locals once bought and sold as part of their daily lives. These marketplaces often specialised in particular goods, and they remain a distinctive part of the city’s culture even though modern shopping malls have become ubiquitous.

The Spice Souk, Perfume Souk and the Gold Souk are just three of the best known souks, which are scattered through the Deira and Bur Dubai districts.

You can spend hours browsing through these markets, enjoying the sights and smells, as well as haggling with the traders.

Museums showcase Dubai’s history

Dubai has a huge number of museums which provide a look at all sorts of unusual aspects of the city and the UAE.

Coffee suffuses just about every part of Dubai, so it’s no surprise to find that the Coffee Museum in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood provides both a detailed history of the drink and an excellent shop for purchasing rare types.

The pearl industry gets its own museum in Deira, and you can see some incredible examples of precious pearls, and Sharuq Al-Hadid Archaeology Museum displays Iron Age artefacts which are among the oldest know relics of settlement in the Dubai area.

Seeing old and new through the Dubai Frame

The Dubai Frame is hardly part of Old Dubai, but this stunning giant picture frame does give visitors a chance to contemplate the contrasts of old and new.

This 150m tall structure in Zabeel Park has been located specifically to let viewers see the new city by looking through one way and Old Dubai when looking in the opposite direction.

While most people visiting Dubai come to experience the buzz and excitement of this most modern of cities, Old Dubai remains a wonderful alternative. From ancient buildings to engaging museums, Dubai’s history is as fascinating as its modernity.

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