Dubai seems like 90 percent fantastical skyscrapers forming a megalopolis unlike any the world has seen and 10 percent an old town built on a human scale with a streetscape of small shops, sidewalks and pedestrians. Old Dubai is where the city’s history and culture peek through the surrounding glitz.
1. Ride an abra across the Dubai Creek. More of a wide, sinuous river than what we think of as a creek, this is where the old fishing and pearl diving village started. The long, rickety water taxis called “abras” cost one dirham, and it will be the best 27 cents you’ve ever spent. Stations are set up along both sides of the creek, in Bur Dubai and Deira, and connect parks, open-air markets and sights. The passage takes about 10 minutes, and while the breeze is invigorating, the sun can be harsh. Wear a hat.
2. Visit the three souks. The Old Souk along the water in Bur Dubai may be a complete tourist trap, but you’ll enjoy the arcaded street market as a respite from the sun, and the colorful clothes, shoes and trinkets will get you set up with Christmas presents for all the kids in your family. The Spice Souk, across the creek in Deira, is a maze of narrow passageways where the shops brim with bins of spices, teas and dried fruits. Keep walking and you’ll end up in the Gold Souk, where the jewelers ply you with cups of tea as they weigh bangles and earrings and punch prices on a calculator. Late afternoon and early evening, other than on Fridays, are the best times to go. (Information can be found at www.dubai-online.com)
3. Visit the Dubai Museum. Set in the Al Fahidi Fort (built in 1787, the oldest building in Dubai), this museum tells the story of the emirate with films, artifacts and staged scenes of village life through the ages. The farther down you go down into the building, the farther back in history it goes. Some of the exhibits feel like advertising for investors, but it is fascinating nonetheless. www.dubaiculture.gov.ae/en
4. Have a meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The programming at this state-funded institution near the Dubai Museum encompasses everything from walking tours, to lectures, to Arabic language lessons. Visitors who plan ahead can sign up for one of the regularly scheduled “Cultural Meals” — breakfast or lunch — sitting around a banquet table with Emirati hosts who explain the distinctive local dishes, which are quite different from those served at popular Lebanese and Syrian restaurants. www.cultures.ae
5. Visit the Dubai Heritage Village. A little like the Middle Eastern answer to colonial Williamsburg, this open-air attraction features displays and demonstrations of traditional life before the city went into warp drive. It’s a pleasant walk along the water, and there are cafes and replica old village buildings with single-subject museums inside. It is one of the great regrets of my life that the Camel Museum was closed on the day I visited. www.dubaiculture.gov.ae/en