Known as a superlative and glamorous city, Dubai is perhaps one of the most popular destinations nowadays. The gem of the Middle East is famous for its skyscrapers, gigantic shopping malls, and the lavish lifestyle of its citizens. But Dubai is also full of history and cultural heritage. From the historic Al Fahidi neighborhood, and the bustling Deira to the still-developing Design District, Dubai is where tradition meets modernity.
Until the middle of the 18th century, Dubai was a small fishing settlement on the shore of the Arabian Gulf. It was only known by merchants for its pearling industry. Due to its proximity to Iran, Dubai became attractive to Iranian and foreign tradesmen, making it an important trading location at the beginning of the 20th century. When oil was discovered in the 1960s, Dubai’s growth surged forward. However, the oil reservoirs in Dubai are very limited, and thus the emirate must find another way to sustain the long run.
Under the guidance of its brilliant rulers, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and his successors, Dubai utilized a large part of its oil revenue to build infrastructure. This led to enormous success in estate trading, aviation, and tourism. Today, it is one of the most shining pearls in the Middle East with a strong economy and ultra-modern infrastructure. Yet Dubai is still able to maintain a rich history. In fact, the city has integrated many traditions into the modern lifestyle, making a trip to Dubai a memorable journey through time.
1. Historic Al Fahidi
Characterized by a labyrinth of narrow walking lanes, and sand-colored houses topped with beautiful Barjajeel (wind towers), which provided natural air-conditioning, Al Fahidi is what Dubai looked like in the middle of the 19th century. These traditional buildings are made of natural materials such as mud, stones, corals, palm woods, and teaks, and are separated by alleys and public squares. The house’s windows and doors were also built in a special way to ensure the privacy and discretion of its owners.
Due to its strategic location at Dubai Creek until the early 20th century, this nicely restored neighborhood played an important role in managing the emirate and organizing commercial ties overseas. Though the Golden Age of Al Fahidi has gone, the area is still home to numerous cultural and artistic institutions, ranging from exhibitions, and museums to the cultural center, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding.
Tips: Al Fahidi is located in the northern part of Bur Dubai. To get there, take Metro 2 to the station: Al Fahidi. For a deep guide of this district, you might consider joining a Heritage tour offered by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding. Founded by His Highness himself, the centre is a perfect way to learn about the new culture. Due to its popularity, it is recommended to register for the tour in advance via their website.
2. Bustling Deira
At first glance, Deira looks unappealing with narrow, seedy alleys and unspectacular buildings. By the beginning of the last century, Deira was, however, the heart of Dubai where thousands of dhows (traditional naval vessels) landed. They brought tons of gold, spices, and frankincense from Iran, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere to the city.
Goods are then gathered in the souk (bazaar), such as Gold Souk or Spice Souk, and sold to customers for a huge profit. Although Deira has lost its important role in recent years due to the development of areas further down the coast toward Abu Dhabi, it is still an unmissable part of Dubai.
Tips: The souk in Deira is where you can practice the art of dealing. You must bargain and do it hard. The salesman will start with an extremely high price. So you should reduce it at least by half, or even lower. The “walk-away” strategy might work. Be prepared for the annoying salesmen who keep inviting you into their shops. If you do not show any interest, you will be fine. But if you show any interest, even just a little bit, they will stick to you like glue.
3. Modern Downtown
A modern Dubai filled with skyscrapers is perhaps the most conversant image to most visitors. Having the highest building in the world, the world’s most luxurious hotel, and the largest artificial island that has ever existed, Dubai deserves the title “The City of Superlatives”.
But Dubai’s vision does not stop there. Aside from being a commercial center, the pearl of the Middle East is evolving into a global center of art and culture. New districts, for example, the Opera District (right next to the Burj Khalifa) with its brand new opera house in the form of a dhow and the Design District filled with cutting-edge buildings and trendy shops reflect this determination.
Tips: The new Design District lies on the western side of Dubai downtown. The area is accessible by Bus D3 or D3A from the metro station: Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall.