There is more to Dubai than shiny new hotels and shopping malls
With its expensive complexes and shiny new hotels, Dubai has become a byword for money, excess and luxurious living. It is easy to forget what Dubai used to be like. The array of hotels, shopping malls and restaurants celebrate the best of the best. The people who have helped create this environment, and continue to do so, are extremely proud of what they have achieved. And they are right to be; this unbelievable metropolis, celebrating the highest quality of so many things has appeared in the middle of the desert. Its creation alone is something to be admired.
While the development of modern Dubai is indeed impressive and Dubai has loads of attractions including the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa) and the Aquaventure Water Park, there is another side of Dubai that is perhaps less well-known. While the skyscrapers and modern buildings make up most of what we know as Dubai, there is still rich tradition and plenty to see that stays true to what was there before the creation of the super city. Old Dubai can often be overlooked in favour of its brash, younger brother, but it has much to offer.
The Shindagha District of Old Dubai is home to the Heritage Village. This is where you can get a sense of local traditions and a lifestyle that existed before the modernisation that surrounds it. During Ramadan you’ll see celebrations, with people singing, dancing and making the most of their time with each other. You’ll also be able to do a bit of shopping in the souks and markets.
Rather than paying the marked up prices that exist in the malls, there is the chance, or perhaps certainty is a better word, that you’ll have to haggle prices down. Sometimes you’ll barely change the price, other times you’ll come away with textiles, saris, gold and alike for far less that the original price; either way it seems a right of passage that must be done with each purchase.
The Old Town in Dubai will also be a good place to eat what the locals eat; plenty of shawarma and falafel. These warm pitas, filled with chicken or ground chick peas, are a staple of local cuisine and can be found on street stalls and in cafes all around the city. If you prefer to eat in a restaurant then there are plenty selling local and regional food, as well as the influx of outer influences brought about by the immigration that Dubai has witnessed in recent times. As a result, you’re spoilt for choice in terms of cuisine, with food from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and other parts of the Middle East all available.
Among the things to visit in Old Dubai is the Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai’s first ever school that has been carefully restored. There isn’t a huge amount to see, but if you pass it is worth popping in to get a sense of what it was like for those students of 1912.
Also take a wander around the Bastakiya District. Here most of the buildings have been restored to their traditional style and wandering round gives a great sense of what life used to be like. The Dubai Museum takes this experience one step further, and underneath the al-Fahidi fort is a full scale recreation of a traditional souq as it would have been during the time of Dubai’s pearling trade. State of the art technology has been used to help recreate the sights and sounds that would have existed at the time, and it is definitely one of the highlight attractions.
The other main draw to Old Dubai is the Jumeirah Mosque. One of the few mosques that is open to visitors, it is an excellent example of Islamic architecture, as well as having intricate artwork and calligraphy on the inside. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding runs tours for non Muslims to help explain exactly what you’re seeing and if you can visit the mosque at night, the floodlights will give an even greater spectacle.
These little pockets of Old Dubai are a reminder of what came before. For visitors it is probably worth experiencing both sides of the coin; because the modern affluence that has made Dubai the tourist attraction it is today is definitely worth being a part of. There is nowhere like it, and that is reason alone to sample the VIP lifestyle that is available. There is still however, plenty to enjoy from the Dubai of old, and understanding this will make for a far more rounded holiday. That said, if too many people come to visit the Old Town, it may lose what makes it special in the first place.