Things to Do in Dubai, Day 1: Bur Dubai
Top thing to do in Dubai? Soak up the atmosphere.
Need a place to sleep during your three-day tour? For a supremely ‘local’ experience check in to the boutique Orient House in the atmospheric pedestrian-only Bastakiya area. Or if you prefer a stylish update of the Arabian experience try the Qamardeen or Al Manzil hotels near the new Burj Dubai (currently the tallest building in the world). Of course for an all-out 1001 Arabian Nights experience, it’s hard to go past the plush and more-than-a-little sexy One&Only Royal Mirage.
Now in keeping with our Emirati /Arabian theme, start the day with a cultural breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), a rare opportunity to try authentic Emirati food, learn about local culture and ask any questions you have about traditional and contemporary Gulf life – don’t be shy!
Wander around the Bastakiya area with its enigmatic, restored wind-tower houses. Once home to wealthy Persian traders, it’s now the centre of a flourishing art scene. Head to the Majlis Gallery for some souvenirs, XVA gallery for a snapshot of contemporary Middle East art, followed by a casual lunch at the nearby Basta Art Café where the fruit cocktails are sublime and relaxing under the shady trees is a treat.
Breakfast at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
To further escape the afternoon heat, make your next stop the compact and compelling Dubai Museum, housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings (a restored fort) and learn how this former fishing village evolved into the daring metropolis it is today.
After taking in the amusing dioramas of old souq (market) life at the museum, take a late afternoon meander through the Bur Dubai souq while the traders are shaking off their siesta and check out the tempting textiles, sparkling slippers, cheap kitsch t-shirts, and the fascinating ‘Hindi Lane’, where local Hindus head to worship, buying fragrant flowers and fruit offerings for their rituals.
As the suns sets, stroll along the Creek’s edge down to the Shindagha area, stopping in at Sheikh Saeed’s house to check out the wonderful historic photo collection in the beautifully restored residence, then head into the Heritage and Diving Village where recreations of coastal life of the local people are wonderfully realised. If you’re fortunate, you might catch locals performing traditional songs and dances as well as old Emirati women preparing tasty traditional bread.
With your taste buds tantalised, have an Arabic dinner at Kan Zaman overlooking the Creek or head back to the Bastakiya area to dine at the enchanting Bastakiyah Nights, completing your day of tasting local Emirati life. Or, if you’re up for more, head to one of the sheesha (water pipe or hookah) cafés that are dotted along the Creek to finish the night with a local ritual – try the aromatic apple sheesha.
Things to Do in Dubai, Day 2: Deira
Day 2 starts with another must-do Dubai experience – an abra (water taxi) ride across the Creek to the other side of the city (Deira). Everyone from South-East Asian expat traders, locals in their elegant flowing dishdashas (the blindingly-white local dress), and tourists use this form of transport, as much to soak up the Creek atmosphere as to beat the bridge and tunnel traffic – all for a measly 33 cents. You’ll get a glimpse of the restored wind-tower architecture on the waterfront, and pass dhows (traditional cargo-carrying wooden boats) making their way to a berth along the Creek. Once safely on terra firma, take a wander along the fascinating dhow wharves where everything from four-wheel-drives to the kitchen sink are loaded on these boats bound for Gulf and Asian destinations.
Stroll across to sample the aromas in the spice souq then follow the souq down to two of Dubai’s underrated historic gems. The Ahmadiya School (1912) was Dubai’s first private school and has been restored with exquisite attention to detail, while the adjacent Heritage House (1890) was once owned by the wealthy pearling merchant who started the school. Both are wonderful traditional houses of the pre-oil era and showcase the charm of and grace of local courtyard houses.
Back out on the streets, get lost in the covered souq (don’t panic, everyone does!) and mix up your own fragrance at one of the plentiful perfume houses. Size yourself up for a sparkly kitsch belly-dancing outfit (for her) or a dapper wooden cane (for him) or weigh up some simple or ornate jewelery at the legendary gold souq, where you can bargain for some of the cheapest gold in the world – shop around and enjoy the haggling ritual! One of our favourite breaks on this shopping excursion is to grab a cheap, filling shawarma (juicy, fragrant lamb or chicken rolled up in a pita bread) and a super-fresh mango juice at Ashwaq Cafeteria, a block from the gold souq.
If you want to shop until you drop, jump in a taxi and head to Deira City Centre (one of Dubai’s oldest and most popular shopping malls) where you can escape the heat, do some people-watching and buy some souvenirs – haggle for carpets, Aladdin’s lamps and beautiful hand-beaten brass coffee pots. Be prepared to shop for another suitcase to get your haul home! Take a coffee break and hang out with the locals who meet their friends here for a chat at one of the myriad cafés.
Freshen up back at the hotel, then if you can’t get enough of the Creek, take a dinner cruise on the Bateaux Dubai, or, if you’re craving more Middle-Eastern atmosphere, make a late booking for Awtar, the Lebanese restaurant at the Grand Hyatt where the classic Lebanese night out of mezze (starter snacks), fragrant grilled meats, sheesha, band and belly dancer melds into the early hours.
Things to Do in Dubai, Day 3: Jumeirah & the Desert
Dubai Desert Safari
Start the day with a tour of the handsome Jumeirah Mosque with the SMCCU people. On a visit to the mosque you learn about the Islamic prayer rituals, from how the five times daily call-to-prayer (signified by the melody of the mezzuin who leads the prayer) is calculated by the sun and moon, to the performing of ablutions (washing before prayer) and how the prayer ritual is carried out. It’s also a great opportunity to ask questions about Islam in general at the Q&A session afterwards.
Jump in a taxi or a local bus (they run frequently along Jumeirah Beach Rd) and head up to Madinat Jumeirah, a contemporary interpretation of an old Arabian souq. Here you can do some more shopping, take in the atmosphere, and watch the abras glide along the man-made canals. Have lunch at one of the excellent waterside restaurants (there’s everything from pasta to Moroccan) before heading back to the hotel to freshen up before your Dubai desert safari in one of the region’s desert conservation reserve.
After an exhilarating drive through the dunes, where you might spot the rare and reintroduced oryx (like a desert dwelling deer) but will see plenty of camels, prepare yourself for a sublime desert sunset. The safari provides a great opportunity to catch up on those must-do’s that you didn’t have time for over the last couple of days – you can take a camel ride, watch a belly dancer, get a henna tattoo, sample some local cuisine, and smoke some sheesha. And while the safari is definitely a touristy th’ng to do, you can drink a toast to having experienced the closest you’ll get to the ‘old’ Arabian Dubai.