The shiny futuristic buildings and mega malls may overshadow the quiet historical places in Dubai. But if you look closely, you can still see echoes of the city’s humble past. This guide is for anyone who wishes to look beyond the city’s glamorous surface and get a glimpse of the old, authentic Dubai.
Before Dubai struck oil in 1966, it was known for its large port, where residents traded pearls and fish on the banks of the Dubai Creek. The creek divides Dubai into two main sections – on the Deira side, you’ll find the famous Gold and Spice Souks, which are lively areas where you can barter for unique gifts and souvenirs. Across the water, Bur Dubai holds two of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, as well as a handful of fascinating museums where you can learn about the rich history of the area.
When to visit Dubai
Although the historic areas of the city are open for visitors year-round, the best time to go is during the cooler winter months. During the summer, some businesses may be closed and museums may be undergoing renovations. It can also get very hot in Dubai (sometimes reaching nearly 50°C) and the heritage neighbourhoods don’t offer much shelter from the hot sun.
However, if your visit to Dubai falls in the summer, exploring the historical areas can still be done. There are cafes and restaurants you can stop in for cold refreshments, and some (though not all) galleries and museums have air conditioned rooms if you need a break from the intense heat. You’ll want to plan for more time inside museums and take lots of sunscreen and water. Most residents drink bottled water, and popular brands such as Mai Dubai and Masafi can be found at any convenience store or supermarket for quite cheap. Also keep in mind that if you visit during Ramadan, eating or drinking in public is not permitted and many food & drink places will be closed during daylight hours.
What to wear in Dubai
The UAE is a conservative country so revealing clothing should be avoided, especially in important cultural and religious areas like the Bastakiyah district. If you choose to wear a sleeveless top or dress, it’s a good idea to bring a scarf with you in case you’re asked to cover up.
Popular historical places in Dubai like the Bastakiya district are pleasant to walk around during the winter months, but there isn’t much escape from the heat if it’s a hot day. I recommend wearing clothing made of light, breathable fabrics so you don’t get too hot. Dresses, skirts and shorts are fine, as long as they’re not too revealing.
How to get to the Old Dubai district
Train: It depends on where you want to start. There are 3 nearby stops via the green line on the Dubai Metro. Al Fahidi Station is a 10-minute walk to the Dubai museum and 15-minute walk to the Al Bastakiya Historical District. Al Ghubaiba Station is a 5-minute walk to the Crossroads of Civilization museum. Al Ras Station is just a 5-minute walk from the Gold Souk.
If you’re taking the metro from the airport, get off at Burjuman station and follow the signs to the green line train going to Etisalat Station. All 3 stops are along that line. If starting at the souks, it may be slightly faster to change at Union and take the Creek train.
Taxi: Regular taxis in Dubai are cheaper than Uber or Careem and can be most easily ordered by using the S’hail mobile app. Keep in mind that taxis will usually only accept cash (even if they have a card machine, it probably won’t work) and will often not have change for bills larger than 100 AED. Also, if you’re planning to travel between 3-5pm, it can be nearly impossible to flag a taxi down as this is the shift change period for all drivers.
Car: Parking in this area can be hard to find, especially near the Al Fahidi Historical District. The time we drove, we just settled for street parking on Al Mussallah Road.
Attractions and activities in Old Dubai
You may be surprised to discover how many things there are to do around Dubai’s historic neighbourhoods. The city has many small museums that offer free admission, which are a great way to explore the culture of a city that seems (only at first glance) to have forgotten its roots. Below are some of the best ways to uncover Dubai’s history.
Explore the old alleyways of Bastakiya
The Al Fahidi Historical District, also known as Al Bastakiya, is one of the oldest residential areas in Dubai and a refreshing escape from the glitz and glamour of the downtown core. Inside this walled section of the city, you can wander through the narrow alleyways to explore buildings dating back to the 1780’s, as well as view a small section of the old Dubai city wall. There are also several art galleries, some courtyard cafes, a restaurant and a mosque. Entry is free.
Map of the Old Bastakiya District in Dubai
1. Arabian Tea House & Local House Cafe
2. Oasis Guest House
3. Coffee Museum & Cafe
4. Make Art Cafe & Alserkal Art Space
5. XVA Hotel & Cafe
6. Old Dubai Wall
7. Architectural Heritage Society
8. Diwan Mosque
9. Coin Museum
10. Architectural Heritage Department
11. Bastakiah Nights Restaurant
Join a cultural event
The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers several opportunities to discover Dubai’s traditional culture each week. You can enjoy an Emirati meal or afternoon tea, join a walking tour, visit a mosque and even meet some of the local camels! Visit the SMCCU website to book one of their tours and activities, or find out information about timings and prices.
Take an abra ride across the creek
Abras are small water taxis that were the most popular way to cross Dubai Creek until the Al Maktoum Bridge was built in 1963. They still make frequent trips throughout the day, ferrying visitors and residents across the creek for a small fee paid directly to the driver. Each abra can hold up to 20 people, transporting them from one side to the other in less than 10 minutes. This is the most convenient and scenic way to get from the historical areas in Bur Dubai to the souks in Deira. Rides cost 1 AED each way.
|Dubai Abra Route 1||Dubai Abra Route 2|
|Bur Dubai ⇄ Deira Old Souk Stations|
(operates 6am – midnight)
|Dubai Old Souk ⇄ Al Sabka Stations|
(operates 24 hours)
Explore the Shindagha Heritage District
The Shindagha district was home to the ruling family of Dubai up until the 1950’s. The area, like the Al Fahidi historical district, now acts as a museum to visitors and residents, giving a glimpse into what life in Dubai was like before it became a popular tourist hub.
This historical area in Bur Dubai is currently being renovated and will be opened to the public in several stages. It’s expected to be fully completed by 2020. Unfortunately at the time of my visit, the Heritage Village, Diving Village, Camel Museum and Horse Museum were all closed so I have no information to provide on them. Some other attractions within this area are currently open to the public, but I recommend confirming their status on the Dubai Culture website prior to your visit.
Delve into local history at the Dubai Museum
Located inside the 200-year-old Al Fahidi Fort, the Dubai Museum should be on every visitor’s itinerary. The museum hosts a large number of indoor and outdoor exhibits, including artifacts that date back to 3000 BC. If you only have a chance to do one thing in Dubai, this should be it. Entry costs 3 AED.
Taste some amazing coffee
The 2-storey Coffee Museum in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood offers free entry and hosts a surprising amount of historical coffee-making equipment. Though unfortunately there isn’t much information provided, it’s cool to walk through and have a look at it all. The museum also roasts their own beans on-site using different traditional methods from around the world, which you can try at the upstairs coffee shop. Entry is free.
View some local archaeological discoveries
The Saruq Al Hadid Archaeology Museum (its name translates to ‘the way of iron’) holds a large collection of Iron Age artifacts from the Saruq Al Hadid archeological site in the Rub Al-Khali desert. Certain displays are updated every few months as new discoveries are made at the excavation site. Entry costs 20 AED.
See some ancient coins
The Coin Museum is located in the Al Fahidi Historical District and offers a peek at a number of old coins in rotating glass cases. The coin collections are housed in air-conditioned rooms around an open courtyard, but don’t be afraid if you enter within business hours and it looks closed – doors to the smaller rooms are just kept closed on hot days to keep the heat out. Entry is free.
Learn about the cultures that traded with Dubai
The Crossroads of Civilizations Museum is located in the Shindagha Heritage District and features a collection of historical artifacts from many of the different cultures that passed through the region in the days when Dubai was only a small trading port. Entry costs 30 AED.
Uncover the life of an Emirati poet
The Museum Of The Poet Al Oqaili is located near the souks in Al Ras, in a beautiful house which once belonged to the famous Arab poet Mubarak bin Hamad bin Mubarak Al Manea Al Oqaili. In addition to information about the poet, this museum features a collection of his original poems, documents and personal items. Entry is free.
Shopping in Old Dubai
Dubai has several traditional marketplaces called souks, where you can barter for fabric, gifts, and even gold. Though sellers can be noisy and sometimes a little aggressive, these old markets in Dubai are great places to buy some cheap clothing, fabric and souvenirs while you feel transported to another time. Make sure you bring cash, as card payments are not usually accepted. Also be aware that many vendors may close shop between 1-5pm.
Bur Dubai Souk
Also known as the Textile Souk, this old Dubai market is a few minutes’ walk from the Al Bastakiya area, and is located close to the abra station on the Bur Dubai side of the creek. Operating Hours: 10 AM – 10:30 PM, 7 days/week.
The Gold Souk is likely the most famous souk in Dubai. It’s located close to the Spice Souk in Deira’s Al Ras neighborhood and features a large number of vendors selling jewelry and gold items. Credit cards are accepted by most vendors, though cash payments usually mean a cheaper price. Keep in mind that you’re more likely to get a genuine item from a store, rather than the vendors on the street. Operating Hours: 10 AM – 10 PM Saturday – Thursday; 4 PM – 10 PM Friday.
A short abra ride across the creek to the Al Ras district will take you to the lively Spice Souq. Also known as the Old Souk, this is where you can purchase a vast selection of aromatic spices, as well as various textiles and souvenirs. Operating Hours: 10AM – 10PM Saturday – Thursday; 4PM – 10PM Friday.
Where To Eat in Old Dubai
Dubai is filled with expats, so there’s no shortage of restaurants offering food from different countries, but most places in the city excel at Arabic and South Asian cuisines. The places listed below are a few highlights close to the historic areas, and though the local dishes are usually the best, most restaurants and cafes will also offer options for those who prefer more Western-style flavours.
Operating hours may change from those listed below, and many places close during daylight hours at Ramadan. If you do visit during Ramadan, make sure you try to join one of the many Iftar buffets in the city for some amazing food and a great cultural experience. Please also note that none of the restaurants listed below serve alcoholic beverages or pork products. For anyone wanting to relax with a beer or wine, I recommend the Sherlock Holmes English Pub located inside the Arabian Courtyard Hotel.
Arabian Tea House
The Arabian Tea House, formerly called the Basta Art Cafe, is the first of two restaurants you will see as you enter the Al Bastakiya quarter. It’s a gorgeous little cafe with an open air courtyard in the winter and a bright air-conditioned seating area in the summer. They usually offer a breakfast menu until midday (I recommend the Special Breakfast Tray) and a regular menu in the afternoon featuring a variety of Middle Eastern dishes. Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Hours: 7:30 AM – 10 PM, 7 days/week.
Local House is located right next to the Arabian Tea House and offers similar courtyard-style seating. Though salad is an option here, the cafe specializes in burgers and other meat dishes, offering a large selection of different meats to choose from (this is the place to go if you want to try a camel or oryx burger). Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Hours: 11 AM – 10 PM, 7 days/week.
MAKE Art Cafe
The MAKE Art Cafe is a lovely little courtyard cafe operated by the Alserkal Cultural Foundation. Surrounded by small art galleries and offering a rooftop patio in the winter, this is a great place to stop for a refreshing juice (I highly recommend the minted lemonade) or a light lunch, especially if you’re visiting in the hot summer. Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Hours: 9 AM – 7 PM, 7 days/week.
XVA Cafe is located inside Al Bastakiya’s beautiful XVA Hotel and also features a unique art space. They offer a similar courtyard patio to the Make Art Cafe, but with a larger food selection, including vegetarian options. Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Hours: 7 AM – 10 PM, 7 days/week.
Bastakiah Nights can be found in the Al Bastakiya area, and offers a slightly more upscale dining experience than the other options located within the historical district. The restaurant offers mostly Arabic cuisine and is a great place to have dinner under the stars after a day of exploring. Reservations are recommended. Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Hours: 11 AM – 10 PM Saturday-Thursday; 1:30 PM – 10 PM Friday.
Blue Barjeel is located just past the Bur Dubai abra station and serves a variety of different cuisines, though the highlight is their Middle Eastern food. The patio is a great place to watch the boats on the creek. Located on Al Ghubaiba Road, Bur Dubai. Hours: 9 AM – 1 AM, 7 days/week.
Al Bait Al Qadeem Emirati Heritage Restaurant
The Al Bait Al Qadeem Emirati Heritage Restaurant (its name means “Old House” in Arabic) is located in the Al Ras area on the Deira side of the creek, just a short walk from the Gold and Spice souks. Housed in a historic building that dates back to 1909, this is a great place to try authentic Emirati cuisine. Located on Al Ahmadiya Street, Al Ras. Hours: 12 PM – 10 PM, 7 days/week.
Where to stay near Dubai’s historic district
If you like the idea of staying in a unique, traditional area of the city, there are several great hotels in old Dubai areas like the Al Fahidi historical district that offer a quiet escape from the more central areas. Though there are many amazing modern hotels in Dubai, the ones mentioned below are located either directly inside Dubai’s old town, or within walking distance from the museums and markets in the historical areas. It’s a great option for those wanting to escape the business of the downtown area, and the airport, shopping malls and other attractions are only a short taxi or metro ride away.
XVA Art Hotel
The XVA Art Hotel features an art gallery & courtyard cafe and is located inside the lovely Al Bastakiya district. The hotel offers 3 kinds of rooms, ranging from 315 AED for a single room to 800 AED for a superior room. Located inside the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
Arabian Courtyard Hotel
The Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa is a large hotel located opposite the Dubai Museum and within walking distance from all the main historical sites, as well as the abra docks. Prices range from 200 AED for a classic room to 1430 AED for the grand suite. Located on Al Fahidi Street in Bur Dubai.
Barjeel Heritage Guest House
The Barjeel Heritage Guest House is a small traditionally-themed hotel located beside the Saruq Al-Hadid Archaeological Museum. It’s a short walk from here to the Shindagha Heritage Village and the Al Ghubaiba metro station. Prices run around 300-400 AED per night. Located on Al Ghubaiba Road in Bur Dubai.
Ahmedia Heritage Guest House
Ahmedia Heritage Guest House is the sister property of the Barjeel and Orient guesthouses and is fitted in the same classic arabic style. It’s located close to the Gold and Spice Souks, as well as Al Ras Station and Dubai Creek. Prices are usually between 360-500 AED. Located in Al Ras, Deira.
Best Western Plus: Pearl Creek
This modern hotel on the Deira side of the creek is about a 15-minute walk from the Gold and Spice souks and a 5-minute walk from the Sabkha abra station, which operates 24 hours to the Old Souk station. Prices range from around 200-900 AED. Located on Baniyas Road, Deira.
Orient Guest House
The Orient Guest House is a 10-room villa with a peaceful courtyard and roof terrace, also located inside the historical Al Bastakiya area. Located inside the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
Are you planning a trip to Dubai?
Before stepping onto the plane for your journey, make sure to read my tips on how to stay hydrated on long flights. It’s so important to take care of yourself, and this guide will give you valuable advice on how to stay hydrated from the inside out.
If you’re looking for more unique things to do on your visit, check out my guide to the Dubai Frame. It tells you why you should visit this record-breaking observation deck, how to get tickets, and what to expect.
I’ve also created a printable travel planner that will help make planning your trip to the UAE a breeze. This 7-page PDF has spots to fill in hotel and flight details, emergency info, must-do activities and more. It is available as an instant digital download in the Onwards + Upwards shop.
*Please note that this article was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic so some information may have changed.